Dialectic as a mystical discipline


In Books V – VII of the Republic we are presented with a picture of knowledge as something entirely distinct from right opinion, and we have described to us a method called dialectic by means of which a suitably endowed person may attain to this knowledge. By knowledge, Plato means knowledge of the forms, although it is far from clear what this really means. And it is also not clear exactly what he means by dialectic, or how it is that dialectic leads to this special sort of knowledge. The key passage, 511b – d, is surely one of the most cryptic passages in philosophical literature, maddening in its suggestiveness. In my talk today I want to risk presenting an interpretation of what Plato might have meant by all of this, and also briefly allude to its broader significance. My key points are these: Dialectic is not just the art of friendly conversation , but a dialogue carried out in a particular way, with a particular end in mind. Plato seemed to want to believe that knowledge of the Forms would allow certain, or necessary analogical reasoning, even though he was uneasy about the obvious impracticability of such a scheme. Problems to be encountered in Plato’s theory of knowledge are indicative of the unresolved tension between the mystical and the rational which existed in Greek thought at this time. Now, the obvious question which strikes the beginner, when he first hears of this notion of dialectic, is, how can mere conversation or debate lead to certain knowledge of the transcendental patterns after which the world is fashioned? It would be very unusual, to say the least, to expect such a remarkable conclusion to any familiar sort of dialectic, such as might, for instance, occur in this seminar room. In fact, it is rare that a philosophical debate (as opposed to a monologue!) comes to any sort of conclusion at all. For instance, we have before us as models..



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