Everything always begins with an encounter. A crisis of life or thought. A son is rotten while his father is good. Would it be just to escape from prison when I’ve been unjustly found guilty? Another son is accusing his father of impiety. There’s always an encounter, a question. And make no mistake, these encounters happen by chance. They are genuine events that surge up within the regularity and routine of life, problematizing it and calling our commonplaces into question. Perhaps this, then, is the first lesson of Platonic philosophy: there are no “questions or problems of philosophy” if by that one means eternal and abiding questions to which philosophers might propose differing solutions and then debate amongst themselves. There is no, for example, question “what is knowledge in general?”, but rather only ever questions like what is knowledge in archaeology, or physics, or engineering, or football, etc., and it is always a crisis with something that doesn’t fit that precipitates this question. True and genuine philosophy always begins with an encounter and is therefore fragmentary for this reason. System builders dream of an end to encounters. They dream of banishing the real and its return.

What Plato says of the dialectic is mysterious. We rise, he says, from the cases in the world to a principle. Then we descend back to the world. We look among different instances of justice that we think we’ve encountered— justice in the classroom, in the workplace, at the vending machine, with taxes, in the courtroom, etc —and then we make what Peirce called an abduction, extracting a double of these particulars, a general formula. For example, what is common to these instances of justice that are so very different? What is the formula— f(x) = 3x + 5 —that is their common pattern? Perhaps we infer that justice is fairness. That will be the form (I realize this isn’t Plato’s answer in The Republic). Getting the grade one earned based on the quality of work done, a reasonable price on a drink from the vending machine, a fair wage for work, a sentence proportional to the crime, etc. These things are all so very different, yet they have a common pattern.

We ascend into the heights of abstraction and now, from abstraction, we descend back to the world with transformed vision. In the Allegory Socrates talks about how the prisoner who returns from the outside world can now scarcely see. Rather, she sees differently. Having grasped the form-ula we now see with an eye towards what calls or beckons us to fairness. Are there things we have missed that pertain to justice or fairness? Are their imperatives that we didn’t before see or discern? But also, are there things we before thought were fair or just that turn out to be unjust? Perhaps we advocated the fair tax. Superficially it might seem fair and just to tax everyone at exactly the same percentage rate. But then I notice that Walmart makes far more use of the highways and military (to maintain safe shipping routes) than I do. Shouldn’t they pay an amount proportional to the use they make of public services? Gradually, in our descent the world becomes re-ordered and re-thought as we submit it to the test of the form-ula, transforming our vision or practice. We need not believe in the reality of forms to be Platonists. We need only believe in the power of thought to transform our vision or practice through the formation of concepts. Being a disciple of a philosopher never means bowing before the letter of their text— that’s a scholar, not a philosopher —but rather means being inspired by a vector and intensity in their thought, a spirit, that you vary, mutate, and carry on like dancing sparks across time on a Jacob’s ladder.