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Dominic Scott: Plato's Meno.

Dominic Scott

Plato's Meno.

New York: Cambridge University Press 2006.

Pp. 248.

US$90.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-521-64033-6).

Scott's book is a welcome addition to the series, Cambridge Studies in the Dialogues of Plato. It deserves to be read by scholars and would serve well in a course on the Meno. Scott translates a good deal of the dialogue, and provides a continuous commentary on its philosophical aspects that is consistently illuminating. His commentary will, of course, be controversial. Here are some examples.

Scott is prepared to discuss characterization in the dialogue. He argues that Meno's character in fact changes over the course of his discussion with Socrates, from relative dogmatism and conceit to some degree of pliancy, partly in response to the obvious intransigence of Anytus. This will not appeal to all interpreters; Scott argues against some who disagree, and his arguments are at least plausible.

Still, Scott talks as if Socrates were representing the views of Plato himself, so some will ask: doesn't this inexcusably fail to recognize the dialogues as drama? But the Meno, on Scott's account, remains properly dramatic: he speaks of it as putting Socrates himself on trial, and maintains a distance between Plato as author and Socrates as character. It's just that the questioning of Socrates is Plato's self-questioning.

But it goes with this heresy that Scott is ready to think in terms of Plato's development, and this is even more widely subjected to anathema. Scott makes a case for saying that the Meno antedates the Gorgias; in this way he can disarm the apparent conflict between the admiration Socrates shows for Themistocles and Pericles in the Meno--they may not have been able to teach virtue to their sons, but it is conceded that they had true beliefs and thus had virtue in an attenuated way--and his condemnation of them in the Gorgias, by claiming that the latter rests on a 'deeper' analysis of political virtue than was available to him in the Meno.

Once again, what Scott says is at least plausible. It may trouble some readers that his basis for his ordering is what is often referred to as a 'subjective' criterion--the idea that the Gorgias is providing a 'deeper' or 'more sophisticated' analysis of virtue--but it is not plain that this is all that subjective: Scott tries to show that there are considerations offered in the Gorgias that are not offered in the Meno but would have been relevant there, and that's pretty objective.

The reordering has, for Scott, a substantive result. It is often claimed that, given the conflict between the Meno and the Gorgias, the conclusion of the Meno, in which Socrates expresses his admiration for Themistocles and Pericles, is best seen as ironic. On Scott's reading, it should not be seen that way: rather, Plato has changed his evaluation of these politicians between the two dialogues. This reading is, indeed, pretty persuasive.

Scott is prepared to speak of the historical Socrates, and here perhaps a complaint is in order. Scott simply assumes that the 'Socratic' dialogues are Socratic: that is, they purport to discuss the views and methods of the historical Socrates. He does not, in particular, comment on the case Charles Kahn has made for regarding those dialogues as not historical fiction, but simply fiction. It would have been instructive to see how Scott might rebut this.

Scott isolates episodes that share a common pattern, in which, as he sees it, the historical Socrates is 'on trial': 'The pattern.... includes at least three elements: first, the Socrates of the dialogue espouses a position that we can safely ascribe to the historical Socrates. Second, this position is subjected to a serious philosophical challenge.... Third, although the challenge comes from Meno, it is far from clear whether he understands its true significance' (27-28).

He applies this to four passages:

1) 73a-c, where Socrates is forced to argue for the claim that there is a unified definition that covers all cases of virtue. This, according to Scott, was simply assumed in the Socratic dialogues (and thus, on his view, by the historical Socrates). 2) 79e-80d (with 84a-c), where Meno likens Socrates to a stingray, paralyzing his interlocutors by refuting them; Plato here is reflecting on both the benefits and dangers of Socratic refutation. 3) 80d-81a, where Meno presents his 'paradox' to the effect that no one can ever learn anything. Scott's handling of Plato's response to this is difficult. First, Scott is a bit irresolute as to how Plato does want to respond. His discussion ends: 'I shall rest content with a position of which we can be confident: the historical Socrates believed adamantly in our duty to inquire, and it is at least for this claim that Plato is putting him on philosophical trial in the Meno' (91). This leaves things slightly up in the air. Second, the Doctrine of Recollection, which Plato brings in apparently in connection with Meno's paradox, is not, according to Scott, intended to respond to this paradox, but to a related problem he calls 'the problem of discovery'. It is unclear how Scott takes the dialogue to hang together at this point. 4) 86c-87c, where Socrates is made to back off the assumption that we must have a definition for virtue before we can settle whether it is teachable, and to provide a method (the 'method of hypotheses') for approaching the latter question.

Finally, to pick just one of any number of points that deserve attention, Scott sees a tension between a) the discussion of true belief at the end of the dialogue and b) the use of the notion of true belief in the sub-dialogue with the slave boy and Socrates' commentary on that sub-dialogue: 'The problem ... is that in the later discussion of knowledge and true belief, Socrates talks as if the difference is one of kind, in the earlier as if it is one of degree. Also, the two passages seem to differ on the question whether recollection is involved in the formation of true belief' (184).

And then immediately, 'In response, I would suggest that we should not expect the later discussion to map too neatly onto the earlier one.'

His few sentences explaining why he says this are not very satisfying; once again, the dialogue seems not quite to hold together. The tension he sees between the two passages is entirely too interesting, and the matter deserves more discussion.

But in all, this is a good, clear, stimulating book.

R.M. Dancy

Florida State University
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Author:Dancy, R.M.
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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