The “Verbatim Standard” of Quoting Texts

You construe it exactly, Theatetus.  For I say it is necessary for us to make the path in this way, as if they were present while we learn by asking them (translation mine, Sophist, 243d6-8). [1]

In the previous post I discussed the infamous critique of writing from Plato’s dialogue, the Phaedrus.  Much of the gravity of Plato’s critique depends on the conviction that the written word is an inadequate representation of the language breathed by a real-life author.  Of course, for this to have its proper impact, the author is, metaphorically, the master, while the text is the slave.  That is, the text is fully subordinate to the designs of the author, to whom we should really or imaginatively direct our questions and critiques.

One non-obvious consequence that follows from such a view is the principle of charity.  When a given text is like an envoy, limited in the expression of official policy, we will not attack vulnerable nouns and verbs to manipulate into contradiction.  We are to understand, or imagine, that the author would readily refute our misunderstandings or mischaracterizations.

Yet there is another aspect in the critique of writing relating to how we do the history of philosophy.  Some would claim, as I have written before, that “ancient philosophy” is not out there as a hunted animal to be found, but it must be created from a dilapidated carcass, more or less well as it turns out, if we are bad or good reconstructive taxidermists.  An extreme, yet not unfamiliar version is that the text can be nothing until it is interpreted in some way–– meaning not that there is always a need for a reader, but that the reader has the freedom to call forth a privileged reading of the text exclusively, and perhaps non-critically, available only to himself.

If one is committed to this view about texts though, there is actually little to encourage him to reference an opponent’s actual words.  That is, verbatim citation is superfluous and rudimentary: what is valuable is the textual chemistry that has been brought into being, the ingredients which spurred the reading are merely an intellectual curio.  Nor would it seem very fruitful to excavate the means by which the reader arrived at the particular interpretation, for this would involve an impossible penetration into the workings of an idiosyncratic mind and a dynamic text.  Furthermore there would be little ground to stand on to support the criticism, as there often is now, about Plato or Aristotle for instance, who seem to have loose criteria for what qualifies as quotations.  If a loyal reading of Parmenides emerges for Plato, then his lack of accuracy when it comes to quotations is unproblematic.  On the other hand, if Plato’s reading of Parmenides does not maintain a certain fidelity to its source, then this does not matter either, for on the view we have been considering, there is no such original entity, nor, we may assume, is there an author of something which does not exist.



[1] Κατὰ πόδα γε, ὦ Θεαίτητε, ὑπέλαβες. λέγω γὰρ
δὴ ταύτῃ δεῖν ποιεῖσθαι τὴν μέθοδον ἡμᾶς, οἷον αὐτῶν
παρόντων ἀναπυνθανομένους ὧδε·

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