Tuesday, October 11, 2016

From Bertrand Russell on Plato’s Phaedo and Meno to my forthcoming protest in Prague

Russell writes in his History of Western Philosophy that in the Phaedo and the Meno Socrates applies his method of questioning to geometrical problems, and that in doing so ‘he has to ask leading questions which any judge would disallow’. In my preceding post I pointed out that he is wrong concerning the Phaedo, and I made a few remarks on the Meno based on a chapter I wrote on this dialogue in The Lost Plato, some ten years ago. And since I have in my possession David Bostock’s book on Plato’s Phaedo, which ‘stems from a course of lectures designed for undergraduates at Oxford’ (quoted from the opening sentence of the ‘Preface’, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986), I looked at it. In Chapter IV on ‘The Recollection Argument’ Bostock writes: ‘Why must it be supposed that there ever was a time when we learnt what we now know? Indeed in an earlier version of this argument in the Meno Plato had himself drawn the conclusion that we never did learn it, but must have had the knowledge always, i.e. for all the time that there has been (Meno 85d).' (p. 61)

This did not make sense to me, for it not only contradicts Socrates’ not-knowing, but the ‘recollection argument’ in the Meno, as far as I remembered it, allows Socrates to point out that we have knowledge that we could not have derived from our present-life’s experience, i.e. we must have brought it into this life from our existence, before we were born, but nothing more. And so I have looked at Meno 85d, to which Bostock refers. In that paragraph Socrates and Meno discuss Mino’s slaves’ ‘recollection’ of a solution to a geometrical problem. I shall begin at 85b8.

Socrates: ‘What do you say of him (ti soi dokei), Meno (ȏ Menȏn)? Were not all these answers given out of his own head (estin hȇntina doxan ouch hautou houtos apekrinato)?’ – Meno: ‘Yes, they were all his own (Ouk, all’ hautou).’ – Soc. ‘And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know (Kai mȇn ouk ȇidei ge, hȏs ephamen oligon proteron)?’ – Men. ‘True (Alȇthȇ legeis).’ – Soc. ‘But still he had in him those notions of his (Enȇsan de ge autȏi hautai hai doxai) – had he not (ȇ ou)?’ – Men. ‘Yes (Nai).’ – ‘Then he who does not know (Tȏi ouk eidoti ara) may still have true notions of that which he does not know (peri hȏn an mȇ eidȇi eneisin alȇtheis doxai peri toutȏn hȏn ouk oide)?’ – Men. ‘He has (Phainetai).’ – Soc. ‘And at present (Kai nun men ge) these notions have just been stirred up in him, as in a dream (autȏi hȏsper onar arti anakekinȇntai hai doxai hautai); but if he were frequently asked the same questions (ei de auton tis anerȇsetai pollakis ta auta tauta), in different forms (kai pollachȇi), he would know as well as any one at last (oisth’ hoti teleutȏn oudenos hȇtton akribȏs epistȇsetai peri toutȏn)?’ – Men. ‘I dare say (Eoiken).’ – Soc. ‘Without any one teaching him (Oukoun oudenos didaxantos) he will recover his knowledge for himself, if he is only asked questions (all’ erȏtȇsantos epistȇsetai, analabȏn autos ex heautou tȇn epistȇmȇn)?’ – Men. ‘Yes (Nai).’ – ‘And this spontaneous recovery of knowledge in him (To de analambanein auton en heautȏi epistȇmȇn) is recollection (ouk anamimnȇiskesthai estin)?’ – Men. ‘True (Panu ge).’ – Soc. ‘And this knowledge (Ar’ oun ou tȇn epistȇmȇn) which he now has (hȇn nun houtos echei) must he not either have acquired (ȇ oun elaben pote) or always possessed (ȇ aei eichen)? – Men. ‘Yes.’ (85b8-85d10, tr. Jowett)

How did it happen to Bostock that he turned Socrates’ ‘And this knowledge he must either have acquired (ȇ oun elaben pote) or always possessed (ȇ aei eichen)’ into the claim that ‘in the Meno Plato had himself drawn the conclusion that we never did learn it, but must have had the knowledge always, i.e. for all the time that there has been (Meno 85d)’? My only explanation is that he opened his Oxford text and his eyes got fixed on aei eichen, ‘always possessed’, and he did not register the preceding ȇ oun elaben pote ‘either have acquired’. If so, a similar thing happened to Vlastos, who in his Socrates maintains that the hedonic philosopher Aristippus was ‘mentioned as present at the death-scene by Plato’ (Phaedo 59c2-3). (Vlastos, Socrates, Cambridge University Press 1991, p. 204, n. 19) In fact, in Phaedo 59c4 Aristippus’ presence is strongly denied. At 59c3 Echecrates asks ‘What about Aristippus and Cleombrotus? Were they there (Ti de; Aristippos kai Kleombrotos paregenonto;)?’ At 59c4 Phaedo replies: ‘No, they weren’t (Ou dȇta) they were said to be in Aegina (en Aiginȇi gar elegonto einai).’ If one reads 59c3 with a full stop instead of a question mark, it makes a straightforward statement: ‘Aristippus and Cleombrotus were present.’ That’s how Vlastos must have read it, and he must have read it only in the original; his eyes never slipped to the next line, line 59c4.

Since my arrival at Oxford in 1980 I have appealed to my Oxford and Cambridge colleagues again and again for an opportunity to discuss Plato, in vain. The present Master of Balliol could simply reply to me: ‘It is not I fear possible to give you a platform in Balliol’, without any explanation. In fact, until today I have received no explanation from anybody, unless I view as an explanation Jonothan Barnes’ proclamation in Nick Cohen’s ‘The Pub Philosopher’ (on my website): ‘Jonathan Barnes, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, impatiently brushed aside the suggestion that the Conservatives’ reduction in funding for British philosophy since 1980 might explain why there was never an academic post for Tomin at Oxford. “That’s not the point at all,” he said. “He would not be accepted as a graduate here, let alone be given a teaching job. He’s like a recalcitrant student who can’t admit he’s wrong.’

This year, in February, I spent a month in Prague, during which I wrote two papers in Czech: ‘Plato’s defence of Forms in the Parmenides’ and ‘Plato and Dionysius’, I offered these two papers for presentation to the Director of the Institute for Philosophy at the Faculty of Arts (Filosofická fakulta) of Charles University. As the Master of Balliol had done, the Director refused my offer without any explanation.

From 16-18 November I shall stage ‘Three days with a pub philosopher devoted to philosophy’ in front of the Faculty of Arts of Charles University. I have been informing about my protest the Czech academics, but my protest will be equally directed at Oxford and Cambridge academics. So let me give the text of the ‘Information’ in English:

Dear colleague,
On November 16-18 I intend to stage ‘Three days with a pub philosopher devoted to philosophy’ in front of the Faculty of Arts on Palach’s square. The recommended texts: ‘The Pub Philosopher’ and ‘The Pursuit of Philosophy’; both these texts are available on my website.

On Nov. 16 I shall read ‘Self-reflection as an imperative’, on Nov. 17 ‘Plato’s defence of the Forms in the Parmenides’, on Nov. 18 ‘Plato and Dionysius’; the texts are on my website. Time: 10-12 am. I intend to stage the ‘Three days’ as a celebration and as a protest. I shall celebrate the start of the Velvet Revolution [November 17, 1989], for without that revolution it would be impossible for me to stage the ‘Three days’ in front of the Faculty of Arts. I shall protest against my exclusion from any meaningful cooperation with philosophers in the Czech Republic and in the world at large. ‘The Pub Philosopher’, published a day after the Velvet Revolution began, i.e. on Nov. 18, 1989, testifies to it.

In preparation for the ‘Three days’ I put on my website a letter written by Radovan Richta to Professor Diemer, the President of FISP, published in tvorba on October 15, 1980, that is shortly after I left Prague for Oxford. This letter pre-determined all my subsequent existence and work: ‘Tomin is a man who is worth nothing in philosophy … It is self-evident that Mr. Tomin would not find the means to live for a single week if he were interesting merely for what he did in philosophy.’ These words of Radovan Richta are worth comparing with the words of Jonathan Barnes, Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, which Nick Cohen quoted in ‘The Pub Philosopher’ published in The Independent Magazine on Nov. 18, that is a day after the Velvet Revolution started: “He [i.e. Tomin] would not be accepted as a graduate here, let alone be given a teaching job.’

Furthermore, I put on my website Roger Scruton’s ‘A catacomb culture’ published in February 1990, in the wake of the Velvet Revolution. It well describes the role that Oxford philosophers played after I left Prague for Oxford and my open philosophy seminar was supplanted by ‘secret’ activities. As I was typing Scruton’s article on my notebook, with every paragraph I had to think: ‘And during all those years I was excluded from any normal cooperation with philosophers in my field of interest, although I devoted all my efforts to enlarging and deepening my knowledge of ancient philosophy and Ancient Greek culture.’ Prompted by this thought, I shall stage the ‘Three days’ on November 16-18.

Needless to say, I should much rather present the three papers at the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at the Faculty of Arts. I shall therefore buy the air-ticket at the last moment, just in case the Director of the Institute were to invite me to give the proposed lectures at the Institute at a mutually convenient time.


Let me end by quoting the letter from The Editor of the TLS from November 18, 1991: ‘We would, of course, be very happy for you to use Roger Scruton’s article in whatever way you wish. I enclose two photocopies of the article. I have a great deal of sympathy with the difficulty you have experienced in steering Oxford philosophers into answering your argument, but I do not see how any contribution from us would compel a response from those who do not wish to respond. I am sorry not to be able to help more.’

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