Research Early Career Research Spotlight: John Garner

Early Career Research Spotlight: John Garner

This installment of the early-career research spotlight series looks at the work of John V. Garner. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, GA. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Villanova University in 2014 and his B.A. in Religion from the Honors Program of the Florida State University in 2005. Dr. Garner’s teaching and research interests range from ancient Greek philosophy, to contemporary Francophone philosophy, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and critical theory broadly. His book The Emerging Good in Plato’s ‘Philebus’ will appear in July 2017 with Northwestern University Press (as part of the Rereading Ancient Philosophy series). He has also translated Francophone thinkers, including works by Cornelius Castoriadis and Giorgio Agamben. You can find out more about Garner here.

In your more recent work, you seem to be interested in overturning (or at least significantly re-situating) core ideas about the Platonic corpus. For example, you don’t see Plato as vehemently despising democracy and physical pleasure as much as we often think. What led you to these conclusions about Plato, and what image of Plato are you trying to recover?

I want to begin by saying thank you, both for your work on the APA Blog and for taking the time to develop these very personalized and in depth questions.

The problem of pleasure in Plato has been on my mind for about ten years now, since year one in graduate school at Villanova. We were working on the Phaedo with Walter Brogan, exploring the numerous, explicit references to the body and sensibility there, even as Socrates’s theorizing seems utterly withdrawn from sensibility. This apparent tension in the text—between drama and theory, between scene and thematic—occasioned me to investigate the genuine nuance in Plato’s views of sensibility. For me, this nuance joined forces with the fact that pleasure is obviously an accessible topic for most people. We think we want it; we think we know what it means, etc. But it suddenly struck me as bizarre how under-theorized it is for most of us most of the time. Why do we seek it? What is its nature such that it arises sometimes from inherently valuable attainments and other times when we are wasting life? I quickly learned that under-theorization was not a problem with many of the ancients. They really tried to explain pleasure’s draw and to relate this draw both to its enigmatic nature and to its potential relationship to goods like health and the virtues.

In any case, this whole trail of questions in Plato inevitably leads one to the “leaky jar” image in the Gorgias, to Republic IX’s “fulfillment” theory of pleasure, and finally to the Philebus, where everything comes together in a dialogue on the good life. (The outcome of my research on this question will be published in 2017 by Northwestern University Press as The Emerging Good in Plato’s ‘Philebus’.) I should clarify that I do think the Philebus is a difficult dialogue, on a par with ones like Theaetetus, Parmenides, and Statesman. It is not often taught. And I’ve even recommended to students to consider writing on shorter works like the Greater Hippias—if they want to finish grad school! But I couldn’t resist working on it due to its explicit concern with the makeup of the good life and also because it has had such an interesting following. Donald Davidson (to the horror of Quine, apparently) and H.-G. Gadamer both wrote dissertations on it—Gadamer specifically to counter Heidegger’s critique of Plato. A crew as diverse as Georg Cantor, G.E. Moore, and Giorgio Agamben were also interested in it. This variety of readers struck me as a good sign. But, above all, it was of course the Philebus’s question of the good life that interested me most. I eventually discovered that the dialogue clarifies an enormously important point for Plato. It clarifies that pleasure emerges only where there is psyche, or self-moving motion, if you will. Quickly we realize that this means pleasure does not have a merely given nature. Its nature emerges in the context of (and in certain cases it is wholly due to) the engagements of the soul. It was indeed breathtaking for me to think seriously, for the first time (along with Socrates), about what the pleasure of learning, in particular, is really like (see 52a ff). It is a moment when we emerge into ourselves, when we come to engage in our most proper power-to-know. For Socrates this means it is a process—or a “turning”—when a psyche comes to take responsibility for itself and for allowing the learned lesson to reverberate through the whole of the psycho-bodily nature. Socrates thus suggests that it is really up to us whether we are, first, open to learn (which means: to change!) and, second, prepared to let a lesson thoroughly affect our lives. The Philebus emphasizes both of these points.

All of this goes to show that for Plato there really is a decisive importance in becoming and change, and this feature is often overlooked in the scholarship, ancient and modern. Other goods like reason need to be prioritized, yes. But Socrates is a learner! How then could he despise the resultant becoming, as some scholars say? In fact, he never does. Rather, he finds unique ways to show that genuine learners find value not only in eternal being but also in some processes of becoming—even in some physical pleasures. Hence, the Philebus really opens the reader’s eyes to something that has been at stake throughout many of the dialogues: the good also emerges. Intrinsic goodness can come-to-presence for us even in this changing life. That is what the paradigm of “pure pleasure” shows.

Finally, you asked about the link with democracy. My view is that Plato does not hate democracy. There can be a good democracy, so long as it is a democracy that follows from prior measure and a self-restrained community life. Otherwise, democracy-by-itself is, for Plato, just an unmeasured application of equality to all things. Both the better path and the worse path are treated as equally worthwhile paths. To see how there can still be a genuinely good democracy we need to make an analogical application of Plato’s thesis about good pleasure. Loosely speaking, the social-political correlate of psychical pleasure is, per the Republic, the working class. The key is then to see that the workers’ very practices are carried out well only when those practices are intellectually informed. For example, mechanics need to be guided by an intellection of “proper car function” as their guiding measure, and moneymaking should only follow (due to the general work-time lost due to engaging in this special vocation). Similarly, when miners understand the norm they seek to be “good energy,” then they don’t insist that this exact practice of mining coal must continue eternally (since there are now better ways to do energy). And when schools understand that helping kids to find and enact good measure is the goal, then they may not require ultra-pragmatic approaches, outcomes-based assessments for students, etc. In short: Socrates shows us that any genuine technē fills a real need. But trades go wrong when they create or sustain problems that otherwise would not exist, just in order to continue to providing a product or service that may no longer need to be needed. By contrast, when a life of reason guides the life of a technē, the skill is exercised with its proper measure, and then income becomes an untroublesome accompaniment. In this picture, each person is always already fulfilling his or her political vocation in the very carrying out of the special skill—so long as the work is intellectually informed. For this person is then engaged in living in a socially just way. Thus, the point is—and Simone Weil and Cornelius Castoriadis have also tapped into this idea—that good democracy emerges when intellect informs labor and labor gets its true identity first from this intellectual formation. Workers can then share in decisions because intellectual institutions have been established to help them understand the truly interactive nature of each field with others. When this broader understanding happens, the miners no longer insist that coal mining is needed, if and when it isn’t needed. Further, they don’t listen to pandering pseudo-politicians, because they themselves know the good they seek (“good energy”); and they know the potential tyrant is ignorant of that good.

Good democracy can thus follow from the dissemination of intellectual engagement. I think that is Socrates’s lesson. Democracy-all-by-itself would always be self-destructive; but there can be a good version of democracy, so long as it follows from prior commitments to intellectual participation and to establishing the social institutions necessary to support that participation. By contrast, political vocations are not at all fulfilled by what we call democracy—neither by going once every couple of years to the ballot boxes, nor by simply trying to gain power for your party. To think this is real politics is already to fall into a political vice. As Socrates suggests in the Gorgias and Republic, your political vocation is in you becoming dialectical, i.e. in becoming a socially informed, self-critical, and intellectually-guided contributor in a needed way. This requires institutions (and hence Plato starts a school) plus an immense willingness to be self-critical. But when each worker can engage in learning the big picture in this way, the idea is that there can be a non-alienated state of work and life. Castoriadis follows Kant in calling this concept “autonomous society,” and I actually think both of them are quite close to Plato here.

Your paper on Plato and Gadamer claims that our understanding of numbers has implications for community (and by extension, politics). Why is that the case, and how is it different than our current understanding of numbers?

Gadamer is a fantastic reader of Plato who deserves more notice for his contributions there. The idea he heralds, I think, is that the dialogues imitate real dialectical discussion. But the real dialectical discussions on which the community is based, he shows, tend to share in the structure of numbers in a certain sense. This means real community can never be closed into a one-alone, i.e. into totalizing homogeneity, since a community instantiates a certain, definite number of insights.

An example might help. My friends and family may have been a bit confused when at my wedding my wife and I engaged in a bit of prepared dialogue suggesting that life together involves taking up a share in “the Two.” I don’t think folks were too impressed with the cheesy dialogue (so I’m not recommending that anyone try this!); but it meant a lot to us. We meant: You can’t really share in twoness if you just bring together two pre-formed units; and you can’t share in twoness if you are merely parts of a one. Genuine sharing in the Two requires a recognition that the nature of Twoness (which is not a union) forms us each to be different-than-one, if we share in it. We can still be individuals, but now we are “dyadically-informed” individuals. This also means that, since to share in the Two requires also sharing in the Even, a certain idea of evenness or fairness needs to make its way into the practices and institutions of a marriage. Similarly, other forms offer their own truth to us; but as with Two’s demand for the Even, we also face a duty to trace out each form’s additional, necessary demands. We cannot simply make the Two into something Odd. And if someday our family shares in the Three, we cannot be Even. New demands emerge. Of course, certainly, a sharing in the Two is not all that marriage is about, since marriage involves sharing also in Beauty, Love, and the broader community of family, etc. And certainly this sharing in Twoness is something that happens in non-romance, as when charitable dialectic goes well with anyone. But the point of the example of marriage is just to show that each number—and each form—has a structure proper to itself that is not restricted to interpretation by us or by other forms. The Two is misunderstood if it is thought of simply in light of “unity” or “units.” If we demand that our love make us only one, then we destroy our proper duality (as Beauvoir emphasizes well).

Finally, when it comes to politics, I think the analogy here has more to do with openness to the reality of the Good as something with its own demanding constraints that must be allowed to measure our conceptions of goodness, e.g. our own pleasures and interests. It is not the sum of pleasures or interests. Its nature must be posited and sought out for itself. We as a community must not pretend we always already know it or decide on its value—what absurdity! We must instead engage in genuine dialectical refutations, and in turn we must allow the inquiry—even if it continues indefinitely—to inform our views—nay, our very experiences—of pleasures and interests. If a community is to do this together, it must champion critical voices, it must foster a multiplicity of voices, and it must accept that whatever the good itself is, it manifests itself in human life as a “mixed life” or what Socrates calls a “definite number” of voices. The work of allowing the inquiry into the good to affect politics in this way—so that politics encourages the questioning of every given good and supports each person in the dialectical search for goodness itself—evidently requires that certain institutional supports (e.g. education) be put in place. Those institutions cannot be dogmatic but must encourage open, transparent deliberation regarding even their own founding charter.

In short, I think a genuinely Platonic politics never begins with an unmitigated commitment to extant constitutions, institutions, offices, or political liturgies like voting. Rather, it begins with a commitment to the good constitution, good institution, etc. But to see good versions and bad versions of something requires that the Good Itself be (a) posited as separate from that something and be (b) counted as capable of manifestation in perhaps only some versions of that something (as well as in other kinds of somethings altogether). Thus, true politics requires the determination of a multiplicity of sites of the good. Good politics is thus generative of a harmonious “mixture” of many lives, as the Philebus says. It promotes the discovery of the good potential in each and every kind of life. But this discovery is only possible if the inquiry into the Good empowers us to discern the good and bad versions of the extant or otherwise possible constitutions, institutions, etc.

How do you locate your concept of two-ness and the Good with regard to other political ideals (like communism, democracy, and anarchism)?

Defining those specific political ideals would be a lengthy exercise. Short of attempting that, or of offering a reading of the Republic, Laws, or Statesman right here and now, I would be more comfortable perhaps merely analogizing in the way I’ve already been doing.

I’ve already suggested that the fifth intrinsic good in the Philebus (“pure pleasure”) might be read as having an analogue in a good social-political structure as “good democracy.” If we continue with this speculative analogizing, we might ask, What is the sixth, and last, intrinsic good in the Philebus? It is left unnamed, but it is decisively included on the order of goods. I’ve often thought this “empty” category indicates that Socrates wants to defend the possibility that some instances of the sheer negative-in-itself, i.e. of the apeiron, might appear beneficially in a good life, at least in certain limited cases. This sounds implausible, since the apeiron opposes all order. But if every psycho-social order, as it is manifest, is imperfect, then perhaps the indefiniteness of the apeiron, infecting any extant order, can help us to seek the good order beyond any extant order?

If so, then we can ask by analogy, What is the role of the apeiron in the social-political? Perhaps it is some kind of sheer privative, like the “an-” of anarchy, that can disrupt any of our unconditional commitments to any extant constitutions. Or perhaps it is a sheer collective creativity—what Castoriadis calls an anonymous collective—that, only when it follows from and is informed by a prior commitment to law (or to Law Itself, or to auto-nomos), can perhaps beneficially unseat and refine any established institution, any established political dogma. If there’s any good in this sheer unseating, however, I think it can emerge only as following from a commitment to the goods that have priority in the proper order of the good life. The Gorgias calls this prior condition “law.” The Philebus calls it “measure.” We might call it “good society” (as distinct from any extant constitution). In light of those conditions, the present situation is then revealed to be deficient, or lacking-in-measure. And thus the good political apeiron—if there is some such thing—could only come to light in a world where there is already a commitment to good political order! Thus, I’m inclined to think that anything like a good anarchy would have to follow from a prior commitment on the part of each and all to seeking out the true and good order.

As for the communism question, we would simply need to work on defining what we mean. In Plato, I don’t find anything at all like Popper’s “closed society.” I also don’t see any proletariate-subject finding a dialectical victory in some historical future. The Republic uses image-concepts, like the guardian class, who share goods. But that is an image. The more profound idea behind the common sharing in the Republic, I would argue, is the idea that the Good Itself, transcending even Being Itself, cannot be owned by any kind of life alone, nor by one class alone. It can only be shared in by different kinds of lives, each in different ways. Thus, a good society does not eliminate the kind “property-holding” any more than it eliminates the kind “non-property-holding.” The good society is not rule by a single class alone any more than it is a classless society. It eliminates alienation by preserving the good in each class or kind. It seeks to bring about the good versions of each kind of life, in the kind-specific way that each kind admits. That’s why communism in the Republic is restricted to some and not promoted for all strata of existence. By analogy, psychically, it is clear that intellect must govern; but by itself it is not the whole of the proper activity of doctoring. If it were, it would render doctoring indistinguishable from bridge building.

Finally, I’d just like to emphasize the danger in allowing ourselves to define the positive Good from out of our own resources when we are in a deficient state. For we then mistake our mis-definition for the thing itself. We thus lessen our own ability to recognize the very deficiency (since our projection of what we take to be the “measure” has flowed from, or from the negation of, this deficient state). Feuerbach knew this well. So, when we are deficient historically, economically, or socially as a society, I think it follows that we must instead seek out someone or something that can “discipline” us and refute the notions of goodness that we propose—either positively or by negation—from within this condition. Thus, I would insist that we cannot infer or define the good through the negation of the present, deficient social conditions. The discipline we need begins when we posit the Good in its own self-definition as something that makes its own demands on us. This positing enables us to disassociate the good from humans, from our happiness, or from any single kind of political order, including our own preferred kind. It is its own measure, measuring the worth of each kind. This realization then drives us to seek and to foster the good versions in each kind. The point is that, here, the Good, posited as separate in itself, becomes an object of inquiry (which should change our desires). We then at least stop deluding ourselves that we already know the Good in this condition (even “negatively”). That’s the first step in the “disciplining” we need. I’ll stop this lengthy train here and suggest that a social-political analogue of the Socratic elenchus may be just the discipline we need. The key is then to translate this at a social-institutional level. Of course, that’s terribly difficult. Institutions are rarely self-critical. And it seems clear that instead of engaging in this self-critique, we usually just continue to insist our own notion of the good is the right one (perhaps the reigning idea today is one of “non-constraint”), even as that notion is just a further expression of and contributor to our disorder.

I’m pretty sure that none of this concretely answered your question. But I think it does indicate that a society committed first not to its own extant kind of institution, but rather to its own creative self-institution, in light of an honest individual and social inquiry into Goodness (which some have called “social and individual autonomy”), would be the society that is capable of discerning the good and the bad in communism, in democracy, or even in anarchy. And thus, in turn, it would be the society in which their good versions could arise together.

You have done quite a bit of translation work on continental figures like Agamben and Castoriadis. What have you discovered about these philosophers in doing these translations? Were there any particular nuances in their philosophy you found difficult to translate?

Translation is undervalued generally in the academic world. I’ve often thought, “There are so many people out there at more advanced stages in their careers with so many great things to say. Why isn’t there a greater emphasis on getting this stuff into English?” The same thing goes for those journals that print lots of book reviews, publish summaries of major debates, etc. That is very helpful material! Does academia really need another new, hyper-specialized research article? Perhaps if years of thought and revisions have gone into it. But not if it’s being published just for tenure or, these days, just to be able to beat out another poor fellow for a one-year instructorship. In a sense, perhaps we need to worry a little more about having a discerning eye regarding what’s already available or what could be made available. That’s why I work in history of philosophy primarily, why I love teaching, and why I think translation is valuable.

Furthermore, my respect for the figures I translate is enormous and I consider it a privilege to work on them. I benefit directly because I get to engage deeply in studies more afield and to discover new sources. Castoriadis in particular was fluent in so many different fields of research. I was unaware before translating, for example, of how his political thought was deeply linked to his engagements in mathematics and biology. He often spoke like a polemicist (which came from his activist past), and some people think he’s only a political thinker. But I learned that he has a really profound metaphysics informing his activism, i.e. a metaphysics of “creation” that may even be necessary to posit, if we are to maintain any real meaning when we speak of things like “critical distance” and “freedom” (or autonomy).

I also have enormous respect for Agamben, who is someone I’ve read for years. He has enormous breadth and, like Castoriadis, his political works are really only a portion of his oeuvre. It is perhaps his breadth and the way he uses his Foucault-inspired “paradigm method” that draws me in the most. So, when the opportunity to translate arose, I was delighted and actually surprised to find that he had done some French essays. These little essays really helped me see the importance of film theory in a way I hadn’t before. They also display his method well: Agamben uses the paradigm of “the star” to shed light on other important phenomenon of different genres. He shows how distinct variations of the structure of the persona, or mask, show up in everything from Stoic ethics, to Medieval angelology, and finally in the star phenomenon, i.e. the phenomenon of one who cannot easily be distinguished, personally, from a screen role. Agamben can say enormous things in short pieces of writing, but, to me, he speaks above all to the value of the paradigm method for discovery in thinking.

Furthermore, I just want to say how fortunate I was to be able to co-translate the Agamben pieces with a friend. Colin Williamson is a powerful thinker who explores a lot of philosophical themes having to do with images and illusion in film. Translating with him was an education in film theory. The same has been the case with Gabriel Rockhill, who really helped me get into translation as a philosophical activity in the first place. His work in critical theory broadly, but specifically his work on the history of democracy and on the history of Plato reception, has also influenced me greatly.

How have your translation projects and your research influenced one another?

Evidently, translation has been essential to my research, and I have already indicated some ways the content overlaps. But it is also true that all the scholars I translate help me to maintain a bit of a critical balance. Most are engaged in more contemporary problematics and are more interested in engaging with concrete case-studies than I otherwise would be. Translation work, therefore, has helped keep me honest and it helps me continue to be a learner. My hope is also, of course, that it helps others to hear different voices. If it does these things, then perhaps it does play an important role in the “well mixed life,” i.e. in the life Socrates proposes in the Philebus.


You can ask John Garner questions about his work in the comments section below.


The purpose of the early-career research spotlight is two-fold. First, the aim is to bring attention to an early-career APA member who is doing some interesting research. Second, the hope is to generate discussion about the spotlighted work. Feel free to ask our spotlighted researcher questions pertaining to the work discussed in the post. Comments must conform to our community guidelines and comment policy.

 If you know of an early-career researcher doing interesting work, nominate them for our research spotlight series through the submission form here. Our goal is to cover early-career research from a broad array of philosophical areas and perspectives, reflecting the variety of work being done by APA members.


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