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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 581-582
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Gerald A. Press, editor. Who Speaks for Plato? Studies in Platonic Anonymity. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publisher, Inc., 2000. Pp. vi + 245. Cloth, $63.00.
Who Speaks for Plato? contains sixteen essays, each apparently composed specifically for this volume, which challenge what its editor, Gerald Press, identifies as the basic assumption implicit in the "modern" (1) or "traditional" (5) interpretive approach to Plato's dialogues: "that the words and arguments of some character in a Platonic dialogue can be taken to state Plato's (or the historical Socrates') own beliefs and arguments" (5). Throughout the volume this is refered to as the "mouthpiece" theory.
The essays in Part I are general methodological pieces, which aim to dismantle the assumptions operative in the mouthpiece approach. So, for example, D. Nails reminds us that "we have no uncontroversial statement from Plato that Socrates is his mouthpiece" (17). Press looks for the hermeneutical argument that would justify "an interpreter in quoting or referring to the words of a named character in a Platonic dialogue and attributing the words or their meaning to Plato as his own opinion," (28), and he finds none in traditional scholarship. J. Waugh and H. Tarrant bring in historical considerations to bolster the antimouthpiece position.
The essays in Part II treat individual dialogues, but do so with the general theme in view. E. Benitez offers a brief reading of the Laches, P. C. Smith and R. Blondell take up Book I of the Republic, G. Scott and W. Welton address the Symposium, F. Gonzalez looks at the Sophist and the Statesman, H. Ausland suggests a way of reading the Timaeus. Each aims to disconnect the words stated by the principal speaker of the dialogue from Plato himself.
Part III begins with a dissenting view. L. Gerson begins by arguing against using the Phaedrus or the Seventh Letter on behalf of the antimouthpiece view. More interestingly, he describes how "arguments have a life of their own," and as a result are "not character bound" (205). As such, it is permissible, indeed it is incumbent upon the philosophical reader, to attribute arguments found in the dialogues to Plato himself. He concludes his essay thus: "If Plato is intentionally hiding himself, he is a philosopher either with no views or with views diverging from those easily derived from the dialogues." The former alternative Gerson finds "preposterous," the latter "perverse" (210).
E. Ostenfeld conceives of Plato's views as in a process of continual development and self-criticism. As a result, he concludes, almost paradoxically, that "everyone" in the dialogues speaks for Plato. In other words, precisely because they were not homogeneous or definitively formulated, a wide variety of characters express the wide variety of views Plato himself held. [End Page 581]
J. Mulhern gets the final word in this book, presumably because it was he who coined the phrase "Mouthpiece Fallacy" in a 1971 article. Surveying the literature of the past 30 years, he sees little improvement. In other words, commentators still regularly make the illicit transition between "what an interlocutor says to a similar sentence reporting what Plato says by stating the interlocutor is Plato's mouthpiece" (223).
Who Speaks for Plato? is an interesting book that takes up an important issue. Its several hundred footnotes provide a useful guide to the enormous amount of literature on the hermeneutics of the dialogue form.
While it is unquestionably valuable, this collection of essays is also frustrating. For the sake of argument, assume that a reader cannot legitimately attribute any views expressed by a character in a dialogue to Plato himself. What, then, counts as the philosophical result of a Platonic dialogue? The volume contains answers like these: Ostenfeld tells us that the dialogues "make us think for ourselves" (212). Nails says that, "The dialogue form provides a means of encouraging readers and listeners to reason dialectically to defensible positions of their own" (16). Waugh adds that the dialogues are "teaching how to philosophize" (49).
The problem with these...