Language

Here we describe the third of the project’s three sub-themes: Language. We discuss how the notion is relevant in the Platonic context and outline its relation to contemporary debate.

Third, even if most contemporary versions of rational autonomy recognize some form of relation between reason and language, they often bypass a critical appraisal of its implications. Although it is acknowledged that language connects rational deliberation to its written and spoken forms, the linguistic conditions of reason are nevertheless often assessed in purely abstract terms. In John McDowell’s recent and influential discussion of how language-based reasoning is the key to the distanced attitude required to make autonomous and morally informed choices (2010), for example, this is manifest in the way he outlines what discursive deliberation provides. According to McDowell, the human ability to frame a circumstance in words puts us is the privileged position of being able to ask ourselves whether this circumstance constitutes a reason for doing what it inclines us to do (2010, 7). Nowhere does he suggest that this ability can have the very opposite impact, that is, that it can prevent us from making a proper evaluation of the situation we find ourselves in. For Plato, this is a very concrete possibility. Plato does not only isolate and identify a set of reasons to pay attention to the fallible and deceptive characteristics of human language. He also offers strong reasons not to leave the linguistic underpinnings of rational deliberation unexamined. The central task of this part of the project will be to spell out and critically assess the force of these reasons.

To begin with, in Plato, thought is internal dialogue (e.g. Sedley 2006, 214f). This does not only mean that the conditions of the individual process of rational deliberation coincide with the conditions of interpersonal communication. This also suggests that insofar as reason is constitutive of the integrity, self-knowledge and the moral legitimacy of the autonomous agent, everything stands and falls with how we handle language in its manifest forms. That this is an urgent task for Plato is evidenced by his incessant engagement in negotiating viable conversational norms and standards of discursive transparency; norms and standards that are often referred to with the generic label dialectic. Plato’s identification of the problems that necessitate these norms and standards are articulated on at least three levels: Written language, spoken language and words or names.

On the first level, one of the concreate problems of language is that its written form offers an attractive yet deceptive supplement of autonomous reasoning. As Plato makes clear at the end of the Phaedrus, by appearing to be a remedy against forgetfulness, and by offering what seems to be a secure path to wisdom, it threatens to undermine an independent perspective: Living and active memory is replaced by petrified views, and the self-constitutive act of independent scrutiny is substituted by a trust in external authority. As Plato suggest both in the Phaedrus, in the Protagoras, and in the contested Seventh Letter, the written word’s seductive promise of access to comprehensive and stable knowledge works by eclipsing the necessity of assessing and determining one’s own epistemic limits. For Plato, this process is also closely connected to the ways in which dependence on written material is disintegrating. By anchoring one’s sources of trust in a set of external authorities (Nightingale 1995; Griswold 1986 & 1999) one leaves the resources and responsibility of independent scrutiny and autonomous agency behind. But how exactly is this connection to be understood and are all forms of text equally flawed?

On the second level, the worry is extended to spoken language (Ferrari 1987; Dixsaut 2003; Pettersson 2013). By distinguishing between genuine and alien forms of speech (as in the Phaedrus and the Protagoras), Plato shows the consequences of replacing your own authentic voice with the practice of imitating external authorities. In a set of dramatized examples, e.g. in the Protagoras, the Phaedrus, the Hippias Minor, and the Gorgias, Plato reveals the hubristic effects of this substitution (McCoy 1999; Nightingale 2003). The trust in alien sources eclipses the experience of one’s own epistemic conditions, resulting, for example, in the presumptuous beliefs of Hippias and Protagoras that a single sophist can answer any question, or in Gorgias’ claim that rhetoric and the ability to persuade guarantees freedom and independence from external coercion. These beliefs are not only the result of a deceptive psychological stability. As such, they also hinder moral progress and falsely satisfy the need for philosophical inquiry.

In Plato’s Cratylus we are offered an important example of these mechanisms. Staged as an analysis of the correctness of words or names (gr. onoma), Plato here investigates a third linguistic level and the theory that our words are encoded encapsulations of truth. Imagined as established by a set of original and trustworthy name-makers, the words are taken to carry their own independent meaning (Sedley 2003; Cf. Trivigno 2012; Sallis 1975, Ch.4). Contrasted to a functionalists’ view of words, where meaning emerges from use (Gonzalez 1998, Ch.3), Plato considers the idea that truth can be revealed by etymological decoding of the words’ sounds and letters. Accordingly, the words themselves are assumed to have independent and external authority. This deliberately absurd suggestion is telling. By showing how all etymological analyses, at best, can reveal how the etymologists’ own set of beliefs are projected back into his decodings, Plato reduces confidence in external authority to absurdity.

This example allows us to raise a pair of important questions pertinent to all three levels of language: How is it possible to speak (or write) with an authentic voice, insofar as language itself invites us to give up the autonomy of our own rational judgment? And if the inherited nature of our words asks us to subject to the sovereignty of external authority, how is discursive deliberation to be used to secure a position from which we can speak and act as self-governed agents?

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