That what we call “philosophy” may be a construct, contingent upon its social and historical circumstances and dependent upon its discursive elaboration in texts that have come to be accepted as authoritative, is a possibility that seems increasingly plausible at the end of the twentieth century. To judge from recent debates over the “end of philosophy” there are few outside the discipline proper who would accept the procedures by which philosophy came to legitimize itself as an autonomous discourse. Philosophy as we know it now seems to be one discourse among many others equal to it, and its associated values (e.g., truth, authenticity, virtue) seem hard pressed to maintain their preeminence when faced with claims that there is no scale according to which all values can be ranked. In the tradition of Plato, Descartes, and Kant, however, philosophical values were bound up with the identity of philosophy as an autonomous discourse. Here, the disciplinary identity of philosophy was dependent upon the “purification” of its discourse: the separation of what is “philosophical” from what is not allowed philosophy to conduct its pursuit of wisdom above the flux of contingent events.
How should we understand and evaluate twentieth-century claims about the contingency of philosophical discourse? The question may be approached in divergent ways. One, articulated from inside the discipline of philosophy, seeks to press on with the project of Plato, Descartes, and Kant in order to isolate and refine the language that is most transparent to the truth. According to this view, the claim that philosophy is constructed would be mistaken or confused, and in any case not a philosophical claim at all. Another approach, articulated from outside the discipline of philosophy proper, would be to map the discursive construction of philosophy in terms of the “ideological” interests at work in the very process of that construction, keeping in mind that what is “ideological” is always fashioned in some discursive way. While each of these approaches has something to recommend it, each is insufficient. Typically, the project of “purification” fails to reflect sufficiently upon the contingency of the discourse it aims to refine, while the project of ideology-critique typically fails to recognize its own implicit appeal to some notion of truth or authenticity—or, at the very least, of truths pursued in earnest and communicated intelligibly.
Andrea Nightingale’s fine book on Plato and the “construct” of philosophy is everywhere responsive to the contingency of philosophical discourse. Nightingale deals with this contingency by inspecting Plato’s strategies through a lens that is at once social, historical, and discursive. Genres in Dialogue is likewise aware of the claims that Plato makes on behalf of the values of “truth” and “authenticity.” But Nightingale’s strategy is to deflect (philosophical?) questions about truth and authenticity in favor of an analysis that focuses on Plato’s [End Page 527] role in the inaugural configuration of what we have come to recognize and accept as philosophical discourse. Rather than concentrate on the later, ideological appropriation of philosophy in the West, Nightingale sets her sights on philosophy’s inaugural moment, when debates about truth and authenticity were first configured in relation to the question of different modes of speech, some of which attempted to assert their primacy over all others. On Nightingale’s very provocative account, philosophy is not something that became contingent with the passage of time; it was from the very start a discursive construct.
Nightingale argues that procedures of this construction, evidenced principally in Plato’s dialogues, were unique. While recognizing that the Platonic dialogues were the staging ground for the rivalries between philosophy on the one hand and rhetoric and poetry on the other, her more important claim is that Plato incorporated a panoply of discursive genres into his texts, always in order to parody, subvert, or otherwise challenge their authority, the better to establish the primacy of philosophy as a discursive practice. What philosophy itself is goes largely unanswered by Plato. Instead, Plato diverts attention to the question of what the...