Tag Archives: argument


Tortoise Tuesday: “Yes, by Zeus!” — Thesis and Motive in Socratic dialogues

            I am a big fan of Socrates. He is wonderfully enigmatic, partly because Plato alters some of Socrates’s core philosophical stances from dialogue to dialogue. This does not mean that Plato is doing bad philosophy. On the contrary, the strange (and often ingenious) oppositions found in Plato’s dialogues are part of what makes them so effective. Take, for example, the so-called aporetic dialogues, which end in aporia, or “puzzlement.” One of these dialogues is the Euthyphro, in which Socrates and Euthyphro set out to determine the definition of piety, only to end up right where they started. At first glance, Plato’s approach to philosophical writing is quite foreign to the academic projects that a student might embark on today. However, I wonder whether a relative beginner at writing can learn something about what to do—and what not to do—from Plato.

I do not recommend basing the structure of your paper on the Euthyphro, because you would end up with a circular argument. However, one of the amazing things about Plato’s dialogues is that they encourage discussion—ideally, readers of the Euthyphro will be persuaded to find out for themselves what piety is. This is how we should respond to scholarly debates (or, should we say, “dialogues”) that we encounter in our own academic research. Socrates, ever-questioning, would want to determine precisely why two scholars don’t agree. Are they talking past each other? Did they begin with different premises? The fact that “published views of the matter conflict” (to quote a Writing Center handout) is a great motive, but if you don’t find the true point of conflict between the scholars, then your thesis will not fully address your motive. If I took Socrates and Euthyphro’s aporia as a motive for a paper, for example, merely offering my own definition of piety would do little to address the (possibly more interesting) question of why the dialogue ended in aporia in the first place.

In contrast to his aporetic dialogues, Plato’s later dialogues would receive high points for thesis, but slightly lower points for (scholarly) conversation and counterclaims. This version of Socrates no longer claims to know nothing: instead, he preaches a very specific—and Platonic—vision of the world. Conveniently, his interlocuteurs now have a rather high opinion of his abilities. Their main role in the discussion is to back up Socrates’s statements in no uncertain terms: “yes, by Zeus!”, “most certainly!”, and so on.

Unfortunately, a modern student whose writing was this one-sided would receive a resounding “no, by Zeus!” from his or her professor. Don’t get me wrong: Plato’s later dialogues are still works of genius. They remind us that not every motivating question has to be answered right away, and that theses can spur reflection on the part of readers even if they aren’t rigorously argued. At the same time, Plato is helpful for students who want to work within the lexicon. I would recommend learning from Plato’s visionary treatment of motive and thesis, while ensuring that all of your papers actually have both a motive and a thesis.

— Frances Mangina, ’22


Tortoise Tuesday: Methodology in Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s Letter Regarding the Future of Google

On December 3 2019, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin shocked the technology sector by resigning from their roles as CEO and President of Alphabet, Google’s parent holding company, respectively. Such an immense and symbolic change in leadership at one of the largest companies in the world could very well raise significant concerns regarding the future of the company among employees and the general public. However, Page and Brin excellently frame this change as the natural and necessary next step in Google’s evolution in a joint blog post announcing the leadership change by employing a methodology that draws heavily upon many of the company’s founding documents.

Immediately at the beginning of the post, Page and Brin present an excerpt of their first founders’ letter to highlight Google’s mission, core service and company values, and they proceed to argue that these core tenets have persisted throughout the company’s history and continue to do so. In so doing, the two technology visionaries abstract the company’s livelihood from their personal involvement with the company; while Google originally depended on Page and Brin to shape the company, the initial roadmap created by the two founders has continued to shape company over the years. This continuity is inherent to Google’s mission as a company and not directly tied to Page or Brin.

Having drawn a distinction between the involvement of the founders within the company and the company’s livelihood, Page and Brin go on to present an excerpt from a second founders’ letter that compares the evolution of Google to that of a human being. The founders eloquently argue that the company has reached young adulthood and that it is time for them to “assume the role of proud parents.” By drawing a comparison between the change in leadership and the natural life cycle of a human, Page and Brin frame a seemingly monumental shift in company history as a natural occurrence, arguably a non-event. This is further compounded by the extension of a metaphor originally created 15 years ago. Through this methodology, Page and Brin reassure Google employees and the general public that the company is well poised to continue to execute its mission and that their resignation is the natural next phase in Google’s progress as a company.

— Nick Johnson ’20

Excerpt from Blog Post:

Our very first founders’ letter in our 2004 S-1 began:

“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one. Throughout Google’s evolution as a privately held company, we have managed Google differently. We have also emphasized an atmosphere of creativity and challenge, which has helped us provide unbiased, accurate and free access to information for those who rely on us around the world.”

We believe those central tenets are still true today. The company is not conventional and continues to make ambitious bets on new technology, especially with our Alphabet structure. Creativity and challenge remain as ever-present as before, if not more so, and are increasingly applied to a variety of fields such as machine learning, energy efficiency and transportation. Nonetheless, Google’s core service—providing unbiased, accurate, and free access to information—remains at the heart of the company.


Our second founders’ letter began:

“Google was born in 1998. If it were a person, it would have started elementary school late last summer (around August 19), and today it would have just about finished the first grade.”

Today, in 2019, if the company was a person, it would be a young adult of 21 and it would be time to leave the roost. While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long, we believe it’s time to assume the role of proud parents—offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!