5

Several recent researchers discuss Plato's fallacies or reasoning flaws in his writings (see list of references). Yet what remains mostly unclear is why there are so many logical errors/fallacies/blunders in Plato's writings in the first place. The KEY QUESTION is: Did these many "flaws", e.g. in the Phaedo, escape Plato's attention? If so, the answer is obvious. If not, why he deliberately left them? Did he has a more mystical purpose in mind perhaps?

I've found two main answers to this question:

  1. Plato's dialogues are "almost intolerable ... so many blunders contained in them" for Bochenski who sees Plato as a second- or third-rate logician.
  2. Plato used fallacies deliberately to explain his arguments, e.g. R. Sprague.

One may think that the answer lies in between these two, but can you think of a more realistic philosophical, historical reason? After all, the Dialogues sparked approval and criticism for many centuries.

EDIT: Examples of fallacy:

Fallacy of equivocation in the Phaedo (Keyt): Socrates uses the dyad dead & not-dead. Then he equates not-dead with immortal (equivocation here), and finally with indestructible.

Thanks!

REFERENCES:

David Sachs A Fallacy in Plato's Republic The Philosophical Review. Vol. 72, No. 2 (Apr., 1963), pp. 141-158.

Raphael Demos, A Fallacy in Plato's Republic?The Philosophical Review Vol. 73, No. 3 (Jul., 1964), pp. 395-398

Keyt, D. (1963), The Fallacies in Phaedo 102a-107b. Phronesis: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy, 8, (1-2), 167-172.

Weller, C. (1995) Fallacies in the Phaedo Again. Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 77 (2):121-134

Sprague, Rosamond (1963), Plato's use of fallacy,: a study of the Euthydemus and some other dialogues. BN.

Sartorius, Fallacy and Political Radicalism in Plato's republic. Canadian Journal of Philosophy. Volume 3, 1974 - Issue 3

Bochenski, I.M., Ancient Formal Logic, Amsterdam, 1951

  • 7
    Maybe it would be helpful here to list a few specific instances of fallacious reasoning in Plato? – Joseph Weissman Jul 18 '17 at 1:52
  • 1
    I'm not completely following the question. It's hard to write anything of any length that someone cannot call fallacious and have some grounds for doing so. Why would we imagine Plato to be any different? – virmaior Jul 18 '17 at 2:32
  • 4
    Plato was not a "logician". – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 18 '17 at 6:39
  • 1
    The style of argumentation in Plato is not (only) "deductive inference" (and this is so in many many philosophers, well after Plato. Consider e.g. Wittgenstein's PI: we cannot assert that W's arguments are based on deductive infernce only. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 18 '17 at 6:41
  • 1
    Can you please add one of these supposed flaws because the example you present is incomprehensible at least. Perhaps, there is a problem with your translation or your "logician". Add one of these examples presented clearly – John Am Jul 18 '17 at 15:02
8

Plato believed in deeper levels of Truth and Reality underlying the world as we know it. Because of the relative imperfection of our own world, we can not fully express or directly communicate deeper Truth. However, we have an unbreakable and inherent internal connection to it. Accordingly, Plato believes in a Socratic process of teaching via questions, where the student is guided to "remember" deeper Knowledge from inside, rather than receiving it didactically from a teacher. This is most plainly made explicit in the Meno, but it underlies all of Plato's writing (and is arguably the "mystical purpose" hinted at in your question).

Because of this, Plato has a surprisingly high tolerance for imperfect argument and errors of logic. This is because he doesn't believe argument and logic (or anything else) can be perfected solely within this world. At the same time he is deliberately using many of those same errors and imperfections to lead the reader forward, and eventually allow the reader to make the leap past what can be directly conveyed and into the deeper Truths beyond. With specific regard to fallacies of equivocation, you'll find these frequently in Plato, because he is using familiar concepts as stand-ins for unfamiliar ones. The gaps that thus open up are a marker of the difference between what he really wants to talk about and the way he is forced to talk about it.

You can see this in the structure of many of his greatest works, particularly the Republic and the Symposium, where a series of differentiated speakers offer varied arguments around a common topic or claim. We are not intended to fully accept any of the arguments, so they are all presented with discoverable flaws. (The same is true of many of Plato's most famous theories, such as the Theory of the Forms.) Like the slave boy in Meno, we are shown where each argument goes wrong, but expected to make the leap to the right answer by ourselves. As I mentioned in this recent question, this is an unusual and somewhat challenging approach, but it is also used to good effect by Kierkegaard. (You can also compare and contrast an Aristotle or a Hegel, who may be wrong, but never on purpose.)

NOTE: This is one of the core standard ways of interpreting Plato, which is associated with Perennialism, and arguably goes back at least as far as the neo-Platonists. It revolves around the mystical side of Plato, and rests on the assumption that there are things too deep to put in words. The other major way of interpreting Plato goes back to Aristotle, emphasizes his rationality, and accordingly must account imperfections in his arguments as mistakes.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful answer! Summarizing: (1) Plato adheres to and teaches with the Socratic method way of inquiry. (2) moreover, imperfect argument + logic errors are used on purpose and out-of-metaphysical-necessity to assist the reader go from familiar to unfamiliar. (3) In some works, several arguments, maybe all incorrect, are advanced by characters to indirectly force the reader to arrive to the tacit Plato's conclusion. Do I read your argument correctly? If so, then it doesn't differ significantly from Sprague (1963). Thanks! – Oliver Amundsen Jul 19 '17 at 13:53
  • @OliverAmundsen - That is an excellent summary. I'm not familiar with the Sprague work in particular, but I would characterize this as one of the core standard ways of interpreting Plato, which arguably goes back at least as far as the neo-Platonists. It emphasizes the mystical side of Plato, and rests on the assumption that there are things too deep to put in words. The other major way of interpreting Plato goes back to Aristotle, emphasizes his rationality, and accordingly must account imperfections in his arguments as mistakes. – Chris Sunami Jul 19 '17 at 14:23
  • thanks a lot for the additional information. Much appreciated. I added it as an edit to your answer, for the sake of completeness.. – Oliver Amundsen Jul 19 '17 at 14:36
  • Thank you -- I re-edited and added some links to the explanatory note. – Chris Sunami Jul 19 '17 at 14:53
  • Cool! This is an extremely interesting way of looking at this phenomenon. But doesn't it sort of ignore the fact that Socrates "falls" for the same kinds of fallacies as the ones of which he accuses his opponents? – Pink May 13 '18 at 13:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.