Dialectic and Dialogue


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DIALECTIC AND DIALOGUE by Dimitri Nikulin

This variety of themes, resulting from the dif- ferent perspectives of the interlocutors, is partly due to the fact that the dialogue is situated in the circle of Sophists.

Plato is clearly making a more general point about this environment in relation to the theme of education and the teachability of virtue. From our perspective it is very appropriate that he has chosen Protagoras as the main character for his treatment of debating styles: the later tradition attributes to Protagoras the honour of having pioneered dialectical jousting by introducing com- petitions Diog Laert. In parallel, it is noteworthy that Plato himself is acknowledged as the pioneer in intro- ducing the question and answer technique into dialogue Diog.

Instead of relying on the rather general argument that these dialogues can be regarded as representations of debating prac- tices intelligible to a contemporary audience, I want to show that we can be much more accurate in assessing how close these dialogues are to actual debates on the basis of the external evidence in Aristotle.

Plato has given us an encounter between a young Sokrates and an old Protagoras, thus making the encounter itself an illustration of the issue discussed: the dialogue shows how a wise man with long experience might teach the young, but also how the clash of generations was play- ing out in Athens. Overall, the forthrightness of Sokrates in this dialogue is quite out of character for instance, b and b. Secondly, whilst a lot of space is given to the debate between Prota- goras and Sokrates, towards the end they abandon the discussion con- ducted in the spirit of dialectic that is characterized by question-and- answer, and Sokrates proposes they test their own opinions.

This sur- prising comment, implying they have so far done otherwise, seems to be a move towards a different debating style, which tries to get away from sophistical techniques of the kind used by Protagoras, in particular in the famous Simonides passage. In the next section I start with some comments on Aristotelian dialectic.

Frede , Carson , and Baltussen In English we now have the useful translation of books 1 and 8 with commentary by Robin Smith There is a helpful clarification in Smith xxix-xxx.

Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato's Practice of Philosophical Inquiry

It might be objected that the proposed comparative approach, by as- suming rightly that both authors draw upon a common practice, would naturally reveal similarities between their approaches, but things are not so simple. It can be shown that a shared origin need not, and does not, imply that their approaches as found in these works are the same: they differ significantly in their method, aims, and proposed application. The latter he describes in the Sophist as a technique of conceptual analysis based on dichotomies, and so here theory and practice diverge.

How then does Aristotle describe the dialectical debate? Wolfsdorf discusses the dra- matic date of the Protagoras and the difficulty of determining it with accuracy. Lamb []. Smith xiv and Moraux According to Aristotle this leads to the specific skill of assessing the potential of propositions to refute their thesis Soph. The agreement among certain people, and especially experts, constituted for Aristotle a marker of truth.

I have dealt with these aspects in more detail in Baltussen , , and Brunschwig xxv-xxix. With these key terms definition, agreement, testing of propositions, consistency, and roles of interlocutors in place, some further general specifications need to be added into the mix. For our purposes, however, this selection of characteristics is sufficient to make clear how dialectical discussion proceeds and how it differs from what we think of as a discussion.

I here summa- rize Baltussen ch. Topics 8.

[Dialogue and dialectic. On the structure of Plato's dialogues].

Tredennick and Forster My summary has selected the core features shared by the two main texts under review. What we may end up with is a compromise, in that neither the fictionalised ver- sion of Plato nor the further advanced version of Aristotle allows us to establish a straightforward connection with Academic practice, yet to- gether they constitute a better basis for assessment than either one could provide by itself.

Points of view, personas and the role of memory: a new orality? Existing explanations more often than not try to explain these discrepancies away. Smith See also Mansfeld Some of the more salient points will be re- viewed here. In his usual ironic manner Sokrates interrogates Protagoras about what he might have to offer young Hippokrates, who is eager to become his pupil. The decision based on a general consen- sus is that he may proceed in whatever way he wants.

Protagoras is first drawn in after vague praise of his ability to answer in brief unlike orators The distinction was much clearer for Aristotle: see Soph. Lombardo and Bell. Sokrates stating his own views? For a modern audience, especially when remem- bering Sokrates from other dialogues and in particular the Apology, this seems very odd.

Surely Sokrates knows only that he knows nothing? Wolfsdorf elaborates on the problem of how to understand the disavowals of knowledge in context. They seem to be clever argumentative moves which are not anchored in con- viction. The Simonides exegesis aa seems to be a prime example of the more traditional debate of ethical issues, 43 but it ends in a clear re- jection of the method, which gets bogged down in linguistic wrangling and manipulation.

At ca Sokrates strikes a different note, once the interpretation of a Simonides poem has illustrated, and made a mockery of, sophistic poetic interpretation cf. In a way c- a is a crucial passage telling us what this dialogue is about: it points to a break with the traditional form of aristocratic education, in which the study of poetry is the basis for ethical guidelines stated by Prota- goras at This much is clear from earlier statements e.

Halliwell n. These claims in regard to the debate as a joint inquiry carry clear echoes from the dialectical training de- bates. In Protagoras there are additional fea- tures which match the dialectical account in Aristotle. Specifications for the roles of the questioner and answerer are in fact given at a.

Moreover, several references to the en- doxic nature of the opinions can be found. Further reference to the scope of opinions under scrutiny can be found in other passages. I have de- scribed this in detail in Baltussen It is useful also to go over some interesting examples of role- switching a sign of the continuous dissociation of characters from their views , and how this is exploited in a clever way. As indicated at the outset of this paper, Sokrates and Protagoras somehow swap views on the teachability of virtue, ending up contradicting themselves.

At Topics 8. In the Protagoras the handling of the positions put forward emphasize that the focus is on the argument s , not the interlocutors. In dialectical training situations it is always the aim to refute, yet in this case I think more is going on, especially when we take the different usages of dialectic and all the evidence from the dialogue into account. McCabe in discussion see n. Smith xv. Would you say it is just or unjust?

This shift of perspective both being questioned is interesting, as it suggests that Sokrates thinks they have a common task see n. On the other hand, if virtue is anything other than knowledge, as Protagoras has been trying to say, then it would clearly be unteachable. But, if it turns out to be wholly knowledge, as you now urge, Sokrates, it would be surprising indeed if virtue could not be taught, but now he thinks the opposite, urging that hardly any of these vir- tues turn out to be knowledge.

On that view, virtue could hardly be taught at all. Lombardo and Bell, modified. This being the case, the result is a failure in its material outcome, but also in view of the dialec- tical aim stated in Topics 1. We may therefore conclude that this provides us with empirical and accurate evidence of the oral discussion practice in Athens as well as its lasting influence in the Academy. Burnyeat does not mention this passage from the Prt. He traces the expression back to Epicurus cf. Burnyeat [ ] , especially the peculiar phrase referring to passage [34] [28] in Arrighetti [], but quot- ing the improved text in Sedley [ 27] and citing interesting parallels in [Pl.


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A further passage has Sokrates ask that they go back to the be- ginning, while he also asks to be reminded of some things b. This comment marks a fresh start on the same question, declaring the previ- ous episode which includes the Simonides poem as unsuccessful. The function of the passages can be explained, if we consider how they can help an audience keep up with the argument. They do more, however: the audience is also being reminded of the difference between mono- logue and dialogue: the former is represented as causing forgetfulness, the latter as one stimulating engagement.

Conclusions In comparing the Protagoras and the Topics regarding the nature of the dialectical debate, I have argued that the playful version of Plato and the theorized description of Aristotle together provide us with a richer ac- count of the dialectical practice in Athens and the Academy than is found in any single existing account.


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I conclude that Plato is seen to argue for a new oral- ity in ethical debate, while Aristotle clearly marks an advanced stage of the transition from orality to literacy. As Plato no doubt was aware, this sustained emphasis on oral debate reintroduces the awkward and paradoxical position that his dialogues, once put into writing, stand a better chance of not being forgotten.

With this broader framework in mind, three specific conclusions emerge from the comparison between the Protagoras and Topics 8. The potential problem—that parody, exaggeration and bias are all possible sources of distortion—cannot be defused with evidence from within the Platonic corpus. Greater accuracy is achieved, if we take the Topics as an external check, allowing us to separate out liter- ary devices from dialectical practice proper.

It is the technical aspects that stand out in this dialogue Section 2, especially nn. The Protagoras self-consciously and explicitly considers the appropriate modes of discourse during the discussion, specifically by contrasting monologue and dialogue.

Question and answer, agreeing on how to progress, the use of endoxa, and several other features well illustrate the nature of dialectic at this stage—though Plato is of course not yet thinking as systematically about these matters as Aristotle was to do. I have illustrated this by indicating how Aristotle has taken the tech- nique further, in part with an eye on the actual practice in the Acad- emy, but also with a view to developing dialectic into a more serious research tool with philosophical and logical potential for other areas of scientific investigation.

As a result, dialectical techniques became rehabilitated as a philosophical tool cf.

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DIALECTIC AND DIALOGUE by Dimitri Nikulin - LOGAN - - New Blackfriars - Wiley Online Library

Aristotle still shares a concern with Plato about the intention of the interlocutors in using dialectical strategies. The two works reinforce each other in providing, with certain qualifications, a richer understanding of the oral performances in the Academy. His rejection through So- krates of traditional debates of moral issues especially by way of po- etry, a shows that not all debating modes are appropriate for dis- cussing ethical problems.

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