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A lost dialogue, featuring Socrates and Plato and translated by Trevor Curnow.
S Good morning, dear Plato. I haven’t seen you for some days. I hope you haven’t been ill?
P Thank you for your concern, Socrates. However, I am pleased to say that I am quite well. My recent absence from the agora was on account of my work.
S Indeed? Tell me more. You know I am always interested to hear about what you are doing.
P Well, I’ve been writing another dialogue
S I see. You must have written quite a considerable number by now.
P I certainly have. This will be my ninetieth, Socrates.
S Your ninetieth! I really had no idea you had written so many. I’m surprised you don’t run out of things to say.
P I confess I haven’t told you about a lot of what I’ve written over recent years, Socrates. Between ourselves, most of it isn’t really up to much. And as for finding things to say, well I’ve said very little that’s new since about my thirtieth.
S Then why, pray, do you continue to write so many, my friend?
P Well, it’s all right for people like you who just want to engage passers-by in philosophical discussion. But I want to be taken seriously as a professional philosopher, and these days that means publishing as much as possible.
S But surely if, as you say, they aren’t up to much, your recent publications will tend to damage rather than enhance your academic reputation?
P I don’t think you really understand how things work these days, Socrates. Besides that, I’m afraid you are leaping to conclusions. You seem to assume that people read what I write, but I haven’t claimed that.
S True. But you spoke of publications. Therefore I take it that you don’t keep your writings to yourself.
P No, I don’t.
S And if they are published, they are there for people to read.
P That is so, Socrates.
S And if they are there for people to read them, then people will read them.
P Again, I must find fault with your logic, Socrates. Just because people could read them doesn’t mean they do. I could masturbate in public after the fashion of the Cynics, but I most certainly don’t. In any event, it’s really all the same to me whether they read them or not.
S I acknowledge the strength of your argument, but I am frankly astonished to hear of your indifference to the fate of the fruits of your labours.
P Well, the labours really aren’t too onerous. Now I’ve got the hang of it I can produce a new dialogue in a few days, which is what I’ve just done. But your astonishment shows how out of touch you are with the academic world. The point of publishing is to have a publication, not for it to be read.
S Indeed? That strikes me as rather strange, if not actually perverse.
P It may well be, but I would be the last to claim that this is an ideal world.
S But don’t you despair that no one is benefiting from your scholarship?
P Well, if there was much in the way of scholarship involved I’d obviously write considerably less. But in any event, as I said earlier, there’s nothing really new in what I’m writing now anyway.
S So what is there in what you are writing now?
P Well, it’s basically a rehashing of what I’ve written before. You know, the same old stuff but presented a bit differently. One method I’ve adopted is putting out old dialogues, altered a bit, under new names. My eighty-ninth dialogue, for example, was called I’m a Spender.
S That’s a curious title.
P Well, it’s just a rearrangement of ”Parmenides’, and that’s exactly what the dialogue itself was. My eighty-eighth was called Disarm Che! Before that were others like Use the Teat! and Omen. You get the idea.
S I think I see a pattern emerging. But surely people notice?
P They don’t seem to. Very few actually bother to read them. Besides, if I were caught out, I would just maintain that what I’ve done is revised the earlier one to reflect subtle changes in my thought.
S And have there been any such changes?
P Well, not really. But unless what I say is exactly the same, I can always pretend there have been. In any case, if people were to accuse me of such a thing in writing, I would respond in writing, and that would be another publication to add to my list.
S I have some sympathy for the situation you find yourself in, but I would never have thought that you of all people would have resorted to such devices.
P I confess it gives me no great pleasure to do so, or to admit it. But what am I to do? In order to maintain my position, or improve it, I have to show that I am engaged in research, and the accepted evidence for that is publications.
S So you are still engaged in research?
P Well, yes and no. To tell the truth, I’d probably get a lot more done if I didn’t have to write so much. But then again, if all people are bothered about is the quantity of my publications, why should I worry too much about quality?
S So, if I understand you correctly, your quality as an academic is measured by the quantity of your publications, irrespective of the quality of the publications themselves?
P You are beginning to get the idea.
S But isn’t that rather like saying that if you put a sufficiently large number of inedible dishes together you end up with a good meal?
P That’s about it the strength of it, Socrates.
S I see. But, philosophical problems aside, there is a practical problem which occurs to me. Who, pray, would want to publish all these works of such variable or even dubious quality?
P Well, each of the Sophists publishes his own journal. For example, Gorgias has The Gorgiast, and Protagoras has The Protagorast. There’s also one called The Pederast, but I’m not sure who publishes that one.
S There’s no shortage possible candidates.
P That’s what I thought.
S And what about you?
P No, it’s not me.
S I mean, do you have a journal, too?
P Oh yes, I do. It’s called The Neoplatonist.
S The Neoplatonist?
P Well, it used to be called The Platonist, but I decided to relaunch it with a more modern-sounding title.
So I suppose you publish your own dialogues in your own journal?
P In fact, I don’t. That might look a bit suspicious. After all, there is meant to be some form of quality control in operation, which means that items for publication should be independently assessed.
S I see. So there is some concern for quality?
P Well, after a fashion. But since we’re all in the same game, the way it works is that, for example, I publish a dialogue by Gorgias in The Neoplatonist and he publishes a dialogue by me in The Gorgiast. Once that’s done, then I can publish my own response to Gorgias’ dialogue in my journal, and he can publish his response to my dialogue in his. Then I send him my reply to his response and he sends me his reply to my response, and so on. With a bit of ingenuity and imagination, each dialogue can yield a handful of publications for each of us.
S I see. And does no one say anything about all this?
P How could they? Gorgias and I are two of the major figures in our field. How can anybody say that we of all people are not qualified to assess the quality of what we publish? If not us, then who? ”Who guards The Guardian?’ as we say in the publishing world
S And who buys these journals? If they contain so much work of inferior quality, who in their right mind would pay good money for them?
P Well, we all buy each other’s. Obviously if no copies were sold we might have a bit of a problem claiming that we’d been properly published, although the Sophists are working on that one. But as long as I buy their journals and they buy mine, appearances are maintained.
S And do you, or does anyone else, actually read them?
P Well, I read the ones my own work appears in so that I can reply to the responses which are published in them. And sometimes I write a response to something I read, which makes for another quick and easy publication. Then I put them all in my library. I find them very comforting during the long winter evenings.
S Ah. So then you sit down and read them
P No. But they make a lovely fire.
S All this has been a revelation to me, Plato. More than that, it has been an education.
P I don’t know what it’s got to do with education, but it’s a living.
© Dr Trevor Curnow 2000
Trevor Curnow, teaches philosophy, mainly at St Martin’s College, Lancaster. He wishes it to be known that he is untroubled by considerations either of irony or of self-reference.