It often happens that, despite a person’s being provided with good reasons to change her evaluative beliefs, she chooses not to do so. This event is recurrent in Plato’s dialogues, where Socrates is often depicted using reason and argument to try to convert his interlocutors to the life of philosophy, but where, just as often, his interlocutors are depicted as highly resistant. In my research, I investigate the implications of this for Platonic moral psychology and the task of moral education; and how, if at all, Plato thinks that such resistance can be overcome.
A central issue here—whether a person can rationally decide to become a new person—is one in which there has been a resurgence of interest lately in contemporary philosophy. Decision theorists such as L.A. Paul (2014) argue that, since one’s evaluative preferences radically change after becoming a new person, one’s current evaluative preferences can provide little, if any, guidance about whether to do so. In contrast, Agnes Callard (2018) argues that one can rationally choose to become a new person. On her view, transformation is the result of aspiration, an active process of coming to see clearly a value that at first one merely glimpses. What about for Plato? Answering this is important not only for giving historical depth to a contemporary issue of significant philosophical interest. It is important also for solving a longstanding problem of Platonic scholarship: why does Socrates, despite often wielding arguments that his interlocutors cannot refute, have so little success in convincing them to change their ways of life? Does Plato think that Socrates’ project of philosophical conversion is a lost cause—that reason is wholly ineffective at motivating someone to adopt new values?
On a widely held and highly influential view, that is precisely what Plato thinks. More specifically, scholars tend to hold that, for Plato, (i) reason alone is ineffective at improving people, in part because (ii) reason is incapable of overcoming the influence that one’s desires can have on one’s evaluative beliefs, and so (iii) Socrates’ project of philosophical conversion, in virtue of relying on reason to change a person’s evaluative beliefs, is tactically flawed.
This view on the relationship between Socrates’ project of conversion and Plato’s moral psychology has been predominant for the last several decades (in fact, it can be seen as tracing back to Nietzsche). Further, it provides a reason to suppose that there is a deep divide between Socrates and Plato: while Socrates thought that reason alone could reform a person’s values, Plato thought nothing of the sort. However, I think that it results from a profound misreading of Plato’s corpus. Most of my research aims at correcting that reading and, in its place, providing a full account of Socrates’ project of conversion, one that shows it not to be inconsistent with Plato’s moral psychology but rather, properly conceived, to be deeply informed by it.
What follows are abstracts of the papers that are my current focus.
* Ancient Greek & Roman Philosophy *
[Name Withheld to Preserve Blind Review] In this paper, I defend the viability of Socrates' project of philosophical conversion against widespread scholarly skepticism. I argue that, for Plato, philosophical argument can be effective at causing a person to come to value wisdom the most, but not primarily in the way that one might expect—that is, not primarily by prompting someone to draw the conclusion that she must change her way of life, but rather by its causing her to have a non-rational experience, one that can be effective at reshaping her beliefs about how best to live.
[Name Withheld to Preserve Blind Review] In this paper, I consider the significance of Socrates’ remark in the Gorgias that it is Callicles’ eros that is the cause of his being unpersuaded to change his way of life. I argue that, far from a mere literary embellishment, Socrates’ remark points us to an often overlooked but highly important part of Plato’s moral psychology, in particular Plato’s conception of hot cognition. I then distinguish two kinds of eros for Plato—roughly, eros for pleasure, and eros for the good (alternatively phrased as appearance-based eros and reflection-based eros)—and I show that each kind causes a different type of hot cognition: the first a process of wishful thinking (i.e., holding a belief regardless of the evidence), the second a process of motivated reasoning (i.e., holding a belief based on evidence, but evidence that, due to one’s desire to hold the belief, one evaluates in self-serving ways). I argue that only motivated reasoning is a serious problem for Socrates’ project of using reason and argument to change his interlocutors belies about how best to live—and that, at the end of the day, this is good news: it means that Socrates can be successful.
[Name Withheld to Preserve Blind Review] In this paper, I argue for a Socratic method that is distinct in kind from refutation, unified by formal features, and far more effective at converting Socrates' interlocutors to the life of philosophy than refutation is ever shown to be. I call it “Socratic exhortation.” I show that it is foremost an exercise in practical reason, one that consists of three stages: Socrates identifies the object of his interlocutor’s strongest desire (in particular, the object of his interlocutor’s eros); he then convinces the interlocutor that his current way of trying to satisfy that desire is ineffective; and, finally, he persuades the interlocutor that, to satisfy it, he must gain wisdom, and thus must do philosophy.
[Name Withheld to Preserve Blind Review] Is there a uniquely Platonic form of protreptic? Most scholars doubt it. In this paper, I argue that, on the contrary, there is a form of protreptic in Plato that is distinctive, and, further, that it is put into practice by Socrates’ exercise of his “erotic art.”
The Importance for Plato of What People Care About. In this paper, I analyze the notion of caring about or valuing (epimeleisthai) in Plato. One might think that, to count as valuing something, one needs only to believe that it is important. However, using texts from playwrights, rhetoricians, and philosophers of Classical Greece, I show that epimeleisthai was understood as requiring more: not only believing something is important, but, as a result, acting on behalf of it and attending to it. I then argue that Plato revises the notion so that it requires also having knowledge about what one purports to epimeleisthai, a requirement to which Socrates consistently appeals in refuting his interlocutors' claims to care about things rightly.
Socratic Refutation and Epistemic Duties. In this paper, I consider why Socrates (or anyone else) would believe that refutation would be conducive to changing a person's fundamental values in the first place. I argue that existing accounts fail to give a plausible explanation, and I provide a novel account that fares better. On my account, what Socrates refutes is an interlocutor's claim to have fulfilled his role-based epistemic duty, i.e., a duty to know imparted by his social role, to know in particular what is required to perform that social role well. In doing so, he motivates them to do philosophy as a way of repairing their social status and self-esteem.
* Outside of Ancient Greek & Roman Philosophy *
Loving Animals and Eating Meat. One of the most promising alternatives to utilitarian-based and deontology-based thinking about animal welfare is found in Cora Diamond’s paper, “Eating Meat and Eating People,” where she argues that our tendency to view animals as fellow creatures is, in some significant sense, inconsistent with our tendency to use them as objects, e.g., to exploit their labor or raise them on factory farms. It is not obvious, however, why we should care about this inconsistency. In this paper, I supplement Diamond’s view with an argument for why this inconsistency should bother us—not because it is a mere inconsistency, I argue, but rather because in many cases it is a sign of willful moral blindness, and thus shows us to be self-deceivers.
Beauty and Aesthetic Merit: Two Currencies of Aesthetic Judgment. In this paper, I offer a solution to the longstanding tension in aesthetics between the theses that there are no principles of aesthetic judgment (popularly phrased as ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’) and that aesthetic judgments are genuine in the sense of being about objects in the external world. If that were true, then, contrary to the first thesis, we would expect there to be some principles that determine whether an aesthetic judgment is true or false; but that would conflict with the first thesis. I argue that both theses are equally plausible, and that the tension arises only if we cash out aesthetic value in one currency. In fact, I argue, there is ample reason to think that aesthetic value comes in two forms—aesthetic merit and beauty—and that, if we allow for this, the tension is resolved.