Plato’s Dilemma

AH HAH! So now I understand my hand-wringing and vacillation about posting my opinions on debatable matters. Now I understand in a simply-stated way what for years I’ve been fussing with and dancing around. Now I know that this middle ground has a name. Now I’ve seen it in print. In an academic work. And everybody knows that makes it official: Plato’s Dilemma. Yep. Plato’s Dilemma.

Literacy scholar Dr. James Paul Gee briefly describes what he terms Plato’s Dilemma, and my summary of his brief description follows presently. Plato’s argument against the written word was that it could not answer back to a questioning reader. A reader could not ask the text itself, “What do you mean?” and receive a newly phrased answer, as could be done in oral dialogue. Furthermore, a text could make no decision as to whom it presented itself; crudely meaning, somebody too ignorant to have any business reading it. On the other hand, if one simply presented texts with an official interpretation that was unquestionably authoritative, this was no better than the history of oral myth (which is to say, Homeric myth) which blindly guided the society of Plato’s time and place. The dilemma in short is this: (1) To force an interpretation upon a text is to exercise mind control, authority, etc. over the people and dupe them as fits your needs rather than theirs, but (2) to allow every reading of a text to be considered legitimate is to at once say no reading of the text is legitimate, and therefore have no need of the text.

I realized immediately as I read Gee’s presentation that this paradox plagues us on many levels. Consider that “text” is not necessarily a written sheet of paper, but can be any discourse. One can see that if we look at religion, the same point arises. If “anything goes” as far as views of Man and God, then there is not much point in talking about Man and God, for there is no Truth. On the other hand, to claim a view as “correct” or “incorrect” or more or less one or the other is to align oneself with an ideology and claim its supremacy over others. It is to privilege oneself implicitly; and who has this right, to claim to know the Truth?

And so we must do what we should not do. In my terms, this is the dilemma restated. Where does a person place her or himself vis-à-vis this situation? Is there no truth to be rightly claimed anywhere, or do we risk the arrogance to claim that we, few or one among many, possess it? Gee states there is no way out of this dilemma; to “read” a “text” is to instantly form an opinion and align with an ideology. Certainly, as Gee points out, Plato was not innocent. His solution, offered in The Republic, was that texts should be limited in distribution and always “correctly” interpreted by philosopher-kings; people like… Plato, of course. The issue comes down to how we deal with this; what do we do in facing the fact that our choice is either nihilism or privileging ourselves above others?

In two words: Be humble.

… … …

[*cough.* It just struck me that my faith-based, existentialist thinking views (uses?) religion as a giant metaphor built upon this basic problem of human existence. *cough. * ]

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