- Myth and Philosophy in Plato’s Phaedrus by Daniel S. Werner
The Phaedrus continues to fascinate. But then, that seems to be precisely the point, and scholars are doing an ever-better job of showing how the Phaedrus accomplishes the interest it generates, both in itself and in philosophy generally. The latest commentary to unravel the propaedeutic nature of the Phaedrus is Daniel Werner’s monograph, and it is a well-written, meticulous, and insightful examination. As his title suggests, Werner limits himself to the topic of myths in the Phaedrus, but that lens gives him an interesting view into the propaedeutic question. Why is it that myths can have such a stimulating effect on us? How can myths generate an interest in philosophy? What kind of person in particular is susceptible to the charms of myths, and should myths be used on them? These and other questions are all given a full treatment by Werner, and his accomplishments are many. The command of the secondary literature is obvious, and readers will be repeatedly impressed with Werner’s ability to call up particular passages from disparate works of scholarship and situate himself in relation to them. Werner is also excellent at pursuing the details and meaning of the references that Plato puts into his myths.
In approaching the Platonic myths themselves, Werner sets out two interpretive extremes: there is the Dogmatic View, which claims that “Plato does in fact regard his myths as substantively and philosophically true. … Platonic myth, in this view, is little more than a vehicle to express philosophical truth, and hence myth is ‘dogmatic’” (11). At the other extreme is the Debunking View, wherein “Plato regarded his myths as wholly or largely false, or at least as falling short of what constitutes genuine philosophical truth” (11). Werner’s own thesis in relation to these established approaches is stated clearly: “Ultimately I will argue against the Dogmatic View … as (in my view) Plato does not use myths as a vehicle to express philosophical doctrines, and in fact does not even regard myth ascapable of adequately expressing philosophical truths” (14). The function of myth for a philosopher must lie elsewhere then, and Werner has a variety of interesting theses as to how myth can be useful without expressing dogma. First and foremost is its propaedeutic potential, and this is aimed squarely at the non-philosopher. Werner is at his best explaining how Platonic myths have an ability to turn non-philosophers(or at least beginning philosophers) to the field (122–33 especially). Other uses include appropriating the authority of myth (108–18), providing a unifying structure to an inquiry (236–58), and underlining the limits of linguistic expressions of formal truth (193–218).
As none of these seem to directly invoke the presentation of doctrine within myth, one gets the impression that Werner is giving a strong endorsement of the Debunking View. But against this Werner also claims that all forms of expression are incapable of fully and accurately rendering the truth, and so “the difference between mythical discourse and philosophical discourse is one of degree and not of kind” (15). Werner does an excellent job defending the claim that “No discursive or linguistic account can supplant the internal insight that is needed for knowledge or can convey the content of that knowledge” (216), but this would seem to let myth back into the game. It is unclear how far Werner is really willing to push against the Dogmatic view, especially when he himself extracts so much philosophical doctrine from the myths he analyzes. Accepting that Plato is not expressing [End Page 161] doctrine in the myths, we lose a natural explanation of the interest they generate: because they are not transparent, discerning their philosophical content requires work on the part of their audiences, and that can be a very enjoyable process.
Werner accepts that myths can be of interest to seasoned philosophers looking for philosophical guidance, but only as a sort of aid or “signposting of possible routes of...