Counter-philosophy Philosophy

Socrates – narrow rationalism

Socrates’ whole idea is that the important thing is rational thought, being logical, and that knowledge achieves ethics, even that rationalistic thought transports the philosopher to heaven. It is an enormity of rationalistic narrow-mindedness and limitation. It has only to do with the rationalistic thought element of human consciousness. It neglects what else is in man and in his life.

Philosophy for me should be about the darkness and mystery in the heart of man, his feelings, memories, musings, longings, dreams, nostalgias, imaginations, motivations, hatreds and loves, longings for a life of living and of adventure; his subtlety, complexity, concealment, falsity, deception, self-deception, irony, tragedy and comedy, which is what human beings are made of and get up to.  Wisdom for me comes from the seeing of a bit of life, the living of a bit of life, of the low life, of the experience of people and of oneself, of danger, of risk, of mortal danger, of things crashing about one’s head, strengthening one’s character and temperament and truthfulness with oneself.  Where in Socrates or in later philosophy are the implicit, paradoxical, ironically playful subtleties and immoralities of language, intentional or otherwise, ill-understood by the speaker himself or herself?  Self-knowledge, finding out about yourself, is much more than finding out what you mean by ‘justice’ or ‘courage’.

I find it difficult now to recapture my sense of let-down when I first came across him. As told by Plato, he was sitting on a block of limestone in the empty market-place below the Acropolis in the early morning. The whole market-place was made of blocks of limestone quarried from surrounding slopes. People had gathered round in their sandals, and he was drawing them out to say how they defined terms like ‘courage’, justice’, ‘virtue’, or ‘duty’.

One of them (as described  here), was brave enough to put himself forward, and said he thought courage meant ‘endurance of the soul’ ( by which I now suppose he meant ‘choosing to endure pain rather than give in’).

Then Socrates asked him, ‘Do you agree that courage is a fine thing’? ‘Yes’, the speaker replied.

Socrates said, ‘Do you think ignorant endurance is a fine thing?’ ‘No’, the speaker replied.

So, says Socrates, you don’t actually think that courage is any kind of endurance of the soul, and the speaker agreed.

Alright, that is an unusually simple example of Socratic Method but so many of the others I saw seemed to process two definitions at the same time. I hope to come across a single one that is more testing and put it in instead.

Here is another example, not quite so simple but not fully set out: In Plato’s Dialogue, Euthyphro, Socrates asks ‘What is Piety?’ He goes on: Is an action right because a god approves of it, or does the god approve of it because it is right, in which case we too can make a judgment on whether an action is right or not (from here).

This negative method of drawing out the speaker to reveal to himself a contradiction to his own initial hypothesis, was called Elenchus, and later as Socratic Method (from here).  Socrates had acted as a midwife, as he put it himself, to draw a negative truth out of the speaker.

Better hypotheses are found by steadily eliminating those that lead to contradictions ( from here)

According to this site again ( which quotes philosophers Frede and Vlastos, and W. K. C. Guthrie from his book The Greek Philosophers) the Elenchus was merely a negative method for disproving a thesis and one was still left in a state of puzzlement (aporia) as to what may actually be positively true (from here).

Guthrie wrote that Socrates, unlike the Sophists, did believe that knowledge was possible, but that the first step was recognizing one’s ignorance, and that was all the Elenchus did.  Socrates insisted he himself knew nothing, that he was ignorant, that he was just a midwife. This insistence on his own ignorance is called Socratic Irony. Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who claimed knowledge. It allowed Socrates to discover his own errors. There was a Delphic pronouncement that no man was wiser than Socrates, (from here).

Did Socrates, as is sometimes stated, positively suggest a new thesis, that “Courage is wise endurance of the soul”.  I suppose ‘wise’ means being in possession of the true facts of a situation and acting accordingly. Against this thesis too however, one could use Elenchus by saying, ‘Don’t you think that the Persian infantry in its Greek campaigns, or Hitler’s infantry in modern times, showed courage?  Yes,I think, of course they did.  One can be courageous even if one only thinks it is in a good cause, or if one is forced to fight by fear of a fate even worse.

And Socrates also (see his intellectual moralism below) had the humanistic belief that no man acts deliberately in a cause he knows to be wrong ; which means we are all ‘wise’ in what we do, according to our lights. But Socrates, being a rationalist who valued true knowledge above all things, couldn’t admit that the laudable quality of ‘courage’ could be ascribed to someone who was in possession of the wrong facts, i.e. ignorant.  Being a rationalist, and having a high opinion of the human race, he didn’t wish to allow the label ‘courage’ go to those fighting for an evil or mistaken cause. Socrates’ idea of ‘wise endurance’ means you only allow the label ‘courage’ to go to people whose views you agree with.

Here are some further comments on Socrates’ Elenchus:

Instead of focussing on materialistic and cosmic matters like previous philosophers had, Socrates focused on human beings, ‘opening up new realms of self-knowledge….[and] exposing….error, superstition, and dogmatic nonsense.’ (from here and here).

Socrates used the same logical tricks developed by the Sophists, but he did so in the pursuit of truth’, rather than just to win an argument (from here)

According to Bertrand Russell (in his History of Western Philosophy. Chapter ‘Socrates’. Allen and Unwin. 1946. pp112-3), Socratic Method arrives at a linguistic discovery of what you mean by words like ‘just’ and ‘unjust’. It doesn’t arrive at a discovery in ethics

In another of Plato’s Dialogues, The Apology of Socrates, Socrates says that his questioning is meant to help individuals achieve self-knowledge, i.e. understand their own beliefs and statements (from here).  That, I think, is very telling in that Socrates seemed to believe, in those far-off days, that the human self only amounts to beliefs and statements. This is a very rationalistic view that many people share.

“His willingness to call everything into question and his determination to accept nothing less than an adequate account of the nature of things make him the first clear exponent of critical philosophy” (from here). This implies that the pre-Socratics hadn’t already done this.

The Socratic Method of questioning is today used in classroom and in law school to expose underlying issues in subject and in speaker, (from here)

To solve a problem, Socrates first broke it down into a series of his Socratic questions. According to here , this approach is used today in scientific method, in which hypothesis is the first stage.

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To continue anew on Socrates and his Elenchus, here is another overarching view that I found intriguing and difficult (from here).  It firstly accepts Socrates’ or Plato’s rather mystical idea that the Ideal Forms of concepts such as ‘cat’ or ‘tree’ actually exist in some kind of heaven.  It then goes on to say that people who participate in instances of Socratic Method/Elenchus get a perception of the Form of the Good.  Popper describes the Method as “the art of intellectual intuition, of visualising the divine originals, the Forms or Ideas, of unveiling the Great Mystery behind the …. everyday world of appearances.”  Pierre Hadot too seems to say (again from here) that Plato thought each Socratic question was a spiritual exercise, an exercise in Pure Thought, subject to the demands of the pure Logos, turning the soul away from the sensible world and converting itself towards the Good . Does the following remark refer to the same thing? — that Socrates thought that the chief goodness consisted in the caring of the soul concerned with moral truth and moral understanding (this remark edited from here).

This is heady stuff — to imagine that this newly invented entity Thought has the ability to lift the philosopher into the world of eternal perfection in heaven.  I vaguely feel that this influenced Paul who founded Christianity, which I will look at when I write a post on Paul.

I was amazed too by Socrates’ ‘moral intellectualism’ (or ‘intellectual moralism’) which states that ‘No man sins wittingly, and therefore only knowledge is needed to make all men perfectly virtuous'(from Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy. Chapter ‘Socrates’. Allen and Unwin. 1946. p111). This means that if a man knows the facts of a situation, he will work out by simple Reason what is the ethically right thing to do and then just naturally do it (from here). “Ignorance is the only evil”, Socrates is quoted as saying.  That’s really terrible stuff.   Socrates hadn’t got to the first base of wisdom — that we are all old sinners who have a tendency to follow our self-interest or pleasure (and then conjure up virtuous reasons for what we’ve done, this mental conjuring being called ‘rationalizing).

Socrates blithely omitted it; it wasn’t part of his knowledge of himself or of the world. But it ‘s the most basic truth of all, at the root of the tragicomedy of Homo sapiens.  It has always made man’s world as it is and not Paradise; and we can now see warning signs of even this coming to an  end.  Did the Greek dramatists see this, but the philosophers with their grinning rationalistic optimism didn’t?

Christianity does at least recognize this weakness of human nature (although Christianity’s sequential story of how Sin started with Adam taking the apple, and ended with God arranging for His own Son to be crucified to death and then giving some of us Faith in His Son so that we are saved from death, has a pottiness all its own).

Finally, to bravely justify his refusal to escape his sentence of death, he said that the State is a parent to us, its children. It is wrong for a child to disobey a parent, therefore it is wrong to disobey the State. it is also wrong to break an agreement; and living in a State constitutes an agreement to obey it (from here, from Plato’s Crito: The Individual and the State.).  I know he lived 2500 years ago but this seems a naivety to go with his rationalistic ones.  Even the benighted Hebrews would have thought, I think, that it is the Lord above who is our Father and whom we should obey.

In trying to re-capture my sense of let-down when I first came across Socrates, I think it was firstly because his Socratic Method seemed a matter of quizzing by a  schoolmasterly Bertrand-Russell character with a simplistic rationalistic idea of man.  It was a fostering of ‘clear thinking’, of arguing straight and consistently, of winkling out how one defines terms — which is all important enough but does not deserve the lofty title Philosophy or Wisdom.  Sorting out one’s contradictory thoughts on important concepts is an improvement and a liberation, and makes one a less infuriating person to have to listen to. But, but, but …

I also felt a let-down at the lack of knowledge of himself and of the world of his Moral Intellectualism; and at his obedience to the State .

Socrates was my first taste of Philosophy.  He was modest in his logicking, compared to what was to come in later philosophers. Except for his moral intellectualism and his view that the State is like a parent to us , he didn’t say anything positive, no grand theories; he just drew people out.

But his whole idea that for man the important thing is rational thought, being logical, and that thought achieves ethics, neglecting what else is in man and in his life is an enormity of rationalistic narrow-mindedness and limitation. It has only to do with the rationalistic thought element of human consciousness.

Philosophy to me should be about the darkness and mystery in the heart of man, his feelings, memories, musings, longings, dreams, nostalgias, imaginations, motivations, hatreds and loves, longings for a life of living and of adventure; his subtlety, complexity, concealment, falsity, deception, self-deception, irony, tragedy and comedy, which is what human beings are made of and get up to. Wisdom for me comes from the seeing of a bit of life, the living of a bit of life, of the low life, of the experience of people and of oneself, of danger, of risk, of mortal danger, of things crashing about one’s head, strengthening one’s character and temperament and truthfulness with oneself. Where in Philosophy are the implicit, paradoxical, ironically playful subtleties and immoralities of language, intentional or otherwise, ill-understood by the speaker himself or herself?  Self-knowledge, finding out about yourself, is much more than finding out what you mean by concepts like  ‘justice’.

I’ve used too many words and haven’t caught the essence; and much of what is in the previous paragraph may only have come into Man’s consciousness of himself long after Socrates, probably incrementally and perhaps largely in the Romanticist era.  One does of course have to be logical if one is not to talk nonsense.

There is the Socratic Problem — that no-one is sure how much of what Plato put into Socrates’ mouth was in fact, at least partly, Plato’s own philosophizing (from here). I’ll follow convention and leave what I’ve written above to Socrates, and ascribe everything else in Plato’s Dialogues to Plato, in another post on this blogsite.

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