Plato and teaching Foreign Policy

15 May 2019, 1625 EDT

I assigned Plato’s Theaetetus this semester in my foreign policy class. It was the very first thing we read in a course that included more standard text’s like Walter Russel Mead’s Special Providence, Tom Schelling’s Arms and Influence, and selections from Andrew Bacevich’s edited volume of primary sources, Ideas and American Foreign Policy. On first glance, reading a work of political philosophy—and one which is widely considered one of the more difficult texts in the Western canon—might seem like a poor fit. But, my experiment paid off and I may continue assigning the Theaetetus or similar texts in my courses on foreign policy in the future. Its theme is epistemology, knowledge, and specifically it challenges the idea that humans can actually know anything. I have plans to write something up for a journal, but in this piece, I want to explore how it might be used in the classroom should anyone feel ambitious enough to replicate.

The theme of Plato’s Theaetetus examines the conditions of knowledge. In the dialogue, Socrates and the titular character investigate four main ideas for what knowledge is: the division of the subjects, perception, true judgment (or true belief), and true judgment with an account. I cannot relay the intricacies of each of these in this blog post. But the spoiler alert is that all of them fail to provide a logically consistent account for knowledge. The first, division of subjects is quickly rejected because knowledge of something is not the same thing as knowledge qua knowledge. Perception is shown to be flawed because humans so quickly mis-perceive (a point well known in international relations). Knowledge, then, must be something more than what we perceive—it must be true belief. But, as Socrates’ leads Theaetetus to conclude, we make mistakes in our assessment of what we believe all the time. Moreover, even when we have true judgment we may not have knowledge. Socrates’ example is that of a jury who rightly convicts or acquits a criminal defendant even when they do not have knowledge of what happened. Even when the addition of “an account” is added to the definition that knowledge is true belief, the distinction is shown to lack any decisiveness for clarifying the question.

One of the features which makes the Theaetetus so immensely difficult is the subject matter—what really does it mean to know something anyway?—and another is the inconclusive endings of many of Plato’s dialogues. Students want easy, straight-forward answers. A dialogue that does not give them a one or two sentence take-away to remember long enough for the exam will perplex, confound, and frustrate them. But there are at least three big upshots to assigning such a text in a course on contemporary foreign policy.

  1. It disabuses them of the notion that liking a headline on social media is equivalent to knowing about politics.
  2. It forces them to think clearly about what they actually do know (or, more likely, do not know).
  3. It engenders in some a healthy skepticism which makes the more scientific materials more attractive.

One of the more pernicious pathologies of social media is that of hashtag politics: Retweeting a clever post, or posting a screen shot (rather than a link) of something deemed wrong with comment that signals one’s contempt of the position has replaced serious thinking. I’m thankful to Alan Jacob’s wonderful book, How to Think, for this insight.1 My own sense of things is that students know (perceive?) this is a problem but the incentives are too strong and the alternatives too costly. Foreign affairs has not been immune to this phenomenon. In many ways it is more difficult for non-experts to get a steady footing on foreign policy because the big issues (Iraq War, Trade War, Russia) are framed in increasingly ideological terms and the rest is presented as too technical (NATO, NAFTA) or too obscure (Uiguhrs, Ukraine). It

Taking time to address this problem helps students think through the challenges to their knowing and encourages them to consider strategies for overcoming them. Reading the Theaetetus provides many, many opportunities to discuss concepts like warrant or justification, reliability of author or source, and so forth. But by making those topics secondary to the primary task of reading Plato, those lessons come off as less me professing and more of me tutoring. That is, I found that students internalized those secondary lessons more readily.

After reading Plato, the next text in my course was Arms and Influence. I framed these two texts as introductory material and as “the knowledge problem” and “the strategy problem.” Schelling’s relentlessness in his argument that nuclear statecraft, perhaps even all statecraft in a nuclear age, is just a form of bargaining (often coercively) has many points of contact with Plato. I knew they would compliment each other but was still surprised when re-reading Schelling after Plato when preparing for lectures. International politics is rife with the knowledge problem. I described IR to my students as being perpetually ensnared in the realm of perception. Decisions made with limited, imperfect knowledge are the overwhelming norm. We know this. Students do not. But rather than telling them, Plato shows them. And once shown, the questions in class on how Schelling’s treatment of international politics takes on a more weighty and serious aspect. Not that nuclear brinksmanship was not already serious business. But the possibility for human error is made all the more relevant to students when reading both Plato and Schelling.

Of course, if Plato is right and knowing is hard, then perhaps our scientific claims about the world should be more limited and humble. Scholarly writing, again, already does this.2 Undergraduate writing less so. Having challenged students to think clearly about what they actually know, introducing models and social scientific methods comes off as less dogmatic and more pragmatic. It becomes a way to ensure that we minimize error and more closely approximate true knowledge.

Perhaps other approaches to epistemology could be equally as effective. I have my doubts if only because Plato’s dialogues are widely considered the foundation of Western thought for a reason. The pedagogical method of dialogue over treatise coupled with the Socratic method of investigation do well in the humanities. My first attempt at integrating the approach into social science suggests, if only anecdotally, that there are untapped benefits. Still, assigning the Theaetetus is not for everyone. It’s a challenging text even for those versed in political theory. Social science scholars who haven’t taken any theory might want to think about other works which raise similar questions or consult several commentaries.3

NB: This post marks my return after a very long hiatus from the Duck. My wife and I went from man-to-man to zone defense in February. But Rule 76 says “no excuses, play like a champion.” Glad to be back for summer blogging.

  1. When teaching as a graduate student, I taught Jacob’s book with some success for the same reason. But I concluded that its focus on “thinking” rather than “knowing” was a sufficient difference to try something else.
  2. As I finishing this post, I came across this gem of a Twitter thread from @davidmanheim on the limits of empirical work. Manheim’s main point is that empirical work is itself conditioned on factors by so many assumptions and factors that we should all be more cautious or humble in claiming what our data show.
  3. Two of the best are Myles Burneat and Seth Benardete. As well as the chapters in Jacob Howland.