19 December 2010

More on Phaedo

As faithful readers may remember, on December 12th I commented on an argument in Plato's Phaedo, under the more contemporary inspiration of Anderson Brown.

Now I think I may have grasped a point that puzzled me then. For when Socrates is challenged with the idea that the soul may be a sort of harmony, and thus dependent upon the physical instrument that plays it, his response is to contend that this can't be a good analogy. Why not? Because having a soul is a binary choice: you either have one or you don't. Being harmonious, or melodic, though, is a matter of degree. Some tunes are more tuneful than others.

Setting aside Brown's exegesis of the passage, I found the argument weak. It appeared to be a mere playing with words. Surely, a defender of the soul-as-harmony theory could say that we sometimes use "harmony" in a binary sense, while at other times using it as a matter of degree. Indeed, as a music critic might use the word "soul" in writing of R&B musicians, it is susceptible to a matter-of-degree interpretation too.

But perhaps Plato's point is two-fold. First: if we think of the tune Mary-had-a-little-lamb as a Platonic Idea (as Plato presumably would have), then we will think of the first musician ever to have played that tune on whatever instrument -- or the first composer ever to put it to paper -- not as its creator but as the discoverer of that bit of imaginative space.

Second, though, there is a sharp distinction. The soul is that which does the discovering. A particular tune is that which is discovered. They are as different as subject and object.

Plato is then saying that (a) both tune and appreciative soul can exist in some sense without embodiment, but (b) the soul exists in a fuller, more active, sense than the tune. The soul is that which rejects one tune for another, deciding that one is more "tuneful" than the other.

I'm reminded a bit of something Wittgenstein said about the self. My self would not be part of the contents of a book called "The world as I found it." The self is the finder.

1 comment:

Henry said...

Here is the full Wittgenstein quotation, in the Pears and McGuinness translation of the Tractatus 5.631:

There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas.
If I wrote a book called The World as l found it, I should have to include a report on my body, and should have to say which parts were subordinate to my will, and which were not, etc., this being a method of isolating the subject, or rather of showing that in an important sense there is no subject; for it alone could not be mentioned in that book.—

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.