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Socrates: A Sophist?

October 26, 2018

Thanks to James Keller, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

With his head in the clouds, Socrates, as portrayed by Aristophanes, is a figure of mockery. Not only that—he is a sophist. One who comes to The Clouds only after reading the Platonic dialogues may be startled at this discovery. He may ask, Are we even talking about the same person? That Aristophanes considers Socrates to be a sophist is most shocking. Certainly, public figures are often subjected to mockery, and though Socrates has been a celebrated thinker after his death, he was not so celebrated in life. But that he should be considered a sophist? Unthinkable. It is almost inconceivable that Plato, who in The Sophist considers the sophist to be something of an anti-philosopher, should have studied with and revered a sophist. Moreover, the Socrates that appears in Plato’s dialogues is pitted against the sophists, particularly in Protagoras, Euthydemus, and Gorgias. How is it, then, that Aristophanes could think that Socrates was himself just another sophist? Yet, Aristophanes’ perception may not be inexplicable when one notes the similarities between Socrates and the sophists as they appear in Plato’s dialogues.

The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is most renowned for his method of inquiry, Socratic questioning. In order to test the wisdom of certain figures and in order to clarify his own ideas, Socrates asked his interlocutors a series of questions, a particular form of dialectic. Despite its name, however, it is quite likely that this was not his invention. Plato gives no indication that this form of questioning was unique to Socrates even though other characters express exasperation at his questioning. Indeed, characters other than Socrates use the same method or one quite similar. In Euthydemus, the sophist brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus also employ questions as part of the dialectic process, a practice that appears natural to them. And, in one of the later dialogues, a young Socrates does not ask the questions but receives those given by Parmenides, after whom the dialogue is named. This suggests that what is called Socratic questioning actually precedes him and was a tool of sophists. To an outsider, contemporaneous with Socrates, it might then appear that Socrates’ disputes with the sophists was not a repudiation of sophistry but an inter-sophistical dispute.

Nor might his method be the only perceived similarity between Socrates and the sophists. In Plato’s portrayal of the sophists, the sophists crave acclaim. Applause punctuates their arguments and speeches in Euthydemus and Protagoras. They love an audience and they love playing to an audience. Socrates can be contrasted to them in that he does not seek the approval of an audience, not in Plato’s version of him anyway. Nevertheless, he does gather an audience. Various characters do root him on in the dialogues. And in The Apology, Socrates mentions that young men like to follow him around for the sake of being amused. As he roams through Athens challenging various authorities to prove that they actually do possess the wisdom they profess, he proves them to be lacking. This act of revealing authorities to be fools—or, if not fools, pretenders to expertise that they do not in actuality possess—is unsurprisingly found to be entertaining by some. To an outsider, it might look like Socrates was trying to make a name for himself, just like a sophist might.

The source of this amusement was different, but even that might look the same to an outsider, especially one who only knew Socrates by reputation. Euthydemus and his brother also make fools of others, but that is because they build absurd arguments that make their interlocutor appear to have said something foolish. It is as if they tricked him. They treat argument as a sport, playing word games to prove such absurdities as that a man’s dog is his father. They are facetious and mocking, and they leave their interlocutors frustrated and sputtering, fearing to answer lest that answer be twisted and used against them. Socrates may have shared a similar reputation, as he also left his interlocutors speechless. In Meno he describes himself as a torpedo fish that leaves others stunned. But an important difference separates him from Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. He is not playing word games; he is looking for clarity. He asks people to define terms that they take for granted, and to their great consternation, they often discover that they cannot. A well-known example of this appears in Euthyphro where Socrates leads the eponymous priest to the realization that he cannot properly define piety. After discussing the question for some time with Socrates, the priest hurries away, uncomfortable with the conversation. But never did Socrates play a linguistic trick upon Euthyphro. Never did he seize on an ambiguity in language to make a fool of the priest, turning the conversation to mere jokes.

Many of Plato’s Socratic dialogues end unresolved, which speaks to another difference between Socrates and the sophists. As represented by Plato, the sophist teaches others how to win arguments, unconcerned with whether the argument is correct or not. (See, for example, Gorgias.) Whatever the point is to be argued, the sophist will be able to prove its truth. But Socrates’ goal is not to win an argument. He desires to find the truth. The sophist asks leading questions in order to get an admission from his interlocutor. Socrates uses questions to better understand the arguments of others, to challenge them—yes—but not necessarily to overthrow them. It is the truth he is after, not victory. Argument is not a contest to him, but a means for inquiry. So, at the end of a dialogue, Plato does not show Socrates on the field of verbal battle having won the day and turned back all comers. Socrates is much more likely at the end of a dialogue to announce that, though no answer has been discovered to the question being discussed, still he and the interlocutor must not stop seeking after the truth.

To an outsider, perhaps it would appear that Socrates was just another sophist, asking endless questions to make fools of others, seeking fame, and winning an argument at all costs. Perhaps, he even started out that way, first learning with sophists and only later going his own way. But the similarities between Socrates and the sophists is ultimately superficial. Socrates, at least as portrayed by Plato, was not concerned with winning arguments at all costs. He would have seen that as a truly pyrrhic victory. He used the same methods as the sophists to achieve a different end: truth. In this way, Socratic questioning is properly named after him, because he used it for shared inquiry, not to lead others into verbal traps. If Plato’s portrayal of Socrates was closer to the truth, it is a tragedy that the comedian Aristophanes did not see it.

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Language in the Words of Helen Keller

October 19, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I often study the idea of Language. I am curious about how language comes to be meaningful, communicative and permanent. Yet, at the same time, language is so flexible and manipulative. This elasticity allows it to grow, change and expand to incorporate new ideas and influences. Yet, language can also restrict in unseen ways. One thing that is often forgotten, however, once one becomes proficient in reading and speaking, is the power of learning how to communicate. In order to experience this, we can witness the curiosity of young children in the learning process. Rarely do we remember this process ourselves. But we have been gifted with the wonderful, powerful story of Helen Keller, who writes eloquently about her own dawn of language. The rest of today’s blog contains two long quotes from The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller, which demonstrate the magic and beauty of language, communication and connection.


From Chapter IV:

“The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word "d-o-l-l." I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.

One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled "d-o-l-l" and tried to make me understand that "d-o-l-l" applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words "m-u-g" and "w-a-t-e-r." Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that "m-u-g" is mug and that "w-a-t-e-r" is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.

I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them—words that were to make the world blossom for me, "like Aaron's rod, with flowers." It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.”


From Chapter VI:

“I had now the key to all language, and I was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; the words that fall from others' lips they catch on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable and the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare.

At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information. Sometimes a new word revived an image that some earlier experience had engraved on my brain.

I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, "love." This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me: but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, "I love Helen."

"What is love?" I asked.

She drew me closer to her and said, "It is here," pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.

I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, "Is love the sweetness of flowers?"

"No," said my teacher.

Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.

"Is this not love?" I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came. "Is this not love?"

It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.

A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, "Think."

In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.

For a long time I was still—I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for "love" in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.

Again I asked my teacher, "Is this not love?"

"Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out," she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: "You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play."

The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.”

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Why Read Archimedes

September 28, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I hear a lot of teachers complain that students are not willing to spend much time trying to struggle with a difficult problem. Some of these teachers lament the fact that gadgets have become a main source of information, rather than logic. In other words, we can answer our tough math problems with Google or some other device. I think there is more going on than the implementation of technology, though. It seems that in addition to new technologies, our students are also handed a lot of information at one time and asked to decipher it. Technology can be fun, enticing and extremely helpful, but I also agree that we (all of us!) would benefit from sitting with a particular problem or question for a long time, and puzzling it out on our own. This type of solitary work reminds me of the concentration required from composers, authors, and mathematicians. Our current education model often emphasizes group projects because, it is true, that we learn a lot from groupwork. But I hate to see it come at the expense of solitary contemplation. No one else can tell me what I myself think. Instead, I have to understand it for myself, and that is often the result of hard work, struggle and problem-solving.

Choosing Archimedes as the subject of today’s blog is a bit surprising since I have never truly enjoyed math. I always had to work so hard to understand the concepts. However, I do enjoy Archimedes, and so, as ironic as it seems, I wanted to explain a few reasons why. On the one hand, I should never speak authoritatively about math. On the other hand, however, I am a great representative of the “struggle-it-out” style of learning. And I’ll be honest, while I have not resolved my fear of math, I have come to see elements of beauty in it. A few years ago, I worked my way through pieces of Euclid and came up with some very rewarding ideas. (I wrote about some of these ideas in three separate blog posts. Scroll to the bottom of this post for links to those.) That these ideas reward myself alone is inconsequential because they often connected with yet other interests. In other words, they enlightened studies in other areas. I find these connections particularly fascinating because this capability mimics one of the ways in which knowledge grows. It is also how houses are built. I do see vital connections between theoretical knowledge and practical applications.

Recently, I discussed some of Archimedes’ writings. “The Sand-Reckoner” caught my attention because he quickly develops a mathematical account of the universe. Furthermore, Archimedes proposes that human knowledge would benefit by increasing the current understanding of large numbers. Previous to his work, Greeks used the word “murious” which roughly translates to “uncountable.” (The Romans later changed murious to myriad.) In “The Sand-Reckoner,” Archimedes argues that by using a myriad as the number base, he can learn information about pieces of our world and our universe. In his proof he uses larger numbers than anyone had previously used. In fact, he repeats the desire to push the envelope.

This text surprised me, not because of the difficulty of the math (which is astounding when coupled with the difficulties of doing precise equations in such an old system.) Rather, I understood that whether or not the calculations are factually accurate for us today is not the reason why we continue to read Archimedes. I believe that we still read Archimedes because he asked humans to combine calculation with imagination. To think of a problem, such as the size of a grain of sand, and then try to measure it. He did the same with the universe. So, while claiming that the diameter of the universe can be measured by the diameter earth may not be precise, it does capture the imagination.

In addition to mathematics, this proof places importance on theoretical knowledge. He elegantly demonstrates that it is good to think about things. To sit with a problem, even if it is potentially unanswerable. He writes, “It is true that some have tried, as you are of course aware, to prove that the said perimeter [of the earth] is about 300,000 stadia. But I go further and, putting the magnitude of the earth at ten times the size that my predecessors thought it, I suppose its perimeter to be about 3,000,000 stadia and not greater” (521). He repeats this phrase later as he claims to go further than anyone has regarding the dimensions of the universe as well. It is this unlimited imagination that nearly reaches the heights of today’s astronomy. In “The Sand-Reckoner,” Archimedes demonstrated the importance of philosophical thought through a mathematical proof.

I want to emphasize that conversation enhanced many of my own ideas about Archimedes. In order to access this reading as best as I could (and I am still far from an expert on this reading), I completed the following steps. First, I read the text twice, taking notes and writing questions. Next, I tried to answer a few of my own questions based upon his text. And finally, I discussed the whole reading with a group. The discussion leader asked tough questions that gave further insight into Archimedes’ text. These difficult concepts came alive during our discussions, for which I am grateful. So, while I first struggled on my own with his proofs, I also found conversation as a necessary accompaniment towards better understanding. Thanks to those who discussed these works with me!

Access the blogs on Euclid at our website, hmu.edu, or by clicking on the links below:

(First post: http://www.hmu.edu/hmu-blog/2016/1/28/january-quarterly-discussion-review)

(Then this: http://www.hmu.edu/hmu-blog/2016/2/3/euclid-and-whitehead-found-poem)

(Finish with this: http://www.hmu.edu/hmu-blog/2015/12/22/euclidean-utopia)

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Why Translation Matters

August 10, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In the 2010 book Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman proposes the question: what is an intelligent way to discuss and critique translations? Near the end of the Introduction, she asks, “Even if it is unrealistic to wish that every reviewer of a translated work were at least bilingual, it is not unreasonable to require a substantive and intelligent acknowledgment of the reality of the translation. I am certainly not lamenting the fact that most reviewers do not make one-for-one lexical comparisons in order to point out whatever mistakes the translator may have made – a useless enterprise that enlightens no one since the book has already been published and errors cannot be rectified until the next printing – but I do regret very sincerely that so few of them have devised an intelligent way to review both the original and its translation within the space limitations imposed by the publication” (32). This is such a difficult question, and it is of vital importance for those interested in the classics. Most of the readers will access the books through translation. Furthermore, any canon perpetuates a specific translation, so it is in our best interests to understand a little bit about the era and translator, as well as the author and canon. To me, it makes obvious sense that the translation is a unique entity separate from, but tethered to the original by ideas and context.

Since I enjoy wordplay, I periodically dabble at translating works on my own. I like to think of it more as a conversation than a concrete, finished product. I like to try to understand the author from every angle and then, place that into my world as best I can and make sense of it. The struggle here is that I am central to the role, not the author. Rather, the translator must be aware that personal perspective and experience can be hindrances. The reader, too, then, must understand that translation is a process, a conversation, an imperfection, much as the original text is.

Translation involves a great amount of creativity. I find it a pleasurable, but exhausting exercise. I simply cannot imagine a project such as Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, for example. The barriers to this type of project are many: time, historical period, Plutarch’s history, lack of outside sources, language barriers, etc. And yet, I have had the pleasure of reading this fantastic work in the Dryden translation. I would be much poorer without it. Grossman expresses similar sentiment when she writes, “Imagine how bereft we would be if the only fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable. Depending upon your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers is practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it” (26). Grossman’s book, Why Translation Matters, asks the question: What is the cultural profit or public good that we gain from reading translations? I tend to agree with her position: where would we be without them? I honestly cannot fathom a life without these amazing works. As it is, the United States has one of the lowest rates of published translations in the world, not because foreign literature is unworthy, but because there is no system. Translators receive little pay or incentive and often go unnoticed.

A few years ago, I submitted a paper on one of my favorite books: Fortino Sámano: An Overflowing of the Poem. Translated into English in 2012 by Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue, this book represents something very important to me: dialogue across languages. The original French poems by Virginie Lalucq revolved around a single photograph. Jean-Luc Nancy then offered a philosophical discussion of the poems. Translation adds a third layer of communication. However, one of the reviewers of this paper (which remains unpublished) wrote: “It is unclear as to why this text is of importance.” I realized that my paper had not adequately expressed Sámano’s importance, which I had hoped was self-explanatory. To me, this book offers a rare glimpse of a poetic argument (in two languages) followed by philosophical discourse. We simply do not see that kind of dialogue in English. Regardless of the paper's other faults, I am still disheartened by my reader's response, particularly because it was the response of a scholar in my field and I thought the ideas of translation were self-explanatory. I see now, however, that while my writing and ideas were complimented, the content itself is marginalized. Grossman expresses this more eloquently when she states, “It has been suggested to me by an academic friend who is not a translator but is an indefatigable critic, editor, and reader, that translation may well be an entirely separate genre, independent of poetry, fiction, or drama, and that the next great push in literary studies should probably be to conceptualize and formulate the missing critical vocabulary. That is to say, it is certainly possible that translations may tend to be overlooked or even disparaged by reviewers, critics, and editors because they simply do not know what to make of them, in theory or in actuality” (47). This, I believe, reflects my experience in writing about translation.

To further complicate matters, translations into other languages often rely upon the English version. So, while the English may not be the original, translators rely upon the English as if it were original. Grossman continues, “Another salient reality that affects writers profoundly is the need for books to be translated into English in order for them to be brought over into other, non-European idioms, for English often serves as the linguistic bridge for translation into a number of languages. The translation of texts originally written in other Western languages into the enormous potential market represented by Chinese, for instance, often requires an English version first. Because, at least until recently, many more Chinese translators work from English than from Spanish, a considerable number of Chinese-language versions of Latin American literary works have actually been based on the English translations. Some years ago, French was the conduit language, and many Spanish-language versions of Russian books were actually rooted in French translations of the texts. Of equal significance is the possible transfer of the book into other media like film and television. Powerful filmmakers and television producers whose work is distributed worldwide are all apt to read English” (58-9). I understand the reasons for this, but it reinforces the idea that translations should stand separate from the original.

I second Grossman’s question as to how we can critique and discuss translations with an element of consistency. While there are various entities dedicated to this, they lack cohesion. I find this question of vital importance since it involves not only the important ideas we discuss, but also the language with which we do it. Grossman cites Octavio Paz who says, “When we learn to speak, we are learning to translate” (75). In other words, ideas of translation are foundational and coexistent with being and education. Perhaps we need to better understand our own language to appreciate translation. Perhaps we can add courses on translation for young students. Whatever the answer, I hope that we are careful and clear about the documents we use, naming author, but also translator.

My few experiences in creating translations have greatly expanded my love of language. I feel a connection with the way that Octavio Paz celebrates language. Grossman explains, “He [Octavio Paz] states that children translate the unknown into a language that slowly becomes familiar to them, and that all of us are continually engaged in the translation of thoughts into language. Then he develops an even more suggestive notion: no written or spoken text is ‘original’ at all, since language, whatever else it may be, is a translation of the nonverbal world, and each linguistic sign and phrase translates another sign and phrase. And this means, in an absolutely utopian sense, that the most human of phenomena – the acquisition and use of language – is, according to Paz, actually an ongoing, endless process of translation; and by extension, the most creative use of language – that is, literature – is also a process of translation: not the transmutation of the text into another language but the transformation and concretization of the content of the writer’s imagination into a literary artifact” (75-6). Whether or not you agree with the deep importance that translation plays in our lives, it is worth our while to take note of those who do the heavy lifting of bringing foreign texts into English. I, for one, would not be happy without Borges and Paz, Dostoevsky and Chekhov,  Plutarch and Homer, or Lalucq and Nancy. Therefore, I would not be happy without Dryden and Grossman, Pevear and Volokhonsky, Lattimore and Le Guin, or Gallais and Hogue.

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