Volume 10, 2007
Ancient and Modern Philosophy
Dialogue and Dialectic
Philosophical Truth in Plato
Plato wrote dialogues, and he praised dialectic, or conversation, as a suitable style for fruitful philosophical investigation. His works are great literature; and no
doubt this quality derives much from their form as dialogues. They also have definite philosophical content; and an important part of this content is their dialectical
epistemology. Dialectic is part of the content of Plato's philosophy. Can we reconcile this content with his literary style? I shall examine and sharpen the sense of this problem by referring to four passages from different works of Plato: Parmenides 132b-c, Protagoras 351-2, Sophist 248-9, Republic 592. In these passages we can distinguish a main position, which represents what it is natural to label Platonism, from a line of thought which diverges from that position and yet also seems authentically Platonic. I argue that the solution to this tension lies in the notion of dialectic as a tentative and exploratory method of philosophy. This view of dialectic is in some conflict with Plato's official account of the method as guaranteed to deliver fundamental truth; but that conflict presents one more version of the phenomenon which I am exploring. The theory of dialectic provides philosophical support for the method of dialogue. That is how philosophy and literature are linked in Plato's pursuit of truth.