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Plato's Concept of Rationality as Dialogic

Updated on January 2, 2020
Gro Kristina Slaatto profile image

I am a Norwegian writer with a MA Degree in Art History from the University of Oslo. My second subject is Philosophy.

A central concept in Plato's writing is the dialogue. Using the dialogue as a form, the philosophical questions are addressed through conversation. The form of dialogue that appears in for example the Socratic texts, has an overall dialectical approach. The term dialectics (Greek; dilalektike techne) is associated with conversational art and dialogue. Platon's use of dialectics is viewed in the context of a form of reasoning through questions and answers. This dialogue in the art of debate should lead to recognition and truth, and it should be conducted for the sake of the matter. In Plato's texts, the dialectic can also be seen as a method in the sense that there are certain rules for the conversation, and that the activity is organized. The term dialogue and conversation is used synonymously in this text.

Plato's philosophical project can be seen as a basis for a life and society based on insight, where everything is rationally determined and reasoned rationally.

The dialogue becomes for Plato the way and the goal of the good life. Through conversation, man is to gain insight, recognition and truth. On the basis that Plato believes there is something right, true and unchangeable, he seeks through dialectical conversations to get man through the greatest virtue of all, knowledge, to make rational choices against what Plato sees as the one true. I further use the term rational in the sense of reasonable.

The dialogue used to get to the rational

The dialogic thinking that emerges through Plato's dialogical form in Protagoras, in addition to the argumentative form of Platonic philosophy, shows the form of Platonic thinking - the argumentative act. In addition to the external commitment the conversation can bring, there is a system, a dialogical rationality in the conversation's inner structure.

Through conversation with, among other Protagoras, Plato's teacher teaches and continues the philosopher Socrates' dialectical discourse in the search for definitions of ethical virtues. Plato is not himself, but speaks through Socrates' voice.
Socrates' question of how to really live life is reflected through the philosophical dialogue that Plato uses to gain insight and truth in the theme of Protagoras. What is virtue?
And can virtue be learned? Through testing, the individual statements are tested through questions and answers with a goal of agreement. Protagoras was Sophist and, unlike Plato, did not believe in an objective truth. The goal of the Sophists was to persuade, not to find the truth. This is in contrast to Plato, who sought to convince and, based on knowledge, find truth.The fact that Plato chooses an oral form of dialogue as expression in his written work is interesting in relation to his negative view of the written word.

Through Socrates he says:
"But if any of them asked something, then they could. Like books, neither answer nor even ask. Whoever, on the other hand, asked, if there was only a small detail of what was said, then it would probably go as if one hits on copper, that copper continues to resonate if no one grabs it. "
As I interpret Plato here, a book will not give you an answer, because it cannot speak. If you have a question that you cannot figure out yourself, your ignorant voice will continue to resonate as long as another speaker does not meet you with an answer.

Plato's dialogue form can be said to be rational insofar as there is a set of rules for how to conduct the dialogue. The dialogue is built with one who asks and one who answers and the matter. Plato's dialogue thus takes place not only between speech and case, but between two or more speakers and the case. Furthermore, it is rational through certain rules in the argumentation form. By choosing the dialogue as the procedure for finding the answer to the case, Plato opens up for input from several speakers where no predetermined answers are given. Thus, the Platonic philosophy will not set questions in advance, but will be open to new answers and questions along the way.

To find out, the parts of the case must be tried before agreement can be reached. For example, passage with the discussion of the unity of virtue shows that on the basis of the question Socrates asks whether virtue is one, and justice, piety and thought are part of it, or all is one, a discussion arises where the given answers lead to new questions. The respondent takes on another thesis that the question should defend. For example, virtue is the knowledge. Socrates believes that virtue is one and doubts that it can be learned. Protagoras' disagreement leads to discussion.
Through the ensuing dialogue that alternates between long and short answers, Socrates continues his testing of each statement by, among other things, setting them up against what has been said before. While Socrates prefers short answers, Protagoras makes them long.

As the dialogue extends without reaching any answer, Protagoras ask themselves what role this disagreement is likely to play. By argument, he still stands by his opinion, though; "If you so desire, we may well say that righteousness is pious and piety is righteous." "If you believe" and "if you mean", however, is rejected by Socrates, as the argument is best investigated if you relate to the case and "you" and "me". By excluding the uncertainty "if", what is said is acknowledged.

The dialogue will give people the opportunity to present their own views and thoughts to other interlocutors without having taken a final position on the matter.

Aporic outcome

Protagoras' assertion that virtue can be learned and Sokarates's doubt about it becomes relevant in relation to first clarifying what virtue is. After long conversations about both what virtue is and whether it can be learned, they were confronted with their own previous views after the aporic outcome of the dialogue. And Sokarates continued; "... that I would like to examine how it relates to virtue, and what virtue is itself. I know that if only this question is clarified, then the other question will also be answered, a question you and I have circled in our long conversation."

The conversation ends in nothing, but through dialogue they will meet again to discuss the matter. By getting used to a self-reflective I-me dialogue, this will prove through communicative openness which, for Plato, seems to be a prerequisite for achieving the unity of virtue through rational choices based on dialogue.

The dialogue: being in the rational

Through Plato, Socrates continues his view that in discussion one must constantly adhere to what one himself acknowledges as true. Socrates seeks knowledge by analyzing the concepts of the virtues of ethics through conversation. The overall goal of the dialogue is to gain insight into and clarify what, among other things, justice and courage are, and be able to achieve the universal good and live the way we should.
If the path to universal good goes through dialogue and rational choices made on the basis of reflection, being able to make rational choices also means that we are in a rational condition. To be rational is to be in reality, a place where one recognizes oneself through knowledge. If the dialectic of philosophy is a love for true wisdom, there will already be a relative idea, a truth, at the very beginning of the dialogue. Without this, the dialogue would not get started.

By being in the rational one is morally related to the various virtues such as justice, courage, thought and piety through the unity of virtue, the knowledge. With knowledge and recognition, one is in a better position to choose between good and bad, right and wrong. Being in the rational way could mean having better judgment.
Choosing often involves conflicting with established norms, ethical values and personal desires as well as what we believe is the best choice. If we are in the middle of the elections, we can, as the Socrates say, be in possession of income and reason, and still make a wrong choice.

"... despite the fact that many people realize the best, they will, although possible, do not do it, but do something else." Socrates here reproduces to Protagoras how most people claim that emotions like desire or sadness determine what they do. I interpret this to mean that man can be a rational being, but still perform irrational actions.
To be in reality and true, you need humility that opens insight and frees man from his pride. The true insight is so dependent on both the self-reflective I-me dialogue and the philosophical discourse with other speakers, and that one relates to the matter. Where the insight goes in unison with all man, man can find his place in the community.
Based on insight and refinement, one may wonder what I can demand of myself and others. I will here refer secondary to Gadamer and his understanding of the dialogue in relation to the speaker case, where the case here is the Protagor text. Gadamer's basic mode of understanding is that each part of the text is part of a whole. By reading the text you will constantly encounter moments where you have to reassess the part in relation to the whole, or the whole in relation to the part.
Based on the experience we carry with us, we ask the text. Only those who have questions can have knowledge. The question itself is the case. The very thing in question will thus be in the rational.

Critical arguments

Through the dialogue, Socrates and Protagoras try to understand what virtue is. The dialogue shows in the conversation about the oneness of virtue, how Socrates tries to get the counterpart that corresponds to contradict himself.
- "Foolishness, then, is the opposite of thought? - Obviously.
- Do you remember now that we used to agree that mindlessness was the opposite of wisdom?
He agreed to it. - And that there is only one contrast to what some one does? - I confirm that. "
The respondent deals with theses that the question will defend. By constantly going back to what has been said and that
the parts are tested in relation to the whole and to each other, Protagoras's endurance is put to the test. "If so, I said. Let's leave this issue, as it seems to me that it annoys you."
Sokrates also demands short answers. "Now that you do not want to, and I have no more time to be here waiting for your long speeches - I have to get somewhere else - so now I go, ..."
The question of what virtue is and can be learned, presents great challenges in relation to argumentation and perseverance in that the goal here must be to reach agreement. The task may seem impossible in that everything will end up in the one true. Because Socrates has a truth already present in the question, the dialogue is guided in different ways. By asking himself questions, he tries to make the other contradict himself. The use of short yes and no questions, partly leading questions, trial, "bad time" and lack of agreement implies a certain authoritarian strategy. The conversation becomes demanding and puts the opponent's patience to the test. This one tries to use "if you want" to come to an end and agreement. The case eventually becomes so complicated that it becomes impossible to follow the case.

The rationality as a dialogic must be seen both in relation to the philosophical dialogue in oral tradition and in relation to the form Plato later gave it in his written works. Through Plato's use of the dialogue in written form, as I see it, there is a contradiction to the view he expresses himself; a rejection of the written as beneficial for learning as one cannot "talk" to the text. He says of poetry; "True poetry realistically looks like a pseudo."

Considering that Plato lived in a time of decay and considered that the artistic corrupted the soul, we nevertheless see that through Protagoras he makes use of the art of poetry. Plato's use of dialogue as a form of literary work in which literary fiction, poetry and drama are combined with the "real" philosophical Socratic dialogue, therefore, seems to contradict Plato's opinion. The fiction that is conveyed is itself art that could be seductive as opposed to learning. Although the dialogue itself follows the philosophical conversation as it may actually appear, it will be difficult to distinguish between what is true and what is poetry. Another question that arises is why he chose to write Protagoras in a form where the philosophical truth-seeking serious dialogue that seeks to find answers to what virtue is, is put into a fictional context that incorporates both comedy and drama.
Through a compromise with the artistic he could reach a larger audience. The dialogue about virtue and how to live "well and truly" seems to strive for an ideal that is hard to come by in reality.
When the pursuit of unity becomes the overarching goal, it can shut down methods that lead to creativity and new solutions. With unity as a goal, it is also easy to turn to expertise. For example, we see in Protagoras how Socrates seeks the wise men. However, where the goal is not insight and agreement, but winning, dialogue can also help maximize distance rather than reduce it.

Both self-reflection through inner dialogue and interpersonal dialogue are necessary to act rationally. What is right for oneself can sometimes lie in the dialogue with oneself. In this, it will be intuitively easier to see agreement than in the interpersonal realities, and the interpersonal dialogue will therefore be necessary to see what is good not only for one's self, but also for others in society as a whole. In this, writing can also open up new thoughts, new insights and new questions. Directly through the word and by reading between the lines.

Gadamer sees the dialogue as a relationship between reader and text. In the being of language, unity will mean understanding.
As long as the Platonic dialogue tries to make the case stronger by trying its validity by overcoming all counter-arguments that can limit the truth and validity, it seems unlikely that the dialogue will close in understanding and agreement.


Otfried Hoffe: Jürgen Mittelstrass: "Platon" in Filosofi. Antikken og Middelalderen. Politikens Forlag A/S, Copenhagen 1992, page 38.

Protagoras in Platon. Samlede verker I, Vidarforlagetes kulturbibliotek, Oslo 1999.

Egil Wyller: "Platons politiske-religiøse oppgjør med de skjønne kunster." in Truls Winther (red.) and Odd Inge Langholm (red.). Estetikk. Fra Platon til våre dager, Tanum/Norli, Oslo 1977, page 23.

Paul Lübcke. Filosofileksikonet, Bokforlaget Forum AB, Stockholm 1988, page 227.

© 2020 Gro Kristina Slaatto


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