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  • Socratic Ignorance and Platonic Knowledge in the Dialogues of Plato by Sara Ahbel-Rappe
  • Michael Erler
Sara Ahbel-Rappe. Socratic Ignorance and Platonic Knowledge in the Dialogues of Plato. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018. Pp. 296. Cloth, $90.00.

Rappe's book argues for a "contemplative" understanding of Socrates and proposes to distinguish between an "outer Socrates," the one who strives for definitions and denies being wise, and an "inner Socrates," who exemplifies a wisdom that consists in self-investigation. The introduction, "Socratic Ignorance and Platonic Knowledge," presents Socrates as being part of the western "esoteric tradition"—as Rappe calls it—in so far as he stands for an initiation to philosophy that is in essence self-knowledge. According to Rappe, this esoteric tradition is not to be confused with dogmatic or ironic esotericism (as in, respectively, the Tübingen school's and Leo Strauss's readings), but stands for a "lived experience" (x).

Nine chapters follow. Chapter 1 highlights some essential elements of what Rappe calls "Socratic philosophy" and shows in what sense virtue and self-knowledge are related. Chapter 2, "Socratic Receptions," discusses the "archaeology of Socratic representations" from Plato to Hellenistic times and suggests that there even is room for a Neoplatonic interpretation of the figure of Socrates. Chapter 3 discusses the problems that Charmides raises concerning the knowledge of knowledge and stresses the importance of focusing on the intellect as the essence of our true self. Chapter 4, "Euthydemus: Native and Foreign," deals with the practical implications of the concept of a knowledge of knowledge and describes how the elenchus of the dialogue helps to distinguish between what is 'me' and what is 'mine.' Chapter 5, "Alcibiades I: The mirror of Socrates," focuses on the 'self' as an essential in Socrates's performance in the dialogues. Chapter 6, "Lysis: The Aporetic Identity of the First Friend," identifies the proton philon in that dialogue as a form of the good and discusses its relation to the self, which—as Rappe claims—must be impersonal (Rappe draws here a comparison with the Upanishads.) Chapter 7, "From Virtues to Forms in the Phaedrus," discusses the myth of the discarnate soul and the importance of Socratic self-knowledge as condition for knowing the forms or ideas. In chapter 8, Rappe tries to show that, in Theaetetus, Plato promotes a Socratic concept of wisdom "free of all objects of knowledge" (xxi). She relates this "Socratic emptiness" with teachings of Buddhism. Chapter 9, centred on Parmenides and Apology, analyzes the Apollonian claim that he who knows that he has no wisdom is the wisest of all. Finally, the concluding part reminds the reader of the many facets of the persona of Socrates in the dialogues and argues that this persona functions as a paradigm and model for emulation.

The questions that Rappe raises are interesting and her analyses are thought-provoking. One can easily agree with many theses in the book. Indeed, introspection and self-knowledge function as a leitmotif in the dialogues. Even the late Philebus regards the lack of ability to analyze and judge for oneself as the essence of the laughable, and the unmasking of this self-delusion, that is, the call for introspection, is the topic of many dialogues. It is also true that the puzzlement of the reader of the dialogues mirrors the puzzlement of Socrates's interlocutors. This puzzlement is meant to inspire him or her to start a self-investigation; it is therefore part of Socrates's philosophical caring for the soul (epimeleia tes psyches). Finally, it is right to stress the importance of Socrates's performance in the dialogues. Plato himself, one might add, suggests taking into account both the performative and the argumentative aspects of the dialogues: in Phaedo, the narrator is asked to tell both "what was said and what [End Page 339] was done" (58c). However, this means both that one should not separate the two aspects, and that one should not neglect the doctrinal part. I am not convinced that the "inner Socrates" stands for a "doctrinal emptiness." After all, Socrates claims that "invincible reasons" prove his thesis that no one errs willingly (Gorgias 509a...


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pp. 339-340
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