Saturday, June 21, 2008

Dialectic and Democracy

This a paper I wrote in 2001 for a political theory class. It doesn't seem to matter what context I was in, with single-minded determination I would go after Plato's dialectic. Some call it a narrowness that produces blind-spots. I call it specialization. I find the paper now a little clumsy with the issues, but if there is any lasting value in the paper, it may be that it attempts to show how Plato's conception of dialectic reverberates out over the other pieces of his philosophy. It is an illustration of how pigeon-holes like "epistemology" and "political philosophy" are more permeable then sometimes allowed for.


In Book 6 of Plato’s Republic, Plato uses the metaphor of a ship at sea to describe why philosophers are not the most important men in a state. This metaphor also marks the beginning of Plato’s critique of democracy, which continues in Book 8. This critique rests on two points: 1) rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is bad and dialectic, the discourse of knowledge, is good and 2) the assumptions that people are endowed with one good merit and that the general populace is not terribly bright. We will find that Plato’s critique of democracy has lost some of its force because 1) the line between knowledge and opinion has been redrawn, 2) the role of dialectic has been redefined, and 3) assuming that people have only one merit and are generally unintelligent are not good assumptions.

The ship of state metaphor in Book 6 is characterized by its three participants: the captain, the crew, and the navigators. Plato describes the captain as “larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and short-sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship.” (488a-b) The crew spends all of its time “milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm.” (488c) The true navigators, on the other hand, spend all of their time studying the weather and the stars. For this they are laughed at and reviled by the other crew. The metaphor is simple: the captain is the voting populace, the crew represents the people running for office, and the true navigators are the philosophers. Where the philosophers actually know how to run a state, the crew is merely intent upon being put in charge to run the state. To do so they concentrate on trying to convince the captain to let them.

Democracy, then, is characterized by a gullible populace, a persuasive group of people who don’t know how to rule, and an unpersuasive group of people who do know how to rule. This characterization of democracy doesn’t quite look right because it doesn’t seem to follow that, just because you’re good at persuasion, you don’t know how to rule, or vice versa for those that do know how to rule. This characterization occurs because of Plato’s dislike of rhetoric. Democracy is bad because its rulers are skilled in the art of rhetoric.

Why is rhetoric bad? Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, is bad because it is based on opinions (doxa), as opposed to knowledge (epistēmē). For Plato, and the rest of the Greeks at this time, there is a tight line cut between knowledge and opinion. Knowledge is that which is absolutely certain. Anything less than absolute certainty is mere opinion. This line between knowledge and opinion began to move during the Skeptical Crisis of the 16th century.

To understand what happened in the 16th century, it is convenient to break certainty into three kinds: logical, moral, and psychological.[1] Logical certainty is strict, absolute necessity; it couldn’t be any other way. Moral certainty is at such a high probability that we can live our lives believing it to be true. Psychological certainty is personal intuition, a gut feeling. The ancients, like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, believed that true knowledge had to have absolute, logical certainty. If it fell short, it was opinion and therefore pretty useless.

Beginning in the 16th century, many scholars began to loose confidence that humans would ever be able to reach true knowledge, partly because Plato and Aristotle both thought they had it. Looking back, therefore, Plato seems to use opinion in a way to characterize things that we would now call knowledge. For instance, we cannot be logically sure that the sun will rise tomorrow, but the probability is so high that to think that it wouldn’t would be considered insane. In this way, the force of Plato’s argument is partially undercut. If rhetoric is based on opinion and opinion now includes things that we might consider knowledge, then rhetoric may be safe to rule a state.

Plato would come back and say, “Even if my version of opinion now includes some kinds of knowledge, it still doesn’t include the best kind of knowledge: absolutely certain knowledge. Therefore, rhetoric is still a suspect way of selecting leaders.” There are two attacks on this line of argument, neither exclusive to the other: 1) a simple attack on dialectic as absolutely certain knowledge and 2) questioning why dialectic cannot be taught in place of rhetoric.

The simple attack on dialectic is this: the empirical tradition of philosophy in the last several centuries has attacked the assumption that dialectic and the definitions of words (upon which the dialectic plays off of) have any metaphysical weight. The empiricists hold that the dialectic doesn’t say anything about reality, only about the relations between words.[2] They would say that our definitions of reality do not have any meaningful thing to say about reality, they merely reflect the way in which we refer to objects in reality. Essentially, the empirical tradition would say that absolute, logical certainty of the world does not exist. The best we can hope for is moral certainty, the likes of which are gained through the sciences.

This doesn’t completely destroy dialectic’s credibility, though. It merely changes its position. Whereas before, dialectic ascertained reality, now it is a powerful tool of persuasion. Of course, this permutation would absolutely abhor Plato. Dialectic, for Plato, wasn’t just logical argumentation, or rational give and take. It was the process by which to discern reality. (531e-532b) But take away the discernment and you are left with a process of logical argumentation. And no one would dispute the fact that Socrates was probably the most persuasive man in all of Athens. He was the most persuasive because he was the most able user of dialectic.

If we lay aside this line of argumentation, for the moment, and assume that dialectic discerns the true reality, we can entertain the second line of argument: questioning why dialectic cannot be taught in place of rhetoric. If rhetoric is so bad, why not teach dialectic to people? The reason for Plato essentially is that his definition of justice forbids it.

Plato defines justice as, “minding your own business and not interfering with other people.” (433b) Couple this with Plato’s vision of a meritocracy (“And so if we want to pick the best guardians, we must pick those who have the greatest skill in watching over the community.” (412c)) and he now has a society that capitalizes on only one skill per person. Plato’s reason for not teaching dialectic to everyone is because dialectic is for dialecticians, just as farming is for farmers and bricklaying is for bricklayers. Each person, effectively, only has one good skill.

But this just seems to be Plato condemning democracy to badness. Democracy has no way to function according to Plato’s hard and fast definitions. Plato seems to be playing it safe by limiting everyone to one skill, but why can’t people be apt at more than one thing? It seems a more reasonable description of a meritocracy is not “do the one thing you are good at,” but “do what you are good at.” This means if you are good at more than one thing, then, by all means, do more than one thing. Plato wants to say that dialecticians should stick to dialectic and not farming and vice versa. This is why the farmer should mind his own business and restrict his thinking to his craft and not dialectic. A dialectician doesn’t walk onto the farm and start telling the farmer what to do.

The point seems valid, but only if the farmer and the dialectician knew nothing of the other’s craft. If the dialectician was also a skilled farmer, he might have a few pointers for the farmer. The two should stay out of each other’s hair only if they have no experience or skill in the other’s trade. And if education is available for various positions, why should people be limited to one type of education? If we are dreaming up ideal ways of governing, why not dream up a situation where people are educated in various skills and are then able to pick from a broader set of skills what they do as a career? One of the skills could be dialectic.

This brings Plato’s last assumption: the dialectic is either very, very hard or the general populace is fairly unintelligent. It’s probably fair to say that it is a mix of both. Plato would say that the dialectic is a full-time job and, though all people technically have access to the Realm of Forms, not all people will be skilled enough to reach them through the dialectic. It is here that I would bring back the redefined status of dialectic. If dialectic is simply rational argumentation, then why can’t everyone be taught it? They don’t have to wield it with Socrates’ or Plato’s effectiveness, just effectively enough to weed out crew members who wish to usurp control of the ship.

Here we see fully the deflated balloon of Plato’s argument. If we have a populace that is gullible, then the obvious solution is to make the populace not gullible. Plato’s high standards for knowledge have been knocked down and made more accessible to more people. No longer is the true reality only discernible through a method that only a few can or may master. If we have a captain that is somewhat adept at seamanship, then he will be able to choose a worthy helmsman. The goal of an ideal democracy, which is now given greater credence, should be to maximize the education of the many to weed out the poor rulership of a few.

[1] This splicing of certainty was made by Professor Lindberg during his History of Western Science lectures.

[2] This tradition in the philosophy of language was started by John Locke and has been continued by the so-called Analytic tradition of philosophy.

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