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Education: The Rational Kernel of the Platonic Dialogues

Lecturer: A.J. Bartlett

Originally Taught: Winter School 2014

11am-1pm | 23-27 June | Room 0106

Since Nietzsche, the default position in continental philosophy has been an anti-platonism. This has been nuanced and not lacking in genius. In the analytic world anti-platonism takes more indirect forms: an Aristotelian inflection; splitting the Socratic and Platonic; a linguistic emphasis that eschews metaphysical speculation for the security of rule bound procedures of analysis. The upshot is that ‘Plato’ is received today as if ‘set in aspic’. That is to say, generally speaking, that our knowledge of Plato today is given to us through the amorphous, jelly-like determinations of one variant of anti-platonism or another. In short, ‘Plato was great’ – such is why we bother to be anti – but we now know or even must know, better. ‘Better’ indeed has once again replaced the Good.

If we trace the history of Platonic scholarship, as distinct from the history of philosophy as such, from the 19th Century we note that it has wrestled with a series of relations supposed prevalent in the dialogues: those between Plato and Socrates; between the Athens thatcondemned Socrates and the Athens he fought for and whose laws he dutifullyfollowed; between the Republic as ideal city and as blueprint for a Platonic politics; between the sophist and philosopher; between forms and appearance; between the discursive and the poetic; between mathematics and debate, and so on. These relations (and that they are in relation) and their variations have been staples of the last century or so of Plato studies and, as part of the tradition of ‘footnotes to Plato’, have influenced the history of philosophy itself. In this vein, contemporary Plato scholar Terence Irwin has noted that the problems generated by these relations are difficult to track because Plato’s work, Irwin claims, is ‘unsystematic‘. He considers the dialogues to present a series of questions which go mostly unanswered. He argues that Plato deals only with discrete philosophical problems in one-off conversations: while the same problem may return in another dialogue, it will not necessarily be treated the same way; indeed, if some are to be believed, the orientation to the problem will change entirely. For Irwin, somewhat despairingly, yet at the same time in line with a notion cherished by some, the dialogues are read as questions that provoke only more questions. Irwin contends that, as the dialogues do not constitute a system, they are not philosophy in the sense that one might understand the work of Kant, Hegel and Aristotle.

Putting aside the ‘prejudice‘ against the dialogue form (and the concept of Form itself) that many Aristotelian-inflected Platonists appear to have, it is possible to wonder if perhaps a viable way of reading the dialogues that demonstrates their ‘systematicity’ may not have yet been found. As Plato never tires of arguing, what is at stake is not an academic quibble, but a way of life.

This course will contend and present three things: that the received image of Plato given to us in the last century or so occludes the radical, subjective core of Plato’s intervention and thus its history; that from the first to the last dialogues, the Platonic corpus is oriented by one key contention – education. This is the rational kernel of the dialogues, around which it produces its form or its ‘object body’; that this radical and subjective intervention into the dominant intellectual and pedagogical ethos of ‘all Hellas’ not only traces out an educational trajectory anathema to that ‘state’ ethos but in doing so provides education with its concept – that it can only ever take a non-state form. In this way, and with particular emphasis on education – on what it cannot be but is interminably represented as  – Plato will be seen to be, once again, our contemporary.

The framework for this reading of the dialogues, which sets out not to interpret the dialogues once more but to expose what is already there is given by the contemporary ‘Platonist’ Alain Badiou, and is set out in my book, Badiou and Plato: an Education by Truths. The course will not teach the book but use the framework developed there.

The course will range across the dialogues of the corpus but most attention will be given to: Apology, Phaedo, Sophist, Cratylus, Republic and Laws. The idea of education manifest in these dialogues is that education is a matter of truth. The course will explore this Idea.

Course Schedule

Lesson 1. Introduction and general overview of the corpus with regard to this question of an education by truths.

Lesson 2. In the dialogues: representation or known knowledge.

Lesson 3. In the dialogues: what is unknown in known knowledge and what ‘makes a hole in it’.

Lesson 4. In the dialogues: the obscure subject of education.

Lesson 5. In the dialogues: from what is no-where to be seen, to what is not impossible