Monday, June 20, 2005

Dialogue on the Utility of Back-and-Forth Internet Exchanges (Socratic Dialogue)

By Dave Armstrong (6-20-05)

Kristo Miettinen is a Lutheran. His words will be in blue.

* * * * * 

I, for reasons of personal taste, dislike the internet-inspired "interleaved comment" style of communication. It makes it hard, for me at least, to decide what to respond to and what to let pass uncommented. I do not take it for granted that everything that I disagree with merits a comment or refutation. So, I will extract from your commentary what seem to me to be the most important and response-worthy points, and if I miss one that is important in your estimation, then please re-introduce it as a fresh question. I'll do what I can to answer whatever direct questions you pose.

It wasn't the Internet that inspired this in me, but Socrates and Plato and (among contemporary apologists) Peter Kreeft. I was writing papers like this before I ever got to the Internet (which was in 1996).

If you choose to continue in the interleaved-response style, would you please consider honoring my composition at least to the level of maintaining my paragraphs intact. Your practice (and it is, of course, a practice of many others as well) of chopping up my writing not only at the individual sentence level but even separating two halves of one sentence by volumes of rebuttal does no justice to my thoughts, and denies your readers any edifying benefit (if there is any to be had) from my writing.

I don't see the two as mutually-exclusive. First of all, your replies are posted in their entirety in these comments boxes (I linked to your first one right at the top of my back-and-forth post). So if someone wants to read your comment entire as you wrote it, they can do that in that fashion.

Secondly, the color coding makes it possible to do the same thing in the posted paper. All one has to do is read the blue text right through if they want to read your thoughts without my interspersed replies. If they want to read in the Socratic style that I favor, they can read it as I present it: back-and-forth. Thus, my method allows for both styles or formats, whereas yours would rule mine out altogether and also tend towards the "mutual monologue" tendencies which I think harm good dialogue.

Thirdly, you can always edit the exchange as you like and post it somewhere else. I would gladly link to that and let readers have a choice to read one, the other, or both.

I like back-and-forth because it helps readers better discern what the two opposing presentations are, and what exactly each comment is trying to answer. It's a good teaching technique, which is why I believe Plato used it, and why Peter Kreeft habitually does.

Also, it mitigates against the tendency of people to select what they think they can answer and ignore the rest. I answer everything because 1) I think that shows courtesy to and respect for one's opponent, and 2) it doesn't allow one to pick and choose. I suppose this is a more "philosophical" method, for better or ill (Socrates and Kreeft both being philosophers).

Is that agreeable to you, if I decide to do the same format for the rest of the discussion, or not? If not, I'd like to understand how my explanation does not resolve the difficulties that you feel.

You are, of course, master of you own domain (I have Seinfeld on the brain, having watched his "retirement" show with my kids last night). You are free to do as you please. I wish only to influence what it is that pleases you. You are, I trust, pleased to please others.

I think that all of your objectives can be met by interspersing replies between paragraphs. N'est ce pas? I tend to think of the paragraph as the unit of composition, and so dialogue can be, and in my view should be, at a minimum the exchange of paragraphs (if not essays, which your readers seem not to want).

For instance, in spoken dialogue, you wouldn't (or maybe you would, but your mother would disapprove) cut off someone else's reply after only one word (e.g. "Sure, …"). Wouldn't it be reasonable to hold off replies until the end of a complete expression in written exchange, just as it is in spoken exchange?

I don't think Socrates did it quite the same way you do…

Sine cera,


PS, how is the dialogue supposed to develop in the third and subsequent contributions? If the second contribution is interleaved in the first, then the third would seem to have to be interleaved right in there with the first and second, and pretty soon it's all a soup sandwich. Someone has to be starting over again, and frequently at that. Is that always going to be the same person? In any case, these questions are not central to the discussion, which can be (both of us willing) continued even in an asymmetrical format.

Hi Kristo,

I wish only to influence what it is that pleases you. You are, I trust, pleased to please others.

Of course; as much as possible (as the Bible says). You can't please everyone. People differ on this particular question, as with most stylistic questions, so I'm trying to find out your reasoning for having your view, and I'm presenting my rationale, as a Socratic.

But you didn't reply to my counter-replies (which, I think, more than overcome your objections), so it is difficult for me to understand your opinion on this, without explanations. Be that as it may, I'll stick to paragraph vs. paragraph if you like. Written dialogue is not the same as spoken. Sentences can be broken up and analyzed as units because they contain a particular statement which can be agreed or disagreed with.

As you know, in spoken conversation, people (especially thinkers) tend to go on and on. The difficulty I find in longer statements and longer replies is that a lot of details tend to get lost or overlooked. Details are important because they often deal with premises and presuppositions (and facts related to same). If they are lost, dialogues quickly go down rabbit trails, tend to change subjects, and little is accomplished. It is precisely the premises that determine the outcome of discussions.

Nor does my format "cut anyone off." As I wrote, you have written your entire response, and anyone is free to read it without interruption, either in the comments boxes, or by following the blue color in the final dialogue. Then they can read how I would respond to each particular, according to Socratic method. No one is "cutting" off anyone. To the contrary, by replying to every point you bring up, I am showing you and your position the utmost respect. It is when we pass over parts of the opponents' reply, that any "cutting-off" occurs.

I don't think Socrates did it quite the same way you do…

I think I am following his method (at least as it is presented to us in his student Plato) pretty closely. The dialogues Euthyphro and Crito will suffice as examples. They contain many short exchanges (many, one sentence), with occasional lengthy forays, when Socrates (or his opponent) was trying to nail down some argument. That's what I do. I go back and forth, then when something comes up which I think is highly important, I may give a reply that is many times longer than what I am replying to. This is precisely what we find in the Euthyphro and Crito. Here is an excerpt from the former, from Jowett's translation:

* * * * * 

Soc. And what is piety, and what is impiety?

Euth. Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting any one who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime-whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be-that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety. And please to consider, Socrates, what a notable proof I will give you of the truth of my words, a proof which I have already given to others:-of the principle, I mean, that the impious, whoever he may be, ought not to go unpunished. For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most righteous of the gods?-and yet they admit that he bound his father (Cronos) because he wickedly devoured his sons, and that he too had punished his own father (Uranus) for a similar reason, in a nameless manner. And yet when I proceed against my father, they are angry with me. So inconsistent are they in their way of talking when the gods are concerned, and when I am concerned.

Soc. May not this be the reason, Euthyphro, why I am charged with impiety-that I cannot away with these stories about the gods? and therefore I suppose that people think me wrong. But, as you who are well informed about them approve of them, I cannot do better than assent to your superior wisdom. What else can I say, confessing as I do, that I know nothing about them? Tell me, for the love of Zeus, whether you really believe that they are true.

Euth. Yes, Socrates; and things more wonderful still, of which the world is in ignorance.

Soc. And do you really believe that the gods, fought with one another, and had dire quarrels, battles, and the like, as the poets say, and as you may see represented in the works of great artists? The temples are full of them; and notably the robe of Athene, which is carried up to the Acropolis at the great Panathenaea, is embroidered with them. Are all these tales of the gods true, Euthyphro?

Euth. Yes, Socrates; and, as I was saying, I can tell you, if you would like to hear them, many other things about the gods which would quite amaze you.

Soc. I dare say; and you shall tell me them at some other time when I have leisure. But just at present I would rather hear from you a more precise answer, which you have not as yet given, my friend, to the question, What is "piety"? When asked, you only replied, Doing as you do, charging your father with murder.

Euth. And what I said was true, Socrates.

Soc. No doubt, Euthyphro; but you would admit that there are many other pious acts?

Euth. There are.

Soc. Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious. Do you not recollect that there was one idea which made the impious impious, and the pious pious?

Euth. I remember.

Soc. Tell me what is the nature of this idea, and then I shall have a standard to which I may look, and by which I may measure actions, whether yours or those of any one else, and then I shall be able to say that such and such an action is pious, such another impious.

Euth. I will tell you, if you like.

Soc. I should very much like.

Euth. Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.

Soc. Very good, Euthyphro; you have now given me the sort of answer which I wanted. But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.

Euth. Of course.

Soc. Come, then, and let us examine what we are saying. That thing or person which is dear to the gods is pious, and that thing or person which is hateful to the gods is impious, these two being the extreme opposites of one another. Was not that said?

Euth. It was.

Soc. And well said?

Euth. Yes, Socrates, I thought so; it was certainly said.

Soc. And further, Euthyphro, the gods were admitted to have enmities and hatreds and differences?

Euth. Yes, that was also said.

Soc. And what sort of difference creates enmity and anger? Suppose for example that you and I, my good friend, differ about a number; do differences of this sort make us enemies and set us at variance with one another? Do we not go at once to arithmetic, and put an end to them by a sum?

Euth. True.

Soc. Or suppose that we differ about magnitudes, do we not quickly end the differences by measuring?

Euth. Very true.

Soc. And we end a controversy about heavy and light by resorting to a weighing machine?

Euth. To be sure.

Soc. But what differences are there which cannot be thus decided, and which therefore make us angry and set us at enmity with one another? I dare say the answer does not occur to you at the moment, and therefore I will suggest that these enmities arise when the matters of difference are the just and unjust, good and evil, honourable and dishonourable. Are not these the points about which men differ, and about which when we are unable satisfactorily to decide our differences, you and I and all of us quarrel, when we do quarrel?

Euth. Yes, Socrates, the nature of the differences about which we quarrel is such as you describe.

Soc. And the quarrels of the gods, noble Euthyphro, when they occur, are of a like nature?

Euth. Certainly they are.

Soc. They have differences of opinion, as you say, about good and evil, just and unjust, honourable and dishonourable: there would have been no quarrels among them, if there had been no such differences-would there now?

Euth. You are quite right.

Soc. Does not every man love that which he deems noble and just and good, and hate the opposite of them?

Euth. Very true.

Soc. But, as you say, people regard the same things, some as just and others as unjust,-about these they dispute; and so there arise wars and fightings among them.

Euth. Very true.

Soc. Then the same things are hated by the gods and loved by the gods, and are both hateful and dear to them?

Euth. True.

Soc. And upon this view the same things, Euthyphro, will be pious and also impious?

Euth. So I should suppose.

Soc. Then, my friend, I remark with surprise that you have not answered the question which I asked. For I certainly did not ask you to tell me what action is both pious and impious: but now it would seem that what is loved by the gods is also hated by them. And therefore, Euthyphro, in thus chastising your father you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.

Euth. But I believe, Socrates, that all the gods would be agreed as to the propriety of punishing a murderer: there would be no difference of opinion about that.

Soc. Well, but speaking of men, Euthyphro, did you ever hear any one arguing that a murderer or any sort of evil-doer ought to be let off?

Euth. I should rather say that these are the questions which they are always arguing, especially in courts of law: they commit all sorts of crimes, and there is nothing which they will not do or say in their own defence.

Soc. But do they admit their guilt, Euthyphro, and yet say that they ought not to be punished?

Euth. No; they do not.

Soc. Then there are some things which they do not venture to say and do: for they do not venture to argue that the guilty are to be unpunished, but they deny their guilt, do they not?

Euth. Yes.

Soc. Then they do not argue that the evil-doer should not be punished, but they argue about the fact of who the evil-doer is, and what he did and when?

Euth. True.

Soc. And the gods are in the same case, if as you assert they quarrel about just and unjust, and some of them say while others deny that injustice is done among them. For surely neither God nor man will ever venture to say that the doer of injustice is not to be punished?

Euth. That is true, Socrates, in the main.

Soc. But they join issue about the particulars-gods and men alike; and, if they dispute at all, they dispute about some act which is called in question, and which by some is affirmed to be just, by others to be unjust. Is not that true?

Euth. Quite true.

Soc. Well then, my dear friend Euthyphro, do tell me, for my better instruction and information, what proof have you that in the opinion of all the gods a servant who is guilty of murder, and is put in chains by the master of the dead man, and dies because he is put in chains before he who bound him can learn from the interpreters of the gods what he ought to do with him, dies unjustly; and that on behalf of such an one a son ought to proceed against his father and accuse him of murder. How would you show that all the gods absolutely agree in approving of his act? Prove to me that they do, and I will applaud your wisdom as long as I live.

Euth. It will be a difficult task; but I could make the matter very dear indeed to you.

Soc. I understand; you mean to say that I am not so quick of apprehension as the judges: for to them you will be sure to prove that the act is unjust, and hateful to the gods.

Euth. Yes indeed, Socrates; at least if they will listen to me.

Soc. But they will be sure to listen if they find that you are a good speaker. There was a notion that came into my mind while you were speaking; I said to myself: "Well, and what if Euthyphro does prove to me that all the gods regarded the death of the serf as unjust, how do I know anything more of the nature of piety and impiety? for granting that this action may be hateful to the gods, still piety and impiety are not adequately defined by these distinctions, for that which is hateful to the gods has been shown to be also pleasing and dear to them." And therefore, Euthyphro, I do not ask you to prove this; I will suppose, if you like, that all the gods condemn and abominate such an action. But I will amend the definition so far as to say that what all the gods hate is impious, and what they love pious or holy; and what some of them love and others hate is both or neither. Shall this be our definition of piety and impiety?

Euth. Why not, Socrates?

Soc. Why not! certainly, as far as I am concerned, Euthyphro, there is no reason why not. But whether this admission will greatly assist you in the task of instructing me as you promised, is a matter for you to consider.

Euth. Yes, I should say that what all the gods love is pious and holy, and the opposite which they all hate, impious.

Soc. Ought we to enquire into the truth of this, Euthyphro, or simply to accept the mere statement on our own authority and that of others? What do you say?

Euth. We should enquire; and I believe that the statement will stand the test of enquiry.

Soc. We shall know better, my good friend, in a little while. The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

Euth. I do not understand your meaning, Socrates.

Soc. I will endeavour to explain: we, speak of carrying and we speak of being carried, of leading and being led, seeing and being seen. You know that in all such cases there is a difference, and you know also in what the difference lies?

Euth. I think that I understand.

Soc. And is not that which is beloved distinct from that which loves?

Euth. Certainly.

Soc. Well; and now tell me, is that which is carried in this state of carrying because it is carried, or for some other reason?

Euth. No; that is the reason.

Soc. And the same is true of what is led and of what is seen?

Euth. True.

Soc. And a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely, visible because it is seen; nor is a thing led because it is in the state of being led, or carried because it is in the state of being carried, but the converse of this. And now I think, Euthyphro, that my meaning will be intelligible; and my meaning is, that any state of action or passion implies previous action or passion. It does not become because it is becoming, but it is in a state of becoming because it becomes; neither does it suffer because it is in a state of suffering, but it is in a state of suffering because it suffers. Do you not agree?

Euth. Yes.

* * * * * 

See the Crito for more of the same.

PS, how is the dialogue supposed to develop in the third and subsequent contributions? If the second contribution is interleaved in the first, then the third would seem to have to be interleaved right in there with the first and second, and pretty soon it's all a soup sandwich. Someone has to be starting over again, and frequently at that.

It does get more complicated then, I agree, and there are various ways to do that. I like to (usually) keep the back-and-forth flow, as follows:

1. Argument.
2. Reply.
3. Counter-reply to reply.
4. Counter-reply to counter-reply.

The problem usually doesn't come up, though, because people so often split after the first round, and (almost always) after the second round of dialogue.

Is that always going to be the same person?

Sometimes others jump in. The more the merrier, as good, challenging, constructive, amiable, on-topic discussion is so hard to find.

In any case, these questions are not central to the discussion, which can be (both of us willing) continued even in an asymmetrical format.

I'll bow to your wishes of paragraph vs. paragraph, but under the protest of the reasons I have given, and with some frustration that you didn't explain to me how my answers to your objections fail or are otherwise inadequate. Nothing personal at all; it is strictly a disagreement on format and what works best for the mutual attainment of truth and edification in discussion.

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