A popular saying has it that the entire history of western philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato. As is often the case with a sweeping statement of this kind, scratch the obvious hyperbole on its surface and you will find more than a little truth beneath. Case in point: The Republic, in which Plato - via the musings of his teacher Socrates - offers not only a canonical text in political philosphy, but also some of the first sustained attempts at coming to grips with concepts as fundamental as, for example, the nature of human goodness (Ethics), the basis of our knowledge (Epistemology), and the fundamental nature of reality (Metaphysics). At this stage, however, rather than focusing on its content (which, let's face it, would be a bit boring, since so many have already said so much about it), we can instead focus on its method. For as much as the questions he asks, it is the manner in which Plato (via Socrates) seeks to answer them that make the Republic such an indespensible text even today. In the several thousand years since Plato wrote this book, philosophy as a disciplne has come under a great deal of pressure from outside forces - so much so that at times it has threatened to become merely a branch of either logic or the natural sciences. This outcome must be resisted. What Plato shows us - through the voice of Socrates - is that, at its most fruitful, the kind of conceptual analysis practiced by the philosopher need not be viewed as uncovering metaphysical definitions or 'conditions of warranted assertion', but instead as providing a particularly valuable form of self-knowledge. It is by coaxing these kinds of insights from us (insights about what counts as 'knowledge' or 'goodness' or 'justice') that the philosopher is able to bring home to us the fact that if there is to be a basis for such knowledge, we must find it in ourselves.
As the great 20th century American philosopher Stanley Cavell notes: "That this also renews and deepens and articulates our understanding tells us something about the mind, and provides the consolation of philosophers."
- Dan (resident bookseller AND philosopher)