Histories of Meaning
Seminar Winter 1999
Earl Jackson, Jr.
University of California, Santa Cruz
Date: Tuesday, January 26, 1999 16:25:41
Subj: The elenchus
To: Earl Jackson, Jr.
The elenchus method of cross-examination with the addressee present in Plato’s dialogues that we have been reading, leave me at a very unsatisfied state of mind with the conclusions drawn from the conversation, which I suspect is the purpose of elenchus. This dialectic method gives an illusion of pursuit of all the possible angles from which a certain discussion or issue can be examined, but what this method
actually alludes to is the impossibility of exhaustive consideration.
Friend or Foe?
What I think occurs in these dialogues is that a certain supposed agreement or notion is arrived at and thoroughly considered (or perhaps I should say, apparently sufficient thought is addressed). Then the opposite of what was earlier agreed upon is explored thoroughly, arriving at truths just as valid as the counter-argument. It seems that these dialogues can only function in a perspective of duality, there are existing opposites for every concept and not many other possibilities besides the reverse position, are explored. For example, in Lysias‘ discourse in the Phaedrus he holds that „the patient himself admits that he is not in his right mind, and acknowledges that he is wrong in
his mind“ (p. 5, The Internet Classics Archive). Even though this quote is
intricately consistent in context, I don’t think it is necessary for the wrong of mind to follow the lack of right mind. Aren’t there places between both „right“ and „wrong“ mind and outside of mind as well?
How do these disonances affect my reading of the dialogues? It
makes me suspicious and at the same time this feeling of unsatisfaction
and perplexity makes me wonder if this is not the purpose of the dialogue,
if any. There is supposed to be an active conversation between two
persons of the dialogue, but what I consistently see is the person of
Socrates prodding specific answers and questions from his addressee in
order to justify and perhaps even glorify, his arguments. Socrates asks
in the Phaedrus : „Is not rhetoric, taken generally, a universal art of
enchanting the mind by arguments?“ (p. 24, ICA) The dialogues are back
and forth successions of specific and capricious pre-meditated notions.
Everything can be discussed and counter-argued. Confronted with these
skillfull rhetoricians, I am hesitant to hold any commentaries, since
everything that hasn’t been tediously reviewed already is vulnerable to
being cancelled with suficient elenchus. I also feel like I only know the
preliminaries of rhetoric, so I fear what Socrates could say about this
I continue to think that elenchus is never sufficient,
since there are always more paths of examination in potential. Socrates
seems aware of this and here lies both his humble and playful attitude.
He opposes Phaedrus when, in defence of Lysias‘ discourse says:
„he (Lysias) omitted no topic of which the subject rightly allowed“ (p. 7
ICA). Socrates answers that everything depends on the arrangement of
Then Socrates, upon referring to Lysias‘ discourse and his first
own one holds that,
For if love be, as he surely is, a divinity, he cannot be evil.
Yet this was the error of both of the speeches. There
was also a simplicity about them which was refreshing;
having no truth or honesty in them, nevertheless they
pretended to be something, hoping to succeed in deceiving
the manikins of earth and gain celebrity among them.
(p. 12, ICA)
Sometimes it seems that Socrates is so precise and consistent in his
pursuit of truth and knowledge and at other times he makes such comments
as: „it would be tedious to speak of what everyone knows“ (p. 13, ICA).
In the same way he is inconsistent with his previous argument of the
simplicity involved in considering love a divinity, for this is the premise
he uses to fuel his second discourse. This is one of the certain laws he
establishes in his second discourse, others are the law of Destiny,
the revolution of the worlds, the nature of the soul and of desire and
knowledge of the immortals. Both addressee and reader must hold these
suppositions as truths as Socrates digresses towards Truth. While I can
agree with the accuracy of his argument, what I find most convincing is
Socrates‘ passion that filters through his poetic language. (I am aware
that Socrates and I have very different notions of poetic). What is left
after reading the Phaedrus are the charioteer, his steeds and
butterflylike soul creatures.
Another aspect I appreciated in Socrates‘ second discourse was
when he referred to a specific type of knowledge; through direct and
personal experience, „any one who was himself of a noble and gentle
nature, and who loved or ever had loved a nature like his own“ (p.12, ICA).
The importance conveyed to personal experience as truth ties
in with Socrates’s disdain of poetry, since it is only earthly experience.
Poets are pretty far down on Socrates‘ list in remembering divine
truths, so what they invoke through their poetry seems to reflections of
divine truth; but the feeling I get from Socrates‘ description is that
their words are based only on earthly images and therefore associated, as
are the non-lovers, to the vulgar, human world. If Socrates holds
background as so important, then I wonder what kind of experience, or
perhaps divine dialogues, his knowledge is based upon.
To Earl’s response
To Our Orientation
To the Elenchus
To Anthony C. on Ion
To Jeffrey Bobis on Ion
To Javiera on Ion
To Lauren Silvers’s Intellectual Autobiography
To Scott Seguin’s Intellectual Autobiography
To Nichole Kypreos on the Cratylus
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