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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 Games

October 12, 2018

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

Communication is awfully complicated. How does anyone know, for certain, when they are communicating? For meaning to occur, two parties must have some knowledge in common. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote many pages about the way that language is structured. Today, I want to investigate his idea of the language game and then apply it to Heidegger’s idea of Being.

According to Wittgenstein, the language game begins with, but does not include, names. He refers to the action of naming as “preparation for description” (329B). That a name for something exists only means that we have a shell of reference. So, I can mention a cat, which will give you a categorical reference devoid of specifics. Once we have assembled some names, we begin a discussion by adding descriptors. Wittgenstein likens this to a chess board. Names are the pieces that we can move around the board, but they are not the game itself. Now that we have these categories, we can begin to communicate about them, describe them, fill them in, move them. Wittgenstein writes, “[A] great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense. And when we speak of someone’s having given a name to pain, what is presupposed is the existence of the grammar of the word ‘pain’’ it shews the post where the new word is stationed” (Philosophical Investigation #257). So, the language game takes concepts and places them within a structure.

The knowledge of concepts, however, is of crucial importance. Wittgenstein continually warns the reader that meaning is not a given. In example after example, Wittgenstein describes how difficult it actually is to make meaning. He writes, “[I]t is difficult to see that what is at issue is the fixing of concepts…. A concept forces itself onto one” (425B). What he intends here, I believe, is that the concept itself has been defined by culture, society, norms, etc. In the chess analogy, the knight’s movement has been defined for you. You can only move it in an ‘L’ shape according to the rules of the game. Say, for example, that your language game intends to discuss the idea of a cat, “cat” will already have an agreed-upon definition. This concept, however, is fixed only in terms of this specific game. Once you exit the game, cat may contain more or less meanings, more or less descriptions. Meaning, then, depends upon the group involved in a single discussion as well as the terminology that the discussion utilizes.

Furthermore, Wittgenstein discusses anomalies, such as mistakes, calculations, guesses, hypotheses, etc. Upon what foundation do we make a mistake? Is it fair to call a lion a cat? Though it fits the category, it may not actually represent the idea or concept driving the speech-act. For instance, if I make the statement: “The cat is cute,” in what sense would lion make sense and in what sense would it not?

Now that we have a basic idea of the language game, we can move from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations into Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?” Near the end of this piece, Heidegger claims:

“Obedient to the voice of Being, thought seeks the Word through which the truth of Being may be expressed. Only when the language of historical man is born of the Word does it ring true. But if it does ring true, then the testimony of the soundless voice of hidden springs lures it ever on. The thought of Being guards the Word and fulfils its function in such guardianship, namely care for the use of language. Out of long-guarded speechlessness and the careful clarification of the field thus cleared, comes the utterance of the thinker. Of like origin is the naming of the poet. But since like is only like insofar as difference allows, and since poetry and thinking are most purely alike in their care of the word, the two things are at the same time at opposite poles in their essence. The thinker utters Being. The poet names what is holy.” (310B)

This passage strikes me as thought-provoking (and complicated) for many reasons. Heidegger mentions a cleared field, which is an important aspect behind his idea of essential Being and Word. This field is, in fact, a Nothing through which we come to understand Being itself. If we think of the cleared field as a field of possibility, we are able to project our Being into it. And then, Being(s) exist because we do. According to Heidegger, this constant process of understanding the world through a removal of everything is the first step in thinking. Heidegger writes, “Being is not a product of thinking. It is more likely that essential thinking is an occurrence of Being” (309A). In other words, once the field is cleared, a Being can focus on a field which allows for contemplation of a thing or things, but not everything simultaneously. He asks that we focus on the Word, meaning a specific idea devoid of self and other baggage. From there, we will find thought.

The final line of his long quote above mentions the difference between a poet and a philosopher. Basically, according to Heidegger, they both work toward the same goal. However, the poet stands at one end of this spectrum while the philosopher at the other. The difference arises in the mode of expression. So, the philosopher seeks a discursive, direct expression of thought, whereas the poet seeks truth through metaphor. In other words, the poet attempts to fully remove Being itself, and focus on the thought, focus on embodiment of the other. In this way, the poet arrives at a similar, but different, idea of the moon (for example), or whatever body you would like. For this reason, Heidegger claims that the philosopher arrives at an understanding of Being, whereas the poet finds what is holy.

Much remains unpacked in this short commentary on Wittgenstein and Heidegger. However, we have arrived at an idea of Being as represented by Heidegger’s very specific terminology. Heidegger is known for co-opting or creating words and phrases for his own purpose, devoid of their everyday meaning. In some cases, these phrases are untranslatable (as we find in the passages regarding Da Sien). That does not mean, however, that nothing can be gained. In fact, I hope this short experiment has granted some window of insight into a discussion of language itself.

*All citations are from the Great Books Anthology number 55, 20th Century Philosophy and Religion, 1990.


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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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