Friday, April 8, 2016

A day with Russell, Ryle, and Plato

When I went to bed yesterday, I was firmly resolved to begin revising my Plato essay in the morning. But when the morning came, I changed my mind. On Monday I got on Amazon Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy. On that day, at 5.30 p.m. I went to a doctor with my son; we were warned that we would have to wait; the receptionist squeezed my son in as the last patient with our doctor. And so I took Russell’s Problems, expecting it to be an easy read. Thomas Mautner writes about it in his Dictionary of Philosophy: ‘Early in life Russell published what has become one of the most popular introductions to philosophy for students, The Problems of Philosophy 1912’. As we were waiting, I just managed to read the 1st Chapter: ‘Appearance and Reality’. It is brilliantly written, I would have loved reading it in my teens, but I knew nothing about it. I don’t even know whether it was translated into Czech. I must ask.

Russell opens his book with a question: ‘Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?’ Then he goes on to involve the reader in the quest for the answer to this question: ‘In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really may believe. … To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. … Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same colour all over … if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different … it follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours … The shape of the table is no better. We are all in the habit of judging as to the ‘real’ shapes of things, and we do this so unreflectingly that we come to think we actually see the real shapes. But in fact … If our table is ‘really’ rectangular, it will look, from almost all points of view, as if it had two acute angles and two obtuse angles … All these things are not commonly noticed in looking at a table, because experience has taught us to construct the ‘real’ shape from the apparent shape, and the ‘real’ shape from the apparent shape, and the ‘real’ shape is what interests us as practical men. But the ‘real’ shape is not what we see; it is something inferred from what we see.’

When I reached this point, I searched in vain in my bag for a pen or pencil. And so I went to the receptionist; she kindly let me have a pen. I underlined the last sentence, thinking of Ryle. Ryle is right when he objects against this kind of analysis. We do not construe the ‘real’ shape of the table in front of us out of its apparent colour and shape. We see the table; our seeing it is primary; Russell’s philosophic speculation concerning it is derivative.

Monday evening, Tuesday, and Wednesday I was preoccupied with putting on my blog my reflections on Ryle and Russell. This (i.e. Thursday) morning Russell’s Problems of Philosophy forced themselves on my mind and compelled me to read the 2nd Chapter entitled ‘The existence of matter’ instead of revising my essay on Plato. Russell’s initial question was ‘Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?’ In the 2nd Chapter he gives his answer: ‘It is our particular thoughts and feelings that have primitive certainty. And this applies to dreams and hallucinations as well as to normal perceptions: when we dream or see a ghost, we certainly do have the sensations we think we have, but for various reasons it is held that no physical object corresponds to these sensations. Thus the certainty of our knowledge of our own experiences does not have to be limited in any way to allow for exceptional cases. Here, therefore, we have, for what it is worth, a solid basis from which to begin our pursuit of knowledge. The problem we have to consider is this: Granted that we are certain of our own sense-data, have we any reason for regarding them as signs of the existence of something else, which we can call the physical object?’

Russell answers this question as follows: ‘One great reason why it is felt that we must secure a physical object in addition to the sense-data, is that we want the same object for different people. When ten people are sitting around a dinner-table, it seems preposterous to maintain that they are not seeing the same tablecloth, the same knives and forks and spoons and glasses. But the sense-data are private to each separate person; what is immediately present to the sight of one is not immediately present to the sight of another: they all see things from slightly different points of view, and therefore see them slightly differently. Thus, if there are to be public neutral objects, which can be in some sense known to many different people, there must be something over and above the private and particular sense-data which appear to various people.’

Russell ends the paragraph with a new question: ‘What reason, then, have we for believing that there are such public neutral objects?’ To this question he gives the following provisional answer: ‘It is the fact that different people have similar sense-data, and that one person in a given place at different times has similar sense-data, which makes us suppose that over and above the sense-data there is a permanent public object which underlies or causes the sense-data of various people at various times.’

Russell goes on to question the validity of this answer: ‘Now in so far as the above considerations depend upon supposing that there are other people besides ourselves, they beg the very question at issue. Other people are represented to me by certain sense-data, such as the sight of them or the sound of their voices, and if I had no reason to believe that there were physical objects independent of my sense-data, I should have no reason to believe that other people exist except as part of my dream. Thus, when we are trying to show that there must be objects independent of our own sense-data, we cannot appeal to the testimony of other people, since this testimony itself consists of sense-data, and does not reveal other people’s experiences unless our own sense-data are signs of things existing independently of us. We must therefore, if possible, find, in our own purely private experiences, characteristics which show, or tend to show, that there are in the world things other than ourselves and our private experiences … In one sense it must be admitted that we can never prove the existence of things other than ourselves and our experiences.’

At this point it is apposite to bring in Gilbert Ryle: ‘It is argued, plausibly but fallaciously, that there does indeed exist the hallowed antithesis between the things and events which anyone may witness and the things and events which only their possessor may witness. Planets, microbes, nerves, and eardrums are publicly observable things in the outside world; sensations, feelings, and images are privately observable constituents of our several mental worlds. I want to show that this antithesis is spurious. It is true that the cobbler cannot witness the tweaks that I feel when the shoe pinches. But it is false that I witness them. The reason why my tweaks cannot be witnessed by him is not that some Iron Curtain prevents them from being witnessed by anyone save myself, but that they are not the sort of things of which it makes sense to say that they are witnessed or unwitnessed at all, even by me (pp. 195-6) … We do not, consequently, have to rig up one theatre, called ‘the outside world’, to house the common objects of anyone’s observation, and another, called ‘the mind’, to house the objects of some monopoly observation. The antithesis between ‘public’ and ‘private’ was in part a misconstruction of the antithesis between objects which can be looked at, handled and tasted, on the one hand, and sensations which are had but not looked at, handled, or tasted, on the other (p. 198).

Ryle is right that it is wrong to view a table as a construct inferred from sense-data; the table is the object of our observation. But Ryle is wrong when he views the private world of our feelings and thoughts as a ‘misconstruction’.

When I finished reading the 2nd Chapter of Russell’s Problems of Philosophy, I was ready to begin revising my essay on ‘Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides’. I revised the first paragraph. It is much slimmer now:

In Plato’s Parmenides we find objections against the Forms which Aristotle in the Metaphysics presents as arguments that refute the theory of Forms. Plato does not refute those objections. This led many philosophers to suppose that the Parmenides initiated a new, critical phase in Plato’s thought, in which he radically revised the theory of Forms presented in the Republic.[i] I shall argue that Plato in the Parmenides defends the Forms by pointing to his presentation of them in the Republic.’

After revising this paragraph, I could not go on to do the next; I had to rethink my morning encounter with Russell and Ryle and put it on my blog. I am not in a position to write an essay or paper on either of these thinkers, but rethinking my encounters with them on my blog makes my thinking more vigorous.

After I had written these lines, I printed the text in order to revise it and put it on my blog. But then I looked on the clock; it was half past three, I began to feel hungry and decided to make a nettle soup. I asked my two children whether they wanted some, they did, and so I went into the garden, picked some nettles and some hawthorn shoots, then scrubbed two potatoes, peeled a piece of sweet potato, cut two onions into small bits, cut a bit of fennel into bits, a bit of ginger finely cut, a small carrot, a piece of parsnip, some broccoli; when all was cooked I added two eggs, finely cut coriander and flat leaf parsley, crushed three cloves of garlic, added a little spoon of marmite, mixed it all, put some grated cheese and Yeo Valley yogurt into each plate, and we all enjoyed it. After my late lunch I went to bed to have a lie down as I always do if I can. It was five thirty when I got up; the highest time to take my dog (my daughter’s dog in fact) for a walk. And as I climbed the Stinchcombe hill, I could not help thinking of Russell’s cat.

In the 2nd Chapter of The Problems of Philosophy Russell says that ‘there is no logical impossibility in the supposition that the whole of life is a dream, in which we ourselves create all the objects that come before us’, but that it is ‘a less simple hypothesis … than the common-sense hypothesis that there really are objects independent of us, whose action on us causes our sensations.’ Russell supports this claim as follows:

‘The way in which simplicity comes in from supposing that there really are physical objects is easily seen. If the cat appears at one moment in one part of the room, and at another in another part, it is natural to suppose that it has moved from the one to the other, passing over a series of intermediate positions. But if it is merely a set of sense data, it cannot have been in any place where I did not see it … If the cat exists whether I see it or not, we can understand from our own experience how it gets hungry between one meal and the next; but if it does not exist when I am not seeing it, it seems odd that appetite should grow during non-existence as fast as during existence. And if the cat exists only of sense-data, it cannot be hungry, since no hunger but my own can be a sense-datum to me. Thus the behaviour of the sense-data which represent the cat to me, though it seems quite natural when regarded as an expression of hunger, becomes utterly inexplicable when regarded as mere movements and changes of patches of colour, which are as incapable of hunger as a triangle is of playing football.’

Reflecting on Russell’s ‘behaviour of the sense-data which represent the cat to me becomes utterly inexplicable when regarded as mere movements and changes of patches of colour’, I could see the point of Ryle’s objections against ‘The Sense Datum Theory’.

To be fair to Russell, he says that ‘it is not by argument that we originally come by our belief in an independent external world. We find this belief ready in ourselves as soon as we begin to reflect: it is what may be called an instinctive belief. We should never have been led to question this belief but for the fact that, at any rate in the case of sight, it seems as if the sense-datum itself were instinctively believed to be the independent object, whereas argument shows that the object cannot be identical with the sense-datum.’

Unfortunately, this explanation does not make things better. Isn’t it a misuse of the word ‘belief’, to speak of ‘our belief in an independent external world’? We see the external world all around us; I do not believe my dog is walking in front of me, I see it walking in front of me. I do not instinctively believe that ‘the patches of colour’ which I supposedly see in front of me are my dog; I see my dog in front of me and if I think about it, I quite enjoy the nice white colour of its fur; I washed it recently. This is of cardinal importance at the moment when we face the facts that neurophysiology tells us about us; when we realise that the outside world we can see around us is, just like our ‘I’, just like our private thoughts, produced by our mind. For this fact opens our eyes to that all-important part of us, of which we are unconscious, which transforms the information about the physical outside world, processed by our brain, into ‘the outside world’ of the mind.

I ended my day by resuming my revision of ‘Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides’:

Parmenides concludes his criticism of the Forms in the Parmenides by reaffirming them: ‘And yet, these difficulties and many more still in addition necessarily hold of the characters (anankaion echein ta eidȇ), if these characteristics of things that are exist (ei eisin hautai hai ideai tȏn ontȏn), and one is to distinguish each character as something by itself (kai horieitai tis auto hekaston eidos). The result is that the hearer is perplexed and contends that they do not exist, and that even if their existence is conceded, they are necessarily unknowable by human nature. In saying this, he thinks he is saying something significant (kai tauta legonta dokein ti legein) and, as we just remarked (kai, ho arti elegomen), it’s astonishingly hard to convince him to the contrary. Only a man of considerable natural gifts will be able to understand that there is a certain kind of each thing, a nature and reality alone by itself, and it will take a man more remarkable still to discover it and be able to instruct someone else who has examined all these difficulties with sufficient care.’ (134e-135b, tr. R. E. Allen) Allen remarks: ‘It is evident from this single passage that Parmenides does not suppose that his criticisms of the theory of Ideas are a mere tissue of fallacies. On the contrary, they are deep and serious, and raise difficulties that must be thought through if the theory of Ideas is to be sustained. Socrates, young and inexperienced, has not yet thought them through with sufficient care.’

Allen’s remark that Parmenides supposes that his criticisms of the theory of Ideas are deep and serious strangely contrast with Parmenides’ words that a man who pronounces such criticisms ‘thinks he is saying something significant’. For these words clearly imply that all criticisms of the Forms, those put forward by Parmenides and many other criticisms that ‘necessarily hold of the Forms’ (anankaion echein ta eidȇ) only seem to be significant. Allan’s words ‘that Parmenides does not suppose that his criticisms of the theory of Ideas are a mere tissue of fallacies’ chime strangely with Parmenides’ insistence at 133b that a man who pronounces such criticism is putting forward fallacies (pseudetai, 133b7); it is to this passage that Parmenides refers at 135a5 with the words ‘and, as we just remarked’ (kai, ho arti elegomen). Allen’s assertion that Parmenides’ criticisms ‘raise difficulties that must be thought through if the theory of Ideas is to be sustained’, for ‘Socrates, young and inexperienced, has not yet thought them through with sufficient care’ can be properly ‘appreciated’ if we realize that in Allen’s view the criticisms raised by Parmenides are directed against the theory of Forms, which ‘is essentially that of the Phaedo and the Republic’ (Allen, p. 105). How could Plato possibly identify the Socrates of the Phaedo and the Republic with the young and inexperienced Socrates of the Parmenides?

Allen writes in his ‘Comment’: ‘The Parmenides is narrated by Cephalus of Clazomenae, who has heard it from Plato’s half-brother Antiphon, who heard it in turn from Pythodorus, a student of Zeno, who was present at the original conversation … This structure is designed to produce a sense of remoteness from the conversation (p. 69) … The conversation that follows is a fiction: it could not have occurred, and it is important to its interpretation to realize that it could not have occurred (p. 71) … The Parmenides is fiction, meant to be read as such (p. 73) … Cornford’s argument by itself is decisive: “To suppose that anything remotely resembling the conversation in this dialogue could have occurred … would make nonsense of the whole history of philosophy in the fifth and fourth centuries” (p.74)’.

Allen refrains from informing the reader that Plato in the introduction to the dialogue insists on the historicity of the discussion presented in it. Cephalus tells Adeimantus: ‘These gentlemen here are fellow citizens of mine, much interested in philosophy. They’ve heard that your Antiphon used to associate with a certain Pythodorus, a companion of Zeno’s, and that he can relate from memory the arguments that once were discussed by Socrates, Zeno and Parmenides, having often heard them from Pythodorus.’ – ‘True (alȇthȇ),’ said Adeimantus, ‘for when he was a youngster (meirakion gar ȏn), he used to rehearse them diligently (autous eu mala diemeletȇsen)’ (126b-c). It is worth noting that in the Apology Socrates appeals to ‘Adeimantus the son of Ariston, whose brother Plato is present,’ to testify against him if his brother suffered any evil at his hands (33d-34a). But most importantly, Adeimantus and Glaucon are Socrates’ main interlocutors in the Republic; by referring to them in the opening sentence of the Parmenides Plato points to the Republic in which he gives reasons why any arguments raised against the Forms must be fallacious.

Allen maintains that it is important to the interpretation of the Parmenides to realize that it could not have occurred in reality; pace Allen, I am inviting the reader to view the dialogue as Plato wants him to view it, i.e. as a reflection of an event that did take place. The first important thing to realize is the following: if Adeimantus and Glaucon were aware of their half-brother’s diligently rehearsing the arguments against the Forms he had learnt from Pythodorus, so the young Plato must have been aware of it. If born in 425, Antiphon was four years younger than Plato. This means that when Plato was twenty, Antiphon was sixteen or eighteen, that is of the age that corresponds to him being a youngster (meirakion) when he was diligently rehearsing the arguments against the Forms.

This is significant; for Diogenes Laertius says that Plato was twenty when he ‘listened to Socrates in front of the theatre of Dionysius’. The event was dramatic, for Plato ‘was about to compete for the prize with a tragedy’, but having listened to Socrates ‘he consigned his poems to the flames with the words “Come hither, O fire-god, Plato now has need for thee.” Diogenes adds that ‘from that time onward, having reached his twentieth year (so it is said), he was the pupil of Socrates’ (D. L. iii. 5-6). To appreciate the relevance of Diogenes’ account of Plato’s dramatic philosophic encounter with Socrates to our understanding of the Parmenides, we must view it in the light of Aristotle’s account of Plato’s conception of the Forms. Aristotle says that Plato in his youth embraced the Heraclitean doctrines ‘that all things are in constant flux’ (hȏs hapantȏn aei reontȏn). Engrossed in the Heraclitean view of reality, Plato encountered Socrates ‘who was the first to have stopped his mind by fixing it on definitions of ethical concepts (peri horismȏn epistȇsantos prȏtou tȇn dianoian). Having accepted him (ekeinon apodexamenos); because of this he came to think (dia to toiouton hupelaben) that this [i.e. Socrates’ bringing his mind to a stand-still on definitions] was taking place concerning different entities and not the things we perceive by our senses (hȏs peri heterȏn touto gignomenon kai ou tȏn aisthȇtȏn) … these kind of entities he called Forms (houtos oun ta men toiauta tȏn ontȏn ideas prosȇgoreuse, 987a32-b8). Like Aristotle, Diogenes says that prior to his dramatic meeting with the philosophizing Socrates Plato philosophized (ephilosophei) as a follower of Heraclitus (kath’ Hȇrakleiton, iii. 5). The fact that Dionysius Laertius appears to have been unaware of the profound philosophic significance of Plato’s ‘listening to Socrates in front of the theatre of Dionysius’ enhances the credibility of his account of its dramatic impact on Plato.

If Plato’s philosophic encounter with Socrates was as dramatic as Diogenes and Aristotle describe it, it must have been very warrying for his relatives, especially for his older brother Adeimantus. This is no empty speculation, for in the sixth book of the Republic, that is after Socrates introduced the Forms in the fifth book as the proper subject of philosophy in his discussion with Glaucon, Adeimantus says to Socrates ‘that those who pursue philosophy (hosoi an epi philosophiian hormȇsantes), when they don’t just touch on it for the sake of their education (mȇ tou pepaideusthai heneka hapsamenoi), abandoning it when they are young (neoi ontes apallattȏntai), but engage in it longer than that (alla makroteron endiatripsȏsin), most of them become very strange (tous men pleistous kai panu allokotous gignomenous), not to say utterly devious (hina mȇ pamponȇrous eipȏmen), and that those who seem to be the best (tous d’ epieikestatous dokountas) are at least made useless to their cities by this occupation which you extol’ (homȏs touto ge hupo tou epitȇdeumatos hou su epaineis paschontas, achrȇstous tais polesi gignomenous, 487c6-d5). And so we may well see why the young Antiphon was encouraged to rehearse diligently Parmenides’ arguments against the Forms.

What is the significance of Plato’s conceiving the Forms on listening to Socrates when he was twenty years old for our understanding of the Parmenides? Most importantly, it means that Parmenides’ arguments against the Forms diligently rehearsed by Antiphon had no impact on Plato’s conception of the Forms. It is in the light of this fact that Plato wants his readers to see his derogation of Parmenides’ arguments against the Forms as fallacious at 133b and as merely appearing to be of significance at 135a6. He prepares the reader for this derogation by Adeimantus’ remark that Antiphon diligently rehearsed the arguments when he was a youngster ‘though now, like his grandfather of the same name, he spends most of his time on horses’. The arguments presented in the dialogue did not turn Antiphon into a philosopher. Plato re-emphasizes this aspect of the Parmenides in the introductory scene in the Symposium, where we learn that Plato’s brother Glaucon, who like Adeimantus knew of Antiphon’s rehearsing of Parmenides’ arguments against the Forms, prior to his listening to the speeches on love ‘which were delivered by Socrates, Alcibiades, and others at Agathon’s supper’, i.e. in the Symposium, was ‘running about the world, fancying himself to be well employed, but was really a most wretched being’ (173a1-3, tr. Jowett).

The Parmenides thus poses a question: When and under what circumstances Plato could have been interested in defending the Forms by writing a dialogue in which he would present Parmenides, one of the most important pre-Socratic philosophers, putting forward arguments against the theory of Forms and characterizing them as fallacious (133b), and only seemingly significant (135a), without refuting them as such in the dialogue itself, but merely indicating that such arguments had no effect on his own conception of the Forms and pointing to the Republic as the way to seeing the Forms immune to any arguments raised against them? This scenario makes no sense if we think of Plato teaching philosophy in the Academy, for in those circumstances it was his spoken word and his presence that provided the best defence of the Forms. The situation alters dramatically if we think of him as facing the prospect of leaving his disciples in Athens with the intention of living in Sicily for the rest of his days, of which his ‘Seventh Letter’ informs us. For in that case, in the Parmenides, though bodily absent, he would remain standing in their midst exposed to the most formidable objections raised against the Forms by the foremost and most revered philosopher of the past, finding the objections fallacious and void of any true significance. In the Laws Plato says that truth (alȇtheia) is the beginning of every good thing and that he, who would be blessed and happy, should be from the first a partaker (metochos) of the truth, that he may live a true man as long as possible, for then he can be trusted (730c1-4). This was the principle that guided Plato throughout his life ever since he discovered the truth – he identified the Forms simply with truth in the Phaedrus (248b6), his first dialogue, and he did so when he introduced Glaucon to the Forms in the Republic (475e4) – and it is in the light of this guiding principle that he wanted the Parmenides to be read.’

[i] G. E. L. Owen on this basis revised the generally accepted late dating of the Timaeus: ‘The Parmenides and its successors gain in philosophical power and interest when they are read as following and not as paving the way for the Timaeus.’ (‘The Place of the Timaeus in Plato’s dialogues’, Classical Quarterly, 1953, vol. 3, p. 79.)

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