Ancient Philosophy
Project description

Poetry and Philosophy (completed)

A research project on poetical and argumentative elements in Plato's philosophy 2010-2015; project completed.

Main content

The aim of the project is to investigate the relationship between the poetical and the philosophical in the Platonic dialogues. The project thus operates along the intersection between literature and philosophy, two venerable fields within the humanities. This intersection has shown widely different configurations throughout history, the two topics having both rejected each other and interpenetrated each other in complex ways. It is remarkable, however, how strongly these two movements, rejection and interpenetration, simultaneously show up in the Platonic dialogues, where philosophy as a fully fledged genre emerges. It is as if Plato, at the moment when he forcefully demonstrates the merits of the new discipline, philosophy, raises questions about its independence, its boundaries, and about the way to handle and exploit other types of discourses, which we here refer to in summary form as poetry or literature, and which Plato himself seems to welcome but at the same time also to view with considerable suspicion. 

The project will investigate the interconnections between philosophy and the poetic in the Platonic corpus, and the kind of unified philosophical discourse that results – if this indeed is the case. The project is part of an effort to recruit and educate researchers and students, and also to facilitate cooperation and mutual exchange and influence between researchers within philosophy, literature and classics. The aim of this wider effort is to broaden the scope of Platonic studies in Norway in general and to strengthen the collaboration between the Norwegian and international Platonic scholarship. The project has its nucleus in the research group “Ancient philosophy” at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bergen.

The project as a whole will study the Platonic conception of philosophy as a separate genre, in opposition to and in cooperation with other ancient literary genres, such as epic and lyric poetry, tragedy and comedy, and historiography, taking the Platonic corpus as the point of departure. The project will investigate different ways of interpreting the very form that Plato perfected for the conduct of philosophy: the philosophical dialogue. The dialogue form, considered as a mimetic dramatization and staging of living speech put into the mouths of the dialogue-characters, bears clear similarities to the genres of tragedy and comedy. Also, the fact that the dialogue form that Plato uses is narrative in nature, will be a central concern. Why does Plato investigate universal philosophical problems in a way that seems to take its departure from what happens in specific discursive situations? The Platonic dialogues exhibit an abundance of other literary elements, such as metaphorical imagery, myths, allegories and analogies. These elements are not used accidentally or only for ornamental reasons.  On the contrary, we assume that they are chosen with great care and therefore need to be taken into account in any serious interpretation of the corpus. Moreover, various types of stories or “myths” often appear as arguments, or as a substitute for arguments, at critical moments in various dialogues: to describe the fate of the soul after death in the Phaedo, the construction of the cosmos in the Timaeus, the passion of the lovers in the Phaedrus, etc. Through his myths Plato must aim to express something that he cannot express through (logical) arguments. On the one hand, the myths – and other poetical elements – must somehow reflect the demand for truth, but on the other hand, these poetical elements are not easily harmonized with passages of a more straightforward expository style. The extensive use of poetical elements renders a concept of philosophy which is complex and potentially ambiguous. This project will pose the question whether the ambiguity is real, or rather based on a false understanding of Plato’s philosophy as a purely argumentative genre. Plato’s “invention” and construction of a new genre may, instead, consist in his subtle interweaving of poetical and argumentative elements in his philosophical quest. The project aims at analyzing the roles played by both the poetical and argumentative elements in the philosophical quest for truth.

However, the two aspects, the argumentative and the poetic, when viewed isolated and by themselves, may not prove to be of a straightforward and well-known nature. Much of the important argumentation in the dialogues centres around two approaches, the elenchus (refutation) and the techne (“art” or “craft”)- analogy. Through the elenchus Plato questions the knowledge, not only of persons - rhetoricians, sophists, poets and politicians – but, through them, of the established cultural tradition as a whole. This move, however, presents us with an ambiguity. Although the traditional knowledge is found to have serious shortcomings, Plato uses this knowledge as the point of departure; it is thus both a limitation and a resource from which arguments are constructed. Plato seems to put a firmer trust in the knowledge that the artisans possess. The techne-analogy, therefore, is explored as a possible means to establishing philosophy as episteme. However, it turns out that the analogy has a limited scope, since the artisans´ knowledge cannot fully handle the normative questions that Socrates, especially, investigates. Both the elenchus and the techne-analogy, therefore, seem to use as well as to question different possible cognitive resources.

Throughout history some commentators have focused solely on the literary and rhetorical features of the dialogues, while others have tended to concentrate on their more formally argumentative elements.  But there are also some precedents—both ancient and modern— for combining these interests into a single, integrated reading of the dialogues. For example, one ancient version of the approach preserved in writings of Neo-Platonic commentators was revived during the early part of the 20th century by the classical philologist and Platonic scholar Paul Friedländer.  This approach gained considerable momentum in certain philosophical circles during the second half of the century, so that by now poetical and dramatic elements are often interpreted as an integral part of Plato’s philosophy itself.  Such literary-philosophical approaches fall into several distinguishable kinds.

The earliest are traceable to German philosophical influences in the phenomenology and existentialism of Martin Heidegger, and - less obviously but importantly - Friedrich Nietzsche’s approach to classics. These approaches include the hermeneutical treatment of Hans Georg Gadamer and the political-philosophical reading of Leo Strauss. These scholars are now represented by numerous second- and third-generation students who pursue similar approaches in reading Plato's dialogues.

In the wake of the just-mentioned efforts, also the analytical tradition of Platonic interpretation has effectively taken up the question of the relation between the argumentative and poetic in Plato's philosophy. See, for instance, Annas and Rowe (2002) and also Rowe (2007). All in all we notice in Plato studies a merging of traditions that formerly bore either an analytic or a continental stamp. This becomes evident when we consider the increasing interest in the connections between Plato’s poetic and literary style and his philosophical thought taken in recent books and articles across several traditions and languages. These include book-length works in English by Charles Kahn (1998), Ruby Blondell (2002), A. Michilini (2003), Zückert (2009), and Lampert (2010); and Italian author Fabio Giuliano's 2005 book. It is not obvious, however, that the poetic and the philosophical have found its appropriate balance in Platonic scholarship. In a review of three of the most recent books in English addressing issues of form and style in the interpretation of the Platonic dialogue, Tania Gergel suggests that there has perhaps arisen “a new ‘literary’ orthodoxy within Platonic interpretation”. She adds, “However, now that this is the case, it may be time to go beyond the underlying notion of two alternative schools of interpretation and begin to synthesize these varying approaches…so as to ‘move further towards readings of Plato which respect the formal features of the dialogues, but also their philosophical complexity’.”[1] Our project aims to respond to this challenge.  



Problematics and Working Hypotheses

 The project will investigate the following problematics:

(a) The complex figure of the philosopher constructed in the dialogues.Our hypothesis here is that Plato is constructing a new type of scholar. This new type, however, is presented in ways that seem to contradict one each other and is, moreover, not sharply distinguished from other types of wise men. But the figure of the philosopher does seem to be clearly distinguished from women and thus seems to confront us with the need of a fundamental discussion about the sexual character of this particular figure.

(b) Plato’s philosophical arguments. We will investigate the nature of argumentation in relation to the literary elements in the Platonic dialogues. Our hypothesis is that not only is Platonic philosophy a blend of the two, but also that we need to analyze them in contrast to each other in order to understand the nature of both as they function in the Platonic corpus.


(c) Plato’s dialogues and imitative poetry. We will study the complex relation between Plato's dialogical dramas and imitative literature. Our hypothesis is that Plato´s dialogues, both in form and content, not only arise from, but also oppose traditional literature, such as Homer and dramatic poetry (tragedies and comedies).


The project’s three central paths of investigation obviously overlap thematically. They could be pursued individually or together. Here, we discuss them in more detail.


(a) The figure of the philosopher 

In the Platonic corpus we find the first introduction to the figure of the philosopher. This figure of course most often assumes the persona of Socrates, but at other

times he appears under other names - or even as an un-named foreigner.

            Socrates, as the main figure of the philosopher, is presented in rather ambiguous ways. His role as the master of elenchus - in Lysis, Charmides, Laches, Ion, Alcibiades I, Protagoras, Euthyphro, Lesser Hippias - seems to be quite different from his conceptual interweaving of moral and political abstract theories in the Republic, the Phaedo and the Statesman. The difference between the Socrates who professes his lack of knowledge in the Apology from the theorizing cosmologist in the Timaeus is also striking. Moreover, there is a less than clear difference between the philosopher and other knowledgeable or wise figures that are displayed in different dialogues: the closeness between the philosopher/stranger and the sophist in the Sophist;between the philosopher/stranger and a statesman who seems to possess technê-like expertise in the Statesman; between Socrates and his “teachers”, the rhetorician Aspasia in the Menexenus and the wise woman Diotima in the Symposium. These examples indicates that not only does philosophy seem to become blurred at the edges, but also that its core is difficult to pinpoint.

            Several interlocking questions spring from this. Is it Plato’s intention to show that philosophy encompass all these elements (and possibly more)? Or is his point that philosophy can and must include elements that are not in themselves philosophical when the nature of the investigation at hand demands it? If so, does that mean that philosophy has its limitations? Or is he showing that his insistence that philosophy is a new and distinctive discipline does not imply that its nature and extent is given once and for all, but have to be made an object for constant reflection? If this is the case, Plato’s corpus gives us ample material for such a deliberation.

            Metaphors and analogies connect different themes, genres and types of knowledge. An example of this we find in the Symposion, where the philosopher, as the lover of wisdom, is contrasted with the sophos, or rather the sophê. This opposition takes the form of a sexual opposition between Socrates, the male philosopher, and Diotima, the wise woman. In this dialogue, sexual metaphors as well as metaphors of birth are put into play in the attempt of defining the figure of the philosopher as well as the activity of philosophizing. Thus, questions of sexual difference and sexuality as well as their metaphors will be central for a proper understanding of the figure of the philosopher.


b) Plato’s philosophical arguments

Here we take as our departure what has already been said about the elenchus and the techne-analogy. We will analyse the Gorgias, the Protagoras and the Meno with the following questions in mind:

            1) Given that Socrates is successful in undermining traditional or sophistic thinking (which is not always to be taken for granted), how should we understand the positive results of his investigations? Do we get a clearer view of the object, of a specific virtue, for instance? Or is the value of the search to be found in the elimination of false notions? Or is it the method and approach of sound philosophy that is primarily displayed? Is the limitation of philosophy then also exhibited?

            2) We will study the Statesman, the Lesser Hippias and the Philebus in the light of these hypotheses: techne may contain episteme to a greater or lesser degree, as Plato seems to presuppose. However, craft is skill in handling nature, not in solving moral or political questions, which had also been raised within the poetic tradition. When Plato “takes the side” of the craftsmen, he seems to signal philosophy’s break with the way the traditional literature, especially Homer and the tragedies, had been treating those questions. On the other hand, Plato is far less interested in the knowledge of artisans than he is in politics and ethics. In other words, he is epistemically committed to craft while he is thematically engaged in normative questions. When the limitation of the techne-analogy is shown in different ways, is this because the nature of normative questions does not accommodate this approach? If so, does this mean that philosophy cannot aspire to the kind of knowledge we could call episteme? In that case, will philosophical claims reach orthos doxa at the most? If that is so, the distance between philosophy and other genres of wisdom will diminish.

            Socrates, the philosopher portrayed in most of the dialogues, is constantly engaged in some sort of argumentation. We will look at the arguments as such. They can, from a logical point of view, seldom be considered unequivocally sound. Concepts used are often vague or ambiguous and liable to change their meaning. When we try to assess the outcome of a dialogical exchange, we often find ourselves enveloped in ambiguity. Often such ambiguity has to do with the narrative setting of the argumentation and with the use of metaphor and analogy within the argumentation itself.  This poses (at least) two questions that we will look closer into: Is Plato showing us how context can detract from sound argumentation? Or is the point rather that the best philosophical argumentation is always of this nature? Here we will look at the Sophist, the Theaetetus and the Republic, Book I.


(c) Plato’s dialogues and imitative poetry

When Plato in the tenth and final book of the Republic distances himself from other forms of art, it is their mimetic character he presents as the foundation of his argument. Whereas, however, the main example of mimetic art is painting, the main target of Plato´s argument is tragic poetry. We will therefore pay special attention to the relation between Plato´s dialogues and the tragedies, especially those of Sophocles, not only when it comes to poetic elements, but also the status of and relation between knowledge and truth on the one hand and happiness of the individual and the community on the other. While Plato seems to reduce or even eliminate the significance of sexual difference in the quest for truth and happiness, sexual difference and sexual conflicts play a central part in most of the tragedies. It is our hypothesis that this opposition is related to Plato´s criticism of the tragedies, both in the tenth book of the Republic and elsewhere in the dialogues.

            The harsh criticism of the mimetic arts in the Republic and the fact that the dialogues themselves are mimetic dramatizations and heavily rely on mimetic elements generates the question whether it in the Platonic dialogues emerges a division between good and bad mimetic poetry. Studying this topic engages us in closer consideration of Plato’s own use of poetic devices such as imagery, style, language, setting, myth, characterization, irony, etc. This also makes it essential to consider more specific aspects of the dialogues within their own era and historical context, where Plato was engaged in the creation of a new sort of literature – philosophy - which had to win appeal by competing with the existing modes of poetry and rhetoric.

            Not only does Plato use mimetic elements in his dialogues, mimesis is also a key concept within Plato´s own thinking: imitation is for Plato a necessary devise of gaining insight, not the least in the Republic, but also in the Symposium, in the so called “ladder of love”. Plato´s critique of mimetic poetry is thus more than ambiguous and mimesis a rather problematic concept in Plato´s dialogues.



The Ph.D. and the post-doc candidates who will be included in the project, will be asked to do research along one or more of these three paths. We already have one Ph.D candidate in the project, Erlend Breidal, who received a scholarship in 2008, financed by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bergen. The title of his project is “Socrates and the Stranger as emblematic figures for two different kinds of philosophy in the triology The Theaetetus, The Sophist and The Statesman”.         



The wider context of the project

The project is developed within a group of scholars belonging to philosophy, literature and the classics. It has its base at the University of Bergen, but its network includes researchers from Oslo, Tromsø, Denmark, Great Britain and USA.

            Our first international conference, held in 2008, examined Republic X, the locus of Plato’s attack on tragic poetry. A number of articles presented at this conference were published in Norsk filosofisk tidsskrift. The second conference, held in 2009, focused on the Phaedrus, which presents a complex analysis of the relationships between rhetoric and philosophical writing and speech. Some papers from this conference were published in Symbolae Osloenses.

            Our third conference was held at the end of May 2011, focusing on Plato´s last dialogue, the Laws. In this dialogue, the Athenian Stranger, the dialogue's main speaker, goes so far as to call their legislative project "the finest and best tragedy" inasmuch as it aims to "dramatize a noble and perfect life". (817b) Here the Stranger highlights the importance of the relationship between poetry and philosophy, and even suggests that this relation has strong ethical implications. The conference explored these and related questions. In addition to Norwegian and Scandinavian participants, the conference hosted three American speakers: professor Julia Annas, professor Hayden Ausland and professor Paul Woodruff.

We propose to proceed with investigations of individual dialogues by holding annual intensive study sessions and conferences, each time focusing on a particular dialogue. The dialogue that has been selected for the fourth annual conference to be held in Bergen in the spring of 2012 will be Plato’s Symposium. 


Project participants

The project has its nucleus in the research group “Ancient philosophy” at the Department of Philosophy, University of Bergen, but has a broad national and international network. The network consists of researchers from the fields of philosophy, literature and classics. We all share a common interest both in antiquity and in the poetical aspects of philosophy as well as the philosophical aspects of poetry. Within the network there are researchers at different levels, from professors to aspiring doctoral students. For more details, see the link "Activities" on the right at the top of this page.


[1] Plato as Literature, by Tania L. Gergel The Journal of Hellenic Studies © 2004 The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.