Good Beliefs, Bad Arguments: Pragmatic Reasons in Plato's Dialogues

Nally, Edith, Philosophy - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Scott, Dominic, University of Virginia

Readers of Plato are often frustrated to find that the dialogues are dotted with strange, unbelievable and seemingly invalid arguments. The question is: are these errors on the part of Plato? Or might some of these bad arguments be intentional? Might they even be intended to confuse or mislead? Scholars are generally suspicious of the view that Plato, a great defender of truth, would knowingly attribute false claims or bad arguments to Socrates. Suppose, however, that we could point to passages in which Socrates is himself aware of having given a tenuous, unbelievable, or downright misleading argument. My dissertation argues that such evidence exists––that Socrates is sometimes aware of giving a bad argument in defense of his own views––but that there may be a good philosophical reason for this.

This research focuses on three cases, from the Meno, Phaedo, and Phaedrus. In each case, I argue, Socrates delivers an argument followed by a “disclaimer” of sorts (Meno 86b6-c2, Phaedo 114d1-6, Phaedrus 262d1-4). In the Meno, for example, following the discussion of recollection, Socrates claims to be unwilling to “rely on” (διισχυρισαίμην) something he has said in defense of his view (86b6). Whereas most scholars take this remark to refer to the strange metaphysics introduced alongside the theory of recollection, I argue that what Socrates is unwilling to endorse is, in fact, the slave boy demonstration. He is aware that it offers insufficient proof that recollection is the sole means by which we acquire knowledge. Similar disclaimers appear in the Phaedo and Phaedrus. In all three cases, I argue, Socrates knowingly disclaims an argument he has given in support of a view that he endorses.

Ultimately, this body of evidence shows that Plato does, at times, intend to give bad arguments on the part of Socrates. How are we to reconcile this evidence with the spirit of Platonic philosophy, its commitment to rigor, truth and honesty? I propose the following solution: Scholars often assume that, for Plato, it is inappropriate to believe a claim in the absence of a proof of its truth. I argue, however, that Plato sometimes appeals to pragmatic, rather than truth-based, reasoning. In each of the above cases, instead of proving that his view is true, Socrates claims instead that it will be good to believe it––i.e. that believing it will make one better, wiser or less idle (Meno 86b6-c2)––and that this is grounds to believe it. These pragmatic arguments suggests that Plato recognizes a certain limited class of claims as good or appropriate to believe, even in the absence of proof of their truth. This class of claims is unique, I argue, in that even if they turn out to be false, they motivate a person to undertake a systematic study of philosophy.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Plato, philosophy, ancient philosophy, pragmatic arguments, Socrates
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