Plato makes it clear that both of these processes, one preceding theother, must be part of one's philosophical education. One of hisdeepest methodological convictions (affirmed in Meno,Theaetetus, and Sophist) is that in order to makeintellectual progress we must recognize that knowledge cannot beacquired by passively receiving it from others: rather, we must workour way through problems and assess the merits of competing theorieswith an independent mind. Accordingly, some of his dialogues areprimarily devices for breaking down the reader's complacency, and thatis why it is essential that they come to no positive conclusions;others are contributions to theory-construction, and are therefore bestabsorbed by those who have already passed through the first stage ofphilosophical development. We should not assume that Plato could havewritten the preparatory dialogues only at the earliest stage of hiscareer. Although he may well have begun his writing career by taking upthat sort of project, he may have continued writing these“negative” works at later stages, at the same time that hewas composing his theory-constructing dialogues. For example althoughboth Euthydemus and Charmides are widely assumed tobe early dialogues, they might have been written around the same timeas Symposium and Republic, which are generallyassumed to be compositions of his middle period—or evenlater.
The brief discussion of the summoners raises suspicions about thefaculty psychology presented in the final argument of Book V and inLine and Cave. It seems at times that Plato thinks that belonging toeach part of the soul are capacities or faculties capable of issuingjudgments (cf. 602c-603a; see Burnyeat 1976). So, for instance, thereare the judgments of sense that can and often do conflict with thejudgments of reason. But taken literally, if each faculty has its ownobjects such that no other faculty can be set over them, then therecan be no conflict in judgments. The case of perception poses aspecial difficulty. Perception, unlike discursive thought or belief,is aligned not with the so-called rational part of the soul, but withthe desiderative part. As we saw in the Phaedo, as well as inthe passages about the sightlovers and the summoners, the senses aredisparaged as a source of confusion and falsehood. The senses misleadus. One of Plato's complaints seems to be that people rely onperception, or belief relying on perception, with the result that theycome to think that what is real is the physical, sensible world. And,perhaps even worse, they come to think that one can understand (know)things about the world such as what makes (for example) a templebeautiful or a stick equal or a person large by appealing toproperties that are perceptual or observational or sensible.
Suggested essay topics and project ideas for Plato's Phaedo
Of course, there are other more speculative possible ways ofexplaining why Plato so often makes Socrates his principal speaker. Forexample, we could say that Plato was trying to undermine the reputationof the historical Socrates by writing a series of works in which afigure called “Socrates” manages to persuade a group ofnaïve and sycophantic interlocutors to accept absurd conclusionson the basis of sophistries. But anyone who has read some of Plato'sworks will quickly recognize the utter implausibility of thatalternative way of reading them. Plato could have written into hisworks clear signals to the reader that the arguments of Socrates do notwork, and that his interlocutors are foolish to accept them. But thereare many signs in such works as Meno, Phaedo,Republic, and Phaedrus that point in the oppositedirection. (And the great admiration Plato feels for Socrates is alsoevident from his Apology.) The reader is given everyencouragement to believe that the reason why Socrates is successful inpersuading his interlocutors (on those occasions when he does succeed)is that his arguments are powerful ones. The reader, in other words, isbeing encouraged by the author to accept those arguments, if not asdefinitive then at least as highly arresting and deserving of carefuland full positive consideration. When we interpret the dialogues inthis way, we cannot escape the fact that we are entering into the mindof Plato, and attributing to him, their author, a positive evaluationof the arguments that his speakers present to each other.