Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Virginia Woolf Reinvents the Socratic Dialogue

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Virginia Woolf Reinvents the Socratic Dialogue

Article excerpt

Although Woolf's lifelong interest in Plato has been widely noted, we have yet to explore the kinds of tension that arise in her work when she reads a text by Plato in the context of contemporary culture. (1) Woolf's attention to the vocabulary and argument of the dialogues, which reflects her early training as a student/translator, distinguishes her from Matthew Arnold and others who read the Platonic dialogues as a univocal philosophical treatise. Her untraditional reading makes better sense in the context of recent interpretations of Plato that focus on the artistic structure of the dialogues. They stress the element of play, in which a fictional Socrates is less an authoritative figure than a voice that in concert with his friends demonstrates how a mode of talk becomes a mode of thought inviting the participation of the reader. In other words the dialogues demonstrate how the play of voices among non-philosophers turns a social interaction into a philosophical inquiry, with a consequent displacement of intentional control from the figure of Socrates. (2) Harry Berger Jr. writes of the dialogues as "a text that 'speaks' against Socrates as well as through him," in a field of textual play that empowers the reader (84-85). Rather than a treatise on philosophy the dialogues demonstrate, as Charles Griswold argues, Plato's attempt to justify philosophical inquiry in the face of fundamental disagreements, so that the dialogues demonstrate "the origination of philosophy itself out of the medium of opinion" (153). The argument against univocal interpretation has had a far ranging impact on the study of Plato among European philosophers. Max Statkiewicz for instance studies the interaction of philosophers from Nietzsche to Derrida with the texts of Plato in order to validate modes of thinking "that challenge the dominance of univocal interpretation, as well as the corresponding treatise format, in the modem philosophical tradition" (4). For my purposes I focus on two of Woolf's essays, "On Not Knowing Greek" (1925) and "On Being Ill" (1926), where she signals her strategy by gesturing towards the dialogues, and then posits a reading that is modeled not on listening but on the reader's willingness to transform personal experience into philosophical inquiry. In Three Guineas her strategy is more aggressive yet tacit, a reference to Socrates merely hinted at the end.

Aporia as it is defined in classical studies is a device that questions the boundaries of received opinion and opens the discussion to other speakers/readers. Although it has always been understood as referring to the impasse that occurs when at the end of a dialogue no agreement has been reached, Vasilis Politis defines it as a means to reach a second stage. Aporia begins "as the mental state of perplexity and being at a loss in the face of the Socratic demand for definitions; and leads to aporia as the puzzlement about particular puzzles and problems." In the first stage Socrates seeks by means of extended interrogation, or elenchus, to establish definitions; a second phase concerns the moment when he turns impasse into the impetus for the search for knowledge (89). In this second phase the etymology of aporia sheds light on an impasse that disrupts accepted views on the subject-object relationship, and leads the reader into what Woolf figured in "On Being Ill" as those "wastes and deserts of the soul" (E4 317).

Feminist scholars have shown how deeply Woolf engaged her historical moment. This study amplifies the reach of that research by suggesting that her translations brought to bear on historical questions aporia and an ancient mode of discourse. As a lifelong student of ancient Greek she was both the reader who admires the thoughts expressed in a Socratic dialogue, and the writer whose questions led to the realization that the definitions that are the first step in aporia are historically contingent, and thus subject to change. In three essays Woolf adapts Socratic aporia as a means to convert received opinion into philosophical inquiry, a project that grants the reader new authority. …

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