Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.
— Plato, Republic 536e
Associate Professor in the College of the Humanities, Gregory MacIsaac must have been aware of these words when he held a very non-traditional course on the fourth-century Greek philosopher, Plato.
Professor MacIsaac ventured outside the confines of the classroom by offering two of his undergraduate students, Joey Baker and Ekaterina Huybregts, course credit to meet for weekly discussion and debate on the final two of three Platonic dialogues, Theaetetus, Parmenides, and Sophist, that MacIsaac had been working on for the better part of a decade.
This learning model was non-traditional in many senses – Huybregts and Baker weren’t required to write exams or hand in papers, and were graded solely on the quality of their discussion; meetings were held once a week in MacIsaac’s office, instead of a classroom; while formally a series of directed studies courses, the three held a continuous meetings for a year and a half, working even through the summer. “I just happened upon this course set-up without really choosing it consciously,” said MacIsaac. “I did choose a discussion format, but once we agreed to make our meetings open-ended we found it possible to have an incredible depth of discussion, because we could take our talks in whichever direction we liked for as long as we liked. Sometimes we’d spend an hour and a half on a single paragraph. We could look at both the forest and the trees.” Early on their plan became to continue reading and discussing until they finished the two dialogues that MacIsaac had left to work on, however long that would take.
MacIsaac knew that Parmenides and Sophist were two of Plato’s most complex dialogues and quickly realized how much his own research would benefit from his students’ two additional perspectives.
“A Platonic dialogue is a philosophical conversation where different ideas are put into the mouths of different speakers,” explained MacIsaac. “So in order to see why particular ideas are expressed, you have to think about the dramatic setting, the characters, and minor details like jokes. Plato doesn’t come right out and tell you what perspective to adopt in reading the dialogues, conveying it instead through his dramatic details, and these require interpretation. Kat and Joey’s insights were invaluable, often leading me in directions I very likely would not have taken on my own.”
MacIsaac gave structure to their conversations by supplying an overarching interpretation of the dialogues. Against most scholars, MacIsaac contends that Plato is presenting his predecessors’ ideas in Theaetetus and Parmenides, in order to show how his own theories are superior, in Sophist. This dialogue, he thinks, is a sort of justification of all of Plato’s philosophy.
“We were continually testing whether my overall interpretation could make sense of each part of the argument. But along the way Plato discusses what knowledge is, how material objects participate in ideal forms, the character of true and false language, and the catalogue of fundamental metaphysical concepts,” said MacIsaac. “By figuring out these dialogues, Joey, Kat and I had to think about all of these topics. So we were also learning how to think about core philosophical ideas.”
In assisting MacIsaac with his reading of the dialogues, the students themselves were learning how to read a rhetorically sophisticated text. “If you have an entire dialogue, like Theaetetus, that tries to figure out what knowledge is, but ends in failure, you have to ask yourself why Plato would write something like that. Are the theories in it Plato’s own or someone else’s? These two possibilities yield completely different philosophical results, so it presents you with demanding interpretive as well as intellectual hurdles,” said MacIsaac.
Although the subject matter was challenging, the three were able to concoct an effective research and learning setting.
“It was very informal and comfortable. I sat on one couch while Joey and Kat sat facing me on the other. Normally, I would begin by giving a recap of what we discussed the previous week. Then we would read the next section of text together. If there were any tricky words or phrases, I would consult the Greek text. Finally, we would discuss what we read,” said MacIsaac.
Their discussion always focused on how the argument of the 200 pages of text worked. The group would often struggle to decipher Plato’s meanings in the paragraph they had most recently read, but more often than not, they were also figuring out how the text fit into Plato’s argument as a whole.
“Plato gives seven different definitions of a sophist in the dialogue Sophist,” explained MacIsaac. “It’s not enough to understand each definition on its own. You have to ask why there are seven of them and why they are given in that particular order. Do the later ones replace the earlier ones or are they complementary? How do the definitions which make up the first half of the dialogue relate to the abstract metaphysical investigation of Being and Non-Being in the second half of the dialogue?”
Everyone who has every urged us to say just how many beings there are and what they are like…appear to me to have been telling us a myth, as if we were children. One tells us that there are three beings, and that sometimes they’re somehow at war with each other, while at other times they become friendly, marry, give birth, and bring up their offspring. Another one says that there are two beings, wet and dry or hot and cold…And our Eleatic tribe…tells us their myth on the assumption that what they call ‘all things’ are just one.
— Plato, Sophist 242c-d
What do you signify when you say the word ‘Being’? Obviously you’ve known for a long time. We thought we did, but now we’re confused about it. So first teach it to us, so we won’t think we understand what you’re saying when just the contrary is the case.
— Plato, Sophist 244a
Considering these dialogues have been grappled with for two millennia, carrying on an exhaustive discussion of them was not a light task. The two students began reading Plato in September of 2014 and kept reading each week, with a few interruptions, until they finished Sophist and Parmenides, in the summer of 2016 – a week after they both had graduated.
“The directed studies experience gave me the opportunity to read and think in a much more focused way than in any other aspect of my degree,” reflected Baker. “Having the study structured by Professor MacIsaac’s own career-length research project provided an especially unique and advanced opportunity to become a better student of Plato in particular, without the years of work and responsibility involved in conceiving and executing such a project.”
“I doubt I could have learned nearly as much about philosophical method or any particular subject matter in a regular course, seminar or tutorial at the undergraduate level.”
Both the students and professor found this non-traditional learning and teaching undertaking to be very rewarding in a variety of capacities. “A big advantage of this way of working was that we were not pressed for time. The dialogues that we read were very complex and contained many obscure passages. Sometimes we spent an entire session on a single paragraph, or even on a few lines. Because the work was open-ended — early on we decided to keep on reading together as long as they were both in town — we could spend the time we needed to get to the nitty-gritty of things,” said MacIsaac.
MacIsaac asserts that they did just that. He believes there was not a single part of their readings that they did not come to fruitful conclusions about. Reading closely together without a timetable made for a truly creative collaboration of three minds.
“In a nutshell, we had the intellectual satisfaction that comes from really getting to the bottom of something,” said MacIsaac, “which of course requires spending as much time as it takes to figure each problem out.”
The students also found this format satisfying. “Participating in such a close directed study of Plato with Professor MacIsaac gave me insight into what research in academic philosophy could be like,” said Huybregts, “Being a part of a project of this size and at this level gave me skills and confidence that I will carry into all of my future projects, regardless of the subject matter.”
The thoroughness of their discussions has paid dividends. MacIsaac recorded every session, fifty hours of slow, methodical work through the dialogues, that he plans to hire a work-study student to transcribe. When added to his already completed efforts on the first of the three dialogues, this will allow him to produce a solid first draft of a book-length commentary on Theaetetus, Parmenides, and Sophist. The transcription won’t yet be a final text, and will have to be cut down quite a bit, but it will provide a thorough philosophical core for his interpretation of Plato’s argument.
Concurrently, he is also working on a final draft of a textbook on how to write a university paper, called The Humanities Writing Guide. This textbook will be based on his work in HUMS 1200 Humanities and Classical Civilization, which is a required writing course in the Bachelor of Humanities program.
With this course now in his rear view mirror, and Huybregts and Baker both pursuing post-undergraduate ventures, MacIsaac maintains that the format he and his two students used could be a more common undergraduate practice given the right circumstances. He believes the key ingredient is highly motivated and engaged students who are interested in pursuing a longer-term scholarly journey.
He has already signed up a few new students and a retired professor of English for a challenge a little further from his own research, Heidegger’s Being and Time, which they plan to begin reading this September.
*The image in the banner is a panoramic view of Professor MacIsaac’s office — the meeting place for MacIsaac, Baker, and Huybregts.