The seven essays in this collection are based upon the August 1999 Colloquium at the Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington , D.C. , entitled "Plato and Socrates: Approaches to the Interpretation of the Platonic Dialogues." Ostensively the Colloquium was designed as a collaborative investigation into the significance of two particular changes that have occurred in the field of Platonic studies. The first is the rapidly increasing breakdown of the long-accepted paradigm for interpreting Plato along developmental schemes that rests on a broad division of the dialogues into "early" (and "Socratic"), "middle," and "late." There is growing disaffection with many of the assumptions that sustained this paradigm, such as, for example, the ability to isolate a "Socratic" phase of Plato's thought, or the usefulness of the chronology of composition to establish the development of that thought. Indeed, the whole idea of a developmental interpretation of Plato's ideas has perhaps lost much of its allure, not least in view of increased attention to ancient interpretations of Plato that do not invoke development. But while the established paradigm-which, of course, many have always resisted-is losing its hold, no generally accepted alternative has emerged to replace it. Rather, the reverse: any disinterested observer, surveying current books and periodical articles on Plato, might easily gain an overwhelming impression of fragmentation--even if the survey restricted itself to publications in English. (There have long been significant differences, within the modern period, between the types of approach to Plato adopted within different cultural traditions, whether in English-speaking counries, in Europe at large, or in Latin America; the present tendency toward "fragmentation," if such it is, is a new phenomenon, belonging chiefly to those areas in which English is the first language.)
The second major change which lay behind the original idea for the Colloquium was the gradual emergence of a new debate between philosophers and classicists about the relationship between form and argument in the Platonic corpus. This debate is informed to some degree by currents in modern literary theory, which have helped to produce an increased sensitivity to the problems and possibilities of interpreting the highly complex and elusive set of texts contained in the Platonic corpus. But it too increasingly recognizes the relevance of ancient approaches to Plato (and to Socrates) and their potential usefulness to modern interpreters, especially in offering perspectives and preoccupations different from our own.
Seven speakers were invited to address some aspect of these problems. Each invited presentation also had a respondent who presented critical comments and context to the remarks of the principle speaker. After presentation and a recording of comments from the floor the essays were reworked and reordered for presentation in this volume.:
Julia Annas's (with Dorothea Frede responding) investigation of how should we categorize the "middle" and "late" periods, acts as an introduction to the essays. Middle period in the Platonic corpus used to mean "optimistic," "constructive," while "late" meant "critical"; but that seems to depend too heavily on a particular reading of Parmenides. Certainly, some dialogues must have been written "in the middle," between those written earlier and those written later, but that by itself obviously carries no implication for our interpretation of them. Have we perhaps gone on using categories whose justification has actually been forgotten, and indeed lost?
Next David Sedley (with David Blank responding) comments on the Ancient Platonic perspectives on Socratic irony. Academic skepticism, Middle and NeoPlatonism all contribute to images Socratic irony which contracts significantly with modern philosophical interpretations.. What do these ancient interpreters have to offer us, if anything? One position that is widely held, at least by implication, is that anything which makes Plato look less like a modern academic philosopher will simply make him look less like a philosopher. If, then, we are (modern) philosophers, we had better go on interpreting him as one-and ignoring the Neo-Platonists, at any rate, whose Plato is often about as far from the model of a modern philosopher as it is possible to be. Is there anywhere to go beyond this position? Is it inevitable that we reject later Platonist interpretation, or does such interpretation, however alien it may seem to be, have something of value for us?
Christopher Taylor (with Brad Inwood responding) comments upon the modern origins of our present paradigms. At what point, and precisely why, did "Socrates" begin to be separated off from "Plato" in the interpretation of Plato? (In one sense, perhaps, with Aristotle; but the particular notion that one group of dialogues is essentially Socratic is a modern one. Who invented it, and why?) When did scholars of Plato first begin systematically to detect, or assume, a difference between "middle" and "late"?
Charles Kahn's (with Charles Griswold. Jr. responding) offers a summary of Platonic chronology. What are the grounds for supposing that knowing when a particular dialogue was written (if we could know it), whether absolutely or in relation to other dialogues, should significantly affect our understanding of it? Kahn provides an adroit reading of the historical approaches that have given us the developmental perspective.
Christopher Gill (with Kathryn Morgan responding) looks at the dialogue form and the nature of dialectics. Is there any such thing as "the" dialogue form? Discussion has usually centered on the "Socratic" dialogues, treating the rest as a kind of falling-off from the real thing-the real dialogue; but is Laws, for example, written as it is-as a conversation-merely, as it were, out of habit? Do we have anything to learn from ancient reactions to Plato as a literary artist?
Terry Penner (with Christopher Rowe responding examines the philosophical implications of "Socratic" dialogues How distinct are they from the "middle" and "late" ones? Some reconstructions of the "Socratic" positions allegedly contained in these dialogues suggest that they are more or less interestingly different; on the other hand, different forms of unitarianism do not seem obviously silly, and there are some indications that Plato thinks the methods we see deployed in the "Socratic" dialogues are compatible with those deployed in the "middle" and "late" period. Is the notion of "Socratic" dialogues ultimately tenable or useful?
Andrea Nightingale (with R.B. Rutherford responding) examines fantastic and realistic mimesis in Plato as a demonstration of a literary approach to Reading. Exactly what does a self-consciously literary approach to Plato have to offer, if anything, toward an understanding of the dialogues as literary works? (Clearly, form has some bearing on the central issues-or does it? The "Socratic" dialogues differ in form from most of the others; or is this merely a matter of artistic/writerly choice?)
Taken together the volume shows that the nature of Platonic studies is vigorous if no longer unified by scholarly consensus about the over-all shape or order of the corpus. Given the plethora of methodologies in use still working out their various filters on this complex set of texts, it may be several generations before any such unitive frame is like to cycle round again.