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  • Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato's Practice of Philosophical Inquiry (SPEP Studies in Historical Philosophy)
  • Rosamond Kent Sprague
Francisco J. Gonzalez . Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato's Practice of Philosophical Inquiry (SPEP Studies in Historical Philosophy). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998. Pp. 418. Paper, $29.95.

What this rich and independent-minded book asks us to do is to give serious consideration to the question, "What, in Plato's view, are we doing when we philosophize?" (1) If we employ our own conceptions of philosophy as the models for formulating and discussing specific Platonic questions, we may be imposing upon him ways of thinking that are foreign to his thought. To do this is particularly distorting in the case of dialectic.

Gonzalez has chosen to confine himself to the early and middle dialogues, so that his book is a direct challenge to the work of Richard Robinson. Of the important views that have more recently arisen, Gonzalez allies himself most nearly with the non-doctrinal approach, but not to the extent of embracing scepticism. There is much philosophical knowledge in the dialogues, but such knowledge is primarily non-propositional. As for the esotericist and the developmentalist, both are misguided in proceeding on the assumption that Plato is attempting to formulate definitions and to arrive at a systematic philosophy; they regard the dialogues as treatises, which they are not. As Gonzalez quite justly inquires, "can there be any form of writing less suited to presenting a systematic philosophy than Plato's dramatic dialogues?" (4)

In contrast to Robinson, who relies on the analysis of passages taken out of context, Gonzalez focusses mainly on whole dialogues, taking them to be dramatic portrayals of dialectic at work. He begins with detailed studies of the Laches and Charmides. In both cases, Socrates starts with ordinary knowledge (in the persons of the title characters), but "clearly intends to transcend it" (20). Neither will he accept "the 'sophistic' understanding that attempts to substitute definitions for this experience" (21) on the part of Nicias and Critias. The knowledge sought by Socrates by means of the dialectical method is shown to thave three characteristics: it is "knowledge how," it is "self-knowledge," and it is "non-propositional" (61).

The next chapters consider three presuppositions of Plato's dialectic: words (in the Cratylus), arguments (in the Euthydemus), and images (in Republic X). All three are necessary to the dialectical enterprise, but, like ordinary knowledge in the aporetic dialogues, are transcended.

Gonzalez' confrontation with Robinson naturally requires that he address the topic [End Page 113] of the method of hypothesis in the Meno, Phaedo, and Republic. This is a method that does yield propositional results, but it remains at the level of poion ti and fails to provide similar knowledge of the ti. Gonzalez' interpretation of the divided line is of particular interest here: as he sees it, dialectic is not intended as simply an extension continuous with the method of hypothesis. To take it this way is, with Robinson, to collapse dialectic into mathematics, making the former as deductive as the latter. The good (which "is not for Plato an exclusively moral term" 216) is "already there before the inquiry as the ground of its possibility" (236); this is what "unhypothesized" means. The movement of thought is circular, but not with a vicious circularity; "reflexivity" is the term preferred.

To my mind the most rewarding and most convincing section of the book is the concluding chapter on the philosophical digression in the Seventh Letter. (The issue of authenticity is not significant, since, if the Letter is a forgery, "this forger had a better understanding of Plato than many other scholars, both ancient and contemporary" (246). Although "the subject of this wisdom simply cannot be expressed in words" (252) (and here Gonzalez emphasizes that Plato means spoken as much as written words), there is no contradiction in being able to talk or write about it. If "our only means of attaining true knowledge of a thing have the defect of being unable to express this nature" (263), Plato suggests an up and down movement which transcends this defect. The nature of this movement he describes as tribein, a process...


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