Interview with Tushar Irani (Wesleyan) on Exercises for Teaching the Platonic Way of Life

Tushar Irani holds a joint appointment at Wesleyan in the Department of Philosophy and the College of Letters. In his teaching, he has developed a number of exercises helping students to explore what it would be like to live a Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, or Epicurean life. The previous post shared the inspiration and history behind his development of these exercises.

Here is the most recent version of his exercises inviting students to Live Like a Platonist: The Life of Reason.

In this part of the interview, we talk about his experience with using these exercises.

  1. What difference do you think actually having your students do mathematics makes, as opposed to just hearing that Plato thought mathematics was important for developing your power of reason?

One of the cool things about assigning these exercises is that I can test some of my hunches when it comes to interpreting Plato’s views.  To address why he thought mathematics is good for the soul, you’ll see I cite a passage from the Gorgias on day 1 of the exercises.  It’s from near the end of the dialogue, where Socrates diagnoses the problem with the value system that Callicles espouses in his desire for more and more.  The problem, Socrates says, is that Callicles doesn’t care about geometry.  It’s a cryptic and rather bizarre statement that isn’t developed any further in the dialogue.  How on earth could caring about geometry be an answer to the pleonectic ethos that Callicles promotes in the text?  I think the Republic gives us an answer.  What’s distinctive about problem-solving in geometry and other mathematical disciplines is that these are non-zero-sum activities best pursued cooperatively.  The aim of dominating another person in a geometrical argument doesn’t really make sense – it’s intelligible as part of some other chest-beating practice, but not with regard to the success conditions of geometry itself.  So if I convince you, for instance, that the square of the hypotenuse in a right-angled triangle is anything contrary to the sum of the square of the other two sides, then I’ve actually failed in argument, however persuasive I may be.  And conversely, if you show me my ignorance and help me see how I’ve got things wrong in understanding Pythagoras’ theorem, then (insofar as I care about geometry) I’ve actually been benefited.

I thought that asking students to solve some geometrical puzzles with each other would be a nice way to test this hypothesis.  Does engaging in such inquiry really foster more cooperative, rather than competitive, relations with others?  Can cultivating a mathematical ethos help curb the pleonectic impulses that Callicles believes are the drivers of human motivation?  My sense is this is another reason why Plato values mathematics in the Republic.  In addition to the work of introducing us to abstract objects of thought, I’m interested in whether he thinks that engaging in mathematical argument also makes us less honour-seeking and pleasure-seeking by nature.  If that’s right, doing mathematics could help shape our whole character by channelling our desires away from the ends of the spirited and appetitive parts of the soul.

That’s the theory anyway.  But what I’ve found in assigning these exercises is that it also bears out in practice.  Students note in their journal entries that their interactions with others are generally less fraught and more collaborative when they attempt to solve the puzzles together.  They enjoy the thrill of trying to determine the answers and the feeling of making progress with each other.  And they find this kind of engagement in argument more fulfilling than the kind they’re used to witnessing elsewhere.  Students also raise questions, of course, about the asymmetry between mathematical problem-solving and the disagreements we have in debating moral and political issues.  That’s all to the good and it prompts us to discuss central questions in metaethics.  But in addition, I’ve observed that simply doing the exercises has an effect on students that they reflect upon later.  It gets them to ask why, if they find the mathematical ethos so satisfying when they engage others in argument, they can’t adopt that approach more often in their social interactions.  And that leads in turn to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for Plato’s views.

2. In your prompt for the reflection on doing geometry, you say that “it’s not important whether you succeeded today in solving the assigned problems.” I wonder, though, if it might, in fact, be quite important for Plato that we see reason succeeding in coming to the truth in the case of geometry (cf. the way that, in the Meno, the slave’s discovery of the diagonal is supposed to make us take courage and continue the search).

The problems get increasingly difficult and the first ones are solvable quickly, so I think students should get a sense in this way for how reason can succeed in its endeavours.  But it’s a good question whether that should receive more emphasis.  I guess what I want students to focus on primarily in these exercises is the experience of genuinely reasoning with another person with no ulterior motive, and I felt it would detract from that experience if I made solving the problems a condition for the activity.  I also want them to think (as Plato does) of potential parallels between mathematical inquiry and ethical inquiry, and to appreciate the hardness of the questions that occupy us in ethics.  Some of these mathematical puzzles are very hard and most people can’t solve all of them without throwing up their hands at some point – I tend to do this about halfway through!  I wanted students to feel fine about that and to reflect on whether working through the problems with someone else was worthwhile, even if they couldn’t arrive at a solution.  Did they make progress nonetheless?  How did it affect their attitude towards others to engage in such inquiry directed at a common (though elusive) good?  How were their motivations affected generally?

The Meno passage is a great one.  You’re right of course that the exchange with the slave boy is meant to answer the worry Meno raises about the possibility of inquiry.  But a further challenge Meno issues to Socrates in that passage concerns the value of aporia, particularly the persistent kind that Socrates evokes in others.  Meno compares Socrates to a torpedo fish who derives a perverse pleasure from repeatedly numbing other people.  So he sees Socrates as a predator essentially.  Plato thinks of Socrates as a benefactor, however, and I wanted students to explore the truth of that view in doing the mathematical exercises.  How did they react when they reached a point of intractable confusion in their thinking?  What help did they seek from others to deal with it?  In being shown a flaw in their thinking, were they grateful for it?  How did they carry on in their uncertainty?  Right after the geometry exercise with the slave boy, Socrates stresses the character-building benefits of such inquiry.  He insists to Meno that we’ll be “better, braver, and less idle” if we examine the things we don’t know, rather than if we think it’s not possible to inquire into things we don’t know and that we shouldn’t do so.  I love that line.  It shows that with all of his high standing and confidence in his own intelligence, Meno lacks the basic character strengths the slave boy possesses in engaging with Socrates.

3. You have a desire-mapping exercise, based on the distinction Glaucon makes at the beginning of RepublicII between three ways that we desire different kinds of goods. In your experience, how hard do students find it to distinguish between instrumental and intrinsic goods? Does this exercise help clarify that for them? Do you have your students share their answers at all? Do you see much consensus on which things to put in which category? Do students see upshots from this on what they should pursue and how they should structure their lives or is it hard to transition to the practical?

I’m indebted here to my colleague Steve Horst, who devised this exercise to introduce students to Aristotle’s distinction in Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics between things we desire for their own sake and things we desire for the sake of something else.  I wanted students to get a sense for this distinction early in my course, and found that Glaucon draws it well and with clear examples in Republic II, so I adapted Steve’s exercise for my unit on Plato.

As to your question, I’ve found the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental goods isn’t a hard one to convey to students, especially when framed in terms of examples.  There’s a difference between visiting an elderly relative in hospital because you consider it worth doing for its own sake and visiting for the sake of a large inheritance.  These are perfectly intelligible motives that show how the goodness of the same act can be perceived differently by a person, regardless of the moral judgements people make in each case.  However, it’s one thing to introduce this difference in a lecture and explain its centrality to the argument of the Republic, and it’s another thing to get students to see the relevance of the distinction to actually living a good life, and I’ve found that asking students to list things they consider intrinsically vs. instrumentally valuable instructive for this purpose.  It’s a demonstration again of how putting a theory into practice has great pedagogical benefits.

I don’t require students to share their answers to the desire-mapping exercise, but on one of the days I ask them to discuss some of their core convictions with others and it’s nice to see them have the language of intrinsic vs. instrumental value in conducting these conversations.  The distinction also often ends up being a topic in the postmortem discussion at the end of the Plato unit, where it turns out there is in fact a fair bit of consensus in the students’ answers.  The “intrinsic value” category tends to include abstract goods like enjoying a fulfilling career or spending time with family and other loved ones, while the “instrumental value” category has more consumer and social status goods, which students find revealing.  Many of them cite this exercise as one of the more illuminating activities at the end of the course.  It does end up being key, in some ways, to much of the rest of the course, since we return to the distinction repeatedly in later units (e.g., the Stoic view that virtue is the only thing of intrinsic value vs. the Epicurean view that virtue is of only instrumental value).

4. On day 3, you have students reflect on their own answers and then, on day 4, they do so with a partner. In your experience, how much difference do students find having a partner makes? Is it more awkward? Are they more or less honest? Do they see themselves more clearly when sharing with another person?

The biggest difference on day 4 is that students feel they’re more accountable for their beliefs with a discussion partner.  I don’t know whether this makes them more or less honest, but it’s a great question – I’ll add this to my list of things to ask them!  Certainly, there are dynamics involved that make the experience a bit artificial, but I do suggest they select a partner with whom they’re comfortable sharing their answers from day 3 – perhaps a parent or sibling.  This usually ensures that their views are treated with some care and consideration.  Socrates refers to himself approaching others as a father or older brother in the Apology, so I’ve found this a nice way to suggest that idea and for students to assess the benefits of such discussion.

5. Days 5 and 6 involve adopting a Socratic persona. Do students find it easier to ask Socratic questions and be a gadfly than to have their own lives examined? Have students gotten into trouble from trying to act like Socrates?

Students find it very hard to adopt the Socratic persona.  In every unit, I include at least one activity I think it will be discomforting or difficult to carry out, and this is that activity for the Plato unit.  While students are usually open to having their views examined by others on day 4, it turns out they’re much more reluctant to inflict such questioning on others.  On day 5, I have them question someone they know well, which they occasionally find worthwhile.  Some of the best responses I’ve got for this exercise have come from students asking parents to explain their career choices and life goals.  But on day 6, I have students go “full gadfly” with anyone they come across, and very few of them enjoy that.  Part of the difficulty has to do with implementing the Socratic method: knowing which questions to ask, what objections to raise, and how to press a line of inquiry.  Yet further, in my experience, it seems students just don’t agree with the interrogatory aspect of Socrates’ persona, which they find too invasive as a means of addressing other people’s views.  It’s not that they share Meno’s opinion of Socrates as a predator; it’s that they simply don’t see the benefit (to others or themselves) of living like Socrates.  I don’t know what to make of this.  Some of it has to do with anxieties about call-out culture in college (well discussed here, though I think Socrates does nothing of the sort) but there may also be a lesson to extract about the limits of Socratic argument as a tool of understanding.  In any event, unlike Socrates, students usually draw the line well before they’re in danger of getting into any trouble.

What I like about assigning this exercise near the end of the week is that it can prompt students to reassess their notions of Socrates and the practice of philosophical argument.  There’s a popular caricature of Socrates as a troublemaker who lobbed annoying questions at others for his intellectual amusement, and it’s often thought that anyone with comparable logical skills could do the same.  But for Plato, such skills aren’t sufficient.  Adopting the Socratic persona requires a high (near impossible) level of internal ethical work, first in cultivating the mathematical ethos that students consider on day 1, then in the practices of self-examination of days 2-4.  It’s interesting to me that students generally endorse this aspect of the Socratic persona and its value to living well, while rejecting the critical scrutiny of others that occupied him in civic life, though again I don’t quite know what to make of this.

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