International Conference: Power and Knowledge in Plato and Beyond [Uppsala, 22-24 May 2019]

International Conference in Uppsala

In May 2019, the rational self-government project will organize an international conference in Uppsala. The conference will have two main goals. On the one hand, we aim to disseminate some of  the research result we have so far have gained to a larger public audience. On the other hand we also want to gather top scholars and emerging researchers in the field to deepen and expand the international discussion already taking place. The conference is still in a preliminary state, but to those of you who might be interesting in both participating and listening, we have made a preliminary call available below. Confirmed speakers so far include M.M. McCabe, Nicholas D. Smith, Marina McCoy and Franco Trivigno. We shall update this page as things progress.

Preliminary Call

Plato often uses a political vocabulary to describe the correlation between external authority and self-determination, on the one hand, and ideal and real sources of knowledge, on the other. This correlation between power and knowledge is, among other things, an essential feature of Plato’s new and unprecedented notion of soul. In Plato, the soul does not only become a carrier of life and movement, but also a self-governed political and moral agent. Throughout his dialogues, this new notion of life is articulated in terms of independence, from both external and internal forms of coercion and manipulation. Plato makes us think about what legitimate sources of authority and knowledge are available, for example in terms of divine absence, as in the Statesman, or in terms of the necessity to examine its manifest forms, as in the Apology. In these cases, just as in the first Alcibiades or in the Phaedrus, Plato seems to be suggesting that we ought to supplement our desires to rule and to know by a search for self-knowledge, guided by the Delphic imperative, and therefore importantly defined in its aim and scope.

As evidenced by these, and many other sources, the intimate bond between knowledge and authority – be that political, personal, moral, or conversational – frames the Platonic legacy at large. The purpose of this conference is to discuss the most important treatments thereof – both in Plato and the in the platonic tradition – and to reassess the notions of power, rule, authority, and knowledge. This task is of course not new. Already Proclus’ discussion of the Statesman myth (Theol. Plat, V 6-8), contains important clues. If we do as Proclus suggests, and take Plato’s imagery and dramatically loaded language as a means to speak beyond the confines of their immediate context, we can also ask: How are we to understand the connection between ideal sources of power and knowledge and the real and immediate task of learning how to reconstruct ourselves as that which has the ability to expose the shadows of illegitimate authority?

This question opens up at least two avenues of research, one internal and one another external. The internal avenue relates to questions that we would like to frame in terms of how knowledge and self-knowledge build self-rule or self-government as sources of authority. If there is something like personal autonomy in the ancient context, how are we to understand it, and what terminology is used to capture it? Under which conditions, say, are we autokinetoi or autologoi? And to what extent does the embodiment of soul (personhood) and reason (language) play a part here? The external avenue leads to an assessment of our relation to external sources of authority. This includes, but is not limited to laws, customs, states, traditions, parents, supervisors, bosses and experts. How can knowledge and self-knowledge help to scrutinize the legitimacy of their claim to power? And, importantly, how are the internal and external descriptions of knowledge and power related?

Our hope with this conference is to accomplish three things. First, we want to gather a series of suggestions that can help to understand what it means in the Platonic context to be independent from, and resilience against, illegitimate sources of authority, both external and internal. What terminology is used and what motivations and arguments lie behind the relevant views in our source materials? Is it proper to speak about these conceptions under the heading of personal autonomy and self-government? If so, what qualifications are needed? Second, we want to generate new and alternative assessments of the relation of power or rule and knowledge in Plato. This does not mean that we would want to avoid, for example, the discussion of the politics and psychological tripartition of the Republic altogether, but our hope is to find new avenues to approach the underlying questions. Third, we also want to encourage the contributors to think about if and how the ancient materials have relevance for our situation today. This does not mean that we expect all, or any, of the papers to explain how our modern democracies should be efficiently governed, or how to rebuild a notion of responsible and well-informed citizen in the post-truth era, but we do hope that what will be discussed at the conference will also have some contemporary bearing. We are all worried by our present political and historical situation, where the systems we know and their representatives are starting to lose their legitimacy in the face of disastrous environmental breakdown, the instrumental treatment of the living planet, and the exponentially growing inequality. In a world where the ideal of a knowledgeable and coherent agent with integrity is quickly dissolving, strategies to define and defend a legitimate source of authority are sorely needed. The conference will allow us to revisit ancient discussions, and to pose the question of if and how they can enrich the reimagining of the relation between knowledge and power.


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