The MWS Podcast: Episode 14, Mark Vernon

In this episode, the writer and journalist Mark Vernon talks about agnosticism, its relation to theism and why he feels it’s useful to adopt such an approach. He puts the case for why virtue ethics should play more of a role in how we live our lives. We also discuss influences such as Plato, Socrates, Jung and Iain McGilchrist and how he understands the Middle Way with regards to agnosticism.

MWS Podcast 14: Mark Vernon as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_14_Mark_Vernon

Previous podcasts:

Episode 13: Robert M. Ellis on his life and why he formed the Middle Way Society.
Episode 12: Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy
Episode 11: Monica Garvey on Family Mediation
Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Episode 1: Robert M. Ellis on critical thinking.

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

34 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 14, Mark Vernon

  1. A skilfully handled discussion, Barry! I was pleased to see so many points of contact and sympathy between the society and Mark Vernon. I resonate particularly with his statement that to be a theist is to be an agnostic, and his positive view of mysticism.

    His defence of Plato is also interesting. He’s right, of course, that Plato wrote in dialogues, and dialogues always leave you in an ambiguous position for interpreting the author’s views. For that reason you can make Plato say more or less what you like, as you can with much of the Bible, and with other ambiguous philosophers like Wittgenstein and Nietzsche. I’d agree that Plato is well worth reading, and rewarding in all sorts of ways that are not about agreeing with him, but I do also think there is also a predominant ‘Platonic’ view for which the constructed figure of Socrates is a mouthpiece throughout the dialogues (and particularly in the middle and later ones). The predominant impression of Plato as a rationalist metaphysician has not arisen by accident, and there’s plenty of evidence for it.

    1. Thanks Robert. Very glad to have the chance to talk with Barry and contribute here. But perhaps I could just have another defence of Plato!

      The rational element is definitely there, of course. Sometimes it dominates (I have never got all the way through the Parmenides.)

      But I think it is always in the service of deeper elements in Plato – discerning the allure of love, beauty, the good and so on. I think it is a serious misunderstanding of Plato to lose sight of that, as I fear much contemporary teaching of Plato does. It’s partly a product of our silo-approach to knowledge – philosophy these days mostly doing just reason, not psychology, literature, virtue, experience etc… let alone thinking that your way of life might shape what you know.

      Also, I think it’s crucial to remember that Plato was a great creator of myth, and not just as extra colour or a personal flourish. I think the myths are central to his output – and not just to be reduced to moral tales. Plus, there is the vital point that philosophy is done in life, hence writing dialogues – as if he’s saying, I will write philosophy if I must, but don’t forget it’s a secondary way of doing philosophy (hence the second half of the Phaedrus etc…)

  2. Hi Mark,
    I take your point that modern readings of Plato are often shaped by dominant modern preconceptions, and that the ‘deeper’ elements may be neglected. But which bits are ‘in the service of’ which other bits is very much a matter of debatable interpretation. When you talk of ‘misunderstanding’ of Plato, this is easy to take as you claiming to know what Plato ‘really’ meant. Is that what you intended? It seems likely that Plato’s intentions varied during the course of his lifetime (e.g. ‘The Laws’ being a great deal more authoritarian than ‘The Symposium’), but most importantly, I think we need to take responsibility for the readings we choose to draw out of such ambiguous texts, rather than appealing to their authority (or appearing to do so) as though they were unambiguous.

    I have similar issues with the revisionist readings made by Stephen Batchelor of the life of the Buddha, or by Don Cupitt of the teachings of Jesus. In both cases I’m sympathetic to the idea of these figures being read in ways that I regard as more useful than the traditional readings. But in both cases it needs to be made clear that it is us who are doing the interpreting, and that the texts don’t have an essential meaning or intention that is being revealed and used as a new alternative revelation. If we don’t make that sufficiently clear, however helpful the content of the new reading (whether of Plato, Jesus, or Buddha), there’s a danger of just creating a new appeal to authority, and also getting lost in endless scholarly arguments that are largely just indicators of confirmation bias in the scholars concerned. Whatever we look for in an ambiguous text we are likely to find, and if that approach is allied to a belief in the text as a source of authority, we have a recipe for entrenched and unhelpful conflict.

    1. Hi Robert –

      I take the point, yes. Plato must have changed across the course of his life (though I must say I also like the idea that he wrote different dialogues as different experiments or to make different points, rather than as reflections of different moments in his evolution.)

      In terms of ‘authority’, I think that Plato tries to show us – though it is a judgment call -that we are not the authors of our own lives in a kind of postmodern moment, as a Batchelor or Cupitt might feel. Rather, we are responsible for our response to a lively, living reality. So the text does not exist as its own authority. Rather, it is a means to an end, that end being in life, not on the page. It stands or falls on how it helps open up that reality to the person engaging with it. So he’d be more like Shakespeare than Descartes – disappearing in his texts and they being so productive as a result.

      So I think the significance of Socrates, who is clearly his favourite character, is not what Socrates says per se, but is more the attitude that Socrates exhibits (which to get back to the original point, is not as a rationalist but as someone who can use reason, as well as intuition, myths, provocations, feelings and so on – even a daemon.)

      So it’s not an appeal to authority, in the sense usually meant, but an appeal to fruits that indicate the depth of the roots, as it were…

  3. Hi Mark,
    Are you in effect saying here that you find insights in Plato? Such insights obviously depend both on what Plato put there and on our interpretation, but I don’t think that lessens our responsibility for that interpretation, and thus the inadvisability of talking about ‘misunderstanding’ of Plato. You could say, rather, that people have not always recognised the full insights that open-minded reading of Plato offers.

    I am not sure exactly what difference you are pointing to between being “authors of our lives in a kind of postmodern moment” and being “responsible for our response to a lively, living reality”. It does sound as though this may be similar to the kind of distinction I make between relativist assumptions (which would mean that any response to Plato is as good as any other response) and incremental objectivity, which takes the idea of reality to be meaningful, but is also careful not to assume that reality has been achieved. If that’s what you’re getting it, we seem to be on the same page.

    However, what Plato seems to be mainly saying doesn’t strike me as consistent with that kind of distinction. Far from recognising reality as a meaningful idea that can’t be achieved, he builds his entire ethics and politics on the assumption that it must be achieved – absolute reality or bust. He explicitly repudiates incrementality of any kind, stating that knowledge that is not knowledge of the Forms is no knowledge at all. What’s more, he’s deluded in assuming that the source of ‘reality’ is the self-enclosed coherent ‘reason’ of the left hemisphere, when the idea that this ‘rational’ picture is the final and absolute one is the very source of our delusion.

    1. Ah well there I definitely disagree (and also with Iain McG on his reading of Plato in The Master). Plato is explicit in the Republic and elsewhere that no ‘philosopher king’ (or queen) ever existed. Socrates too is ‘told’ by Diotima that he won’t get it. But that’s not to say we don’t see through a glass darkly. I think the mix of capabilities that Plato points to in his mix of myth and reason etc is precisely why he’s a candidate for left/right awareness, not as part of the problem.

      1. Hi Mark,
        So, we disagree about Plato – it seems as a result of focussing on different elements as primary – but it’s the underlying principles we’re applying that are more significant. You didn’t respond to the earlier bit of my last post about this. If you see the point of avoiding relativist/ postmodernist types of negative metaphysics, as well as absolute/ rationalist types of positive metaphysics, then you are sounding to me broadly like a Middle Way Practitioner.

        I’ve always expected that Middle Way practitioners will differ in their interpretation of specific cases, but the key thing is that they share that basic approach. The society aims to bring together such practitioners in co-operation, and crucially to do so in a way that gets beyond the differences in background created by different kinds of religious, cultural or philosophical background. The Middle Way is not the exclusive property of Buddhism.

        Perhaps we need to read some of each others’ books before drawing further conclusions (I’ve only read a few of your Guardian articles), but what are your initial thoughts on the question of whether you are trying to apply the Middle Way?

  4. Hi,

    I have not had much time to post here over the last few weeks (although there are things that I will respond to in time) but I would just like to quickly say that I very much enjoying this discussion. Observing a philosophical sparring match such as this can really help focus my own thoughts and enhance my understanding (of course it might also run the risk of doing the reverse).

    At the moment I read Robert and agree with him, then I read Mark and agree with him and so on. I will therefore take my allocated space on the white picket fence.


  5. Like you Rich, I’ve enjoyed this discussion immensely. I agree with Robert that when interpreting ambiguous ancient texts it would perhaps be more appropriate to say something like “people have not always recognised the full insights that open-minded reading of Plato offers” rather than people “seriously misunderstanding” them. As Robert suggests, this could easily be misconstrued as knowing what Plato really meant. Besides, if we are to interpret these texts in the way Mark suggests, then arguably the use of such terminology runs counter to that sentiment of couching things with the degree of provisionality that the circumstances dictate. Having said that, it’s been interesting to come across a more nuanced reading of Plato rather than that of the arch metaphysician who invented the soul etc. in the way he is often portrayed. It was also a real pleasure to talk to someone who despite coming from a different perspective appears to share many of the positions, values and aims of the society. I would highly recommend Mark’s book “How to be an agnostic”.

    A couple of reflections on the podcast with Mark – when I asked him if he saw a correlation between the platonic view of love (ie. seeking wholeness after our mythical doubled bodies had been separated) and Jung’s idea of individuation, it would have been helpful if I had pointed out that from a Middle Way Philosophy perspective, the concepts of individuation and integration are arguably interchangeable. For me, integration in many ways relates to my idea of love, that is to say the incremental uniting of beliefs, meanings or desires.

    This also relates to my other question to Mark regarding Jung’s statement “I don’t believe in God, but I know him”. I personally feel I neither believe in God nor not believe in God but rather take a decisive agnostic position in regard to God’s existence. To be honest, the notion of God doesn’t really figure much in my life at all but I don’t feel I have a God-shaped hole in my life because of that (to use an expression of Mark’s). However, that is not to say that I don’t find the idea of God meaningful in an embodied, archetypal way which is related to my experience. The Quaker’s position that we all have a concept of God resonates with me in this regard. God for me can therefore also be a useful metaphor for integration or love.

  6. Hi,
    I wish I had the knowledge to enable me to join in with this discussion, never the less I find it very interesting to follow. I look forward to understanding more over time – incrementally.

  7. Thanks again for the comments and those from others. Just to pick up on Robert’s thought about ‘misunderstanding’ and say, I’m not entirely sure what he’s driving at, but I’m conscious also now of needing to look more carefully at the middle way ‘creeds’.

    But perhaps this is some kind of answer, to say that I don’t think Plato seeks to portray one consistent metaphysic, though he clearly seeks to explore possibilities – by showing and evoking, discerning and engaging. I think his primary aim is to portray the experience of encountering Socrates, one of the ‘axial figures’ to use Karl Jaspers’ phrase: like the Buddha, Jesus, Confucius, he is one of those figures whom one encounters and then the world never quite looks the same again.

    In Socrates’ case, the shift in consciousness an encounter produced, you might say, was a profound recognition that we are what Plato calls ‘in between creatures’. Unlike my cat, say, who seems blissful in her ignorance, we human beings can become conscious of what we don’t know. But also unlike God, who is presumably fully aware or awake, we are not that either. We are in between the beasts and the angels, as Augustine rather poetically put it.

    So having gained a deep, often jolting sense of that through the encounter with the Socrates of the dialogues (Plato is not interested in facts or theories for their own sake because left to themselves they tend to deadening the sense of living encounter), the question then is how to live with that awareness?

    I think Plato’s key word is ‘love’ – the desire for what we lack, namely a felt knowledge, wisdom and crucially perception about this condition and how to live in it. And it’s crucial to struggle with, because love can make us, fuelling our creativity, inspiration, delight and so on; but it can also ruin us, feeding our envy, destructive urges, distress.

    So diverse metaphysical speculations, intuitions, testings and pursuits, yes; but always arising first out of a sense of what it is to be human, and the issue of how to live.

  8. Yes, I can relate to your idea of in-betweenness, and would tend to see this as the main way that the Christian tradition has implicitly approached the Middle Way. God offers unattainable perfection and the human condition unsatisfactory imperfection, so the incarnation can be seen as symbolising a dialectical in-betweenness.

    It also seems characteristic of the Christian tradition (in my experience) to over-extend the concept of love and make it incorporate other positive qualities. Love as an immediate emotion can be very parochial, and to overcome that reliance on limited coherent contexts, wisdom is just as much required. I’m sceptical about any one quality being the panacea for human beings. Rather we need to find a balanced state that stretches our response to a wide range of conditions.

    Your inverted commas suggest that you are joking when you talk of middle way ‘creeds’, but obviously the very idea of a creed is directly opposed to the provisionality that is central to Middle Way thought. I suspect we are also using the term ‘metaphysical’ in different ways. For example, for me the idea of testing a metaphysical claim is contradictory, because I use the term ‘metaphysical’ to identify absolute beliefs of a kind that cannot be tested in any way, because of their entrenched relationship with dogmatic psychological states. See various resources on this site, or my books, for more details. There’s much room for debate about the precise nature of that relationship between dogmatic beliefs and dogmatic states, but I’d see it as central to the Buddha’s insights in the Middle Way, and we need a word (there being nothing much better than ‘metaphysics’) to describe the type of absolute beliefs, positive or negative, that the Buddha was avoiding. There is further evidence for such a link between metaphysical beliefs and dogmatic states in McGilchrist, in the cognitive science underlying the embodied meaning thesis, and in recent research on cognitive biases.

  9. Whilst researching something else I have just re-discovered the ultimate short quotation that sums up for me the metaphysical dogmatism of Plato: “You can’t use the imperfect as a measure of anything” (Republic, 504c). From that judgement all the other Platonic judgements in the middle and later dialogues flow – the Forms, the Good, the Guardians, the authoritarianism etc. Whatever else Plato may have said that might lead us to other interpretations elsewhere, this is the basic template of the Nirvana Fallacy (see other more recent post) in Western thinking, influencing not just the philosophical tradition but also the theological one.

  10. If you’ll forgive a strong response, Robert, it is seeking proof texts like that which is the sign of dogmatism. It’s the game played by fundamentalists, or those looking to nail perceived opponents, the world over.

  11. I think Mark makes a good point here, Robert. Especially, regarding your use of the word “ultimate” in regard to an extract from what you say are a set of ambiguous texts that will always be open to interpretation. I can see the scholarly quagmire bubbling away as we speak!

  12. I meant ‘ultimate’ in a rather informal way to mean ‘best I have found’, and I said “that sums up for me”. Summing something up for me is not using it as a proof text.

    Provisionality markers are often neglected in web-based discussion. I suggest that we should all try to make a practice of heeding each others’, and also interpreting their statements in the context of what we understand of their wider position, rather than jumping to the immediate conclusion that they are contradicting themselves. No doubt I am imperfect in my practice myself in this respect when I interpret others, but I do very frequently use deliberate provisionality markers to support reasonable generalisations, and am often frustrated when others make hasty responses that pay no attention to them.

  13. That’s a fair point regarding my response to your comment as I am very aware how you normally couch what you say in provisional terms. However, I’m not so sure Mark is or how clear he is about your wider position or other readers for that matter. I would therefore still argue that due to its association with absoluteness (and dogmatic positions), you could have used a better choice of words than “ultimate”.

  14. It’s so easy for even people who are all committed to agnosticism to get into an unseemly scrap over the middle ground. I include an impulse that I find in myself here. I’ve found this in discussion after discussion. Secular humanists often think they have the Middle Way and everyone else is extreme. So do Buddhists. So do Liberal Christians. Politicians are constantly accusing one another of dogma. We all want to pin the dogmatism onto the other in order to purge ourselves of it. But we are not single selves: we all have dogmatists within us alongside moderates, just in slightly different strengths of each.

    Part of my vision for the society is that it can be a field of discussion where this kind of misunderstanding will not usually happen. If we all work on the assumption that we are all committed to the Middle Way, we don’t have to keep pinning accusations of dogma onto each other: rather, we can sift the wheat from the chaff in a context where moderate motives are assumed. We can make reasonable generalisations using terms like ‘for me’ or ‘ it seems’ without being afraid to do so for fear of being unreasonably interpreted, and at the same time accept incremental correction. Once a culture of this kind is created and gets a bit of momentum, new people are likely to get swept into it.

    Sometimes I get a bit idealistic and assume we already have such a culture – but there is still a way to go to establish it in a lasting and consistent way, and to make it immediately obvious to any sensitive newcomer.

  15. Hi Mark
    In light of the conciliatory note that Robert has struck and in the spirit of gaining greater understanding rather than winning an argument would you be willing to offer your thoughts on the significance of the quotation “You can’t use the imperfect as a measure of anything” attributed to Plato? I for one, have gained a lot from the discussion between you and Robert regarding this ancient philosopher.

  16. To be honest, I feel I’ve said what might persuade in terms of how to read Plato. To state the obvious, the quote is not attributed to Plato, but one of Plato’s characters – and therein lies the difference. To me, saying that’s what Plato believes is a bit like saying Shakespeare believed ‘To thy own self be true’. But that misses the point of the writing. The point is to test the idea – in the context of the dialogue, the body of Plato’s way of life, and one’s own life too…

  17. Hi Mark,
    ‘Plato’ is a construction of our interpretation, and I wouldn’t claim to know what he actually said or meant to say. What I felt ‘You can’t use the imperfect as a measure of anything’ sums up very well is an attitude that is (rightly or wrongly from a historical point of view) attributed to Plato, and which then went on to exert a huge influence over Western thinking. The point where I want to test the idea is in terms of Plato’s influence or symbolic role rather than his actual person.

    As a parallel, I take a similar attitude towards the Buddha and the Middle Way. I don’t want to make any claims about what the Buddha actually thought, as he is even more remote and ambiguous than Plato. However, there are certain ideas associated with the Buddha at his best (the Middle Way) that I find very useful. I respect your right to take ideas from Plato that you think are useful and leave aside the rest, if that’s what you want to do, as long as you don’t continue to talk in terms of ‘misunderstanding’. However, for me Plato predominantly has a rather different symbolic function – as a source of dogmatic metaphysics. When I read the dialogues, it is this aspect of his approach that strikes me far more forcibly than any other. I am also very forcibly struck by the relationship between this dogmatic standpoint and the prevalence of the Nirvana Fallacy ( in many other thinkers through the ages.

    I am telling a rather different story from you, and I find it a powerful story. In this story Plato is a villain, whereas in yours (it seems) he’s a hero – even if both the villainy and the heroism are complex. But the importance of heroes and villains is their psychological function rather than their relationship to history or to texts.

    If anyone’s interested in following my reading of Plato in more detail, I wrote a paper about him (pretty similar to a chapter in my thesis) which was published in the Western Buddhist Review: , or for its context in the thesis see

  18. Hi Mark

    Thanks for your interesting response. I suppose by me writing that the quotation was attributed to Plato I was just trying to say that he was purported to have written it.

    I think it was appropriate of you to question how Robert framed his comment and he’s acknowledged that he could have expressed it in a more provisional manner. However, I think he is also questioning you in a similar way when you say that Plato is misunderstood. I’ve never read Plato but I’ve read a fair degree of things about him and it seems fairly clear that due to the age and ambiguity of the texts they can be interpreted in many different ways. The difference in opinion that both you and Robert hold is a case in point.

    Stephen Batchelor, the secular Buddhist author, is often accused of cherry picking in the way he reads the Buddha’s teachings. He openly acknowledges that but argues he’s no different than anyone else in that regard. For him all readings of these ancient teachings are interpretations affected by many factors not least cultural and temporal. He does give a rationale why his understanding of the texts should be given a certain credence, just like your Shakespeare analogy with Plato for me has a certain plausibility. However, he’s always very careful to regularly point out that his is indeed just an interpretation and is at pains to emphasise that he’s not suggesting he knows what the Buddha really meant which I feel your use of “misunderstood” in regard to Plato appears to imply.

    1. Well, my whole argument is that Plato must be interpreted. That’s why he wrote dialogues not in a direct voice. My objection is precisely to ‘this is what Plato is/said/believed etc’ Too much secondary reading is probably part of the problem. That’s not just me. Julia Annas in her Very Short Introduction to Plato, or Ancient Philosophy – I can’t quite remember, argues that it is a Victorian twist in the reception of Plato to read him as delivering creeds/manifestos/doctrines, arising from the use particularly the Republic was put to in the education of public school boys for governing the empire. An urtext was needed and Plato ‘provided’ it. Ever since the teaching of Plato in Anglo-American philosophy, not really in France and Germany, has regarded him as such. I’m persuaded it’s a major mistake…

  19. Hi Mark,
    I feel that we’re going round in circles, so it’s probably time to abandon this discussion. I don’t think you can have it both ways – that our view of Plato is an interpretation, and that you have the correct interpretation. Deny dogmatic assumptions about Plato and point out ambiguities, by all means, but the traditional interpretation of Plato as a dogmatist will still be a viable, and indeed obvious, interpretation.

    (I have edited this to change ‘more correct’ to ‘correct’ – I can’t object to an incremental claim about an interpretation, only to an absolute one. I’m not very clear about which yours is.)

  20. Hi Robert and Mark,

    I am not sure that Mark has said that his is the more correct interpretation, in a dogmatic sense, he has said that he feels people make mistakes. Plato must be interpreted, if only from a historical point of view. When faced with historical texts all we can do is make interpretations, which can only ever be an approximation of what happened, what was said or what was meant. Was Anne Boleyn an adulterous harlot who manipulated the King to her own ends, thereby causing her own demise or was she a victim of the manipulation of others? We don’t know but it is reasonable to make judgements based upon the evidence we have – judgements that will vary significantly from person to person.

    Both Robert and Mark have clearly thought very carefully about their interpretations of Plato and both have come to quite different conclusions. If we had a time machine and could go back to witness Plato’s activity first hand we may find that Robert is mistaken, we may find that Mark is mistaken and in fact we may find that both are mistaken. This is true of any historical interpretation and perhaps more so with complex ideas, such as those attributed to Plato. This does not mean that me should not form our own judgements.

    For me, having read this thread (for which I am grateful) and having a very basic understanding of Plato, it seems that it is quite possible that Plato may have been dogmatic in some of his teachings, but what I think is more important are the tools that he developed. Are they deeply entangled in dogma and if not are they of practical use today? Again different people will have different views and I am not informed enough to make a significant judgement but my understanding was that Plato often used characters – such as Socrates – to facilitate effective and constructive argument, not to draw dogmatic conclusions about reality. Have we developed better methods of doing this? After 2500 years I hope so, but Plato is part of that development and some of his methods are likely to still be of use.

    The discussion is going round in circles and has, in this instance, probably run it’s course. Nevertheless, it is good for us to have our ideas challenged and having to re-assess our standpoints in the face of challenge is always a positive thing. Either we come away with a new (or altered) point of view or we come away with our original ideas intact, and maybe stronger for it.


  21. Hi Rich,
    Here I would agree with you that Plato did develop one key tool – or at least passed it on from Socrates – that being Socratic dialogue as a form of enquiry. Indeed, one could argue that Socrates basically invested Western philosophy in the form of critical discussion about our basic assumptions. I see the practical and critical approach that passed on from Socrates via Plato as being invaluable, but that Plato added a strong dogmatic element. Nevertheless, without Plato, we wouldn’t have the legacy of Socrates.

  22. You’re right about it going around in circles. So here’s one more loop!

    Because actually I there are some facts in this, perhaps the most important of which at this stage is that the ‘traditional interpretation of Plato as a dogmatist’ is not traditional at all, if by that is meant the most longstanding and obvious one. It’s Julia Annas’ OUP Very Short Introduction to Ancient Philosophy (and you don’t get a much bigger hitter in contemporary Plato studies) who describes the move to the way the Republic has been read in the last century or so, now taken as longstanding and obvious, as a ‘cautionary tale’.

    Or you might point to Karl Popper, who in The Open Society has been massively influential in the idea that Plato was a dogmatist and an enemy of debate, in an armchair Stalin kinda way, who later confessed in his autobiography, Unended Quest, that he wrote his book during the second war in New Zealand, when he had hardly any library, no Greek, and not even a decent translation of the Republic. ‘What I read was determined largely by what books I could get in New Zealand.’ Unfortunately for Plato, the intellectual world needed powerful ways to attack communism in the second half of the 20th century, and Plato via Popper was summarily seconded.

    I’d even say that this reading of Plato has highly coloured what people make of so-called Socratic dialogue/questioning now – so I’m going to not end here even agreeing on that, I fear! It’s now taken as a method for clarifying what you think know, in a quasi-scientific way, whereas my sense from reading Plato is that is not the end he had in mind at all. It was to generate in his readers an experience of being thrown onto what you don’t know, via what you think you do. That’s why Socrates’ is remembered: because he precipitated in his followers a profound sense of what it is to be human. Do you really think that someone would be remembered, indeed become part of western consciousness in a sense, merely for asking critical questions? Everyone was asking critical questions in Socrates’ day – the whole sophist movement etc.

    Probably I haven’t communicated my take on it all very well, and this final thought probably won’t help any more. But anyway. I take Plato’s aim in writing his dialogues as wanting to create what Donald Winnicott called ‘transitional objects’. They are entities (might be writing, images, arguments, myths etc) that through engaging with, we might be moved onto radically new terrain. The new terrain is not contained in or by the entity itself, because the discovery of the newness is itself by necessity a creative task, and created primarily in the life of the individual engaging in the transitional space. It’s by necessity a non-linear method because the aim is to engage not only with what we don’t know now, which you could therefore be told about in a dogmatic way; but with what we actually can never know fully. ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant, success in circuit lies,’ to recall Emily Dickinson, someone who for me did get Plato.

    But to come off my high horse and be a bit blunter again, you might also note, that like critical questioners, there have been a million dogmatists in history, even brilliant ones in terms of the their communication skills, and is it enough effectively to say that Plato is simply the one who got lucky in terms of being remembered? There’s something far more important going on in his work. The never-ending engagement with life and all its interest and mysteries is itself what Plato hopes to nurture in us via his texts, I feel. His genius is not that he told people what to think – how soul-destroying is that? But that he has offered a route to untold (I use the word advisedly!) richness for many generations of readers. Sadly, though, not so widely today…

  23. Hi Mark,
    I can agree with a lot of what you say here, especially about the deeper benefits of Socratic dialogue: “to generate in his readers an experience of being thrown onto what you don’t know, via what you think you do.” For me that is included in the critical enquiry fully engaged in (particularly without the relativist assumptions attributed to the sophists). I’d also agree that Plato’s dialogues can be ‘transitional objects’ as you describe them: though we could also say this about many other complex works of literature.

    However, I’d suggest that this kind of benefit comes from a critical reading of Plato – and by critical I just mean separating the wheat from the chaff, recognising what’s valuable as much as what’s dogmatic. I’d recommend that kind of critical reading as a fulfilling exercise for a whole lot of other philosophers that I consider have some insights and also make some mistakes: e.g. Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. However, I’d distinguish that kind of fulfilling complex reading from an idealising process that uses the complexity and ambiguity of these philosophers as a pretext to ignore their important and influential mistakes. I’m not necessarily accusing you of that with Plato, but I have come across plenty of that kind of idealised reading, not only of Plato but particularly of other highly ambiguous philosophers, like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, and it’s a danger I’m keen to avoid.

    You may be right that Plato is just the dogmatist who was lucky enough to be remembered, but again, here, your focus is on the historical figure rather than the symbolic one. The fact remains that there is a perspective commonly defined as ‘Platonic’, and that begins with the Nirvana Fallacy and with the rationalist essentialism of the doctrine of Forms. Do you disagree with this perspective? I’d be much more inclined to let go of my suspicion that you’re idealising Plato if you are also willing to be clear about the unhelpful dogmas to be found there, and critically separate them from the valuable stuff, whilst acknowledging that there is evidence for both and it’s not just a question of ‘misunderstanding’. Otherwise it’s very easy to end up being seen as an apologist for ‘Platonism’ as it is widely understood.

  24. The supposed ‘rationalist essentialism of the doctrine of Forms’ would be one candidate for what I object too. I’m not quite sure where this rationalism appears, but I presume you mean in the Republic’s account of forms. Well, for one thing, that rationalist essentialism is shown to be entirely unable to do what it claims in the Parmenides – where the elderly Parmenides mocks and thoroughly undermines Socrates. But for another, forms as a possibility not only appears in the Republic.

    One should note that they are discussed in only 10 or so of the 30 or so dialogues, which makes you wonder just how essential they are to Plato.

    But for another, they appear in very different ways in different dialogues. There’s no rationalist essentialism in the dialogues in which they are most fully explored, the Symposium. There, it’s irrational love that’s the force being engaged with. Similarly in the Phaedrus. In the Meno and Phaedo, a kind of memory is the issue. In the Cratylus, a kind of craftsmanship. Etc…

    As for the Nirvana Fallacy, I can’t really see what’s objectionable to saying human beings are imperfect. Good enough is good enough. But still flawed. Seems like realism to me, not dogmatism.

    And I just disagree with you about the commonly understood notion of ‘Platonism’, as I’ve been saying. It’s a recent invention, thankfully increasingly challenged.

  25. We seem to have gone back to talking at cross-purposes here, just when I thought we were making progress. I’m talking philosophically, about the position as such (regardless of who held it or when), and you keep coming back to historical and scholarly issues. Let’s forget about whether Plato believed the essentialist doctrine of forms, or whether its a fraudulent invention of later philosophers. Do you, *philosophically* (which is also to say practically) disagree with it? Presumably part of your motive for this historical and textual argument about Plato is actual philosophical disagreement with the essentialist doctrine of forms?

    I still guess, or at least hope, that we don’t disagree about this at all, and this unimportant scholarly question about what Plato in fact believed can be relegated to the sidelines, where it belongs.

    And you seem to have completely misunderstood what I said about the Nirvana Fallacy. The fact that human beings are imperfect is exactly what makes the Nirvana Fallacy fallacious. The Nirvana Fallacy is using perfection as a standard of judgement from which to judge different imperfect options, and reject ones that may otherwise be better just because they’re not perfect. This is where the Platonic appeal to perfection becomes a practical problem: e.g. in those who expect a perfect standard of evidence before they will accept that climate change is anthropogenic.

    1. I not only don’t agree with the rationalist essentialist doctrine of ‘the Forms’, I don’t think it’s in Plato, and I’m not even sure what it is. Similarly, any idea that Plato thought we human beings could get a handle on perfection and with that view make definitive judgements, seems to me to be routinely and explicitly rejected by Plato in the voice of Socrates, which seems right to me too as outside the scope of human capacities anyway.

  26. OK, let’s just leave aside the question of whether it’s really Plato’s view: but it is a matter of concern that you say you don’t know what it is! Is it not the view that we should judge the objects of experience as imperfectly corresponding to Forms, which are ideals found only in reason? There are a number of arguments voiced by Socrates for this: e.g. the argument from the form of equality, whereby we can only judge things in the senses to be equal because we have an idea of equality that is purely rational (Phaedo 74a-77a); or the argument from opposites in the Republic, where things are mixed with their opposites in experience, so we can only understand the way in which a thing has a property by drawing on an a priori pure rational Form of that property (Republic 476d-478e).

    Regardless of whether you think Plato held this view, a view is clearly and consistently articulated and argued for here, in the context of Plato’s dialogues. Surely if you have studied Plato in depth you at least know what this view is, and it’s a touch faux naïf to suggest otherwise? The reliance on this view, whether or not Plato held it, is distinct from the question of whether anyone actually knows the Forms or whether Plato claimed that they did. The question is not whether human beings can get a handle on perfection (obviously not), but whether beliefs about perfection are being appealed to and, following the Nirvana Fallacy, being used as the basis of judgement about imperfect things. Whether or not Plato intended to do this, lots of other people do, and they think “Platonically” when they do so.

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