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Philosophy and the Philosophical Life: A Study in Plato's 'Phaedo.'

Philosophy and the Philosophical Life: A Study in Plato's Phaedo. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992. xii + 139 pp. $45.00--The Phaedo is usually taken to be among Plato's metaphysically richest dialogues. Dilman argues that, at best, the views of Plato's Socrates are here free of the taint of metaphysics, or that worthwhile, non-metaphysical theses are propounded alongside metaphysical ones. In these cases, Dilman attempts to separate out "Socrates' spiritual and moral perceptions" from the metaphysical claims. The latter are "a mystification of the grammar of the language in which such perceptions are expressed" (p. x). Dilman's objection to such metaphysical theses is Wittgensteinian. When philosophy goes beyond the attempt to articulate the role that a certain discourse plays in our form of life and, instead, attempts to provide some philosophical justification or explanation for our form of life, it degenerates into incoherence. Such language ceases to "do work" and is then "idling."

Dilman interprets Socrates' arguments for the soul's indestructibility as investigations of the grammar of the language that Socrates uses. The soul's immortality, however, is a moral notion which is distinct from the metaphysical issues about the possibility of an afterlife. The philosophical life provides a means of purifying the soul in such a way as to help it become immortal. The way in which philosophy purifies the soul is complicated by the fact that Socrates confounds two conceptions of philosophical inquiry. The first is that of conceptual elucidation. This explores justice or goodness as "logical categories" within our language. The second is self-criticism. In this sense of philosophical inquiry, when we ask a question like, What is justice? we explore the "absolute values" which shape our own actions and we evaluate their appropriateness (p. 24). The value of philosophy lies not in the answers to particular questions which the first kind of inquiry might disclose, but in the "spirit of truth" that is necessary to this kind of inquiry. This facilitates an attitude of self-examination which can transform oneself and one's values. Dilman characterizes this transformation as one in which a person takes up a "spiritual," as opposed to a practical or wordly, orientation.

The remaining chapters explore familiar Platonic oppositions with an eye toward distinguishing between metaphysical theses and spiritual insights. The first of these is the opposition between appearance and reality. The notion that the world of sense is, as a whole, a deficient reflection of the more real world of Forms is, Dilman argues, incoherent. But run together with the metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality is one between appearance and spiritual reality. Here what is distinguished are what merely seems to be of value and what genuinely is so. This distinction does not rely upon the ontological distinction between Forms and sensibles. Rather, the opposition between what is sensible and what is not expresses Plato's view that our ideals of real goodness cannot be realized in a life dominated by sensuality (p. 48). Because of the role that sensuality plays in the distinction between appearance and spiritual reality, Dilman characterizes the Phaedo's positing of opposition between body and soul as akin to the moral distinction between the life of the spirit and the appetites of the flesh in Christianity. If we construe it as a kind of Cartesian dualism, we miss Socrates' moral insights. The kind of moral opposition that Dilman has in mind is rather nicely illustrated in his reading of Tolstoy's "Father Sergius." Philosophy is the practice of separating the soul from the body. Given Dilman's interpretation of the opposition between soul and body, this means renouncing a self-centered system of values. The person who succeeds in this struggle has genuine virtue: he acts only for the sake of doing what is morally right. By living according to his convictions, and ignoring considerations about the concerns of this mortal coil, the virtuous person achieves a state of "self-denial." His actions and beliefs are not assertions of his self, but rather of the right and the good. Socrates confuses actions motivated by convictions with a kind of knowledge because he confuses the moral commitment to an ideal of goodness which is never realized in human affairs with a state of knowing which is directed upon a super-sensible Form.

Historians are likely to find this a disappointing book. Dilman avails himself only of the Penguin edition of the Phaedo. A minor nuisance is that the page citations can be off by as much as two Stephanus pages. More importantly, Dilman's argument relies heavily on the opposition between believing something "philosophically" and "self-assertively" (his 90d is actually 91a2-3). Given the role that the special kind of self-denial which Dilman identifies with the philosophical life plays in his argument, it is by no means obvious that [unkeyable], or "victory loving," provides the contrast he needs. Historical issues aside, however, Dilman does utilize examples from literature and life to give some content to the notion of a "spiritual" moral attitude which is at odds with a life of practical concerns rooted in sensuality. His antimetaphysical presuppositions do not permit him to argue that this life is the good life for humans in ordinary philosophical ways. Nonetheless, he presents a picture of such a life which allows us to see its attractions.
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Author:Baltzly, Dirk
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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