Sunday, September 26, 2004

Quoting Others



Who was that Plato Guy Anyway?

Any decent piece of philosophy should stand on its own two legs - it may be about something which you need to know, but it should not need to borrow authority to be convincing. Borrowing authority is what happens when you quote someone, not because you wish to attribute them or to short-cut bringing in large tracts of extraneous text, but because your content lacks weight. Here is an example of borrowing weight. To make it worse, I have drawn a poor conclusion as well.

"Plato wrote, '... it makes sense for me not to act like that, since I don't think I shall gain anything by drinking the poison a little later - apart from making myself ridiculous in by own eyes by clutching on to life, and trying to save the last drops when the cup is already emtpy.'" From this, we can conclude that Plato did not think old age was very worthwhile. (note - that was taken from the final pages of Symposium and the Death of Socrates)

The above paragraph contains many philosophical sins. Firstly, the point made by that text in context is about the greater value of living according to your principle, and not allowing yourself to yield to temptations which ultimately reduce the quality of life. Concluding that Plato didn't think old age was worthwhile is really missing the point. Even if we were trying to get a handle on Plato the man as opposed to interpreting his philosophy, you would hope that some kind of deeper analysis would be made than the simple one shown above.

This kind of cut-down reasoning is commonplace in our media and in politics. Single sentences are frequently taken by journalists, and a new meaning is given to them. Responsible journalism would not misconstrue statements in this way, but frequently that is precisely what occurs. It is the risk of anyone making a controversial statement that it will overpower the rest of their argument.

It is one of the reasons why you do not see me simply interpreting the philosophy of others. In academic philosophy, the goal is frequently to try to understand the philosophical viewpoints of someone like Nietzsche or Heidegger. Here, making reference to the will to power (a Nietzchean idea) is a useful short-cut, relieving the author of repeating another's words, or re-expressing a well-known viewpoint. However, taking the same viewpoint out of an academic context can simply leave the reader feeling uncertain and alienated. Quoting is useful and appropriate as a pointer to related information, or a more fulsome description of a particular idea or philosophy is quite appropriate, but for its own sake is simply a vanity. The misuse of quotes is to do the author a disservice.



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