Interpreting Plato's Dialogues by J. Angelo Corlett ...

a description and critical evaluation of various ways of approaching Plato's dialogues, along with the articulation and defense of a new paradigm for interpreting the Platonic corpus

... a philosophical work

Chapter 1 - Introduction: Approaching Plato's Dialogues

On having a taxonomy of interpretive approaches Different from Robert Brumbaugh's "Four Types of Plato Interpretation" in Plato's Dialogues: New Studies and Interpretation

Ideal approach: it makes sense of the contents of the entirety of Plato's works; takes into account the various features of Plato's works{without this, a fallacy of misattribution is committed}; does not rely on an overly prejudiced understanding of what Plato is up to in composing his writings

A disputed writing The Seventh Letter may provide some answer on what characters spoke for Plato, but its authorship is disputed

We can never for sure that the following approaches do justice to Plato. We have to assume that our writings of Plato at hand is all there is to it, i.e. there are no non-extant writings

Final desideratum: a plausible approach must be able to explain why competing approaches are less plausible to itself ..... so we analyze competing approaches


This is complex .... according to secondary sources, Antisthenes was probably the most important follower of Socrates; if we want to know more about Socrates, we may have to study his writings more than Plato's but we know that we have more of Plato's writings than his .... Antisthenes is regarded as the father of the Cynic philosophy

The Mouthpiece Interpretation

Authorial Intentionality and Unintentionality in the Mouthpiece Interpretation: his dialogues are a product of every ideas held by Plato

.... one proponent of this is Kahn [Plato and the Socratic Dialogue] Some believe that his dialogues contain Plato's mind unintentionally. They believe that Plato's aim in creating these dialogues was to create "philosophical and literary masterpieces"

The Theoretical, Doctrinal, and Doxatic Mouthpiece Interpretations

Theoretical Interpretation: "the Platonic corpus intentionally or unintentionally contains Plato's philosophical theories about knowledge, reality, justice, love, and so forth." p.5

... most popular version of this attributes to Plato a Theory of Forms

Doctrinal Interpretation: his doctrines are contained in the Platonic corpus intentionally or not

.... its distinction from the theoretical interpretation lies that it's about Plato's deeply held convictions and not a full blown theory

Dogmatic Mouthpiece Interpretation: contents reflect intentionally or not Plato's own beliefs ..... this is milder than the first two .... also known as Doxatic

These three types assume that Plato's mind is in the Platonic corpus; the question is up to what extent?

Local, Moderate, and Global Unity

The theoretical and dogmatic interpretations raise the question of whether there's a unity of Plato's thoughts in his writings

Unity Thesis: there is a conceptual unity in Plato's thought. .. see footnote 15 in pp. 5-6

Local Unity Thesis: This unity is obtained within a particular dialogue.

Moderate Unity Thesis: This unity is obtained within a selection of particular dialogues.

Global Unity Thesis: This unity is obtained within the entire Platonic corpus.

Local, Moderate, and Global Development

Developmental Thesis: Plato wrote dialogues that show the ongoing changing of his theories, doctrines, and/or beliefs.

Local Deve/opmentalism: There can be a development of the concept of x from one part of a dialogue to another part of it.

Moderate Deve/opmentalism: There can be a development of a concept of x from one dialogue to another.

Global Deve/opmentalism: There is a development of a concept x throughout the Platonic corpus.

Developmentalist approaches depend on the classification of Plato's writings into "early," "middle," and/or "late" periods.

Developmentalists just assume this, and seem to provide no justification for this classification.

Further Complexities

Mixing and considering the plausibility of these approaches show how complex the task of approaching Plato is.

Dialogues should be read as dialogues, not treatises. The mouthpiece interpreters make this hermeneutical mistake.

The Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation

... holds the question of how to read the Platonic dialogues is intimately bound up with the even more evasive question of why Plato employed the dialogue format in his philosophical writings

... it denies that Plato's theories or doctrines can be deduced from his writings

... but it does not deny that we can understand Plato's way of doing philosophy

... it denies that anything we can gain from reading his works are su bstantive

Plato surely had views and theories, but it is certain that he did not compose his dialogues with the aim of communicating them

Until external evidence can be found in favor of a mouthpiece interpretation, the mouthpiece interpretation does not hold.

The author will seek to elaborate and defend on the Socratic Interpretation approach

The moderate mouthpiece interpretation combines mouthpiece and anti-mouthpiece approaches

Chapter 2 - The Mouthpiece Interpretation Platonic Question: How ought Plato's writings to be interpreted, and why?

Mouthpiece interpretation = Plato's dialogues communicate his ideas; to different degree based on the extend that his dialogues are his mouthpiece

... unclear on what they meant that this theories or doctrines are expresses in his dialogues



Whatever philosophical gaps or contradictions there are in the dialogues, they are due to the lack of Plato's philosophical acumen

There is a development of Plato's thought over time

There are also esoteric interpretators who hold that Plato's ideas are not found within his dialogues

... instead, they are communicated to his students in the Academy such as Aristotle

Starting on p23 onwards, author will examine more recent arguments for the Mouthpiece Interpretation. Unless his objections can be met, the alternative interpretation, i.e. anti-Mouthpiece, must be accepted

More specifically, the Socratic Interpretation: one ought to interpret Plato's works as dialogues and that Plato was deeply committed to the Socratic method of doing philosophy

... that his commitment to the philosophical dialectic is so strong that it is near impossible to extract from his writings his actual views or doctrines

Therefore, we ought not to ascribe directly to Plato whatever views that any of the characters in his dialogues

utter. in the absence of sufficient reason to

do so

The basic reason to reject the Mouthpiece Interpretation:

It lacks sufficient rational support p24

Key hermeneutical points of mutual agreement between mouthpiece and anti-mouthpiece interpreters: p24

1. Plato writes several dialogues, but no treatises

2. There are certain views propounded by certain dialogical characters in the Platonic corpus

3. Plato writes dialogues for a purpose, or a set of purposes, one of which is to guide readers to philosophical and objective truths

4. Plato indeed has philosophical views, however tentatively held

5. There are better and worse ways to read Plato's dialogues

Notwithstanding these agreements, there are many disagreements between the two camps.

Doctrines and theories attributed to Plato presuppose the Mouthpiece Interpretation.



Richard Kraut argues that the anti-Mouthpiece

I nterpretation holds the mistaken view that Plato is a dramatist

... if he were so, such view is valid

He addresses #2 and #3. His distinction of Plato and the dramatist is insightful but begs the question on whether Plato's goal is different from that of a dramatist

If Plato's goal is the Truth, this does not necessitate that he infuse his unique thoughts in his dialogues

Kraut also provides another argument that Plato's convictions are held to some extend in some of his dialogues

... but his chain of thought cannot discount the validity of the anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation

In other words, Kraut presumes the Mouthpiece Interpretation as innocent of errors till proven guilty

Terence Irwin attributes Aristotle's interpretations of Plato's Dialogues as "ancient evidence" that they were really Plato's mouthpiece

... Aristotle is external evidence, but this should be corroborated by internal evidence within the Platonic Corpus; unfortunately, it isn't

Deeper reason why Irwin's reasoning is problematic: One ought to accept the Aristotle as external guide to Plato view unless sufficient reason can be found in the dialogues against it

.... but the dialogue form being internal and primary evidence is against this view by Irwin

Furthermore, we cannot always rely on Aristotle precisely because he does not always agree with Plato; worse he may actually misunderstood what Plato meant

We can concede that we cannot NOT consult Aristotle for greater understanding of Plato. But the silence of dialogues for Mouthpiece Interpretation as well as its dialogue forms are sure internal evidence against it

... p29

Even if we suppose that Aristotle is a reliable guide to Plato, it does not follow that he is the best external witness

P31 Irwin cannot be clear to have uttered a strong argument for support of the Mouthpiece Interpretation

Julia Annas argues that the anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation makes Plato a sceptic

.... this is merely an assumption

She appeals to AUTHORITY ... SEXTUS

All that is need to support at first glance the antiMouthpiece Interpretation is to neutralize or undermine the Mouthpiece Interpretation

.... this makes the anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation plausible


Michael Frede thinks The Sophist is Plato's most dogmatic dialogue

Granted, are these sufficient grounds for the Mouthpiece Interpretation?

Reasons the Mouthpiece Interpretation Fails to Satisfy the Desiderata of Plausible Approach to Plato

1. It fails to account for the dramatic and Socratic features of most of Plato's writings

2. Failure to account for these features has led to many fundamental attribution errors

3. It prohibited from answering the Platonic Question

Chapter 3 - The Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation ... to discuss in this chapter two leading alternatives to the Mouthpiece Interpretation:

1. The Dramatic (Anti-Mouthpiece) Interpretation

2. The Socratic (Anti-Mouthpiece) Interpretation


Plato is the invisible author of his dialogues ... never appearing as a participant

He used the dialogue form in order to make Socratic Inquiry lively

Philosophical Inspiration for the Dramatic Interpretation came from John Dewey's reflections on Plato

Taking the dramatic elements seriously in no way discount the philosophical analysis embed in the Dialogues

Gerald A. Press sets forth three hermeneutical principles for the dramatic study of Plato's Dialogues:

1. Holism = the unit of study is the whole dialogue

2. Contextualism = sensitivity to ...

a Ianguage

b culture

c politics

3. Organicism = "to see how, as in an organic body, all parts work together to a common end"

Press's principles rest on the following assumptions:

1. Plato wrote dialogues (not treatises) and they ought to be interpreted as such

2. Plato employed the dialogue form deliberately and for a specific end

3. "each dialogue is thoroughly unified and essentially independent of all other dialogues ... each of the genuine dialogues can be read sensibly without knowing anything about the content or action of any other dialogue"

4. The Dialogues of Plato are works of literary art of the highest caliber

From Principles of Dramatic and Non-Dogmatic Plato Interpretation

The Socratic Interpretation agrees on Press's principles on some points

It differs however on the principle of holism in that it could also be followed by a mouthpiece or dogmatic interpreter as much as by a Socratic interpreter

The Socratic I nterpretation adopts a stronger version of holism: that each dialogue of Plato must be construed in light of its dramatic contents and in light of the claim that, as far as we know, Plato never speaks in his own name in the dialogues

But Socratic Interpretation assumes no specific view in which they are to be read, expect with the view that they are philosophical discussions which engage the readers in a dialectic among various subjects

The Socratic Interpretation allows for a broader reading of each dialogue

You don't need to consider the true or original intent behind the dialogue when you begin to state your views or interpretations regarding it.

Another proponent of the Dramatic I nterpretation is Henry G. Wolz, arguing that the dialogues offer "indirection" so that readers may themselves seek the Truth

Mitchell Miller favors the Dramatic Interpretation by claiming that there is a four-part structure to the Platonic Dialogue:

1. Elicitation = wherein he who leads the philosophical discussion draws out an interlocutor's view

2. Refutation = wherein the view is shown to rest on problematic foundations

3. Reorienting Insight = wherein the one leading the discussion recommends how to resolve the problem at hand

4. Return = wherein the insight is shed upon the original Issue

However, not all dialogues follow such dramatic form


One of the fundamental errors of the Mouthpiece Interpretation is its neglect of the depth of the Socratic influence on Plato in composing the dialogues

e.g. one must view them as Plato's way of teaching how to live the examined life

They act as if understanding Plato had nothing to do beyond the text of the Platonic corpus

... no different from Christian Fundamentalism

The general purpose of the dialogues is to achieve philosophical enlightenment.

... the reader must take the primary burden of doing philosophy


It is generally agreed that Plato was heavily influenced my Socrates' method of doing philosophy.

It is crucial to delineate the Socratic "Method" in order to explain the plausibility of the Socratic Interpretation

... by taking into account that philosophy is an incessant search for truth and love of wisdom rather than a hard and fast method of systematizing ideas

Plato seems able to teach us how Socrates conceived of the nature and value of philosophical inquiry.

There is no formalized Socratic Method. Although trying to apply it will rid us of pretense of wisdom.

Socrates rejects the notion that philosophers are wise men endowed with special insight that must be followed by all men. He shows ignorance in order to attain true knowledge

The Socratic Method is nearly identical with philosophy, i.e. follow where philosophy leads if you care for your soul

The best light of reason must be the true guide of the philosopher.

It features open-mindedness

But one must value good opinions rather than bad ones

Socrates repeats the claim that there is a right way to do philosophy.

Humility is an important aspect of his method.

See p53 excerpt of Nozick

Socratic dialogues involves other people


Not only is the Socratic Method open-minded, sincere, persistent, courageous, optimistic, and epistemically humble, it is just.

Humor is recognized to lighten the seriousness of any discussion .... Socratic humor


They say that it is an unfalsifiable thesis.

But the truth is it could also be refuted .

.. .. if there exists textual evidence in prose that Plato intended to have his thoughts be reflected in his dialogues

They may argue that Socratic Interpretation would make reading Plato's dialogues a subjective matter, as if Plato had no ideas of his own

But it does not deny that Plato had any ideas of his own Socratic Interpretation is not and should not be taken as subjective

Socratic Interpretation denies that the Platonic Corpus and text outside it provide objective information on what Plato privately believed

It's like trying to extract Hume's ideas from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion without his treatises backing up whatever can be found there

They may also argue that the Socratic I nterpretation is an attempt to distinguish it from the Mouthpiece Interpretation, but it fails in its attempt because it attributes to Plato a commitment to use the Socratic Method .

... but this attribution of dogmatism in Socratic Method is minimal; it does not assume much unlike the Mouthpiece Interpretation

Rutherford characterizes Plato/Socrates as an eternal skeptic-questioner, which ignores recurring themes etc. This is going too far he claims

Difficulties with his objections:

1. Socrates not Plato is depicted

2. By saying that Socrates goes too far is a "disturbingly diminished" picture of Plato

3. Recurrence of certain themes in his dialogues in no way makes Plato subscribe to them

4. Only by presuming the validity of the Mouthpiece Interpretation could one say that the perpetual questioning in the dialogues constitute a "disturbingly diminished picture of Plato"

5. It is assuming that "perpetually questioning" issues at hand is the only lesson that Plato wants to deliver

It might also be objected that the Socratic Interpretation would reduce Plato in his Dialogues to a kind of philosophical indifference

Why it's in error:

1. It does not follow in the anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation that Plato is indifferent to the conclusions that readers may arrive at

2. Not true that the anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation must hold that the Dialogues were not intended to move readers into a certain direction

3. No one is entitled to ascribe to Plato the view that, if he were not indifferent, then he did adhere to certain claims

4. Mouthpiece Interpretation holds on a Colossal Mistake to take Aristotle as guide

5. If Plato intended to write dialogues instead of treatises, the objection the Plato is hidden observer merely states the position of the Anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation

a. It does not follow that by Plato hiding in the dialogues making him without views

b. This is the fallacy of bifurcation

It may be argued against the Socratic Interpretation the gross inequality between the characters of Socrates, the Eleatic visitor, and their respective interlocutors seem to suggest that the Mouthpiece Interpretation is plausible

Good criticism but not quite:

1. Not obvious if Socrates only engaged intellectual inferiors. In some dialogues, Socrates can be seen to be engaging equal or superior foes

2. The Socratic exchanges may only be highlights of the best encou nters that Socrates had

3. Fails to debunk anti-Mouthpiece Interpretation; fails to support Mouthpiece Interpretation

On p64, the author does not say that we have to accept the Socratic Interpretation until refuted. Rather, he finds it with little difficulty compared to the Mouthpiece Interpretation. Thus, it should be shown more attention than it currently had.

A search for what is "philosophically interesting" in Plato's dialogues depends on how a person interprets them

Keep in mind Paul Woodruff's reminder: "[R]eading Plato is hard work and inevitably frustrating: total satisfaction in interpretation eludes us."

From "Reply to Ronal Polansky's 'Reading Plato" in Platonic Writings: Platonic Readings, edited by Griswold

P65 discusses why Socratic Interpretation satisfies the desiderata for interpreting Plato's Dialogues

Next chapter is about how a Socratic Interpreter can and ought to perform textual exegesis concerning a major concept found in Plato's works

Chapter 4 - A Socratic Interpretation of the Concept of Art as Mimesis

... example of how to use Socratic Interpretation in understanding what Plato wrote about in his dialogues

... more specifically, about art as mimesis or imitation in The Republic

Written word is only a copy of knowledge, not knowledge itself

One must not take whatever he is writing in an OVERLY

serious way he must be wary that the written word is

also susceptible to error as that of the spoken word

Socrates condemns the type of writing that poses as truth but cannot defend itself; his condemnation is not antiresearch

There are uses of misesis outside the usual artistic expression

The kind of imitation that is problematic philosophically and ethically is that based on the imitator's ignorance, not knowledge

Mouthpiece Interpreters argue that Plato condemns

. .


But this ignores the fact that there are good forms of imitation

The term mimesis in the context of The Republic is complex

The author will argue that The Republic has not delivered an aesthetic theory of art as Mouthpiece Interpreters suppose


The passages of THE REPUBLIC cited in pp70-73 and related dialogues are "proof" that THE REPUBLIC had a mimetic theory of art .... so say mouthpiece interpreters

My notes in this chapter shall stop here; see the book; it's about the thinking processes that Socratic Interpreters may use

Chapter 5 - Conclusion: Appreciating Plato's Dialogues

This chapter summarizes what the book is about Conclusion: It is not only the Mouthpiece Interpretation that could make substantive insights of Plato's Dialogues, but also the Socratic I nterpretation which the author of this book advances. It is both informative and interpretive.

Prepared by Elevic Pernis

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