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Reviews2 1 7 Plato's "Phaedrus": A Defense ofthe Philosophic Art of Writing, by Ronna Burger; vii & 160 pp. University, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1980, $14.50. In the Phaedrus, Plato makes two remarks which seem to have damaging implications for his own literary practice. He maintains that every discourse should have its own organic unity — although the Phaedrus is conspicuous for its diversity of subject matter and apparent looseness of structure. And he maintains that writing is a poor medium for communicating philosophical thought, because the reader passively accepts what he reads as unexamined dogma instead of being stimulated by live discussion to think for himself. This claim seems to invalidate Plato's whole corpus of writings. Scholars who have reflected on these paradoxes have suggested that the Phaedrus is more structurally coherent than it seems; and that Plato believed that the form of his writings (which are not expositions of doctrine but exploratory dialogues) safeguarded them from the dangers he saw in philosophical writing generally. Ronna Burger takes these suggestions much further. She finds in each section of the Phaedrus (on love, the soul, rhetoric and dialectic, speaking and writing) a network of allusions to the other sections; and she regards this network as the real (though sub-textual) argument of the Phaedrus. She sees this argument as essentially self-referential, in that it seeks to delineate the formal and intellectual status of the Phaedrus, and of the Platonic dialogue as a genre (of which the Phaedrus is offered as an exemplary specimen). The Platonic dialogue is portrayed by this means as an ideal synthesis of Socratic dialectic and writing. By representing Socratic dialectic, by simulating its intellectual vitality, its freeflowing play of ideas and its particularized, ad hominem quality, Plato disowns the pretension of expounding established truths. On the other hand, the underlying structure of the dialogue (which is deliberately obscured but can be decoded by the perceptive reader) points towards a system of fixed truths which the dialogue does not pretend to state but which it adumbrates; and in so doing it stimulates the reader to uncover these truths for himself more effectively than Socrates' own dialogues could stimulate his interlocutors. Burger's characterization of the Platonic dialogue is interesting and, I think, largely correct; and she is right to see the Phaedrus as a work united by implicit interconnections. On the other hand, I am not convinced by her thesis that the Phaedrus is essentially "about" the Phaedrus, that Plato's central concern is always with the nature of his own form. Burger's Plato sounds more like Derrida (whose views on the Phaedrus she cites approvingly ), preoccupied with self-referential allusions to the inadequacy of textual communication . Plato is interested in problems of communication (though he is more optimistic than Derrida about the solubility of these problems); but he is also interested in other questions, like the nature of love and the soul. He sees these questions as related (which is why he includes them in one dialogue), but he does not subordinate all other topics to that of communication, and the formal status of the Phaedrus, as Burger maintains. Her defense of this thesis takes the form of a "commentary" on the dialogue, which is actually a very personal interpretation masquerading as description ofthe contents of Plato's text. In this misleading use of the commentary form, Burger follows the approach of the late Leo Strauss; and she also adopts his verbal style, with its fondness for artful obscurity and con- 218Philosophy and Literature volution. For these reasons, many readers will find her book tiresome and inaccessible. This is a pity, since Burger has real insights into Plato's authorship, which are worthy of being articulated in a clearer and less self-indulgent way. University College of Wales, AberystwythChristopher Gill Borges and His Fiction: A Guide to His Mind and Art, by Gene H. Bell-Villada; xx & 292 pp. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981, $19.00 hardbound, $10.00 paper. In his preface, Mr. Bell-Villada labels his particular analytical method one of"practical criticism." This, he argues, eschews the arcane twists of recent critical theories, explicates Borges's texts "story...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 217-218
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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