:: Article

Arcadian Wisdom

Interview by Richard Marshall.

It may well seem that Plato does suggest techne is the best model for moral knowledge. In other words, it may seem that his goal is to establish an expert or authority in the field of the good-bad, just-unjust. Many scholars think this ideal is embodied in the famous “philosopher-rulers” of the Republic. I think these scholars are all wrong.

Human life cannot be mastered by an expert. It can surely be enhanced by thought, but it cannot be successfully engineered. In us there are too many powerful forces and desires, too much variability, contingency and sheer madness.’

Returning to Aristotle thus makes very good sense. His science is incapable of generating the technological payoff that came with the new physics of Galileo and Newton. But unlike theirs, his is a world where living human beings have a home.

David Roochnik is an expert in Ancient Greek philosophy and here he discusses Plato’s notion of techne, its relationship to morality, Plato’s use of rhetoric and its link to postmodernism, the importance of the dialogic and dialectical characteristics of Plato’s works, why Talmudic readings of Aristotle are appropriate, why he prefers Aristotle’s account of the cosmos to our contemporary one and Aristotle’s phenomenology.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

David Roochnik: An impossible question to answer with certainty. So many forces, luck not the least, push people here and there. I started college with an interest in mathematics, became captivated by the “counter-culture” of the 1960’s, had a fantastic teacher (Drew Hyland) who introduced me to philosophy, and then guided me for years.

3:AM: You’re an expert in Greek philosophy so let’s start with Plato and techne. What was techne before Plato took it up and why is it an important term?

DR: It’s an important term simply because it’s the root of our words “technical” and “technology.” We live in a technocratic culture. We worship at the altar of technology. Our lives are increasingly shaped by the machinations of the techies. It is vital, therefore, for all of us to think hard about the role the technical plays in our lives.

The Greeks may not have had sophisticated “devices,” at least when compared to our own. But they understood the concept that is at the heart of it all: techne. Even before Plato, techne was conceived as knowledge of a determinate field that could be mastered by “the expert” (the technites). Such a person becomes an authority to whom laypersons should, in their dealings with that field, defer. Techne typically results in a useful result. Carpentry, shoemaking, and so on are examples. But it is also used to name—and this is a crucial example for Plato—the mathematical “arts” such as arithmetic and geometry.

3:AM: What are the reasons for many philosophers (you cite Nussbaum and Irwin), to say that the techne analogy to moral knowledge provides a serious, positive theoretical model for moral knowledge?

DR: Long story. It may well seem that Plato does suggest techne is the best model for moral knowledge. In other words, it may seem that his goal is to establish an expert or authority in the field of the good-bad, just-unjust. Many scholars think this ideal is embodied in the famous “philosopher-rulers” of the Republic. I think these scholars are all wrong, and I wrote a book trying to explain why. This book had little impact on the Plato industry. Likely I deceive myself, but I am tempted to attribute its failure to the fact that contemporary scholars tend to project their own technophilia onto Plato, and that, in contrast to them, he actually resisted techne as a positive model of philosophical knowledge.

3:AM: Why do you disagree and say that if moral knowledge were a techne then that knowledge would become impossible?

DR: I don’t think, and I don’t think that Plato thinks, that the questions human beings ask as they struggle to figure out what is just or beautiful or good—as they struggle to forge for themselves good lives—are susceptible to technical resolution. Human life cannot be mastered by an expert. It can surely be enhanced by thought, but it cannot be successfully engineered. In us there are too many powerful forces and desires, too much variability, contingency and sheer madness.

3:AM: The view that techne and moral knowledge were structurally the same that you criticise made Plato out to be a ‘theoretical optimist’. You reject this, but was Plato ever a ‘theoretical optimist’, as Nietzsche thought he was, or was he never one right from the beginning? I suppose the question is about whether he changes his mind over the dialogues?

Despite the great variety of writings Plato produced, I think there is a deep consistency in them on this question. First and foremost, note that Plato always wrote dialogues, and never attempted (at least as far I know) to produce a theoretical or scientific treatise. This is a big clue for me. From beginning to end, Plato was aware of the limits of theoretical and technical reasoning, and his dialogues are a massive exploration of that theme. He is no optimist. Again I must warn you, mine is a minority view.

3:AM: Is rhetoric a techne or not,– and why do you think Plato’s treatment of the old quarrel between rhetoric and philosophy superior to contemporary postmodernist accounts?

DR: Another long story. Rhetoric, on Plato’s view, is not a techne, at least not in his sense of the term. Plato is fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, with rhetoric (or sophistry). From the beginning of his career (the Apology, say) to the end (The Sophist) he returned to the old quarrel over and over again. I believe he did so because he thinks that it cannot be resolved. If the debate is formulated as “philosophy v. rhetoric,” Plato embraces the “v.”

Postmodernism—and is that term used much any more?—is simply a reiteration of the sophistic or the rhetorical worldview. Stanley Fish, in his essay “Rhetoric” (in his book, Doing What Comes Naturally) explains this well. Plato is hostile to sophistry to be sure, but he does not believe the philosopher can definitively refute it. Another reason why Plato does not embrace techne as his model of philosophical knowledge. For him, philosophy always is an unfinished business.

3:AM: Does this rejection of techne as nontechnical wisdom account for the fact that he wrote dialogues instead of technical treatises?

DR: Yes, I think so. The dialogues are miraculous hybrids. Combining drama, argument, myths, interruptions, jokes, and images, they contain fantastic characters. There is, of course, Socrates. But some of the best drawn figures in the dialogues include Callicles, Protagoras, Meno, Thrasymachus, and Cleitophon, all of whom are affiliated with the sophists and so are radically non-philosophical. The dialogues are battlefields on which the victor is not always apparent.

3:AM: What is Socrates’ pedagogical flexibility and how does mathematical education relate to philosophy?

DR: Socrates is masterful in adjusting his speech to his interlocutor. (Another way to put this: he is the master ironist.) When he is talking with Laches and Nicias, two generals, he discusses courage. When he is talking with Lysis and Menexenus, two young friends, he discusses friendship. He quickly grasps what matters most to people, and then he urges them to reflect upon their deepest concerns.

Mathematics is another realm altogether, one that is cold, hard, objective, necessary, clear and thus utterly non-human. Nonetheless, it is enormously useful as a means, to cite the Republic, to “turn the soul (psyche) around from becoming to being.” Unlike the sensible things we see and touch, and unlike the continuously moving stream of our consciousness, mathematics bespeaks stability. A mathematical truth just IS true. As such, it can serve as an inspiration in the quest to answer questions like, What is justice? What is beauty? What is knowledge? We should seek stable and objective answers, even if they are not readily, or ever, forthcoming.

There’s a great line in the Gorgias. Socrates is talking with Callicles, a student of the sophist Gorgias. He is the most powerful and consistently anti-philosophical character in all the dialogues. His view, in a nutshell, is “might is right,” and he hopes to gain the rhetorical weapons he needs to succeed in Athenian politics from Gorgias. By Callicles’ lights, the best of all men is he who single-mindedly pursues his own self-interest, and who does not hesitate to squash anyone standing in his way. (His position, by the way, is best reflected in modern times by Nietzsche, who was surely influenced by this dialogue.) Eventually Socrates realizes that he will not be able to refute or persuade Callicles. (See 6. above.) And then he offers a diagnosis of why this is the case. Callicles, he says, believes that might is right, that power is the only good someone should pursue—Callicles is incurable—because he failed to study geometry and learn its therapeutic lesson: that the world is orderly, intelligible and welcoming of our intellectual inquiry.

3:AM: You say we need to read Plato and Aristotle and other ancient philosophers differently
don’t you? How are we typically going wrong in reading Plato, for instance? How does your dialectical reading of the Republic, for example, change what we will make of that book, often read as a defender of tyranny and authoritarianism?

DR: The key in reading Plato, as most professionals in the Plato industry fail to realize, is never to lose sight of the fact that he wrote dialogues. Once this commitment is made, the standard picture of “Platonism” begins to lose its grip. No, Plato is not a theoretical optimist. Nor does he embrace techne as the model of moral knowledge to which he aspires. He does not affirm the putatively just city he outlines in Books V-VII of the Republic, whose features do indeed suggest a totalitarian regime, as the best political option for human beings. Never forget that the Republic continues for three more books (VIII-X) after the putatively just city has been completed. Arguably this stretch contains some of the most important material in the entire work.

3:AM: You have reflected on how Ronna Burger’s Talmudic reading of the Nicomachean Ethics helps us understand the nature of philosophical reading as such. Can you say something about this?

DR: Ronna Burger accomplished something extraordinary in her book, Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates. She read Aristotle as carefully as she would read Plato; that is, she treated the Nicomachean Ethics as a well-crafted, self-consciously written whole. This is unusual because most scholars assume that Aristotelian texts are edited, and sometimes terribly messy, compilations of his lecture notes, replete with ‘cut and pastes’ and abrupt intrusions. For this reason, on their view, these writings do not warrant a “Talmudic reading.” This phrase refers to the Rabbinic tradition in which the Torah is taken to have divine authority, and so must be treated as a perfectly composed text whose every word must be read carefully and figure into the interpretation. The Talmudic assumption imposes a significant burden on readers: they must abide by the duty of “hermeneutical charity” and assume that the writer knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote his book. Now, it is perfectly obvious that Aristotle was not God, and so the Talmudic assumption is surely exaggerated. Still, as Burger’s book shows, it can pay great dividends for the reader. Instead of dismissing a passage—say Book X.7-8 of the Nicomachean Ethics, or Book III.5 of De Anima—as an editor’s awkward insertion of a text Aristotle wrote at an early age, and which therefore fits badly into the scheme of the work as a whole, the reader is required to think through the question of how the passage, if properly interpreted, can be reconciled with what seem to be conflicting texts. Often this is both a challenging and a philosophically rewarding exercise.

3:AM: This account fits into a broader stance you take towards modern metaphysics, science, politics and ethics. You see us living in a time of crisis and prefer Aristotle’s cosmos to the contemporary one. So first, is it the inhumaneness of our contemporary science that leads you to this position and why do you defend Aristotle’s cosmos in the hope of saving the world? In what way is this playful and where is it deadly serious?

DR: You put your finger on it in asking whether I am playful or serious. Both, I’m afraid. Anyone who studies the contemporary phenomenon of global warming, or who fears the insidious impact that the smartphone is having on our lives, or who remembers that there are enough nuclear warheads on enough intercontinental ballistic missiles to destroy human civilization with some ease, understands that modern technology threatens, indeed is likely, to overwhelm us. The great virtue, I think, of studying Aristotle—and, more importantly, taking him seriously as a possible teacher—is that he presents an alternative view of both science and the world. On the one hand, and from the perspective of modernity, his views are antiquated and even laughable. The earth is the center of a finite world…wrong! The stars are eternal and made of a material unlike any found on earth…wrong! Animal species are permanent features of the biological domain …wrong! Ordinary human language has the capacity to disclose things as they are without distortion…wrong! Men are superior to women…wrong! The list goes on.

So, with all this wrongness how can he teach us anything? He can, and for one simple reason: his scientific/philosophical approach, as Martha Nussbaum explained so nicely in her 1986 book, The Fragility of Goodness, takes its bearings from the human. The earth is, of course, not the geometric center of the universe. But it is certainly the center of our lives. The species are not permanent. Instead, they evolve. Still, in our lives a dog is a dog rather than a former wolf, and it surely is not a cat, a difference that means an enormous amount to some people. Women are not inferior to men. But some human beings do seem, in fact, to be genuinely superior to others.

Modern science is a vast attempt to homogenize the universe. Aristotelian science, by contrast, remains faithful to our lived experience, and thus conceives of the world as essentially heterogeneous; composed of different kinds of beings. A living organism is fundamentally different from a rock. We are on the verge of losing sight of this distinction, and the result will be catastrophic. Returning to Aristotle thus makes very good sense. His science is incapable of generating the technological payoff that came with the new physics of Galileo and Newton. But unlike theirs, his is a world where living human beings have a home.

Of course, affirming Aristotle at this late date is also absurd. As I tried to explain in my book on Aristotle, a character who articulates this view eloquently is Bernard in Tom Stoppard’s great play, Arcadia. I recommend it.

3:AM: What is Aristotle’s ‘phenomenological method’ and is it too anthropocentric?

DR: Like William James’ “accreditive” approach in the Varities of Religious Experience, Aristotle’s method gives epistemic credit to the phainomena, to what appears in human experience. He may be unable to explain the sub-atomic world, or how it is that fruit flies rapidly evolve in a laboratory, or how neurons fire in the brain, but he can tell us much about what it means for us to be alive and walking around on this planet of ours. So, yes, from the perspective of modern science his method is hopelessly anthropocentric. But, for better or worse, anthropoi are what we are, a fact that contemporary science hopes to annihilate.

3:AM: Can you sketch for us why you think Aristotle’s phenomenology is better than the Germans. Is it just because it’s less technical than Husserl’s and easier to follow than Heidegger’s?

DR: In graduate school I studied both German and Greek philosophy, and was much tempted by the former. Finally, however, I turned to the Greeks and, perhaps, for one big reason: I loved their language. So concrete, down to earth, unencumbered by centuries of accumulated tradition, so alive…it spoke to me in a way that German never did. I would never, however, make the serious claim that Aristotelian phenomenology is superior to that of Husserl and Heidegger. I haven’t read those guys in decades. I know what I prefer, and in my books I’ve tried to explain why. But that’s about it.

3:AM: As a take home, what would you say to the contemporary scientist who says that Aristotle’s commonsense cosmology and the wisdom from other ancient texts are now permanently mothballed, of historical interest only?

DR: Contemporary scientist: you are certainly not all wrong. But all I ask of you is this: in thinking about different conceptions of science and philosophy ask, what is it that they want to explain? For this is what determines the nature of any epistemic enteprise. So, for example, if you want to explain how a human heart actually pumps blood, then you should study cardiology. This will teach you how the thing works, and will give you knowledge for how to fix it when it breaks. If you want to explain why it is that our hearts beat faster when we are scared, study the mechanics of the nervous system and the brain. But if you want to understand what it means to be afraid, what fear as experienced by human beings is, then your focus must shift. No longer will you be satisfied with mechanical, physiological, neurological accounts. For this inquiry will require you to observe closely what human beings feel, sing, think, write and say to one another.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books other than your own that will help our readers go further into your philosophical world?

DR: Most of all just keep reading the Greeks:

Plato’s Symposium

and Republic,

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

and De Anima are good places to start.

But also have a look at Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 10th, 2017.