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Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Once Gorgias has acknowledged that his "art" is, as it were, value neutral, being capable of producing mere belief and not knowledge about the most important matters before the public, he is sunk, but Plato keeps him afloat for another few pages, before allowing him to retire and pass the baton to Polus.  Gorgias tries to reassure Socrates that if one of his pupils is not a just man, who can be trusted to use this enormously powerful weapon for good rather than evil, he, Gorgias, will teach him justice as well as rhetoric.  Socrates pounces on this admission by Gorgias, and then develops the argument in a really rather odd way.   Here is a brief passage that will illustrate my point.
"What follows now?" Socrates asks.  "Is the man who has learned the art of building a builder, or is he not?  [Gorgias agrees.]  And likewise a man who has learned music is a musician?  [yes.]  And a man who has mastered medicine is a doctor?  And so on according to the same principle:  does everyone who has learned an art acquire the character which is imparted t him by the knowledge of it?"  [quite so.]  And," Socrates concludes triumphantly, "on this principle, the man who has learned justice is a just man [most assuredly.]  And, being just, may be presumed to act justly?"

Say what!!  Whoa.  Where on earth did Socrates get that conclusion from?  A pupil can learn the art of architecture without becoming a building!  A pupil can learn the art of shoe-making without becoming a pair of sneakers, or indeed even without becoming well-heeled.  [hem hem.]  Is there no such thing as temptation, or weakness of the will, or sheer perversity?  Surely, someone can learn the principles of justice -- can learn what justice is -- and yet fail to act according to those principles.

Well, Socrates really means what he is saying, although nothing he has said so far supports so powerful and important a conclusion.  Indeed, I think it is fair to say that nothing Plato says in the entire dialogue adequately supports that conclusion.  He makes a much more elaborate and profound attempt to support the same conclusion in the Republic, although if the truth be told, when he finally gets to the point of revealing to us the nature of the Good, he finks out and retreats into a quite unhelpful mysticism.

Let me suggest one line Socrates might have taken, had he been familiar with the evolution of such arts, or professions, as medicine and law in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries A. D.  [Shades once more of Charles Erskine Scott Wood].  It has now become a commonplace that what students really learn in law school is not how to draw up a will or oversee an IPO or defend an accused person in court, but how to think like a lawyer.  That is why everyone agrees that the first year of law school is the most important.  And the reason why first year medical students are addressed as "doctor" when they trail along after residents in a hospital ward making rounds is in order to get them started thinking of themselves as doctors.  The idea is for them to internalize and identify with a certain ideal image of The Doctor, an image that incorporates into itself a number of powerful norms and expectations which, if the education is successful, will become a part of who they understand themselves to be, how they treat patients, what demands they make on themselves.  That is why a Ph. D. in Medical Science is not the same thing as an M. D., even if the gross anatomy and pharmacology and all that one learns are identical with what is taught in medical school.  Socrates might have argued that in like fashion, the true rhetorician, as part of the internalization of the art of rhetoric, must become a certain kind of person, one who could not, in being true to himself [they are all men], use his skills for immoral purposes.  But Plato does not go down that path, so we must return to the dialogue.

Meanwhile, Polus has been silently fuming at what he sees as his teacher's failure to defend himself adequately, and he jumps in to attempt to salvage things and take control of the discussion.  If you think Gorgias has it wrong, what sort of art do you think rhetoric is?  And Socrates replies, no sort of art at all!  It is, rather, a "sort of knack [kolakeia]."  And now we get one of Plato's most wonderful jeux d'esprit, the classification of true and false arts.

[Autobiographical aside:  Half a century ago, when I was young, I made up a final examination question on the Gorgias in the form of a limerick, in which I was so unprincipled as to rhyme "quackery" with "knick-knackery."  I do not think the students were as amused as I was with this poetic flight.   I was probably influenced by Tom Lehrer, who was then teaching sections of elementary calculus at Harvard.  In an attempt to make calculus fun, Lehrer constructed an exam question about two brothers, one of whom was a contractor and the other of whom was the mayor of a small town.  The town was graced with a perfectly circular lake, and the City Council voted to authorize a project to span the lake, consisting of a road that would go part of the way around the lake and a bridge that would cross the remaining portion of the lake.  The road and the bridge cost different amounts per linear foot, and the mayor was trying to figure out what combination of road and bridge would maximize the cost of the project, which had already been promised to his brother.  The anxious students took one look at the problem and demanded that Lehrer give them a standard maximization problem.  Sigh.  Sometimes, students can be a trial]

The typology of true and false arts that Socrates no lays out is marvelously funny, and ought not to be taken too seriously.  Plato obviously had a mind so quick and fertile that he could come up with wonderful ideas as fast as his students could get them onto their wax tablets with their styli.  In this case, he spins out a theory whose real purpose is to mock the inflated claims by Gorgias and other paid teachers for their wares.  [By the way, since millennia of philosophy students have identified with Socrates and laughed at Gorgias or Cephalus or Polus or Callicles or Thrasymachus, it is worth noting that the Sophists, as these teachers were called, were men who travelled from city to city teaching the children of the rich for money.  They were, in short, college professors!]

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