A.G. Leventis Conference 2019
Re-reading the Republic
Plato’s Republic is the master’s masterpiece; but how to go about interpreting it is still disputed. Indeed, it may be a masterpiece just because how to understand it is fiercely controversial. Many have supposed – in a tradition that goes back to antiquity – that this dialogue and the rest of Plato’s work are the repository for doctrines which can be found inscribed in an artful form, but which can be separated out from that form and scrutinised alone. This approach might be contested: after all, how are we to know in advance which parts of the dialogue hold their philosophical content, and which parts may be dispensable to the philosophical interpreter, or to know which parts of the dialogue represent the art itself, the literary genius that may be distinguished from any arguments the dialogues advance? At the same time, the vivid artistry of the Republic poses the challenge in the most direct terms: what does the way the Republic is written have to do with the philosophy it seeks to offer? And what, in any case, would count as its ‘philosophy’? Would that be a definite set of doctrines? A series of arguments? Or a more comprehensive thinking about thought? The underlying contrast between the literary and the philosophical may be as tendentious as the terms themselves are vague: and that thought invites us to re-read these works afresh, considering any dialogue as woven from whole cloth. That re-reading is at its most challenging, perhaps, for the case of the Republic – a work whose complexity is matched by the number of determinate modes of interpretation it has invited over the centuries.
A different feature of the Republic may then matter, too: if Plato here engages with his readers with care and complexity, and if he takes this engagement to work by some kind of collaboration between author and reader, how might this affect scholarly and philosophical methods of interpretation? What are we to think of the dialogue if we read it as if for the first time, without prejudice? What are we to think when we then read it again? This critical approach to the Republic was the focus of attention of a ten-year series of workshops, held at Yale and King’s College London, and organised by Verity Harte and MM McCabe from 2007-16. Following on that project, this conference will provide a series of engagements in response: papers and colloquia and conversations between the senior scholars who were involved in it, the junior scholars who emerged within it, and critics from outside that group who will discuss just how – or whether -- Plato may be re-read. We shall proceed under a series of different, often standard, topics: bookends (thinking about the form and structure of the work); goods (on the complex theorising of value in the work); mimesis (on the Republic’s reflections on art); psychology (on the extended reflection on psychology throughout the work); politics (especially reflecting on the relation between the political ideas of the first half of the work and the discussion of different political structures in the second); knowledge and understanding (on the philosophical significance of the Republic’s interest in knowledge as wisdom); reality (on the metaphysical points, fixed or otherwise, that underpin the work). The conference will pay special attention, however, not only to the careful reading of the Platonic texts, but also to the formality of scholarly engagement – so it will be constructed so as to promote a conversational, collaborative, open-ended approach to the project – by pairing papers, by managing discussion, by careful engagement between senior and junior scholars. This, we hope, will reread the Republic in ways that Plato himself encourages: by attending to its running theme of ‘we’, rather than the solitary journey of Socrates on his way back from the Piraeus.