The Rational Kernel of the Platonic Corpus

Lesson 4(a). Wherein in the dialogues: the obscure subject of education.

It is illuminating to think that the Platonic corpus enacts the re-trial of Socrates. With the successive enquiries of each dialogue, the questioning of those suspected of sophistry and those who bear witness to it, the determined differentiation of the knowledge of opinion from the truth of such knowledge, Plato certainly seems to be concerned to establish a new verdict. However, it is not a new verdict on Socrates Plato seeks.

It seems to me that the re-trial enacted through the corpus does indeed find Socrates guilty of corruption. But what Socrates corrupts is a corrupt state – one that does not know what it claims to know. This, as Plato notes, is the worst of all corruptions and ‘one should be grateful to be delivered of it’ (Grg. 458a).

In order to find Socrates guilty of what amounts to the instigation of an education by truths – which is the ‘lack of a sophistic education’ – Plato has to conduct a distinct form of trial with parameters, means and methods which mean nothing in terms of the sophistic state.

We have seen that the state knows nothing of the make-up of the education site; it knows nothing of the event or rather the immanent relation of the event/encounter to its educational site – of the Socratic encounter to what is education; and that it knows nothing about the intervention Socrates carries out that establishes the belonging of the event/encounter to the situation of its site by giving it a name. We have seen that this name does not name education in the sophistic state.

For Plato, it is by this name that education is possible.

What the Platonic intervention establishes as possible, then, is the reality of this possibility or impossibility – given everything about Socrates is a negative quality relative to sophistry – and this reality is manifest as the subjective enquiries which re-address or re-try the situation from the point of the Socratic encounter. This patently illegal trial, which Plato enacts as a singular series of situated, particular and yet random enquiries amongst the ‘inhabitants of the Athenian situation’.

These enquiries realise a single, yet ever incomplete, result, which is to rigorously divide this situation in two and to establish there, as consistent, what has hitherto been ruled impossible.

So each dialogue brings this to bear as a truly educative procedure and as I said previously, in terms of what it is every time given to think about – the question of being and appearing; truth and knowledge or opinion; what is love and so on. To rethink these questions given that positive knowledge seems to have been exposed as lacking – not just as ignorant but ignorant of this ignorance – requires also a new procedure for their elaboration; consistency demands it.

On one side of this division there will be elements of this situation tested as positively connected to the name of Socrates – these we might call associates – and on the other, those tested as not-connected to the name of Socrates and as such to that which the name refers: Unlike the trial in the Apology however, the faithful Platonic re-trial of Socrates is not regulated by the finitude of death but by the infinity of ‘his’ address. The Socratic trial of sophistry, is ever unfinished.

In short, under the force of enquiries – carried out encounter by encounter in dialogue after dialogue, following unheralded paths, taking on all comers and establishing its trajectory as it goes – the inhabitants of Athens are tested for their fidelity to the break with sophistry.

Across the dialogues they are a rare few who decide for (the non-knowledge of) the ‘world to come’; the consequences as Socrates demonstrates are stark.

However, the universal address of non-sophistry always already includes all inhabitants despite their conviction, given that the capacity for reason – to be subject to an education by truths and to constitute the very elements of a situation wherein this education is known and practiced as such – is shared equally by all.

Of course nothing compels an inhabitant of sophistic Athens to subject themselves to the type of enquiry which results in them declaring themselves partisans of that which is properly indiscernible. Indeed, everything consequent on submitting to the determinations of the state – wealth, interests, power and so the peculiar virtues attached to these pursuits – suggests it is realistic to disavow the Socratic injunction, to deny the extension of the encounter into the everyday world, to refuse all enquiry into the constitution of a new situation and to consider one’s education as conditional on this very state alone.

Despite this normality, let’s call it, the Republic can only be what it is if the statement which prescribes the form of its constitution is one that addresses anyone at all. That one can, faithfully, ‘come to know nothing of the sophistic state’ is such a prescription.

Because an enquiry lacks knowledge, it must have some other orientation to the question of education and that as we saw is via the encounter – Socrates is truly a militant – or at least his procedure is one of militancy – for the truth and not its sophistic representation.

Recall Socrates’ claim that he is neither wise with sophistic wisdom nor stupid with their stupidity. This is what we might call the rule of enquiry. That's to say, its a requirement that each enquiry must satisfy as it goes.

So this is about the enquiry – which is what Socrates does. The enquirer is without the ‘encyclopaedia’ in its effort to discern what the encounter signifies.

It is the realisation of an anomaly without precedent. The encyclopaedic order is broken with and broken down bit by bit, enquiry by enquiry and dialogue by dialogue. An enquiry is a test of that conviction subject to a rule of connection – the rule being that non-sophistry is not impossible!

Socrates is convinced that what is not known, which is to say, that which is known to be unknowable and that must not be known, can be known. He is committed to this via the encounter. Thus he is faithful to this knowledge which is not known knowledge.

Fidelity, then is a key category, a key category of the subject, that is.

Fidelity, Plato insists, is essentially a free discipline, opposed to that (in)discipline one submits to under the rule of the state. Plato names the latter a ‘cowardly sort’ of discipline in that one submits to a rule of interest in order to avoid the demand inherent to the pursuit of wisdom (Phd. 254+).

At some point this pursuit, whose form, as Plato consistently reminds us, is always that of an enquiry, will involve a confrontation with the rule of interest. Fidelity, thus, is courage – the courage to continue through disciplined enquiry, to subtract this truth from this state and to turn it to universal account.

Enquiries, to put it another way, have to speak to what is generic – or what is of and for all. As noted, every inhabitant has the same capacity for reason – it's a generic capacity, then – and any enquiry then is the effort to realise in thought the subject of this capacity as what is for all. This will be the subject of education – education in the Socratic and not sophistic sense.

Through enquiry a subject is convoked such that it can be said to be connected or associated with the Socratic injunction – to not know sophistry.

No lesser a character than Alcibiades recognises the central importance of being faithfully connected to the name Socrates when in the Symposium he declares that his association with Socrates wholly determines his relation to the Athenian situation. 

Alcibiades says,

Socrates is the only man in the world that can make me feel ashamed. Because there’s no getting away from it, I know I ought to do the things he tells me to, and yet the moment I’m out of his sight I don’t care what I do to keep in with the mob. So I dash off like a runaway slave, and keep out of his way as long as I can, and then next time I meet him I remember all that I had to admit the time before, and naturally I feel ashamed. There are times when I’d honestly be glad to hear that he was dead, and yet I know that if he did die I’d be more upset than ever – so I ask you, what is a man to do? (Smp. 216b)

Typically, there are several motifs within this statement of great interest, aside from that we have noted. The first is that Alcibiades singles Socrates out. He has heard many other orators including Pericles but no orator can produce in him the effect of Socrates.

Second, although it is said as a throw-away simile, the reference to being ‘as a slave’ is not insignificant if we connect it to its use in the Meno. As such, it is not, as Alcibiades says, that Socrates reduces him to the level of a slave, but rather that Socrates addresses that in Alcibiades which touches on the generic.

The slave represents the generic within Athens, for it is without a political identity and is thus of the situation without being properly counted as such. The use of the term slave is divided in Plato. On the one hand, state figures like Callicles, Thrasymachus and Anytus are shown to be slavish in their devotion to interest and so slavishness is considered ‘typologically’.

On the other hand the slave is shown to be capable of thought: Capable, this is to say, of not being slavish. It is the neglect of this generic capacity (for thought), which results in Alcibiades spending all his time at political affairs, at slavishly maintaining his place in the city. We need to insist on this: It is not the interest of the polis which causes this neglect.

Rather, the interests of the polis are the effect of the neglect of the generic capacity for thought. Thirdly, the notion that Socrates makes him ashamed evokes something of the Socratic method (let’s call it) of non-teaching.  Rather than instruction per se Alcibiades is rather ‘being ‘pregnant’ with Socrates’ desire insofar as Alcibiades knows by association what he should do.

Lacking the courage to give birth to this desire is what causes him shame and yet to not have Socrates as the cause of his desire whose effect is shame is more unbearable still. 

Such is Alcibiades’ position in relation to Socrates and it is exemplary for those tested for a connection in the dialogues as a whole and it is certainly what earns Socrates the many epithets which speak of his impudence.  What Socrates offers is no-place that the polis could know, and as such his ‘teaching’, which is nothing of the sophistic sort, is that of dis-placement by association. Which is why Alcibiades flees from it to the safety of the place and such is why he returns, ashamed.

What Socrates is convinced of is simply the existence of truth. Yet his problem is ‘if no knowledge supports such an existence how can such a truth be known’?

The concept of the militant enquiry seems to resonate with Socrates’ answer to Meno’s question. It is worth examining in this context the function of recollection in Plato’s Meno. The intent here is to suggest that Plato’s efforts to establish the conditions of possibility of new knowledge lead him to speculate on the rationality of that which cannot be expressed: In other words, that which is indiscernible.

To achieve this, Plato has recourse to a variant of apagogic reasoning wherein an absurd statement functions to open any such enquiry, thus organising an entire reorientation on its basis. As noted he has three such absurd statements that function in this way: I know nothing; I do not teach; what is X?

The statements serve to re-orient whatever enquiry is underway – and these of course are only sensible relative to the encounter – he doesn't know what they know, teach if they are teachers, etc. These serve to both confirm the measure the Socratic figure takes of sophistic excess or in other words to pierce a hole in its knowledge, and to operate a faithful enquiry into this situation for those who might have their heads turned, as it were, by the Socratic event. To paraphrase Plato, the ‘equality of minds is a duty, not a matter of fact’ (R. 519e).

I’ll come back to these but first I want to revisit as a example the function of recollection or anamnesis because what these statements serve to animate is how to know as knowledge what knowledge knows is unknowable.

Anamnesis or Re-collection has three linked senses:

– It denotes a specific operation: that of forming a new gathering of elements.

– As a noun it denotes the gathered form of the new collection – that it is a ‘recollection’.

–It suggests that something intrinsic to the elements so gathered has been recollected in and through the specificities of their re-collection.

In the Meno, Meno presents Socrates with what has become known as a paradox. Namely, that if to learn is to learn what one does not know, how, should one learn it, can one know one has learned it given one doesn’t know what it is (Men. 80e)? 

Socrates, far from dignifying it with the term paradox, dismisses it as a ‘debater’s argument’ – in effect something belonging to the eristic brothers of the Euthydemus and sophistics in general and in the Phaedo ‘debaters’ are described as those who ‘confuse their hypothesis with their consequences’ (Phd. 101e).

Nevertheless, as is typical, the sophistic premise is investigated and the known conditions ‘worked through’. In order to refute the ‘paradox’ Socrates elaborates the theory of recollection.

As the whole of nature is akin, and the soul has learned everything, nothing prevents a man, after recalling one thing only – a process men call learning – discovering everything else for himself, if he is brave and does not tire of the search, for searching and learning are, as a whole, recollection (Men.81d).

The context of this should not be lost sight of.  

Here we will just note:

a) Socrates engages in demonstration with a slave

b) the demonstration involves the existence of the incommensurable, the irrational or that which cannot be expressed

c) the demonstration has universal implications. The ruse of using the slave boy is of course no accident: The proof of the incommensurable is attained by two figures already decidedly ‘incommensurable’ – the slave and the philosopher who is nothing. Both are ‘without’ a polis and yet together Plato has them enact the truth of this very ‘incommensurability’ whose application, it is demonstrated, can be equally applied to all.

So the basic idea as expressed by Socrates is that being-immortal, a soul knows everything there is to know. Any man therefore, in order to learn, need only recall one thing and from there, with effort, he can come to know anything at all.

As we saw with the Cave an encounter of some sort initiates this recollection. In the Meno, the slave is turned toward recollection by the Socratic question – a question which does not contain any aspect of the answer returned to it.

If the learner comes to know then what is prior to the initial recall can be understood to be constituted by an undifferentiated and infinite store of prior-knowledge. We need to understand this term ‘prior-knowledge’ very specifically. It is not knowledge that the learner has, but that the learner is always already capable of knowledge.

For Plato, throughout the corpus, and given that he claims that any man can come to reason, what is prior to knowledge is conceived as ignorance. In this sense, ignorance denotes the lack of knowledge. However, ignorance, understood as the lack of knowledge, suggests a certain ambiguity which Plato most certainly plays upon. There is ignorance and there is ignorance of ignorance. The latter is the sophistic conceit – because for sophistry to know nothing is unknown to it. That ignorance or non-knowledge exists is what Socrates is convinced of.

The sense is that what the learner learns by re-collection ‘will have been’ new in the specific sense that it has never before been collected in such a form and by such a practice and subject to such a condition.

As Socrates notes, it suffices to ‘recall one thing only’ in order to begin to ‘discover everything else for himself’ and this, we suggest, is precisely what the encounter provokes. The encounter disjoins the state from knowledge, opening the situation to the possibility of recalling this disjunction and thus discovering a new ‘world of knowledge’ on its basis.

What Socratic recollection constitutes is precisely ‘another form of discernment’ one which treats the situation from the standpoint of the encounter and not sophistic knowledge

Thus, given all we have said about the education site, the encounter with sophistry and the name-function Socrates, re-collection cannot be subject to the rules of discernment deployed by the state.

Re-collection is in no way representation and it is such an obtuse notion (it remains a central problem in Platonic scholarship) precisely because it has no currency in the state. As the mathematician Arpad Szabó points out, the indiscernible is the condition of ‘that which cannot be expressed’ in the language of the current situation.1

Let’s summarise the key points:

1. Plato invokes an indiscernible yet collective capacity for truth.

2. A singular encounter is enough to precipitate enquiry.

3. Once begun, it (recollection) has no intrinsic end and no intrinsic trajectory – it's a diagonal.

4. It is a committed process. In order to draw its full consequences one must refuse to be put off.

5. By continuing, one establishes or forces a generic or new re-collection of this indiscernible to knowledge – one learns without knowledge the form of what is to come.2

Keeping in mind that, for sophistry, Socrates is a poor copy of an Athenian man, a false citizen unable to properly or ‘knowledgeably’ attend the polis, whose claims to ‘know nothing’ and to ‘not teach’ are conceits –‘grandstanding and crowd pleasing vulgarisms’ for Callicles (Grg.482c), ‘an imbecilic sham’ for Thrasymachus (R. 336bc)3 – and thus, he circulates as a nonsensical figure in general, it is hardly possible that the procedure the Socratic encounter initiates would be either amenable too, or a function of, the state.4

In general, then, fidelity or militancy names the practical and prescriptive operational form of the subject in relation to the name of the event/encounter. Fidelity is the relation as operation the Platonic corpus establishes ‘historically’ to Socrates, while internally it is the relation of Socrates to a ‘non-sophistic way of life’.


A. Szabó, The Beginning of Greek Mathematics, pp. 86-88.


In narrative terms and suitably secularised it can be read in this way: as the collective holds the void in common and what is held in common is simply the truth of any situation, nothing prevents a man, after deciding as such upon a single instance that its consequences be investigated, from constructing for himself and with others the existence of such a truthful situation, so long as one is committed to the task and faithful to the name of the event, for such is the subjective procedure of fidelity.


These are paraphrases


The imagined result of a Socratic education, such is what we are tracing here, is equally nonsensical for the state. Firstly, such a thing is practically impossible given that for the state such an education does not exist –Socrates does not educate; secondly, any existent state that precludes sophistic knowledge is equally nonsensical. In the Republic, the very text in which an education by truths is imagined verified as such, Plato remarks on both the individual nonsense of such an education and on it taking a final form. Concerning the first, he notes that for the present state a philosopher is simply a useless thing (R.489b). To pursue truth at the expense of making one’s way in the ‘present state’ is mere folly in need of punishment. More famously, he notes that such an ideal (non)state is difficult to imagine in reality. Neither however, ‘is impossible’ (R. 499d).