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The dialogue form in philosophy

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Title:
The dialogue form in philosophy tracing the vague
Creator:
White, Kathy A
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English
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vi, 85 leaves : ; 28 cm

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Subjects / Keywords:
Dialogues concerning natural religion (Hume, David) ( fast )
Dialogues (Plato) ( fast )
Dialogues -- History and criticism ( lcsh )
Dialogues ( fast )
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Criticism, interpretation, etc. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
Criticism, interpretation, etc ( fast )

Notes

Bibliography:
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 81-85).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Kathy A. White.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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|Auraria Library
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515970520 ( OCLC )
ocn515970520
Classification:
LD1193.L58 2009m W44 ( lcc )

Full Text
THE DIALOGUE FORM IN PHILOSOPHY: TRACING THE VAGUE
By
Kathy A. White
B.A., Metropolitan State College of Denver, 1992
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
2009


This thesis for the Master of Humanities
degree by
Kathy A. White
has been approved
by
Myra Bookman
ll/lolo1
Date
David Hildebrand


White, Kathy A. (M.H., Graduate Interdisciplinary Program)
The Dialogue Form in Philosophy: Tracing the Vague
Thesis directed by Associate Professor Myra Bookman
ABSTRACT
The Dialogue Form in Philosophy: Tracing the Vague, explores the literary form of
the dialogue and its uses in the works of Plato and Hume. The paper first defines the
dialogue form by distinguishing Platonic dialogues from other ancient literary genres,
establishes theories of why these philosophers wrote dialogues by providing a literary
and philosophical reading of Platos Phaedrus and Humes Dialogues Concerning
Natural Religion. For each dialogue, an internal reading of the text is compared with
an external reading. The paper compares and contrasts these readings, ultimately
demonstrating of how the literary form of dialogue uniquely serves the goals of
philosophy.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
its publication.
and Humes dialogues from religious dialogues of the 18th Century. Next, it
Signed


DEDICATION
I dedicate this thesis to my family my wacky, argumentative, philosophical parents;
my husband, Peter Lindstrom, a poet and philosopher at heart; and to my son, Atticus,
who has so patiently waited to play trains. Thank you all for giving me the time and
encouragement to finish.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
My deepest gratitude to my committee members, Rob Metcalf, David Hildebrand and
Myra Bookman, for their support, advice and encouragement, and to my colleagues
and friends at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.


TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
1. INTRODUCTION..............................1
2. DIALOGUE AS LITERATURE....................7
3. OUTSIDE/INSIDE INSIDE/OUTSIDE.............18
4. PHAEDRUS..................................25
5. DIALOGUES CONCERNING NATURAL RELIGION.....47
6. CONCLUSION................................73
WORKS CITED.....................................81
vi


CHAPTER 1
INTRODUCTION
Lets open a dialogue. We should keep the dialogue going. Words such as
these are heard often today in the public domain as modem day speakers pursue
consensus and maybe even truth through conversation. In everyday use, the
dialogue has become a conversation with a purpose. In philosophy, it is the literary
form of such a conversation, which raises the question for what philosophical
purpose? The dialogue presents many perplexities when used in philosophy, a
discipline characterized by logical argument, carefully constructed theses and clear
and distinct ideas. Throughout the history of Western philosophy, a number of
philosophers have chosen to work in dialogue, but most prefer instead the treatise,
essay or other form of expository writing seemingly better suited to the search for
truth and certain knowledge. As a quasi-dramatic form, the dialogue bears inherent
ambiguities; it lacks completeness. It is always a blend of both fact and fantasy
(Kahn 30) and therefore a puzzle that can enlighten or mislead the reader (Zuckert 10-
32). So when faced with philosophical dialogues, a series of questions arise: Why did
a handful of philosophers use the dialogue form? What are these philosophers really
doing if not philosophy as traditionally practiced and how should we students of
1


philosophy then interpret their texts? This paper will explore these questions by
looking primarily at Platos Phaedrus and Humes Dialogues Concerning Natural
Religion.
I have chosen these particular dialogues for two reasons. First, not only are
both artfully crafted, but they involve topics that their authors address in other non-
dialogic works. The Phaedrus offers a critique of writing that is echoed in Platos
Seventh Letter, and Humes Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion dramatize a
topic Hume specifically treats in other works. Possessing both a dramatic and non-
dramatic treatment will provide insight into why these philosophers turned to the
dialogue form to express their ideas. Second, in recent years, Plato scholars have
focused a great deal of attention on the hermeneutic problems that arise with the
dialogue form and, as a consequence, they have incorporated rich literary readings
into their philosophical analyses. This has not been the case with Humes dialogues.
Therefore, it will be fruitful to use current Platonic scholarship to provide a literary
reading of Humes dramatic work. What Humean scholarship can provide in return is
external information about why Hume wrote dialogues, information we lack with
regard to Plato. Not only is Humes historical context much closer to our own, but
Hume, as author, is much more accessible through his numerous treatises, biography
and letters. It will be interesting to compare this knowledge of Humes stated creative
and political motivations to understanding why a philosopher might travel down the
literary road.
2


The first step in this study will be to better define the dialogue and determine
how it differs from other dramatic forms. Since Plato takes the tradition to new
heights and sets the standard by which all subsequent philosophical dialogues are
measured, his work will be examined first. I will start by distinguishing the Platonic
dialogue from ancient drama and also from other Socratic literature, which was a
popular genre of the time (Kahn xiii-xiv, 1-35). This analysis will pay particular
attention to the dramatic elements used in philosophical dialogues character,
narration, plot and mark how they differ from their use in purely dramatic forms.
These distinctions will help draw the boundaries of the philosophical dialogue and we
can then turn to explanations of why Plato chose to use them.
Contemporary scholars debate why Plato wrote dialogues, especially in light
of the Seventh Letter, one of the few, if not only, non-dialogic documents believed
to be authored by Plato. In the Seventh Letter, Plato discusses the limitations of
language and states that he has never and will never write about the things that he is
most serious (Press 20). This statement, if genuine, makes it difficult to understand
Platos intention behind the dialogues and difficult to understand how we should
interpret them. Can we as readers not take the words at face value? Or is the form
itself intended to disguise true meaning? For instance, if Plato never wrote about
piety, then what is he doing in the Euthyphro? How did he intend for his audience to
use that dialogue if not to understand and practice piety?
3


Contemporary philosophers offer different theories to respond to these
problems and their theories result in differing interpretive strategies. Some, like
Charles Kahn, argue that the dialogues are a gradual unfolding of a literary plan for
presenting [Platos] philosophical views (Kahn xv). For him, the dialogues present a
unified, philosophical doctrine in a form capable of reaching the widest audience
(Kahn xv). This view would result in locating Platos views in the speeches of certain
characters, like his favorite protagonist, Socrates. Others argue that Plato uses the
form as a way to recreate the dialectical conversation so central to learning
philosophy (Kraut 27; Sayre, Platos Literary Garden 1-32). Proponents of this
theory would interpret perplexing elements of the dialogues, such as their aporetic
character, to be Platos invitation to engage with the dialogues as conversations
with him (Sayre, Garden 27). Yet others delve further into the vagaries intrinsic to
the dialogue form. Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida, to name a few, accuse
Plato of using the dialogue form as a way to deceive and further certain subversive
political ends. Or, like Leo Strauss, they contend that Plato dissembles as a way of
presenting unorthodox views in a politically safe manner. These types of theories
make sense of Platos use of irony and paradox. Finally, some, like Charles Griswold,
maintain that Plato wrote dialogues to serve uniquely philosophical ends that cannot
be achieved through any other written form. These theories emphasize the many
layers of textual ambiguity formed through the various literary devices used in any
given dialogue. The second part of the paper will explore two of these theories about
4


why Plato wrote dialogues and demonstrate how they generate different
hermeneutical strategies.
Drawing on the different theories and interpretive approaches outlined above
as a foundation, this study will then turn to Humes Dialogues Concerning Natural
Religion. Unlike Plato, who wrote almost exclusively in dialogue form, Hume wrote
mostly treatises. He chose the dialogue form for a few short pieces on natural religion
and morality and held his main dramatic work, the Dialogues, for publication until
after his death. Yet he refined the Dialogues numerous times over the course of 20
years, and toward the end of his life worked diligently to ensure that it would go
beyond the privacy of his desk after his death a testament to how much he valued
this literary work. In his own words, Hume touted the Dialogues as one of his most
artfully written pieces (Greig 2:334; Letter No. 538).
While Hume saw the Dialogues as a confluence of his art, philosophy and
character, Hume scholars have tended to focus more on what they believe Hume
meant to say and less on how he said it. Readers almost instantly lost sight of the
dialogue form in their hunt to refute or defend the content. Analytic readings of the
Dialogues persisted until very recently, with most scholars from schools of
philosophy and religion comparing arguments found within them to those found in
Humes more traditional works.
Only recently have Hume scholars begun to emphasize the literary form and
more deeply explore why he might have chosen it for the Dialogues. Some argue that
5


Hume chose the dialogue form for what he thought would be a controversial piece on
religion because he wanted to distance himself as author from the arguments made by
the characters (Manning 596-603). Others believe that Hume wanted to show the
human mind in movement in order to demonstrate how, at least in matters of religion,
human psychology undermines rational inquiry and argument (Foley 84). Still others
find that the vagaries of the Dialogues are the point of the work Humes way of
forcing the reader into the deep end of the vast and awesome (Gaskin xxv) pool of
religion where they must learn to find their own way out.
Drawing on the critical approaches employed by contemporary Plato scholars,
the third section of this paper will provide two literary interpretations of Humes
Dialogues. Throughout, this paper will review the wealth of information about
Humes reason for writing the Dialogues, including his letters, and use it to guide an
understanding of why Plato wrote dialogues. Of course, Humes historical context
and motives cannot be attributed to Plato, but there are certain similarities that make
it possible for Humes intent to provide a construct for going outside of the world of
the text and into the world of the author.
By comparing these different readings of Platos Phaedrus and Humes
Dialogues, we will have a better understanding of why these two philosophers wrote
dialogues. This will in turn provide a framework for how best to interpret these
philosophical/dramatic works and illuminate how this literary form serves the unique
goals of philosophy.
6


CHAPTER 2
DIALOGUE AS LITERATURE
Of course, studies ofform can be very illuminating, particularly if
form is considered as a clue rather than an end in itself (Kaufman 74)
While dialogues appear infrequently throughout the history of philosophy,
when they do appear, they bear resemblances to more popular literary forms of the
times. For instance, during the 4th century BCE, when Plato wrote his dialogues,
tragedies, comedies, epic poetry and even Socratic discourses or stories featuring
Socrates flourished.1 We can trace literary elements from all these forms in Platos
works. Likewise, Humes dialogues were written and published in the mid to late 18th
century ACE, when a variety of religious and secular literature and theatre thrived,
including religious dialogues (Prince 285). The literary legacy that philosophical
dialogue writers inherit is important because it places their work within a broader
context, making the fact that they wrote in dialogue form a little less novel, yet at the
same time, novel enough to offer clues as to why they might have chosen the form.
Plato scholars Gerald Press and Charles Kahn both note that many
philosophers, including Aristotle, wrote dialogues, and that Socratic literature, or
stories about or with Socrates as a primary character, was an established literary
1 Gerald Press, Charles Kahn and Walter Kaufmann all note that Plato was the successor of the
dialogue form, not its inventor.
7


genre during Platos lifetime (Kahn 1). Kahn argues that it was not unusual for
friends and students of Socrates to write pieces memorializing the man and his life
(Kahn 1), and of course there were comedies and other stories that lampooned or
critiqued Socrates, the most famous being the poet Aristophanes Clouds.
Kahn provides a detailed survey of other Socratic writers in his Plato and the
Socratic Dialogue. In addition to Platos texts, at least five others wrote Socratic
literature: Xenophon, Antisthenes, Aeschines, Phaedo, Eucleides and Aristippus
(Kahn 1). Although little remains of these writers, Kahn argues that each portray
Socrates and his philosophy in a very different light. They offer treatments of some of
the same topics found in Platos account of Socrates and his teachings, e.g. role of
poets and poetry in education, friendship and love, the difference between knowledge
and opinion (Kahn 4), but differ with respect to their depth and philosophical
orientation. Kahn finds this significant because he views it as a testament to Platos
literary skill. For Kahn, these separate Socratic writings demonstrate that Plato was
not merely recording Socratic philosophy in any of the dialogues, as some believe in
the early dialogues, nor casting a true-to-life historical figure. Rather, Platos
dialogues are skillful works of fiction, a remarkable blend of philosophy and
literature. Kahn maintains that the diverse genre of Socratic literature from which
Plato distinguished himself testifies to the extent to which such writings mix fact and
fantasy in ways to which we are unaccustomed (Kahn 30). They tell us to read the
8


dialogues not as history or as faithful recording of doctrine passed from teacher to
student, but rather as drama.
Gerald Press furthers this claim by showing how Plato drew from a rich array
of literary sources (56). Like Kahn, Press argues that Plato gained inspiration from
the Socratikoi logoi or Socratic discourses of the time as well as the comic and tragic
dramas that had gained popularity through writers like Aristophanes and Euripides
(56). Plato also speaks of the epic poets, Homer and Hesiod, and displays an
understanding of not only history, but the ideas and writing styles of pre-Socratic
philosophers Zeno, Parmenides and Heraclitus to name just a few (Press 15). Press
introduces another influence called the mimes or mimoi of Sophron, a Sicilian who
scholars believe lived and worked during Platos lifetime (Press 56). Press offers this
intriguing comment about the mimes of Sophron:
We cannot confirm ancient reports that Plato made the mimes famous
in Athens or that when he died, a copy of them was found under his
pillow. They seem to have been dialogues written in prose but with
enough rhythm that some considered them poetry. Mimes were partly
serious, partly comic, representing scenes of ordinary life, unlike the
heroic settings of epic and tragedy. They may have contained
numerous proverbs and colloquial forms of speech, and they may have
been performed as private comedies. (56)
The point for Press is that Platos dialogues demonstrate a deep knowledge of these
literary traditions and an unparalleled mastery of the art of the word. He argues that
even Platos understanding of Attic Greek was so good that his characters speak in a
variety of local and regional dialects (59) and mirror linguistic convention and style
9


of both living and historical people. Thus, every element of a dialogue character
(physical descriptions, names, etc.), scene and location, imagery, structure, action -
must be taken into account for each create layers of meaning in the text (Press 55-74).
For Press, we simply cannot isolate Plato the philosopher from the writer, nor can we
divorce his philosophical ideas and arguments from the medium in which they are
delivered.
Walter Kaufman would agree, arguing in his seminal work Tragedy and
Philosophy that Plato was himself a great poet despite his condemnation of the poets,
particularly in Republic. He argues that early philosophers, such as Xenophanes,
Heraclitus, Pythagoras, viewed the poets as equal competitors in the task of
describing the world and the best way to live in it (Kaufman 1-29). Philosophy had
not yet split from drama. According to Kaufman, Plato was the turning point.
Kaufman contends that Plato, too, saw the poets as equal rivals, false prophets who
trade in mere images of reality (18-19) and fan the sparks of our human frailties and
passions in ways that corrupt the soul (22-25). Plato sought to secure the superiority
of philosophy above poetry and to do this, an evolution of drama was needed.
Kaufman contends that Plato claims as much in Laws VII when the Athenian stranger
says about the tragic poets who might ask to be admitted to the ideal city:
What would be the right reply for us to make to these inspired
geniuses? This I think: Most honored guests, were tragedians
ourselves, and our tragedy is the finest and best we can create. At any
rate, our entire state has been constructed as to be a representation of
the finest and noblest life the very thing we maintain is most
10


genuinely a tragedy. So we are poets like yourselves, composing in the
same genre, and your competitors as artists and actors in the finest
drama, which true law alone has the natural powers to produce to
perfection. So dont run away with the idea that we shall ever blithely
allow you to set up stage in the market place and bring on your actors
whose fine voices will carry further than ours. (817 a-c; qtd. in
Kaufman 28)
Platos regard of poets as rivals explains his harsh treatment of poets in the dialogues,
great works of drama themselves. Plato, in effect, was the successor of the poets and
tragedians Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Euripides (Kaufman 29). Homer was the
first great tragic poet, and when Plato was writing he himself was the last (Kaufman
29). Kaufmans analysis suggests that Platos dialogues must be read, in part, as
literature. On his view, the dialogues represent a new breed of philosophical
literature, borne from a lineage of philosophy and tragedy.
If Platos dialogues put an end to tragedy as it had been known before him,
then Humes dialogues certainly did the same to a popular literary form for 18th
Century Britain the religious dialogue. Michael Prince contends that from 1700-
1750, a number of proponents of rational Christianity wrote in dialogue form with the
belief that the dramatic and fictional elements of dialogues lent credence to the
precarious logic of the design argument (285). Prince maintains that for 18th Century
Christians trying to bridge science with religion and make room for revelation in an
age of reason, the dialogue form offered a way to move from argument to imagery,
disagreement to consensus, multiplicity to unity, skepticism to faith (285-288). The
structure of most religious dialogues of the time featured two characters, a skeptic and
11


theist, conversing until their contrary voices are harmonized in a belief in God
through rational argument (Prince 287-290). Bishop Berkeleys Three Dialogues
Between Hylas and Philonous (1713) and his Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher
(1732) are typical examples of religious dialogues of the time (Prince). Evidence
suggests that Hume was aware of these religious dialogues when he chose to write his
own (Mossner 74).
Like Plato, Hume also emerged from a given cultural milieu and rich literary
tradition. We know from his biography and letters that he was an avid reader of
philosophy, history, political thought and literature. He read and wrote in Greek,
Latin, Italian and French. We know that he loved Italian opera and French theatre;
that he enjoyed Shakespeare and the variety of other English drama (Mossner 1 OS-
112). In his brief autobiography, My Own Life, written the year of his death (1776),
Hume reflects, almost all my life has been spent in literary pursuits and
occupations.. .1 passed through the ordinary course of education with success, and
was seized very early with a passion for literature, which has been the ruling passion
of my life and the great source of my enjoyments (My Own Life 3).
Humes written works also betray his passion for literature. Around the time
that he began work on the Dialogues, he wrote a short but insightful essay Of
Tragedy, which explores the unaccountable pleasure that well-written tragedies
inspire despite the difficulties, terror and anxiety they depict (Of Tragedy 185). 2
2 Hume clearly means literature in a much broader sense than the contemporary academic divisions of
disciplines connote today. See Mossner and Gaskin.
12


He links this essay to others on the passions and taste, thereby rooting our experience
of tragedy to a broader psychological theory of emotion and human nature. In
Humes own words, his first major work of philosophy, The Treatise of Human
Nature (1739-40), fell dead-bom from the press; without reaching such distinction as
even to excite a murmur among the zealots (My Own Life 4). Undeterred, Hume
reworked the main ideas of the Treatise into more accessible formats, publishing his
Essays: Moral and Political the following year (1741-2). There, Hume clearly
experiments with a variety of literary techniques (Mossner 140-150). Some are
simply written in a short, popular style of the time, but others, like the four essays on
happiness, reveal a nascent use of the dialogue form (Heydt; Immerwahr).
The four essays on happiness, written in the characters of the Epicurean, the
Stoic, the Platonist and the Sceptic, are Humes first attempt at character
development. The so-called character essays (Mossner 142) follow Ciceros De
Finibus, where an Epicurean, Stoic and Platonist engage with Cicero in a dialogue
on happiness (Heydt 7). Through the dialectical exchange between Cicero and his
interlocutors, the philosophical positions of each are tested and tried, leaving the
reader with a healthy Academic skepticism in the end (Heydt 7). Similarly, Humes
four essays explore the philosophical positions of his characters, only they do not do
so through a dialogue form. Colin Heydt says that although he was clearly aware of
them, Hume decides not to use a dialogue form, which marks a shift in literary
strategy that affects the readers relation to the text. The essays are written in the first-
13


person they are essentially philosophical monologues (7). Hume himself assumes
the character of the Stoic, Epicurean, Sceptic and Platonist. Conversation among them
occurs only in the imagination of the reader (Heydt 7). Like a playwright working a
back story for his characters, Hume crafts these essays giving the four characters
center stage to develop their best philosophical arguments. Heydt argues that Hume
alters his style, choosing a different popular writing genre pastoral, exhortatory
sermon, censorious sermon and philosophical essay in order to get the reader to
not only understand, but to experience each of the four different visions of happiness
expressed by the characters (Heydt 7). For instance, Humes Epicurean values simple
pleasures and serenity in the face of the transience of human life (Heydt 8). Humes
pastoral prose creates flowing settings that evoke quiet pleasures. There are rhythmic
passages of feasting, conversation, music, caressing, beautiful sights and smells
(Heydt 8). The essay elicits a feeling of Epicurean pleasure and happiness. While
Hume clearly sought greater public success in writing the Essays, he was also doing
something much more important. He was beginning to unite his philosophical ideas
with literary form.
Humes work after the critical and popular success of the Essays demonstrates
his attention to both the matter and manner of his writing (My Own Life 5). In
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) and An Enquiry Concerning
the Principles of Morals (1751), Hume simplified issues first seen in the Treatise. He
includes a brief dialogue at the end of the 2nd Enquiry almost a bridge between the
14


character essays and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. At this time, as
part of this broader project, Hume begins work on both the Dialogues and The
Natural History of Religion.
The literary context that both Plato and Humes dialogues spring from suggest
that to fully experience the force of a philosophical dialogue, we must think of them
as stories and their writers as storytellers (Press 5). And it is not by accident that each
story takes the form that it does. Like any story, philosophical dialogues have heroes,
intrigue, action and ultimately a point that the storyteller wants to leave with the
reader. Dialogues are intentional stories, full of literary devices, layered to create an
experiential, lived subtext to statements of philosophical ideas.
Philosophical dialogues, like most literature, can take many forms. At the
most basic level, all philosophical dialogues are representations of conversations
about philosophical problems or questions (Press 55-74). Platos dialogues range
from short discussions of single questions to complex and lengthy plays with multiple
characters and questions. Some are narrated or reported dialogues and others take a
direct dramatic form that function more as a play (Press 62). In some, the characters
reach an answer or satisfying conclusion to the question examined, but in many they
do not. Gerald Press argues that while Plato employs and combines a number of
literary and rhetorical structures in the corpus, many of the dialogues are pedimental
in structure, meaning that the climax of the action falls in the middle rather than
toward the end of the dialogue in contrast to most contemporary dramas (62). Yet
15


despite this common feature, the variety of structure and literary devices used by
Plato are, for Press, unparalleled in the history of philosophy and literature (61). Plato
uses personification, similes, analogies, myth, stories within stories. He exploits the
audiences knowledge of historical persons and places to convey subtle meanings in
the text (Press 61-65). He laces each story with humor or irony. He uses a poets
mastery of language to convey multi-meanings to the reader. As Press says, Simply
as a writer, Plato set a standard of literary inventiveness that has seldom, if ever, been
matched in the subsequent history of Western literature (61).
Of course, Humes dialogues are not so varied or inventive. Unlike Plato,
Hume wrote treatises, essays and other expository forms of writing. Dialogues were
only one vehicle he used for his philosophical ideas. He did, however, play with his
literary technique and his Dialogues are quite good. Hume noted in a letter that some
of his friends said that his Dialogues were the best thing he ever wrote (Greig 2:323;
Letter No. 525), going so far as to say that, nothing can be more cautiously and more
artfully written (Greig 2:334; Letter No. 538). In style, tenor and concept, Humes
dialogues are very different from Platos. However, what they have in common tells
something about the parameters of a philosophical dialogue.
Good philosophical dialogues, like those by Plato and Hume, share only that
they are dramatic works of philosophy. The characters, heroes and heroines,
structure, scene, style and settings may all differ, but dialogues are the site where
drama and philosophy collide. Like a unique play, the dramatic elements of a
16


dialogue further and build upon philosophical concepts (Press 70). They are multi-
layered, multi-dimensional, indirect ways to communicate philosophical ideas. As
Press says of Platos dialogues, which can apply to Hume as well:
The dialogues borrow and transform materials from myth, legend,
drama, history, poetry, rhetoric and philosophic prose to create a new
kind of communications that is more powerful and effective than any
of them singly because it draws the reader into the rational argument
and into the world of rational ideas by imaginative and emotional
means. (70)
As a result, philosophic dialogues demand a greater degree of participation from the
reader than a straightforward treatise. They present new challenges of interpretation
once their literary elements are given full accord.
17


CHAPTER 3
OUTSIDE/INSIDEINSIDE/OUTSIDE
Annihilate a mind at any instant, cut its thought through whilst yet
uncompleted, and examine the object present to the cross-section thus
suddenly made; you will find, not the bald word in process of
utterance, but that word suffused with the whole idea. (James,
Principles of Psychology 1:282)
Today, many Plato scholars take seriously the fact that Plato wrote dialogues
as his main philosophical vehicle and turn a critical eye to the literary qualities of the
dialogues as well as the philosophical content. This trend gained momentum with
Martin Heidegger and Fredrich Nietzsche in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as
the interpretive hold that the Neoplatonists had held since late antiquity began to
loosen (Press 44-53). Prior to this time, most readings of Plato focused solely on the
arguments and doctrine believed to be contained within the dialogues. Their literary
qualities were considered superfluous or incidental to the content and purpose of the
works.
By the 1940s, theorists such as Leo Strauss began to argue that interpreters of
Platos work must always consider the content of the dialogue (speeches of the
characters) in light of its form (the action, characters, names, dramatic setting, etc.).
They maintained that any complete understanding of Plato demanded a literary, as
well as philosophical, reading of the dialogues (Strauss 351-354). While not
18


mainstream, Strauss views persisted until the late 1980s when contemporary
philosophers like Charles Griswold, Gerald Press, Jacques Derrida, Kenneth Sayre
and others took up the challenge to make sense of Platos dialogues as both drama
and philosophy. Today, while there is still disagreement, many hold the view
expressed by Press who says, Ordinarily, philosophic texts are quite distinguishable
from dramatic; but in Platos dialogues they coincide. The plays meaning is
philosophic and its philosophic teaching is dramatic (70). To understand Plato is to
understand him on both levels. Consequently, contemporary Plato scholars look to
answer why Plato wrote dialogues as a way of understanding the dialogues
themselves. And the diverse answers they arrive at to this seemingly simple question
results in a number of different interpretations of the dialogues.
In contrast, Humes dialogues have not benefited from the same level of
literary criticism. A great number of secondary sources do exist about the Dialogues,
but they most often focus on the arguments presented by the characters or debate
which character best represents Humes true beliefs. Very few regard them as
dramas. William Lad Sessions in his book Reading Humes Dialogues: A Veneration
for True Religion (2002) provides one of the first book-length commentaries on the
Dialogues as a work of literature. Sessions admits that his analysis is inspired by
contemporary Platonic studies (7).
For my purposes here, I will examine different reasons why Plato and Hume
might have chosen the dialogue form and see how they generate different
19


interpretations of the Phaedrus and the Dialogues by focusing on two opposite
approaches to each text an internal and external reading. An internal reading
focuses solely on the text as a closed universe (Sessions 3). Emphasis is placed on the
dramatic elements of the work. For instance, plot movement, internal repetitions or
references, coherences and contradictions, irony and reversals play a greater role in
the analysis. Sessions restricts his reading of Humes Dialogues to such an approach.
Derridas Platos Pharmacy is another, although wildly different, internal reading of
Platos Phaedrus. An internal reading of the text focuses on each element of the text
itself. They may be generated from a view of the text as an organic whole, as
Sessions puts it, or as an open, endlessly mutable collection of fragments, like
Derridas.
In contrast, external approaches to a text are historically based. They go
outside the universe of the text to that of the author. This approach roots the text in
an external context that alters how it is used and interpreted. With this approach,
references within the text to the world assume a greater significance, as do scene
setting and character (if historical). Moreover, the authors biography, culture, time
and non-fiction writings weigh more heavily in an external analysis of the text. So,
for example, external readings of my two chosen texts would generate questions like:
Do Humes Dialogues faithfully convey his beliefs about natural religion? Is the
Phaedrus an authentic condemnation of writing as it appears on its face? What
political motivations might have led both authors to convey belief through dialogue?
20


Do the existential circumstances of each authors life fully explain the use of
dialogue?
The external and internal approaches to a literary text have a genealogy
reaching back to at least Edmund Husserls transcendental phenomenology.
Phenomenological criticism brackets the historical context of a literary text and:
aims instead at a wholly immanent reading of the text, totally
unaffected by anything outside it. The text itself is reduced to a pure
embodiment of the authors consciousness: all of its stylistic and
semantic aspects are grasped as organic parts of a complex totality, of
which the unifying essence is the authors mind. (Eagleton 51)
Readings that take the opposite approach and firmly ground a text in its historical
setting began with Husserls student Heidegger and his hermeneutical
phenomenology. The work of philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer carry on
this tradition today (Eagleton 57). Heidegger believed that bracketing the historicity
of a text was impossible. For him, meaning and knowledge are inherently practical -
they arise from social and political interests that are concrete and bound to a
particular time. In other words, Knowing is deeply related to doing (Eagleton 56).
Understanding the meaning of text, therefore, requires an exploration of the authors
time and life. Successors of Heideggers theory, like Gadamer, recognize that the
reader, too, is embedded within a specific cultural milieu. They argue that a good
reading of a text must strive to understand the historical context of the author in
relation to that of the reader. For them, the meaning of a text may shift with the
21


passage of time, because interpretation becomes a dialogue between the past and the
present (Eagleton 62-63).
This strain of literary criticism, beginning with Husserls transcendental
phenomenology and ending with Heidegger and Gadamers hermeneutical
phenomenology, is only one strand evident in contemporary scholarship on
philosophical dialogues. The post-structural criticism of Jacques Derrida expresses
another. This strand views the text as lacking essence and boundary (Eagleton llO-
BO). All texts are fragments woven out of other literary texts (Eagleton 119).
Derrida famously claims there is nothing outside of the text (qtd. in Johnson xiv).
Literary critic Terry Eagleton understands Derrida to be saying that the meaning of a
text cannot be determined by an appeal to the author, for on this view the author is
dead (119-120). Eagleton explains that an authors biography and cultural moment
are yet another text that can and should be deconstructed.
However, dead may not be the most appropriate way to think of how
Derridas views the authors life in relation to the text. In an analysis of Jean-Jacques
Rousseaus biography, Derrida contends that behind the flesh and bone of real life
existences, there has never been anything but writing (qtd. in Johnson xiv). Barbara
Johnson, Derrida scholar and translator, succinctly explains Derridas meaning here
when she says that for Derrida, Rousseaus biography is a text, but it is a text that
speaks only about the textuality of life (Johnson xiv). The thrust of Derridas claim
that nothing is outside the text is that our understanding of our reality, our very
22


existence, always functions like a text. Reality is always mediated through varying
levels of signification. Thus, texts are inherently and forever in motion; they are
ambiguous, indeterminate (Johnson xiv). They express something unknowable, a vital
gap in human language and understanding.
All texts, indeed all experiences of the world, can therefore legitimately be
deconstructed. On Derridas account, deconstructing the layers of signification in a
text reveals the meaning of the text. Just as an external reading uncovers within the
text remnants of significant events in an authors life and time that alter the meaning
of a text, an internal, deconstructive reading uncovers traces of significant
relationships that render a text meaningful. Johnson says of deconstruction:
Deconstruction is not a form of textual vandalism designed to prove
the meaning is impossible. In fact, the word de-construction is
closely related not to the word destruction but the word analysis,
which etymologically means to undo.. .the deconstruction of a text
does not proceed by random doubt or generalized skepticism, but by
the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text
itself, (xiv)
Derridian deconstruction analyzes the layers of signification captured by the text,
seeking patterns, contradictions, underlying structures that issues from the author both
intentionally and unintentionally (Johnson xiv-xv). The deconstruction, or what
Derrida sees as a critical analysis, actually produces the meaning of the text (Johnson
xv). Thus Derridas internal reading always maps references beyond the text, yet
organically spring from the text. His analysis of Platos Phaedrus typifies this type of
internal reading.
23


For Platos Phaedrus, contemporary scholar Charles Kahn provides an
excellent external approach to the text. He firmly roots the text in Platos historical
setting and full philosophical project. As mentioned above, Derridas deconstructive
reading of the Phaedrus exemplifies an internal reading of a text, so it will then be
contrast with Kahns external reading. Turning next to Humes Dialogues, I will
follow William Lad Sessions internal reading, showing how it differs from a reading
by Jonathan Dancy that firmly grounds the text in Humes political context, historical
moment and body of work. By comparing and contrasting these readings, I hope to
trace what in philosophy so needs drama to express.
24


CHAPTER 4
PLATOS PHAEDRUS
It is a discourse that is written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the
listener, it can defend itself, and it knows for whom it should speak andfor
whom it should remain silent. (Plato, Phaedrus 276a)
Simply put, the Phaedrus is a remarkable work of art. In this complex
dialogue Plato uses myth, simile, reversals, analogies, stories within stories every
literary technique found in the corpus of his work. Multiple references flow out of the
text and within it, making the authors meaning elusive. Plato speckles Phaedrus with
allusions to historical figures and events, great poets and works of tragedy, Greek
religion and even other Platonic dialogues. Since its completion, estimated to be
sometime between 387-367 BCE, a number of scholars, philosophers, thinkers of
every ilk have puzzled over it, analyzed it, critiqued it and tried to offer a definitive
interpretation of it. Commenting on the Phaedrus can seem a bit like offering a new
or meaningful critique of the bible. However, Charles Kahn and Jacques Derrida have
risen to the challenge and examining their views of the Phaedrus illustrates how each
theory of the dialogue form in philosophy drives a different interpretation of the
meaning of the text.
The basic building blocks of the Phaedrus character, scene, timeline,
content create a binary structure to the dialogue as a whole. These larger elements
25


of the text combine with smaller elements that also reflect a dual structure. Taken
together, the composition creates a myriad of dualities that reverberate in a perplexing
symphony of signs. Unlike most other Platonic dialogues, the Phaedrus has only two
characters Socrates and the young man, Phaedrus. A dual sense of time permeates
the text as the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus constructs a primary story
timeline, while Phaedrus narrates a story within that story to develop a secondary
timeline. This two-fold sense of time runs throughout the text as Socrates relates
myths and recalls historical events, creating a feeling of history within the present and
fictional time within the real. The first scene opens with Socrates venturing out
beyond the city walls into a bucolic, pastoral setting, trailing dreamlike after Phaedrus
who has promised to repeat a speech by Lysias on why a boy should favor a non-
lover over a lover (227a-c). Socrates follows Phaedrus along the river Illisus to a
shady, secluded place beneath a tree (228-229). Phaedrus says, And you, my
remarkable friend, appear to be totally out of place (230d), to which Socrates replies,
I am devoted to learning; landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me only the
people in the city can do that (230d). Thus, the first scene sets up an opposition
between the philosopher/culture and nature. Finally, the basic content of the dialogue
breaks into two sections, the first about erotic love and its relationship to the nature of
the soul, the second about writing and rhetoric.
Similar binary oppositions or contraries pervade the dialogue. Platos
characters consider the oppositions of good and bad speeches, as well as good and
26


bad writing. The mythical tale of the soul imagines good and bad horses. Knowledge
contrasts with opinion, reality with appearance.
Plato, the author, constructs contraries that move beyond the story as well. For
instance, while the character Socrates says he can learn nothing from landscapes,
Plato uses the bucolic scene as a site of learning. At another point in the dialogue, in
describing divine madness, Socrates says, Now we must first understand the truth
about the nature of the soul, divine or human, by examining what it does and what is
done to it. Here begins the proof: (245c). After using the language of logic, i.e.
proof, Plato has Socrates use myth and poetry to describe the soul (246) and
prove the point. As another example, as Socrates builds his case against rhetoric,
Plato constructs this exchange:
Socrates: When someone utters the word iron or silver, dont we
all think of the same thing?
Phaedrus: Certainly.
Socrates: But what happens when we say just or good? Dont we
differ with one another and even with ourselves?
Phaedrus: We certainly do.
Socrates: Therefore, we agree about the former and disagree about the
latter.
Phaedrus: Right.
Socrates: Now in which of these two cases are we more easily
deceived? And when does rhetoric have greater power?
Phaedrus: Clearly, when we wander in different directions. (263a-b)
27


The puzzling thing about this exchange, and so many others like it in the Phaedrus, is
that Platos characters or scenes speak the opposite of what Plato as author seems to
be doing. The characters in this exchange are saying that when there is ambiguity of
definition, rhetoric has more power to deceive, to lead the soul astray. And yet, Plato
as author constructs a dialogue rife with intentional ambiguity.
Confusions abound as Plato also blurs the lines, the definitions so to speak, of
the objects within the dialogue. At times Socrates seems to be seduced and tempted
by Phaedrus as a boy, at other times he appears tempted by the speeches. It is often
unclear. When Phaedrus first recites Lysiass speech and asks Socrates what he
thought of it, Socrates playfully responds:
Its a miracle, my friend. Im in ecstasy. And its all your doing
Phaedrus: I was looking at you while you were reading and it seemed
to me the speech had made you radiant with delight; and since I
believe you understand these matters better than I do, I followed your
lead, and following you I shared your Bacchic frenzy. (235d)
Both men flush with sensual pleasure at the speech? Each other? Both? Phaedrus
lures Socrates with the promise of Lysiass speech and at one point withholds it as
one would withhold sex. At another point, as Phaedrus begs Socrates for a speech in
response to Lysiass he exclaims, Stop playing hard to get! I know what I can say to
make you give your speech (236d). This ambiguity between body (nature) and
speech (culture) continues as Socrates says to Phaedrus, I strongly suspect you have
the speech itself. And if Im right, you can be sure that, though I love you dearly, Ill
28


never, as long as Lysias himself is present, allow you to practice your own
speechmaking on me. Come on then, show me (228e). Thus, dualities, contraries,
contradictions emanate from every level of the dialogue aspects that could not
easily be conveyed outside a literary form like dialogue.
Charles Kahn argues that we can explain all of these dualities if we see the
Phaedrus as a single part of a larger picture. For him, the Phaedrus is one brilliant
link in the chain that forms Platos philosophical doctrine a coherent and unified
world view, expressed through the dialogues in total (xiv). Kahn considers himself
firmly in the camp of Unitarian Plato scholars, meaning those who believe that Plato
had a philosophical doctrine of ideas or philosophical theory that was clearly formed
early in his career and did not develop or fundamentally change over time (xiv-xv).
This contrasts on one hand with developmental scholars who believe that the sheer
variety of the dialogues betray an author developing ideas and maturing in his
approach over time, and on the other hand, with non-doctrinal scholars who believe
that Plato did not have a doctrine of ideas or philosophical system to express at all.
Wherever one might fall on this continuum can certainly color an understanding of
Platos dialogues.
A non-doctrinal reading of Plato might, for instance, focus on the moral
situation created in each dialogue (Hyland 226). This reading obviates the need to
explain any contradictions between dialogues or within a single dialogue, because
there is no consistent, coherent doctrine within the dialogues that can be contradicted.
29


Aporia, another common feature of many of the dialogues, makes more sense if the
purpose of the text is not to answer a single theoretical question, or develop a specific
point of thought, but rather to show some new ethical situation. Aporia and poor
arguments used by Socrates or others are not philosophical failures on Platos part,
but rather careful reconstructions of possible scenarios designed to teach the reader.
Non-doctrinal thinkers, like Drew Hyland, view any notion of Platonic theories as
impositions on the text by later thinkers (Hyland 264) and it is these impositions
which create the bulk of the perplexing aspects of the dialogues.
In turn, a developmental reading of the dialogues would emphasize the
apparent change in the structure of the dialogues from dramatic to more didactic.
These readings would show Plato moving from dramatist to philosopher. Kahn
contends that the current division of the dialogues into an early, middle and late
period encourages this belief (xiv). However, for him, the developmental approach
systematically underestimates Platos cunning as an author (Kahn xiv). The
developmental approach explains apparent inconsistencies within and between the
dialogues as Plato modifying and perfecting ideas as he goes, testing out theories,
puzzling through to new solutions over the course of a lifetime (Kahn xiv-xv). Kahn
argues that this would mean that Plato wrote dialogues like other philosophers write
essays or treatises: in order to solve problems for himself, or to announce his
solutions to world (xiv.) And not very well at that. The aporetic dialogues alone
would force a poor view of Plato as philosopher. Thus, Kahn presents an excellent
30


literary reading of the Phaedrus from his Unitarian perspective one that reveals
Platos genius as both philosopher and writer.
In his book, Plato and the Socratic Dialogues, Kahn ties each of the dialogues
that feature Socrates as a primary speaker into a single literary composition, united by
Platos philosophical doctrine. For Kahn, the heart of that doctrine involves an other
worldly metaphysics, typified best by the Theory of Forms, and a Socratic moral
ideal (xvi). Echoing Kaufman, Kahn argues that Plato sought to replace the heroes of
Homer, Sophocles and Euripides with his own philosopher hero, Socrates (xv). For
Kahn, the Socratic dialogues do just this and in establishing Socrates as hero, Plato
establishes philosophy as a dominant way of life.
Kahn begins with a discussion of the Gorgias and turns to the Phaedrus last,
for in his view, it is the last Socratic dialogue (Kahn 372). He argues that Socrates
appears as a character in the late dialogues, except for what is thought to be Platos
last work, Laws, but he does not have the same depth or dramatic complexity as seen
in the early and middle works. Kahn believes that this is not by coincidence. Noting
the many dualities of the Phaedrus, Kahn calls it the Janus-dialogue, like a figure
with two faces looking backwards and forwards (372). The first half of the book,
where Socrates and Phaedrus discuss erotic love and the nature of the soul, looks
backward, recalling themes from Phaedo, Symposium and Republic (Kahn 373).The
second half, where Socrates moves to a more dialectical examination of writing with
and without art, looks forward, anticipating Laws, Sophist and Statesman (Kahn 373-
31


375). For Kahn, this binary feature of the dialogue marks a conscious transition in
Platos presentation of his philosophical ideas. The first part of the dialogue involves
a conversation between Socrates and a pupil, with Socrates giving different speeches.
These, in Kahns view, are examples of Socrates employing rhetoric. In the second
part of the dialogue, Socrates and Phaedrus move to the question and answer method
to discuss rhetoric and writing. In other words Socrates, the character, moves to the
dialectic (Kahn 375-376). Kahn contends that just as Socrates moves from a dramatic
exchange to a dialectical one, with the writing of the Phaedrus, Plato the author,
moves from presenting his ideas through dramatic dialogue form to a form more
suited for a master dialectician engaged with other philosophically minded people
(373).
To explain this turning point in Platos work, Kahn turns to Platos critique of
writing in the Phaedrus. He argues that for Plato, philosophy was a way of life a
method for examining the most important questions of human concern. In order to
live philosophically, one must practice the dialectic (Kahn 379). Socrates claims:
But it is much nobler to be serious about these matters, and use the art
of dialectic. The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and
sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge discourse
capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is
not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in
the character of others. Such discourse makes the seed forever
immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human can
be. (276e-277a)
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Thus, living philosophically requires that we seek and gain wisdom through learning
and learning requires practicing the dialectic.
Kahn argues that the crux of the matter in the Phaedrus is teaching with art
and thereby living the dialectic. To teach with art demands four necessary elements:
1) the teachers true knowledge of the subject matter; 2) an audience appropriately
conditioned to learn the teaching; 3) discourse adapted to the character and intellect
of the audience; and finally, 4) the opportunity for developing clarity on the topic
through question and answer (Kahn 379-380). As the Phaedrus shows, only the first
criterion is satisfied in writing. However, the others can be imitated through the
dialogue form. This is not only why Plato wrote dialogues but why he shifts from
dramatic works like the Apology to more didactic dialogues such as Laws (Kahn 380).
For Kahn, the change from the early to late dialogues, marked by the Phaedrus,
shows not a change in philosophical ideas, but rather a shift in the intended audience
of readers from a broad, non-philosophical audience to an audience of intellectual
equals. In fact, Plato represents this shift within the dialogues as Socrates encounters
broader audiences of pre-philosophic interlocutors in the early and middle dialogues
to the late dialogues where the interlocutors are law givers, statesmen or other
philosophers (Press 178; Kahn 380-382). The Phaedrus, with its Janus structure,
marks this shift in audience for both the hero and the author, and a consequent shift in
presentation.
33


The Phaedrus, on Kahns reading, not only maintains an internal consistency
and unity, but that consistency holds when it is compared to the Platonic corpus. It
preserves the otherworldly metaphysics (Kahn 385) and reinforces the Socratic moral
ideal of living philosophically by pursuing the dialectic. The Phaedrus also furthers
and builds on the critique of imitative arts unguided by philosophy that Plato
expresses in Republic as well as the Seventh Letter (Kahn 389). Yes, Plato writes
dialogues and dialogues are imitative, but of course, philosophical dialogues are
guided by a love of wisdom. More importantly, only through the dialogue form can
Plato as teacher and author most closely approximate teaching with art. It is the only
form that allows Plato to create multiple layers which reinforce his main
philosophical ideas.
Kahns interpretation of the dialogues commits him to the current division of
the dialogues into early, middle and late periods. It may also hold him to an overly
reverent depiction of Plato. Not only would Platos philosophical ideas need to have
been fundamentally settled by the time he started writing, but his literary plan would
have also needed to be settled relatively early on in his life. This portrays Plato as a
writer of almost unbelievable intellect, artistry and cunning. But it does harmonize
conflicts between Platos non-dialogic treatment of writing, his fictional works and
his lifes practice. When Plato writes in the Seventh Letter that he has
never... .written anything about what concerns him most, maybe he truly meant that in
writing dialogue he wasnt writing. Rather, he was engaged in teaching with art,
34


writing with art, living art by producing imitation guided by philosophy. In essence,
living philosophically. As Kahn notes, Platos condemnation of writing and imitative
arts seems contrary to his lifes practice, but only if you see the dialogues as writing
in the lowest sense (389). Reflective of Platos metaphysics, the spoken and written
word fall along a hierarchy some pieces more adequately move us from appearance
to truth, some nourish the soul like Eros, others deceive and corrupt the soul (25 8d),
some are thrown together at random while others are put together like a living
creature, with a body of its own.. .neither without head nor without legs; and...[with]
a middle and extremities that are fitting both to one another and to the whole work
(264c). Platos works and life, from Kahns perspective, taken together form a living
creature, with the Phaedrus a critical organ in the body as a whole.
Living creature this is how Jacques Derrida too will view the Phaedrus.
Only not in the sense of well-organized around essential qualities or well-defined as
Kahn attributes to Plato. Rather, Derrida sees the Phaedrus, the text, as a living
creature a Frankenstein of sorts that gives form to historical traces and moves
wayward into a future of its own making, regardless of the intent of its creator.
Derrida, like Kahn, sees the numerous dualities of the Phaedrus and regards them as
something inherent in writing, something that Plato tried to control through writing,
but that nevertheless escaped his grasp. In his extended essay, Platos Pharmacy, 3
3 Derrida, Jacques. Platos Pharmacy, will be abbreviated as PP for in-text citation from this point
forward.
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Derrida deconstructs the Phaedrus, drawing out the unwieldy traces and paradoxical
elements in order to explain his own notion of differance.
For Derrida, the Phaedrus is primarily about writing. He argues that the
question of what it means to write beautifully versus dishonorably is the central
nervure, the great fold that divides the dialogue (Derrida, Platos Pharmacy 68).
Rather than a clumsy argument tacked on to the end of the dialogue, the critique of
writing is paramount. Rather than a meandering, poorly constructed dialogue, the
Phaedrus is actually supervised and limited by rigorous necessities (Derrida, PP
85). For Derrida, the Phaedrus is organized around a single concept writing as
pharmakon.
Early on, Derrida establishes the pharmakon a drug that can be both a
poison and a cure as his main trope. The pharmakon is the key that guides Derrida
through the twists and turns of his deconstructive trip through the dialogue. The
pharmakon, as Derrida explains it, is inherently contradictory, both healer and
destroyer, bringer of life or death. It is essentially, a being that contains its opposite
or, in other words, a being that is what it is not. This paradox is the crux for
understanding Derridas interpretation of the Phaedrus and his own notion of
differance.
36


Derridas differance, while a play on words, is neither a word nor a concept
(Derrida, Speech and Phenomena4 130); it is never given in the present or to anyone
(SP 134); it belongs to no category of being, present or absent (SP 134). For Derrida,
this slippery notion of differance is a strategic note (SP 131), a philosophical chord
that evokes his central challenge to the historical metaphysical authority of presence
[and] its simple symmetrical contrary, absence or lack (SP 139). Derrida argues that
differance encompasses both the classical notion of differ, meaning non-identity,
dissimilarity or alterity (SP 136), as well as the notion of defer, meaning to delay,
to suspend, to detour (SP 136). The blending of both constitutes a theme that
characterizes the connective tissue of our intellectual epoch (SP 130); a theme
glimpsed in scholars ranging from Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud to Immanuel
Levinas, Ferdinand de Saussure and Martin Heidegger, which confronts the oldest of
metaphysical oppositions, i.e. active/passive, sign/signified, structural/historical,
unity/diversity, intelligible/sensible, conscious/unconscious, being/becoming,
cause/effect, essence/accident, and most importantly, presence/absence (SP 137-158;
Zuckert 201-225). For Derrida, the most entrenched metaphysical pretence can be
found in the opposition of presence to absence, and it is this precisely this pretence
that his notion of differance assaults.
Derrida contends that the privileging of presence or Being masks the most
repressive of limits on human thought and language (SP 139) it is the constraint that
4 Derrida, Jacques. Speech and Phenomena will be abbreviated a SP for in-text citation from this point
forward.
37


forces and preserves the constraints of metaphysical oppositions. For Derrida,
differance recalls something like the middle voice (SP 137), a presence that is not
present (SP 140-142), a trace of what is not in what is (SP 143). Like the taint of
unconscious desire in conscious thought or the lacuna that propels a story forward,
differance evokes a spatial-temporal interval in which lurks the ineffable difference
between Being and beings (SP 159).
The Phaedrus exemplifies differance a challenge to the essential
philosophical, ontological dualities that the dialogue reinforces as a theme on its face.
Derrida draws out Platos reference to the pharmakon as a running thread through the
text, suggesting Platos awareness of the living nature of the text itself, almost an
unconscious recognition of differance. For instance, the opening scene shows
Socrates and Phaedrus settling near a spot where legend has it that the daughter of an
Athenian king, Orithuia, was abducted by Boreas. Phaedrus recalls the legend and
asks, But tell me, Socrates, in the name of Zeus, do you really believe that the legend
is true? (229c). Socrates responds:
Actually it would not be out of place for me to reject it, as our
intellectuals do. I could then tell a clever story: I could claim that a
gust of the North Wind blew her over the rocks where she was playing
with Pharmaceia; and once she was killed that way people said she had
been carried off by Boreas or was it, perhaps, from the Areopagus?
(229c-d)
Socrates thus invents a clever story of a girl, playing with Pharmaceia, another way
of signifying the administration of the pharmakon, the drug: the medicine and/or
38


poison (PP 70). Derrida sees the dialogue open with a myth of a young woman,
surprised by death as she played with a drug, just as Socrates and Phaedrus will be
surprised as they settle to discuss a text, referred to later in the dialogue as a drug.
Derrida argues that the text alludes to writing as drug from practically the first line as
Phaedrus lures Socrates out of the city with a speech, tempting him as with a drug
(PP 71). In a slip of poetry, Derrida says that writing/text and pharmakon exchange
glances from afar in a literary game of hide and seek until the myth of Theuth (PP
73), at which point, Derrida claims, writing as pharmakon comes out of hiding (PP
73).
Plato introduces the myth of Theuth late in the dialogue. After a long
discussion of good and bad rhetoric, or speaking with and without art, Socrates and
Phaedrus turn to writing (274b). Socrates has just concluded through the previous
argument that speaking well requires that the speaker/teacher/writer have knowledge
of the subject matter, knowledge of the soul of the listener and a practical ability to
adapt the speech to the character of the audience (272b). Socrates has established that,
the nature of speech is in fact to direct the soul (27Id) and that speaking, writing
and teaching are related. So it seems odd that as the interlocutors turn to writing,
Socrates denies knowledge of good writing and turns to a myth, mere opinion (PP
75; 274b-e). Socrates recounts:
Well, this is what Ive heard. Among the ancient gods of Naucratis in
Egypt there was one to whom the bird called the ibis is sacred. The
name of that divinity was Theuth, and it was he who first discovered
39


number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games
of checkers and dice, and, above all else, writing.
Now the king of all Egypt at that time was Thamus; Thamus they call
Ammon. Theuth came to exhibit his arts to him and urged him to
disseminate them to all the Egyptians. Thamus asked him about the
usefulness of each art, and while Theuth was explaining it, Thamus
praised him for whatever he thought was right in his explanations and
criticized him for whatever he thought was wrong.
The story goes that Thamus said much to Theuth, both for and against
each art.. .but when they came to writing, Theuth said: Oh King, here
is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and
will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory
and wisdom. Thamus, however, replied: O most expert Theuth, one
man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can
judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And
now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made
you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact,
it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they
will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in
writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others,
instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their
won. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for
reminding: you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom,
not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many
things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they
have come to know much while for the most part they will know
nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with since they will
merely appear to be wise instead of really being so. (274c-275b; qtd. in
Derrida, PP 75)
Here, there are direct references to writing as a potion, one that has the power to
foster memory and forgetfulness, one that grants ignorance in the guise wisdom. The
myth, according to Derrida, offers up writing as a criminal thing, a poisoned
present (PP77).
40


Derrida teases out the many traces within the myth, placing it in a web-like
network of references to other stories, other texts. He starts by constructing a
genealogy of sorts for the myth, arguing that through it, writing is established as the
subordinate, orphaned child of logos. Theuth fathers the gift of writing and presents
his offspring to the king, Thamus, who in turn is the one to give it value. The king
passes judgment upon the gifts; he grants them value and as such, Derrida contends
that the king is established as the knower (PP 75-77). Reasoned speech thereby
moves to a paternal position above writing. And when the knower, the patriarch,
rejects writing, he renders it an orphan who needs not only a presence, but a
presence that will attend to its needs (PP 77). To support this notion, Derrida turns
to the text where Socrates agrees with Thamuss judgment of writing and says:
You know Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting.
The offspring of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone
asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is
true of written words. Youd think they were speaking as if they had
some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said
because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very
same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every
discourse roams about everywhere reaching indiscriminately those
with understanding no less than those who have no business with it,
and it doesnt know to whom it should speak and to whom it should
not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its
fathers support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own
support. (275d-e)
A text needs a father. It needs speech, the ability of discourse to support and defend
it. Yet a text, once written, loses this capacity; the father is lost, becomes absent
through the very act of writing. A text is, in Derridas sense, orphaned upon birth
41


(PP 76-77). In fact, writing is a desire for orphanhood and patricidal subversion
(PP 77). And so, Derrida construes writing as a poisoned present (a clever play
on words), a moment of presence that recalls absence. In a word, differance (PP
77).
Derrida furthers his analogy by drawing out the significance of the notion of
the father. He claims that the figure of the father in Greek is also that of the good, the
chief or the capital (PP 81). He draws out references similar to the one above from
the Phaedo and the Republic, showing ultimately that even logos (speech) is indebted
to a father-figure, i.e. the good. Like a loving father, the good guides, orders and
directs. The good is what determines nobility in discourse and being (PP 82).
Derrida goes on to show how Platos characters often compare the good to the sun
(PP 82-84) something that renders the world visible, but is rarely seen in its own
complete nature. Derrida concludes that the good (father, sun, capital) is thus the
hidden illuminating, blinding source of logos (PP 82). In short, the good, the
source of logos, the superior father of writing, is also at its heart a contradiction, a
beautiful expression of differance because it is an invisible entity with the power to
blind. In Derridas words:
Logos is thus a resource. One must turn to it, and not merely when the
solar source is present and risks burning the eyes if stared at; one has
also to turn away toward logos when the sun seems to withdraw during
its eclipse. Dead, extinguished, or hidden, that star is more dangerous
than ever. (84)
42


Throughout the remainder of Platos Pharmacy, Derrida traces references
within the text back to this basic notion of differance the hidden within the visible,
absence within presence. He describes how Thamus, or by his other name Ammon,
also means to hide (87). He explores other cultural references to the god of writing,
showing how each introduces a subversive dislocation of identity in general (PP
86). Each cultural character of Theuth connotes substitution (the text for the author),
difference, plurality, the creative which ironically destroys through that substitution
(PP 90-96). Derrida sees Theuth as another organizing theme (PP 96). For him, it
is a text within a text which describes and refers back to the pharmakon that the
Phaedrus becomes. Platos Pharmacy is a brilliant take on the Phaedrus, which
under Derridas gaze becomes a text dizzyingly self-referential.
Derrida shows that through these stories within the story, Plato is trying to
establish that writing can never be solely good. Just as a drug interrupts the natural
development of an organism, writing interrupts the natural development of the soul
(PP 99-100). It is a tool of sophistry that merely mimics the process of the dialectic.
In other words, writing imitates discourse that leads to true knowledge (PP 103-
107). It is in this apparent imitation that Derrida sees Platos most devious critique of
writing. He says:
Plato maintains both the exteriority of writing and its power of
maleficent penetration, its ability to affect or infect what lies deepest
inside. The pharmakon is that dangerous supplement that breaks into
the very thing that would have liked to do without it yet lets itself at
once be breached, roughed up, fulfilled, and replaced, completed by
43


the very trace through which the present increases itself in the act of
disappearing. (PP 110)
Derrida argues that for Plato, live memory and speech reproduce true ideas and ideas
are therefore rendered present (PP 111). Writing mimics this repetition, but renders
nothing present. Writing replaces the representation of a true idea with another
repetition (PP 135-136). It twice-removes itself from what is real by imitating an
imitation (PP 137). Unlike other imitative arts, such as tragedy, painting and
sculpture, which model the real object/s that they imitate, writing actually displaces
its model (PP 137-142). Writing replaces the natural object with a symbol of a
symbol and is therefore doubly deceptive. Whereas a painting presents an imperfect
representation of a landscape, or a sculpture presents an imperfect copy of a living
being, a text substitutes a series of symbols unrelated to the object for a copy of the
object, removing itself from reality once again. In this way, writing purports to give
the illusion of truth, knowledge and even remembering, but cannot even be
considered an imitation of these things (PP 139). Rather, it is a replacement and
that is how it deceives. Writing replaces a recollection of presence as a representation
would with an absence, a deception. With this argument Derrida again distills writing
to the pharmakon, for the essence of the pharmakon is to have no stable essence
(PP 125). He argues that writing is the movement, the locus, and the play: the
production of difference. It is the differance of difference (PP 127).
44


However, while the pharmakon cannot be construed as wholly good, neither
can it be construed as wholly bad. Most of Platos critique of writing characterizes it
as a poison. Yet there are areas where Plato offers up an antidote to this poison
(PP 121). According to Derrida, Platos character Socrates himself embodies a kind
of pharmakon. Socrates, the man wrote nothing, pursuing instead dialectical
conversation. Plato presents him as a hero, but also often characterizes him as a
magician whose pharmaceutical charms provoke a kind of narcosis, benumbing and
paralyzing into aporia, like the touch of a sting ray (PP 118). Derrida fleshes out
Socrates as a pharmakon and circles back to the central fold of the Phaedrus, i.e. the
difference between honorable and dishonorable writing. Oddly, Plato must kill
Socrates in the dialogues in order to establish this distinction and the superiority of
philosophical writing (Zuckert 221). Despite the critique of writing and its opposition
to living discourse, Derrida, like Kahn, argues that Plato defends a type of legitimate
writing that is an honorable inscription on the soul (PP 149). In a word,
philosophy.
However, Derrida views this explicit intent as not only Platos great
deception, but also his great failure. As he intimates throughout his examination of
the Phaedrus, Derrida believes that Plato grasps the notion of differance, even if he
does not call it that. Through the very act of writing the Phaedrus, carefully piecing
together traces, references, myths, and arguments into a dialogue that folds in on itself
and refers out to other texts, Plato betrays his knowledge of the power of writing and
45


its ability to challenge presence. But, for Derrida, he conceals this power for political
ends. Philosophy, the pursuit of truth, knowing by heart, is raised above sophistry
and the mere appearance of truth throughout the dialogues. Allowing for an
interminable play of opposites (Zuckert 225) would undermine the political and
social order that Plato so believed in (Zuckert 220-225). So he constructs a dialogue
that seeks to establish intelligible order, noble writing, speech, reason, the virtuous
life even as it undermines them. As Derrida says, he constructs a dialogue which
allows him to play at taking play seriously (PP 157). He plays, he writes, but all
within the safeguards of ethics and politics (PP 156). Thus, the dialogue form
allows Plato to dissemble. It allows him, as a great writer, to express his truth about
writing, to capture the very contradiction of writing, by writing.
Derrida will ultimately find that the distinctions Plato hopes to draw between
writing beautifully and writing dishonorably, speech and writing and do not hold. As
writing the Phaedrus allowed Plato to give voice to his silent insights, maybe even
fears, of a world with unstable essences, it is still an expression of that world. All
writing, all speech, all texts remain signs of signs living contradictions. Even texts
designed to inscribe beauty and virtue in the soul through living the dialectic or
writing the philosophical dialogue remain a pharmakon, a phantasm, just a residue, a
dream, a bit of dream left over, an echo of the night (PP 171).
46


CHAPTER 5
HUMES DIALOGUES CONCERNING NATURAL RELIGION
There are some subjects, however, to which dialogue-writing is peculiarly adapted,
and where it is still preferable to the direct and simple method of composition.
(Pamphilus to Hermippus: Hume, Dialogues 29)
Humes Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion5 hold a special place in the
body of Humes work. As noted, the Dialogues were most likely written in early
1751, around the same time as Natural History of Religion (Gaskin xviii), revised in
the early 1760s and again the year before his death in 1776 (Gaskin, Mossner). This
means they were written when Hume was at the height of his literary fame and
philosophical maturity. As Humes biographer Ernest Campbell Mossner notes, The
Dialogues were Humes pride (592). Despite his early reticence to share them, he
went to great lengths during his last year of life to ensure their publication. He singled
them out in three separate amendments to his will and wrote to both friends and
family to convey his dying wish that they be published no later than three years after
his death. Although first entrusted to his lifelong friend Adam Smith, Hume sensed
Smiths unease at publishing them and willed them to his friend and publisher
William Strahan a few months before his death. In a final codicil to his will, added
5 The edition used for this paper is: J.C.A. Gaskin, ed., Dialogues and Natural History of Religion
(Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993). In-text references to the Dialogues will note Part and page number in
Gaskins edition.
47


just a few weeks before his death, Hume wrote that if for any reason Strahan did not
publish them within three years of his death, the manuscript would revert to his
nephew, David Hume, to publish immediately. For a number of reasons, the
manuscript was eventually published by the young David Hume in 1779.
Despite the difficulty in publishing the Dialogues, the subject matter and
Humes controversial treatment of the subject of religion were nothing new for
Hume. He wrote the year of his death, I have hitherto forborne to publish it, because
I was of late desirous to live quietly, and keep remote from all clamour (Greig 2:322;
Letter No. 525). But Hume continues in that same letter that in his view the
Dialogues were not more exceptionable than his other works and for someone who
had supported the publication of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,
Strahan should have not the least Scruple with regard (324) to publishing them.
Religion and a skeptical critique of the foundations for religious belief permeated
Humes work from the Treatise on. Humes good friend, the Reverend Hugh Blair,
wrote to Strahan after their publication, They are exceedingly elegant. They bring
together some of his most exceptionable reasonings, but the principles themselves
were all in his former works (qtd. in Greig 2:454; Appendix M). Hume had treated
the topic before and also endured withering criticism for his unorthodox religious
views. Controversy was nothing new to Hume. All these facts, in light of Humes
dogged determination to ensure their publication lead one to wonder, why the
Dialogues? What special place or purpose did they hold for their creator?
48


Hume gives some indication of why in the opening scene of the Dialogues,
where the character of Pamphilus explains the benefits and failings of the dialogue
form to his friend Hermippus as he prepares to recount a conversation that he heard as
a young man. Pamphilus says:
It has been remarked, my Hermippus, that, though the ancient
philosophers conveyed most of their instruction in the form of
dialogue, this method of composition has been little practiced in later
ages, and has seldom succeeded in the hands of those who have
attempted it. Accurate and regular argument, indeed, such as is now
expected of philosophical enquirers, naturally throws a man into the
methodical and didactic manner.. .To deliver a SYSTEM in
conversation scarcely appears natural...
There are some subjects, however, to which dialogue-writing is
peculiarly adapted, and where it is still preferable to the direct and
simple method of composition.
Any point of doctrine, which is so obvious, that it scarcely admits of
dispute, but at the same time is so important, that it cannot be too often
inculcated, seems to require some such method of handling it...
Any question of philosophy, on the other hand, which is so obscure
and uncertain, that human reason can reach no fixed determination
with regard to it; if it should be treated at all; seems to lead us
naturally into the style of dialogue and conversation. Reasonable men
may be allowed to differ, where no one can reasonably be positive;
Opposite sentiments, even without any decision, afford an agreeable
amusement; And if the subject be curious and interesting, the book
carries us, in a manner, into company; and unites the two greatest and
purest pleasures of human life, study and society. {Dialogues 29-30)
Hume has Pamphilus go on to say that natural religion is such a subject. He claims
the existence of God is obvious and important while the nature of God is obscure and
uncertain.
49


That Hume frames the Dialogues with a discussion of dialogue form is
interesting and peculiar. It says something important about both the topic of the
dialogue and possibly Humes objectives as author. The opening scene, if Pamphilus
can be viewed as a trustworthy narrator,6 first indicates that by writing the Dialogues
Hume is not delivering a philosophical system. Accurate and regular argument is not
the only or even the primary point of the text. He suggests a willingness to sacrifice
order, brevity, and precision (29) for other ends. However, he is treating a
philosophical topic one that is important but so obscure and uncertain that human
reason does not easily allow us to hammer down definite conclusions. Moreover, the
topic itself is one where reasonable people can disagree even after reasonable
discussion. The value of the dialogue is not found in an agreeable outcome or
consensus, but rather lies in the conversation itself. Hume states clearly that, for him,
dialogue is the confluence of the two greatest pleasures of human life: study and
society, the pursuit of philosophy and friendship. So at a minimum, in Humes
dialogue it is reasonable to expect not just a philosophical exploration of ideas, but a
psychological exploration of minds and relationships. We could expect and actually
do see in Humes Dialogues rational argument and discussion of doctrine, but also
emotions, temperaments, allegiances and the character of the interlocutors. In Humes
pride, we see a passing of society through philosophy.
6 There is no consensus on this fact with contemporary Hume scholars. Jonathan Dancy, for instance,
argues that Pamphiluss opening comments cannot be attributed to Hume, because, first, they express a
distinction between the existence and nature of God that Hume did not draw and second, Pamphiluss
appearance and remarks in the dialogue mirror some conventions of dialogues as Hume knew them.
50


While Pamphilus and Hermippus frame the dialogue, appearing in the opening
and closing scenes, they do not appear in the main body of the dialogue. The bulk of
the dialogue is a conversation, overheard and recounted by Pamphilus, in twelve parts
between three characters: Cleanthes, Pamphiluss former teacher and supporter of the
argument from design or argument a posteriori; Demea an orthodox Christian, mystic
and supporter of an argument a prior; and finally, Philo, the skeptic (Gaskin xx;
Manning 590; Dialogues 30-31). The characters introduce a number of topics ranging
from education of the young to faith and skepticism, but their main topic of
conversation is natural religion, in particular the argument from design.
The argument from design attempts to infer the existence and nature of a deity
from our experience of the world. Hence, it is known as an argument a posteriori. It
basically holds that since instances of order and regularity exist in the world, much
like order and regularity exist in machines designed by human intelligence for
specific purposes, the world must also be designed by some kind of intelligence for
some purpose. It constructs an analogy between artifacts and nature and infers from
those similarities an analogy between human design and divine design (Tweyman xii;
Gaskin; Dialogues 45; pt. 2).
In Part 1 through Part 11 of the Dialogues, the three gentlemen debate the
argument from design, with Philo providing a steady and clever critique which seems
to completely dismantle it. It is in Part 2 where Cleanthes first lays out the argument.
Philo and Demea join forces to argue that the nature of God cannot be known by the
51


human mind. Although, the foundation of their positions differ as do their motivations
to ally themselves. Demea, a dogmatic Christian, argues that human frailties prevent
us from knowing the mysteries of the divine. He says, They are covered in a deep
cloud from human curiosity: It is profaneness to attempt penetrating through these
sacred obscurities (43; pt. 2). For Demea, attempting to know the infinite,
omnipotent, omniscient mind of God through reason or empirical inquiry is human
arrogance, impiety tantamount to atheism (42-45: pt. 2). While Philo, as a good
skeptic, agrees with Demea that neither reason or experience can lead us to proof of
the nature of God, he does so not on religious grounds, but philosophical ones (44-45;
pt. 2). In response to these claims, Cleanthes introduces the argument from design and
maintains that the argument not only proves the existence of God, but that Gods
nature and wisdom resembles that of humans (45; pt. 2). In turn, Philo begins the
attack.
Philo argues that analogical reasoning is weak to begin with and weakened
when the parts of the analogy are dissimilar. He first contends that a house, while
clearly the product of an architect and builder, is so dissimilar to the universe that the
inference simply does not hold. He maintains that the crux of the argument from
design depends upon experience, and all experience relies on the basic assumption
that similar causes produce similar effects. However, Philo contends that unless the
cases be exactly similar there is no guarantee that the future will resemble the past or
52


that the cause will produce the same effect (49; pt. 2). He picks up this line of
argument in Part 4, stressing the dissimilarity between nature and artifacts.
Philo offers another challenge to the argument from design in Part 2 that he
revisits and refines in later chapters. He maintains that even if we grant evidence of
design in the world, we cannot legitimately attribute that design to a divine mind. We
cannot know, either a prior or a posteriori, that matter does not have some organizing
principle of its own (48; pt. 2) or some completely dissimilar cause. Philo fleshes out
this argument at the end of Part 3 and throughout Part 4 to counter Cleanthes example
of the universe being like a library populated with natural volumes or natural kinds
(55; pt. 3). He paints each species of animal and plant like a book with its own unique
organization, purpose, language, all of which for Cleanthes betrays an intelligent
author (57; pt. 3). Philo again shows that even if we admit natural kinds, only by a
leap of faith can we go from there to an omnipotent, omniscient God.
To challenge Cleathness argument from design, Demea and Philo each
emphasize the differences between God and human, but again for different reasons.
Part 4 of the dialogue brings a heated debate between Cleanthes and Demea as
Cleanthes claims mystics who maintain the complete incomprehensibility of God are
no different from atheists who make the same claim. For Demea, the mutable, messy,
imperfect, finite mind of man cannot compare to the simple, unified, perfect,
immutable mind of God (61; pt. 4). Cleanthes counters that it is no more legitimate to
claim no similarity between God and human or complete similarity. While there may
53


be attributes of God that human minds will fail to understand, if we construe a God
with no positive human qualities, such as intelligence and the capacity to will and
love, than we leave ourselves with no meaningful God (61; pt. 4). For Cleanthes, the
social and psychological benefits of religion demand that we have a God worthy of
praise and worship (65; pt. 4).
In Parts 5 through 8, Philo systematically refutes Cleanthess
anthropomorphism by drawing out the consequences of his main premise. Philo first
turns to science to demonstrate that if like effects prove like causes (67; pt. 5), as
Cleanthes contends, then the teeming variety in nature commits Cleanthes to a finite,
imperfect God, possibly even many, finite, imperfect gods. He argues scientific
exploration continues to yield more information about the great variety of natural
effects, which by Cleanthess argument must come from a like cause, i.e. a God of
variety or a variety of gods. At one point he says:
Cleanthes, men are mortal, and renew their species by generation; and this is
common to all living creatures. The two great sexes of male and female, says
MILTON, animate the world. Why must this circumstance, so universal, so
essential, be excluded from those numerous and limited Deities? (Dialogues
70; pt. 5; Tweyman 88-95)
In others words, why not attribute to the Deity or Deities all that we find in nature?
Philo argues there is no rational ground for attributing some effects in nature to God
and not others. The choice to characterize God as perfect, loving, wise, rather than,
say, an animal, vegetable or Brahmin spider that spun this whole complicated mass
54


from his bowels (82; pt. 7) is completely arbitrary. Philo ultimately asks his
companions: Why not attribute the evils of nature to God?
After a short digression to discuss the a priori argument for the existence and
perfect nature of God, the three friends directly confront to the problem of evil raised
by Philo. Demea comments on the misery of human life and says that religion brings
comfort. He says, What resource for us amidst the innumerable ills of life, did not
religion suggest some methods of atonement, and appease those terrors, with which
we are incessantly agitated and tormented (94; pt. 9). Philo then joins Demea in
speaking of the anxiety and perpetual terror that humans endure. However,
unbeknownst to Demea, he does so to lay the grounds for a new attack on religious
belief. Philo carries Demeas comments a step further by claiming that often human
woe and misery result from human intellect, the very heart of humanity (97; pt. 10).
Contrary to the beast that suffers in ignorance, Philo asks of the human, But does he
[the human] not immediately raise up to himself imaginary enemies, the demons of
his fancy, who haunt him with superstitious terrors, and blast every enjoyment of
life? (97; pt. 10). Philo asserts that with greater intellect comes a greater capacity for
viciousness. In keeping with his general view of the wretchedness of human beings,
Demea agrees and adds to humanitys pathetic plight mental illness, poverty, tyranny,
pestilence, accidents (98; pt. 10).
Unlike Demea, Cleanthes senses Philos true motivation behind his comments
about evil in the world. He first tries to downplay the evil in the world (99; pt. 10),
55


knowing that if Philo can establish that evil truly exists within the world, the
traditional attributes of God omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent stand on shaky
ground. And Philo does go down this road, challenging Cleanthes that if God allows
evil to exist, then God cannot be wholly benevolent. Or if God allows evil to exist in
the world because he does not know that it exists, God cannot be all-knowing. Or
finally, if God recognizes evil in the world and is benevolent, but is unable to rid the
world of evil, God cannot be all-powerful (100-103; pt. 10). By the close of Part 10,
Philo has the upper hand, he says, Here, Cleanthes, I find myself at ease in my
argument. Here I triumph (103; pt. 10). Philo has cornered Cleanthes. Cleanthes
wants to found religion on experience of the world, to infer from the world the
traditional attributes of a Christian God. However, once evil is admitted, and it must
be if the authority of human experience is given full accord, then it becomes
impossible to reason from this world, as we find it, to Cleanthess conception of God
(104; pt. 10). Philo says to his friend, I will allow, that pain or misery in man is
compatible with infinite power and goodness in the Deity, even in your sense of these
attributes (103; pt. 10), but compatibility is not proof either from reason or by
experience.
The argument won, Philo goes on in Part 11 to reveal his true skeptical
tendencies. He essentially turns the argument from design on its head and shows how
our experience of the mixed phenomena of the world can lead to a number of
different ideas concerning the cause of the universe. He uses experience to explore
56


the possibility of very different theologies than Demea or Cleanthes could support.
Betrayed, Demea cries out:
Hold! Hold!: Whither does your imagination hurry you? I joined in
alliance with you, in order to prove the incomprehensible nature of the
divine Being, and refute the principles of Cleanthes, who would
measure everything by a human rule and standard. But I now find you
running into all the topics of the greatest libertines and infidels;
betraying that holy cause, which you seemingly espoused. Are you
secretly, then, a more dangerous enemy than Cleanthes himself? (114-
115; pt. 11)
By the close of Part 11, Philo, amused, stands revealed for the skeptic he is. Demea,
feeling tricked, leaves; and Cleanthes, calm and measured as he seems throughout the
dialogue, is left surveying the damage. Philos clever and sustained assault on the
argument from design leaves his fictional companions and the reader with the sense
that the death knell has rung for any rational or empirical foundation for a benevolent,
omniscient, omnipotent Deity. That is, until Part 12.
The final chapter of the dialogue creates the greatest uncertainty for Hume
scholars and critics, for in it Philo, who appears so consistent to that point, seems to
reverse his position. With Demeas departure, only the two philosophers, Philo and
Cleanthes, are left to continue the conversation. Cleanthes chides Philo for going too
far to win his argument and shock Demea merely for a love of controversy and
abhorrence of vulgar superstition (116; pt. 12). Philo says with a careless contrition:
I confess, that I am less cautious on the subject of natural religion than
on any other; both because I know that I can never, on that head,
corrupt the principles of any man of common sense, and because no
one, I am confident, in whose eyes I appear a man of common sense,
57


will ever mistake my intentions. You, in particular, Cleanthes, with
whom I live in unreserved intimacy; you are sensible, that,
notwithstanding the freedom of my conversation, and my love of
singular arguments, no one has a deeper sense of religion impressed on
his mind, or pays more profound adoration to the divine Being, as he
discovers himself to reason, in the inexplicable contrivance and artifice
of nature. A purpose, an intention, a design strikes everywhere the
most careless, the most stupid thinker; and no man can be so hardened
in absurd systems, as at all times to reject it. (116; pt. 12)
It is as if Hume, or Philo, would like the reader to believe that his argument from the
beginning of the dialogue was merely a way to tease, provoke and expose the
irrationality of dogmatic religious belief. He then proceeds to contradict almost every
argument he made so convincingly in Demeas company.
Philos almost complete reversal begins with the claim that through science
we know that nature acts by the simplest methods, and chooses the most proper
means to any end (116; pt. 12). He says this in turn provides a strong foundation for
religion and faith in an intelligent creator (117; pt. 12). Remarkably, he also appears
to disavow his skeptical stance when he says:
So little / do I esteem this suspense of judgment in the present case to
be possible, that I am apt to suspect there enters somewhat of a dispute
of words into this controversy, more than is usually imagined. That the
works of nature bear a great analogy to the productions of art is
evident and according to all the rules of good reasoning, we ought to
infer, if we argue at all concerning them, that their causes have a
proportional analogy. (119; pt. 12)
Philo claims that the disagreements on issues of natural religion spring from
ambiguity of language, not being (120; pt. 12). The imperfections of human language
render the subject of natural religion obscure and uncertain, not the underlying nature
58


of God. He even claims that from our nature we can legitimately infer the nature of
God (121; pt. 12) when he agrees with Cleanthes as he advocates for the very
cosmogony that Philo has gone to great lengths to refute. Philo amicably says
Cleanthes account is the only one which can be rendered intelligible and complete,
and yet can throughout preserve a strong analogy to what we every day see and
experience in the world (118; pt. 12). In the most telling and confusing lines of Part
12, Philo claims that these are his true, long-held, unfeigned sentiments regarding
natural religion (121; pt. 12). He contends that, in truth, the theist and atheist, or the
skeptic and dogmatist, disagree only by degree (120; pt. 12). And it is both his
veneration for true religion and abhorrence of vulgar superstition that compels
him to push skeptical principles and arguments sometimes into absurdity, sometimes
into impiety (121; pt. 12).
Interpreting Philos reversal and Humes intent is further complicated by the
shift in tenor and topic found in Part 12. The interlocutors shift from an ontological
and epistemological discussion to a much more practical discussion of morality.
Cleanthes tells his friend that his skeptical challenges can be dangerous since,
Religion, however corrupted, is still better than no religion at all. The doctrine of a
future state is so strong and necessary a security to morals, that we never ought to
abandon or neglect it (121; pt. 12). Philo disagrees. He says even a short survey of
human history would uncover dogmatic religious belief or vulgar superstition, like
that held by Demea, inciting war, murder, oppression (122; pt. 12). Instead natural
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honesty and benevolence, a natural inclination toward society and rational enquiry
promotes the security and harmony that Cleanthes seeks. The passionate zeal of false
religion interferes with rational deliberation. For Philo, the terrors of religion far
outweigh the comforts and social benefits. Instead, for him, cultivating habits of
honesty, justice and benevolence on grounds other than religion better serves morality
(123-129; pt. 12). In his final remark of the dialogue, Philo says, To be a
philosophical sceptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step towards
being a sound, believing Christian (130; pt. 12).
Scholars disagree on the meaning of Philos statements regarding vulgar
superstition and true religion. Gaskin contends that Philo remains consistent in his
support for an academic or mitigated skepticism throughout the dialogue. He
interprets Philo as claiming that even though the existence of a deity is plainly
ascertained by reason (119; pt. 12) it means little in the practical aspects of human
life (Gaskin 133; Pyle 127). Others, like Sessions, make some form of argument that
Part 12 is evidence of Humes veneration for true religion. Many follow the path
Stanley Tweyman takes in arguing that Part 12 reveals Humes desire to establish
belief in God as a natural belief, i.e. a belief that cannot be justified by rational
principles or empirical evidence but that is nevertheless immune to doubt because it is
indispensable to everyday life and experience (Pyle 51; Tweyman 132). Causation
and personal identity, for instance, are such beliefs to Hume. Still others, like
Jonathan Dancy, contend that Philos reversal is integral to Humes goals as an
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author. Thus, scholars believe either Hume wants to give a certain experience to the
reader which can further his philosophical claims, or he is being ironic, or, finally, he
dissembles to soften his impiety for political purposes.
To determine what Hume is really up to in the Dialogues, many look to
answer the question: who speaks for Hume? In a letter to Gilbert Elliot around the
time he first wrote the Dialogues, Hume declared Cleanthes the hero of the piece
(Greig 1:153; Letter No. 72). He originally sought Elliots help in strengthening
Cleanthess position. In that same letter Hume expressed a natural affinity with the
character of Philo, but also suggested that, unlike Elliot, he had reached an absolute
philosophical indifference on these points (Greig 1:154; Letter No. 72). Almost
immediately after the publication of the Dialogues more than a quarter century after
Humes letter to Elliot, critics also thought that Philo best represented Humes true
skeptical, atheistic position (Pyle 135). They find Philos reversal and Pamphiluss
appraisal at the close of the book that Philos principles are more probable than
Demeas; but that those of Cleanthes approach still nearer the truth (130; pt. 12)
completely unconvincing (Pyle 135-136). Throughout the 19 and early 20
Centuries finding Hume within his text dictated interpretations of the Dialogues. Only
recently have Hume scholars begun to approach the text differently.
William Lad Sessions thinks the hunt for Humes mouthpiece is misguided. It
necessarily forces the reader beyond the text to an external reading, one that interprets
the text through a lens of historical context or places it within an external
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analytic/philosophic context (Sessions 2-3, 209). He concedes value in the result of
such a reading, but wants instead to provide an internal, literary reading of the text to
better understand its meaning.
Sessions walks through the Dialogues section by section paying particular
attention to the temperament of the characters and the relationships between them. He
describes Demea as a fawning guest and a shabby thinker with a totalitarian
streak and a deep self-loathing (Sessions 27). He casts Philo as a dashing and
inventive intellect (28), confident, quick-witted, a peacock flaring his splendid tail
(28). He sees that Cleanthes desires good form and proper manners and is a
philosophic dogmatist who nevertheless possesses a sunny and optimistic
personality (25). He draws from the text alone that Cleanthes is polite to Demea, and
vice versa, but their friendship is superficial and forced. In contrast, the friendship
between Cleanthes and Philo runs deep. They know and trust one another despite
their differences and both approach the world and disagreements with a respectful and
philosophic attitude (Sessions 25-29). Throughout his careful analysis, Sessions
remains faithful to his internal approach. He pays close attention to word choice,
internal reference and repetition, as well as the structure of each section, any apparent
inconsistencies and textual clues to the psychology of the characters.
Like Derrida, Sessions believes his internal reading is an ever-expanding
conversation with its text (209), but one that can point toward a few definite
conclusions. The first is the belief in the almost universal human tendency for
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teleology. Sessions contends that through Cleanthes continued defense of the
argument from design, both his failed examples and the more persuasive ones, Hume
shows the tenacious nature of our trust in a sense of teleology (214-215). As he notes,
even Philo, despite his apparent triumph over Cleanthes, does not forsake teleology
altogether (Sessions 215), particularly in Part 12. For Sessions, the two disagree only
about the degree of similarity in a final cause (215).
The second conclusion that we can draw from the Dialogues, according to
Sessions, is a veneration for true religion, however each character defines and lives it.
Demea clings to a mysterious, sacred Deity, and an authoritative, orthodox religious
practice that demands utter submissiveness (Sessions 217-218). Cleanthes subscribes
to a much more utilitarian view of God and religion. Gods nature mirrors the best of
humanity just, wise, benevolent. Religion serves humanity by providing a ground
for morality and comfort in the face of hardship and suffering (Sessions 218-219).
Sessions argues that Philo shares some of Cleanthess theology and piety (219).
Philos true religion resembles a life of philosophic detachment and practice of virtue,
much like a Stoic (Sessions 221-222).
Along with the importance of true religion (however defined), for Sessions,
the Dialogues show piety to be an essential ingredient to human life. He finds each
character living their own and different versions of piety. Demea finds comfort in the
rigid, authoritarian orthodoxy of the church. Piety for him is passionate,
unquestioning submission to tradition and church hierarchy (Sessions 223). Cleanthes
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consistently characterizes God as a protector, a benevolent omnipotent, omniscient
being that provides for human happiness and is the principal support amidst all the
attacks of adverse fortune (qtd. in Sessions 224). Philos piety again takes on the
character of a dispassionate, philosophical skepticism. Virtue is a habit of living
philosophically, of developing moral habits over a lifetime. At heart it appears that
Sessions sees the Dialogues as Humes commentary on the virtuous life. Piety is
essential because it orients us toward living a moral life (Sessions 225), it guides our
daily action. In his words it touches common life (Sessions 225).
Sessions demonstrates how piety touches on common life in the Dialogues by
showing how Hume treats the running themes of education and friendship. Sessions
asks us to remember that the introduction of the dialogue was given by Cleanthess
student, Pamphilus, and Part 1 launches the dialogue with a lengthy discussion about
education. The dialogue closes with Philo recommending philosophical skepticism as
the first step toward being a true Christian. When doing so, he indicates that the entire
dialogue has been, more than anything, for the benefit of Pamphiluss education.
Demeas insistence on indoctrination, Cleanthess quiet exposure to new ideas and
insistence on empirical evidence, and Philos skeptical detachment and logical
argument are all held up by Hume as methods of teaching. Sessions argues that
Cleanthes approach wins out, evidenced by Pamphiluss final estimation that Philos
principles were better than Demeas, but not superior to Cleanthes {Dialogues 130;
pt. 12; Sessions 227-228).
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Sessions also regards the Dialogues as Humes examination of friendship.
There are shifting alliances throughout, some genuine, others not. Humes characters
flatter, deceive, manipulate, collude and debate with heat and passion. Hume paints
such rich scenes of psychology that the reader feels the friendship and animosity
between the characters. Most importantly for Sessions, the Dialogues expose a deep
and truly intimate friendship between Philo and Cleanthes a relationship that is
transparent, respectful and able to withstand, even grow from, disagreement, opposite
sentiments, doubt and uncertainty. Sessions neatly ties these images of friendship to
piety and concludes, Their friendship epitomizes the natural religious piety that is
the deepest concern of the Dialogues' (230).
These, of course, are Sessions conclusions, his contributions to the ongoing
conversation prompted so long ago by Hume. Sessions would, I believe, allow for
others to reach different ones. His internal approach, his view of the text as an organic
unity, obligates him to respect the free flowing nature of the conversation. Like
Derrida, he must allow the meaning of the text to shift with every new participant,
every new reader. At the end of the day, Sessions believes that Hume wrote the
Dialogues to promote that ongoing conversation, to force people out of their
dogmatic trenches or blind religious traditions and encourage inquiry. Sessions says,
Perhaps, then, the Dialogues is not a didactic account of Humes views but an artful
effort to stimulate thoughtful reflection by Humes readers about natural religion and
their own ways of viewing and living it (212).
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Sessions internal, literary approach to the Dialogues bucks a very long trend
in Hume scholarship. History has favored external readings. Early interpretations
looked at them for their devastating critique of the argument from design and saw
them as an amusing restatement of Humes basic philosophical tenets. By the 20th
Century, scholars, such as Norman Kemp Smith, Stanley Tweyman and J.C.A.
Gaskin, tended to place the piece into Humes body of work as well as his political
and historical context even if it meant wildly divergent conclusions. For instance,
Tweyman and Gaskin offer convincing arguments that the Dialogues mirror Humes
beliefs on dogmatism and skepticism found in the Enquiry. But then, where Tweyman
attempts to demonstrate how the Dialogues establish the belief in intelligent design as
a natural belief, Gaskin flatly disagrees, showing how intelligent design fails to meet
all the criteria of a Humean natural belief. However, the dialogue form seems to
quickly fade in significance for many of these readings. In contrast, some of the most
interesting interpretations of Humes Dialogues today marry an external reading of
the content with an eye toward the importance of the literary form. Contemporary
British philosopher Jonathan Dancy provides such a reading.
In his lecture, For Here the Author is Annihilated: Reflections on
Philosophical Aspects of the Use of the Dialogue Form in Humes Dialogues
Concerning Natural Religion, Dancy provides a very inventive interpretation which
links the dialogue form to Humes particular philosophical purposes. He frames his
discussion by showing how any interpretation of the Dialogues must answer three
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questions: 1) What conclusion did Hume hope to leave the reader with?; 2) Why did
Hume adopt the dialogue form?; and 3) Why does Philo recant in Part 12? For Dancy,
these questions are interrelated and an answer to one helps answer the others (31). He
then applies these three questions to three interpretations of the Dialogues, which he
rejects, and then to his preferred interpretation, what he calls the causal
interpretation (47; Bell 232).
The first interpretation that Dancy rejects is what he terms the camouflage
interpretation (32). This interpretation holds that Humes intent was to write a
skeptical, critical piece on religion. To mitigate any social or political danger he
might have suffered as a result, he camouflaged his work by writing in the dialogue
form (Dancy 31-33). Dialogues inherently distance the author from the work because
any controversial propositions can be owned by the characters in place of their
creator. Philos reversal in Part 12 becomes another layer of camouflage. Dancy
recognizes Humes political and social context and allows that Hume may have had
some interest in avoiding controversy, but he rejects this interpretation on the grounds
that the main skeptical position we are meant to take away from the work is the one
best supported by the arguments given. In other words, it renders a main conflict in
the dialogue between natural belief and rational argument unimportant (Dancy 33-
34).
The next two interpretations that Dancy rejects are both versions of what he
calls instantiation theories (35), meaning that the dialogue is not meant to explicate
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a central message but rather to carry that message by instantiating it (36). The first
instantiation theory holds that the Dialogues are meant to convey an anti-rationalist
message, to challenge the rationalist notions that intellectual inquiry and debate
should be self-consistent and drive toward consensus (Dancy 35). Humes Dialogues
accomplish this by creating a multiple of voices to debate the argument from design -
the mystic, the empiricist and the skeptic. Each voice is meant to persuade and the
reader is left to strike some harmonious balance between them (Dancy 36). Dancy
argues that this view carries a further derived message regarding human autonomy
and the benefits of tolerance (36). On this view, the characters are equally persuasive
and they ultimately end up reaching a kind of rational balance between belief and
skepticism, i.e. they are both mitigated skeptics and modified believers (37).
Although he will draw on the concept of the Dialogues as an instantiation of
philosophic purpose, Dancy finds fault with this interpretation on the grounds that
Hume clearly holds Pyrrhonist or Academic skepticism above the vulgar superstition
of Demea. So on his view, it is not correct to read the Dialogues as producing a
balance of equal voices.
For Dancys second argument, he contends that if we were to accept this view
of the Dialogues, it would mean that Hume wanted to preserve both support for
intellectual skepticism and our irrational tendency to infer a designer (38). In his
view, Humes purpose in writing the Dialogues was to challenge dogmatic religious
belief and practice, so it simply does not make sense that this voice would be just
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another countervailing ball to keep in the air (38). Hume states clearly in his other
non-dialogic writings, according to Dancy, that humans alternate fully between
skepticism and natural belief (39), each plays a critical role in our life as both
contemplative and practical beings. However, we move between each role fully.
Dancy contends that many of the problems of this first instantiation theory are
solved by the second, which holds that rather than attempting to show a balance of
voices, the Dialogues, like Humes Treatise, show an oscillation between voices (40).
In other words, they characterize the full force of both the skeptical voice of reason
and the tendency to make irrational or unjustified inferences, i.e. to hold and be
motivated by natural beliefs (Dancy 41). They differ mainly in that the attack on
rationalist principles of consensus and self-consistency drops from the second by
necessity (Dancy 41).
Dancy ultimately refutes this interpretation for both philosophical and literary
reasons. He argues that if this third interpretation were correct, the reader would
expect much more clearly defined voices or strong representations of each tendency.
The voices in the Dialogues are not this clearly delineated in his view. They shift
alliances throughout, they appear at points inconsistent even contradictory. Therefore,
this view creates problems for understanding certain literary elements of the text
(Dancy 43). Dancys philosophic reason for rejecting this interpretation is primarily
that it does not suit Humes anti-religious purpose (45). These two defects draw
him to his own interpretation, what he calls the causal interpretation.
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Dancy wants to defend an interpretation of the Dialogues that accommodates
the literary elements of the text, particularly what he calls the shimmering quality
of the characters, and simultaneously roots the piece in Humes larger body of
philosophical works. This leads him to portray the Dialogues as a causal attempt to
induce the reader to enter a state in which the natural tendency to suppose a designer
is no longer possible even as one terminus of oscillation (Dancy 45-46). On his
account, Hume could not achieve this goal through rational argument because that
would undermine his account of natural beliefs (Dancy 46) beliefs that are
compelling, immune to doubt because they are indispensable to practical living and
outside of rational justification (Pyle 114-116). Instead, Hume seeks to undermine the
tendency to suppose a designer by creating an experience that destabilizes the
tendency. Only the dialogue form, with its inherent ambiguities and inconsistencies,
can create such an experience.
Dancy shows that the shimmering of the characters and ambiguities that
permeate the text are intentional they are the point of the dialogue. He claims, The
text is designed to be effectively uninterpretable. But the experience of trying to sort
things out has an effect on the reader, that of rendering him voiceless (46). Hume
essentially authored a text with no message, but one that could create an experience
where the natural inclination to infer one would be thwarted (Dancy 46-47). This
cleverly expands the closed world of the text out to the world of the reader. As the
reader seeks a message and thereby seeks the author or the one who designed the text,
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so too do the characters seek the creator of the world. Both readers and characters
seek the cause of the creation before them, but in both universes the attempt fails.
And this gives us, by analogy, the message carried by the world [and the text]: no
God is to be found (Dancy 49-50). Dancy thereby offers an analogy as his
interpretation of a book that assaults analogical reasoning.
Ironically, as a result, like Philo, Dancy works to drive home the
dissimilarities between author of a text and author of the world (50). If Dancy wants
to say that Hume carefully exploits the beliefs of the reader to establish a
philosophical position, then Dancy must establish some way to choose between the
readers beliefs. Dancy recognizes that readers know there is an author of the text,
namely Hume, even if they have no idea of his purpose. Why should the reader not
take the next step and infer an author of the world? To overcome this challenge,
Dancy again draws a link between text and world. He claims that the need for an
author of the text is established inductively, while the text itself destroys any ability to
inductively infer an author of the world (50).
Dancys interpretation thus links the content of the Dialogues to the form and
nicely grounds the piece in Humes body of work. Dancy provides truly provocative
and interesting answers to his three original questions. For the first: What did Hume
hope to leave the reader with? Dancys answer: A destabilizing experience that
undermines the natural belief in an intelligent cause of the world. Hume creates an
experience that takes full advantage of the expectations and tendencies of the reader.
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As to the second: Why did Hume choose the dialogue form? Dancys answer:
Because only the dialogue form allows for uninterpretability without rendering a text
completely nonsensical (52). It is the only form that masks the author. In short, it is
the only form capable of creating that destabilizing experience concerning natural
religion. And finally, what does Philos reversal mean? For Dancy, Philos reversal
best expresses Humes main philosophical contrast between reason/rational belief and
feeling/natural beliefs (54). Thus, for Dancy, in Humes Dialogues we find a perfect
expression of Humes philosophical genius, his literary craft and his keen insight into
and true affection for human nature.
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CHAPTER 6
CONCLUSION
Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our
consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein; but no mere gap. It
is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it,
beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with
the sense of our closeness, and then letting us sink back without the
longed for term. (James, Principles of Psychology 1: 251)
In the opening remarks to his lectures on pragmatism, given in 1906, William
James says that the most important and interesting thing about all of us is our
philosophy, our view of the world and what it means for how we act within that
world. He believes that all human beings find the questions of philosophy seductive
and compelling. All people ask and answer those fundamental questions: What should
I believe? How should I act? What kind of world and community can and should I
work to make? Why does any of it matter? In his words, Let a controversy begin in a
smoking-room anywhere, about free-will or Gods omniscience, or good and evil, and
see how everyone in the place pricks up his ears. Philosophys results concern us
most vitally..(James, Pragmatism 2). He goes on to say that the problem, as he
sees it, lies not with the questions of philosophy, but the answers. Philosophical
theory drives the mind like a startled calf towards the closed pens of competing
systems. In Jamess day, those systems were materialism, with its healthy dose of
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empiricism, or rationalism, with a similar penchant for abstract principles. James
believed when captive in the pen of materialism one sacrifices romantic spontaneity
and courage (Pragmatism 6), elegant certainty and simplicity. One is left with only
the hard, depressing facts of an ever-changing universe. On the other hand, when
trapped in the pen of rationalism, one loses contact with the concrete, tangled,
muddy, painful world of human life, with all its contradictions and uncertainties
(Pragmatism 8). Either way, the spirit, once so seduced by the questions of
philosophy, turns from it as a cold literary exercise, whose cheerful substance even
hell-fire does not warm (Pragmatism 11). Philosophers, like Hume and Plato,
recognize this problem of philosophy and philosophical systems and write dialogues
as a way to solve it.
Both Hume and Plato intimate that they are doing a very different kind of
philosophy by writing dialogue. Hume states in his short biography that the problem
with the Treatise was not the matter, but the manner (My Own Life 5). He also has
the narrator of his finest dramatic work, the Dialogues, however reliable or unreliable
he may be, orient the reader toward a philosophical topic that will be presented in a
non-systematic way. Plato suggests something similar when he says in the Seventh
Letter that he has never written his philosophical ideas, for there is no way of
putting them into words like other studies (341c). Kenneth Sayre argues that in both
the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter Plato unambiguously holds philosophic
understanding beyond what can be expressed in language and conveyed by traditional
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writing (Sayre, Platos Dialogues in Light of the 7th Letter 101). Thus, in both their
dramatic works and non-dialogic writings, these two philosophers hint at their
philosophic purposes for choosing the form. They suggest that certain philosophical
ideas can only find voice in dialogue.
The very different literary readings of the Phaedrus and the Dialogues mirror
that conclusion, showing that the dialogue form makes possible a very different kind
of philosophical practice. Whether the reading of a philosophical dialogue takes an
internal or external approach, patterns emerge that trace the inexpressible. Charles
Kahns external reading of the Phaedrus shows that the dialogue form allows the
author, the philosopher, to practice the art of teaching. Through dialogue, Plato
mimics the dialectical process and draws the soul of the reader in to the practice of
philosophy (Sayre, Platos Dialogues 103-108). But more than mimicry, Platos
dialogues are his acts of teaching. As Charles Griswold notes, the writing of the
dialogues is Platos deed (Griswold, Irony in the Platonic Dialogues 94-95;
Griswold, Platos Metaphilosophy: Why Plato Wrote Dialogues 106-161).
Throughout his work, Plato defends philosophy as a way of life one that must be
lived, not learned. Hence, philosophy itself is a paradox. How do you teach what
cannot be learned? How do you defend philosophy as a way of life without practicing
philosophy? Arguing for philosophy would beg the question; it would be deeply self-
contradictory (Griswold, Metaphilosophy 157-161). By writing dialogue, Plato
shows that living the philosophic life is worthwhile. Hence, from Kahns external
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interpretation of Platos works, which looks to a main theme throughout the Platonic
corpus, and attempts to harmonize Platos explicit statements about writing with the
fact that he wrote, shows how dialogue allows Plato to express the contradiction of
philosophy.
Jacques Derridas internal reading of the Phaedrus lifts up the power of
dialogue to express the profoundly contradictory notion of differance. The inherent
ambiguities of the dialogue form allowed Plato to give voice, whether conscious or
unconscious, to his unspoken fears of an uncertain world, unhinged from eternal
structures that ground reality, knowledge and morality. Only through dialogue can
writing exist as pharmakon, something that recalls both presence and absence at the
same time. Only through dialogue can Plato unleash the power of poetry and myth to
both reveal and mask the unspeakable nature of the world. For Derrida, only through
dialogue can Plato draw the fringe the traces, references, echoes, longings to the
center and admit the absolute invisibility of the origin of the visible (PP 167).
William Lad Sessions reading of Humes Dialogues show the inexpressible
nature of the human spirit, the psychology of piety and friendship. Just as Kahn and
Derrida believe that Plato uses his writing to demonstrate a preferred way of life,
Sessions sees Hume advocating for a way of life as well. On his view, the Dialogues
portray piety, a deep concern for the kind of life one is concerned to live (Sessions
222). According to Sessions, piety involves the most important choices in human life
- what to believe, how to act, what matters. Piety expresses each persons philosophy.
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Hume masterfully turns his characters inside out, revealing their piety through the
inner workings of their minds. He is able to show their commitments to reason and
argumentation, but also their humor and arrogance, fears and desires, irritations and
affections. Through the actions of his characters and the way they relate to one
another, Hume maps the tides of their unconscious motivations. Humes characters
come alive in the most subtle and significant ways and that speaks volumes about
Humes beliefs about the human nature and the force of natural temper (My Own
Life 5).
Finally, Jonathan Dancys reading of the Dialogues also attributes to Hume a
deep understanding of human nature. Dancys views demand that Hume know the
tendencies of the reader in order to exploit them. Hume plays on the expectations of
the reader; he elicits a natural inclination to infer meaning and order from a text and
then frustrates that inclination. He creates a text, i.e. an object of interpretation, which
is essentially uninterpretable, but nevertheless coherent. A contradictory argument is
nonsensical, but a contradictory sentiment can and often does make sense. Hume
thereby engages the reader on a much more complex level than a propositional
argument would, no matter how well reasoned. Of course, Hume intended to create
more than an argument by writing the Dialogues. Dancy contends that he wanted to
create an experience, a lived moment. More to the point, Hume meant to create a
destabilizing moment, an unsettling event that, like a moment of tragedy, lingers on
the soul and affects the reader in a much more profound manner.
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To touch the soul this is what philosophical dialogues are meant to do.
These very different readings of very different dialogues by two very different
philosophers, demonstrate how philosophy is served by drama. If we think of
philosophy the way William James did, not so much as a system, but a perspective
and orientation on the world, one that counsels a way of life, then we can see how
philosophical dialogues do something very different from traditional philosophical
works. Platos dialogues draw readers into the examined life, forcing them to puzzle
through important ethical questions that form the basis of the philosophical life as
Plato saw it. They are not words, they are deeds. Likewise, Humes dialogues convey
an empirical experience of his understanding of faith and the existential rejection of
dogmatic belief. For Hume, only through the ambiguities inherent in the form of the
dialogue is existence as surd felt by the reader. Drama evokes this rich existential
experience and engages us in the answers to those philosophical questions that
concern us the most.
Moreover, philosophical dramas are best suited to expressing the fringe of
human experience. William James described this important part of human psychology
as the vague (James, Principles 1:255). In his attempt to overthrow the notion that
the human mind could only hold definite images, James says:
Every definite image in the mind is steeped and dyed in the free water
that flows around it. With it goes the sense of its relations, near and
remote, the dying echo of whence it came to us, the dawning sense of
whither it is to lead. The significance, the value, of the image is all in
this halo or penumbra that surrounds and escorts it, or rather that is
78


fused into one with it and has become bone of its bone and flesh of its
flesh; leaving it, it is true, an image of the same thing it was before, but
making it an image of that thing newly taken and freshly understood.
(Principles 1:255).
James sought the reinstatement of the vague to its proper place in our mental life
through his science and philosophy {Principles 1:254). Dialogue writers seek
something similar.
Dialogues allow the philosophers who write them to reinstate the vague to its
proper place in our individual and collective philosophies. The vague, differance,
piety these notions apprehend something essential about human experience and,
therefore, are natural and appropriate topics for philosophical inquiry. Yet they also
embody contradiction, lack of definition, lack of clarity. Dialogues help to express
these ambiguities and contradictions. Unlike the typical sense of dialogue that people
toss around so carelessly today, the philosophical dialogue is not concerned with
consensus and lack of contradiction. Rather, the philosophical dialogue hopes to trace
the opposite the penumbra, the lacuna, the gap. Dialogues uniquely serve
philosophy because they allow for silence, contradiction, difference and ambiguity.
They speak to the irrational shadows of human nature that are as much a part of our
experience as reason. Dialogues remind us that the richness, temporal flow, novelty
and vagueness (Rosenthal 5) of human existence exceeds the boundaries of logic and
language. As Plato describes in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter, and Hume
echoes through his Dialogues and his perpetual Struggle of a restless Imagination
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against / perhaps / reason (Greig 1:154; Letter No.72), something in true
philosophical experience escapes language. And while we might worship to the point
of obsession our rational dimension so suited to language and traditional forms of
writing, we also possess moral, spiritual and emotional dimensions constituted from
and sanctified only in experience experience we live through repeatedly speechless.
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Aspects of the Use of the Dialogue Form in Humes Dialogues Concerning
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Timothy Smiley. Proc. of the British Academy, 85, March 1994. Dawes Hicks
Lectures on Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. 29-60. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Platos Pharmacy. Dissemination. Trans, and ed. Barbara
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Speech and Phenomena: and Other Essays on Husserls Theory of Signs.
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Gaskin, J.C.A. Introduction. Dialogues and Natural History of Religion. By David
Hume. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993. ix-xxxii. Print.
Greig, J.Y.T. ed. The Letters of David Hume. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon-Oxford UP,
1969. Print.
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