Friday, August 29, 2008

Philosophical Dialogues

The great philosophical "dialogues" are, of course, hardly dialogues. One voice is that of the philosopher, the others are foils of varying degrees of density and compliance. Large stretches of Plato's dialogues are merely expository essays with "It is so, Socrates" (or similar) regularly tossed in. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume gives his foil Cleanthes a bit more philosophy than is usual, but the crucial final two parts, XI and XII, are Philo's almost alone.

In my view, this is merely an accident of the mundane realities of writing and publishing. Nothing prevents the compelling presentation of more than one side of an issue in a dialogic format. Normally, though, this will require authors with divergent views and an ability to work co-operatively with each other. My recent experience writing in this way with Russ Hurlburt (in our recent book) has convinced me that this can be a very useful method both for the authors and for readers. There's nothing like genuinely engaging with an opponent.

The dialogue is very different from the pro and con essay with replies. The dialogue has many conversational turns; the essay and replies no more than four. The dialogue invites the reader to a vision of philosophy as collaborative and progressive, with the alternative views building on each other; the pro and con essay invites a combative vision. The dialogue is written and re-written as a whole to cast each view in its best light given what emerges at the end of the dialogue, eliminating mere confusions and accommodating changes of view.

David Lewis published a couple of genuine dialogues on holes. John Perry has published delightful introductory dialogues on personal identity and on good and evil (though Perry is summarizing existing arguments rather than developing new ones). Surely there are other good exceptions, but they are rare.

I wonder how different philosophy would be -- and better -- if the standard method were to meet one's opponents and hash out a dialogue rather than to write a standard expository essay....


Anonymous said...

"The great philosophical "dialogues" are, of course, hardly dialogues. One voice is that of the philosopher, the others are foils of varying degrees of density and compliance."

This seems like a very simplistic view to me, at least as far as Plato is concerned. That Socrates' views = Plato's views may work for, say, the Republic, but it is not so obvious in many other dialogues. Why do so many early dialogues end in aporia? Is a character as well-drawn as Callicles just a straw man to be refuted by the author? What about the Parmenides, a dialogue which does the opposite of what you say, namely, to criticize Plato's main theory? What about the place of Plato's positive views in the Theaetetus (a huge area of controversy)?

That said, I agree with your overall point.

Genius said...

Seems to me this method might be more demanding of our authors - but sounds like a good thing in general.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Anon, I agree that Plato shows flashes of real dialogue and Callicles in particular develops a bit of a view and puts up resistance to the "yes, Socrates". The Parmenides is an interesting reversal with Parmenides mostly leading Socrates around by the nose rather than vice versa.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Would it be more demanding? Yes, maybe so.

Anibal said...

The philosophical dialogue tradition is worth cultivating but since Michel de Montaigne established the "essay" as a literary genre on its own (a discursive mode of presenting a reasoned proposition) the dialogue fade away.

Why? i think because the assumptions underlying the "dialogues" and the "essays" respectively.

In dialogues "truth" is not something to be deduced or infere but it has to be negotiated, explore in collaborative way, you have to discuss, persuaded, and this clash with our modern notion of science in general, where ,presumtively, truth with capital "T" can be discovered.

Neverthless, with the dialogue format we exercise many of the virtues of philosophy: understanding different point of views, reasoning critically, build good arguments...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree with what you say about dialogues, Anibal -- that's nicely put. (I'm not sure truth itself is negotated though, instead of just one's view of it.)

That's an interesting historical conjecture about Montaigne. Certainly his Essays made a splash. I don't know enough about minor figures of the era, though. Were dialogues still common before his essays and did they then peter out?

Anibal said...

Probably it was in that way (or just only an interesting historical conjecture)

I´m not specially inmersed in sixteenth century philosophy, literary criticism or the time-changing tools philosophers use to do philosophy (actually online conferences), but in theatre, and other forms of arts (in Italy, Spain and Germany and other european countries mostly) the dialogue was still favoured and the "arts" were rising philosophical and moral conflicts.

Other prosists and moralists of Montaigne´s time were Felipe de Commines, marchioness de Sevigné and the duke of Saint Simon.

Some authors argue that even Montaigne made a great contribution to the dialogue genre (although his "Esssays" were monologues)because he was maintaning a dialogue with anonymous readers and principally with himself (he was living in an epoch of scepticism upheval).

Chris S said...

Larry Lauden wrote an intro to philosophy of science in dialogue form, between four main characters. Its called _Science and Relativism_ I think. It is comparable to Perry's dialogues in that mostly it is Lauden repackaging and explicating others' views, though of course one of the characters (the pragmatist, I think) defends a view close to Lauden's own.

Chad said...

Here is a post from the Brian Weatherson et al blog:

You can connect how his post relates to this one on your own. Methinks we need more 'barstool philosophy' which can engender more dialogues of the sort of which you speak. By better making use of these methods we could better sharpen our own views while at the same time we could create a dialogue that as a pedagogical tool would be awesome.

enahmias said...

Two points:
1. I sometimes feel embarrassed to teach Socrates in intro classes if I've mentioned the Socratic method, since his dialogues are not paradigmatic examples of the Socratic method (as I want my students to understand it). I joke that Socrates' interlocutors sound like Ed McMahon: "You are correct, sir!"

2. Blogs seem to be a nice step in the dialogic direction you are suggesting.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments and suggestions, folks!

Yes, Eddy, I think blogs are a step in the dialogic direction. Maybe that's one reason I like blogging so much!

Bo C. Klintberg said...

Dear Eric,

I thought that your take on traditional philosophical dialogues was nice, as a whole. However, I do agree with one previous person ("anonymous") that your initial view of Plato was much too simplistic. Although it is not always appreciated as such, especially nowadays when modern philosophers many times are not classically educated, Plato's original texts in Attic Greek aren't just some simple texts containing propositional statements, but are refined compositions with a linguistic and literary finesse that puts them in another class.

I also thought that your co-operative "experiment" (Austin's collaborative Saturday gatherings at Oxford came to my mind!) with another philosopher sounded really interesting. That is certainly one way of laying out different views and to make them more readable. However, since I haven't read your work myself, I am still not sure exactly how you are doing it. But it would be nice to take a look!

As far as myself goes, I have taken a somewhat different route. My own plays in Philosophical Plays are plays, not traditional dialogues (Hume, Berkeley). That means, approximately, that although philosophical positions are discussed in the course of the play, the "private" dimension of the characters involved are a substantial part of the text. My approximate view is that philosophical positions alone are not "complete" without also a thorough exposition of the persons/characters who are uttering the respective views. Therefore, "philosophical plays". Voila.

Here's a quick excerpt from my Philosophical Plays website (path = About PP > Philosophical Dialogues) where I talk about how my plays differ from traditional philosophical dialogues:

"ON THE WHOLE, however, the PP plays are not very similar to traditional philosophical dialogues. For example, the PP plays are composed with an interest in, and concern for, the characters as individuals with human emotions, beliefs, and desires; the PP plays feature characters discussing a wider range of topics, sometimes even including points not immediately recognizable as philosophical; and the PP plays feature a more realistic (screenplay-like) dialogue, mostly with shorter speeches. Also, the PP plays offer elaborate footnotes by the author about the play and its philosophizing characters."

Hoping that you are well!

Bo C. Klintberg
Editor/Author, Philosophical Plays

Armageddon Thru To You said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Armaggedon: I've removed your post as off topic. If you'd like to explain how it connects with the issue at hand I'll repost.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Bo: Sorry I didn't notice this comment earlier! Your project does sound like an interesting one.