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At the boundaries of the dialectical art: collection and division in Plato’s Phaedrus.

Matthew Shelton

University of St Andrews

In this paper I show how Socrates’ discovery of the genus, mania, as a preliminary step in the intellectual procedure of collection and division in the Phaedrus is presented in two distinct ways. The art of collection and division is employed in order to define erôs and is described by Socrates as a technê, and related both to rhetoric and to medicine (e.g. 270b).   

After describing much of his speeches about love as ‘playful’ (265c), Socrates turns his attention to those features which incidentally allowed the speeches to pass from censure to praise. In Socrates’ outline of the method of collection and division which follows (265d-266b), madness is brought into strong focus as a formal object of these procedures. One procedure, collection, is illustrated by the definition of erôs. This involves the ability to perceive a unity within a diverse set of various particulars (265d). The other procedure, division, separates this unity or genus into natural parts (265d-266a) to arrive at particular target species. Socrates’ apparent seriousness about the method comes with certain commitments, and it is difficult to believe that Plato is interested in collection and division only, without being invested in its application in the speeches themselves.

One of the puzzles of the method has to do with the first step: preliminary collection. The genus or unity in Socrates’ paradigm is madness, but there is no method given for how the initial unity, which will be divided, is first identified and marked out. Other examples of collection and division in Plato are of limited help and it seems that the non-technical perception of the initial genus is characteristically described in terms of “insight” or as some sort of “intuitive leap” (e.g. Philip 1966). While the precise application of these techniques is still a matter of some dispute (see Hayase 2016.), the first step, preliminary collection, has often been seen as marking the boundary between non-technical insight and the philosophical art of dialectic (e.g. Griswold 1996). I suggest that the determination of the genus which is to be divided happens precisely at the intersection between different fields of knowledge which involve different levels of expertise.

I analyse the application of this method in the speeches themselves and examine how madness is first introduced into the dialogue. While Socrates’ first speech captures some aspects of the technique (representing a failed attempt), it is simultaneously involved in determining a suitable genus for the ultimately successful application of the art. Socrates first discovers his genus (mania) within a faulty division (this finds its closest parallel in Plato’s Sophist where the successful genus for division derives from earlier failed attempts).

Another way of characterising how Socrates gets the genus involves his description of recollection in the palinode (249bc) which is superficially quite similar to Socrates’ description of collection (265d). This resemblance helps to interpret Socrates’ mock inspiration before the speech begins (235c-d). I argue that Plato stages Socrates’ access to the genus, madness, as one of recollection and that the lyric poets, Sappho and Anacreon, who are named by Socrates, are analogous to stimuli to recollection. This means that the formulation of the genus, madness, a concept which Socrates stumbles upon in a failed division in his first speech, which is brought to the fore in the palinode, and which has a formal role in the synopsis, is mediated by the lyric poets.

In this way, Socrates’ access to the genus is through non-philosophical popular wisdom. In examples from other dialogues (e.g. the Sophist and Statesman), the relationship of the preliminary genus to its target species is usually accepted at face-value. The suitability of the genus, madness, and its target species, love and divine philosophy, is not supposed to be problematic. On my view, by selecting mania as his genus, Socrates is appealing precisely to non-controversial views about madness which include the stereotypes of the mad lover and the mad philosopher.

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Argumentation in Plato

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