Michael Coxhead — Getting to Grips with Process: Learning & Understanding in Platos’ Euthydemus

Hey Everybody,

The next Knowledge Exchange will be:


TUESDAY (24TH OF JUN) 17h00-18h00, Deptford Town Hall G4 (GOLDSMITHS)

One received view of Plato’s Euthydemus maintains that the dialogue consists of a list or handbook of sophistic fallacies, which Plato presented in order to distinguish his preferred philosophical method (dialectic) from a seemingly similar sophistic style of debate (eristic) (Chance, 1992). Following McCabe (1994) I decline this received view on the grounds that it is exegetically skin-deep. In its place I offer an example of some of the philosophical richness that the Euthydemus contains. In particular, I argue that the Euthydemus has a preoccupation with understanding processes: both what they consist in and how best to characterise them. First I shall motivate this claim, considering the dialogue in the round. Second, I shall offer an interpretation of the first sophistic episode (275c-278e). The arguments contained in this episode are commonly taken to turn on an equivocal use of manthanein, which can mean either ‘to learn’ or ‘to understand’. I suggest that there is more to this passage: rather than merely offering an example of an equivocation-type fallacy, Plato is inviting us to think of the relationship between learning and understanding in terms of process. On my interpretation, we are challenged to think about learning as a process from the perspective of the epistemological state at which learning aims (understanding). By characterising processes as explanatorily subordinate to the final states at which they are aimed, such processes are understood teleologically. Third, I shall question whether this characterisation of learning/understanding in terms of process is merely of analytic interest. Contrary to this deflationary suggestion I propose that Plato presents a normative view of learning as an active process on the part of the learner. This is juxtaposed with his sophistic antagonists, whose description of learning suggests the possibility of a passive leap from ignorance to understanding. I end posing open questions as to whether and in what sense this is a useful way to think about both process qua learning and process tout court.

Mike Coxhead is a PhD candidate at the Department of Philosophy, King’s College London. His research focuses on explicating Aristotle’s notion of epistêmê as a form of understanding: what it consists in, how one acquires it, and how it relates to contemporary epistemological concepts. He is also interested in the interface(s) between epistemology and ethics.

Background reading in advance of the lecture:
Plato, Euthydemus, particularly 271a-278e (pp. 709-15 of Sprague’s translation in Cooper ed. 1997 Plato. Complete Works. Hackett)


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