Plato’s Lysis and conceptual ambiguity: φίλος

I’ve been reading through Plato’s Lysis this teaching term, and it’s a great deal of fun, and quite interesting. One of the things I’ve noted is the difficulty we have of teasing out two senses of φίλος, and I feel like Socrates is exploiting this at times.

A quick visit to the lexicon, or reading some Ancient Greek literature, will acquaint you with:

(1) φίλος – a substantive noun that means “friend”

(2) φίλος, η, ον – an adjective that, esp with a dative, means “dear to”

Now, those are two different concepts, but they are intertwined in the word φίλος – Greek doesn’t require you to disambiguate and in some cases doesn’t provide the means to disambiguate. Notably in one part of the dialogue (212b and following), Socrates is arguably trying to do some disambiguation work. Who is the φίλος? The one who loves (φιλῶν) or the one who is loved (φιλούμενος). And here the ambiguity rears its head. We would say, in English, that a person who loves another with φιλία is being or acting as a friend to them, even if they don’t reciprocate. That is, they aren’t friends, but one is acting with friendship towards the other. So ὁ φιλῶν is the φίλος. On the other hand, we would say that the person so-loved (φιλούμενος) is held dear to the one so loving them (φιλῶν), so it is the φιλούμενος that is the φίλος.

Socrates’ argument is subtle, and I think the Lysis is a difficult text philosophically in many ways, but he even rejects the idea that mutual affection (where each friend also loves the other) is a workable unitary account of friendship, because then those that love things that can’t love them back, car-lovers, for instance, are not actually φίλοι to cars.

But I’m not actually here today to talk about friendship, though it’s a topic I have a lot to say about. I’m interested in the ambiguity of language. And that is, how impossible it is for us to decide whether Socrates, or Plato, thought of the two senses of φίλος as distinct or not. I’m not saying that they could or not could not distinguish those ideas, clearly they could. Because of the whole φιλῶν v. φιλούμενος construction! But when they heard φίλος did they stop and think, “Oh, there’s a subjective and an objective value to this word that I must stop and disambiguate here”, or did they always functionally just hear φίλος and think φίλος in a way that makes it difficult to pull the two apart.

I realise I’m dangerously close to Sapir-Whorf grounds, but indulge me for a second. Some languages, e.g. Mongolian, distinguish light blue and dark blue. English does not. So in Mongolian you must specify – are you talking about light blue or dark blue? Ambiguity is not an option. In English, I can just talk about blue. I can pull apart blue into light blue and dark blue, but I don’t have to. Which means I have the mental option to not think about a particular shade as ‘ambiguous’, because I don’t perceive any ambiguity – I just didn’t specify because specification wasn’t required.

Is that the case with φίλος – not that specification is impossible, but there just isn’t a perception that specification is needed, except when one decides that one does want to carve up the terrain, and make specifications that aren’t inherent to the word itself? And is Socrates exploiting that a little in the dialogue?

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