Texas Tech University
Box 43092
Lubbock, TX 79409 3092

Date: Sat, 22 Jul 2000 13:06:58 -0700

Mr. Rod Welch
The Welch Company
440 Davis Court #1602
San Francisco, CA 94111 2496

Subject:   Socrates and inquiry


I am still working through the New World Order paper, though I am only a few pages from the end now. I am moving very slowly through it because I am trying to isolate the various basic ideas, the basic problematics, etc., as I go along in a way that will enable me to draw up a summary representation later of "the big picture" with the details filled in. I still am not ready to address it at that level, but I think you might find it interesting and perhaps helpful if I explained some things about what Socrates was trying to do, which is still very poorly understood even now.

Perhaps you will see why people have found him so hard to bring into focus when I explain it, though I think you will be able to perceive what it is all about fairly easily once you see yourself in him. (This is all congenial with Peirce, too, by the way -- I regard Peirce as continuing the Socratic tradition from the vantage point of modern science -- but Socrates is well worth knowing about in his own right.)

People nowadays would prefer to ignore it, but the fact is that Socrates was first of all a religious figure and philosophy -- which he invented as an activity more than any other single figure did -- was for him a religious activity. The key text is the Apology (which really means "defense" rather than "apology": the English word apology once meant that, which is why the title is so translated). This is a dramatic account by Plato, in the form of a play, of Socrates' courtroom defense of his activity, which he believed was misunderstood but for which he will subsequently be executed. The charges against him are equivalent to what we would call "heresy and subversion", and his basic defense strategy is to say "How is this possible when I was appointed to my task by the god Apollo himself?" Of course they don't buy this and one might wonder if he was sincere. I think so, provided we understand that he was not a literalist (religious fundamentalist) but rather regarded the stories about the Gods and Heroes as poetically expressed truth.

In any case his basic claim was this, that his vocation, at the behest of Apollo, was to go about questioning people who think that they know something to see if they can give an account of what it is they supposedly know. Now, he is especially concerned with knowledge of how to live well, not with factual knowledge or scientific theoretical knowledge. That is, he is concerned specifically with wisdom, which is knowledge about how to live.

Let me break in with an explanation of the Greek concept of wisdom (sophia). This seems always to have been associated with communicational ability, not considered in the abstract but rather in the form of the ability to provide an understanding of how things work or should work by laying it out in words. Thus the ancient bards (like Homer) would be thought of as having wisdom because in telling the ancient tales (like the story about the war against Troy) he was providing an understanding of what the gods are like and what they expect or demand of humans, and how humans are supposed to behave in view of that. When questions of conduct arose the Greeks would cite a passage from Homer or some other poet which supposedly provided a kind of picture of what one should do on this or that sort of occasion, much as people cite a biblical story or parable to illustrate a moral point.

Another illustration of what they identified as wisdom would be the so-called "Seven Sages" of remote antiquity, all of whom had that status because the were regarded as the founders of great communities, like Athens or Sparta. The sense in which they were founders is that they were credited with laying down, i.e. describing, their constitutions. They founded them in words by describing the overall structure of the communities. Thus they, too, were called "wise" because of what we would call a communicational skill, though of course it showed itself in the articulation of a vision or project of community life. In general, it seems that wherever a person's knowledge took the special form of a communicational know-how about how to live, the person was deemed wise.

Now what Socrates said to the jury of 501 -- a mob, actually! -- was that he was sent by Apollo, the god of moderation and self-control, to demonstrate to everyone who thought they were wise, i.e. know the secret to living well, that they don't know what they are talking about. So he describes how he went first to the politicians, who certainly laid public claim to this simply in virtue of running for public office, and he discovered that, when questioned, they didn't know what they were talking about. Then he went to the poets -- which means the people providing the religious texts -- who also claimed as authors of those texts to know how to live and he discovered that they, too, when questioned, showed that they didn't know what they were talking about either. Then, finally, he went to the artisans, which means the citizenry generally since communities were organized around crafts and craft knowledge, and found that although they did indeed have some knowledge -- unlike the politicians and poets -- they, too, didn't have wisdom about how to live, though they thought they did. His conclusion is that he, Socrates, could fairly lay claim to being the wisest person in Athens, then, because he is the only one who doesn't think that he knows what he doesn't know. (Notice that he does NOT say that he knows nothing but that he doesn't think he knows what he doesn't know, which has different implications. The passage is usually mistranslated, by the way)

This didn't sit well with the jurors, needless to say, but then he wasn't trying to please the jurors but to defend his activity, which was that of going around asking people questions about their supposed knowledge of how to live. So he would ask politicians about law and justice, military men about what true courage is, religious people about how a religious person ought to be living, and so forth. This activity was, moreover, going on during this long war, The Pelopponesian War between Athens and Sparta, which ended the "good old days", the period we call the "classical period" because of the great cultural achievements of that time. He and Plato and others, like the historian Thucydides, believed that Athens, which was at the apex of its powers and productivity at the beginning of the war, made a massive blunder in starting it and staying in what turned out to be a long and losing war of attrition (nearly three decades in which there was massive starvation, plagues caused by blockades of the city, and increasingly violent internal dissension (class warfare). So he was raising these questions in public with the leadership of Athens who, as leaders, thought they knew what it meant to live well but who led it into catastrophe, with the good old days never to return. He would certainly have been killed during the war -- people do not take kindly to questions in wartime -- if it weren't for the fact that in spite of his belief that the war was a colossal blunder he served in the army and distinguished himself as a hero on at least two different occasions. Thus he had a kind of shield of invulnerability during the war, but when it was over he lost that, of course, and was brought to trial about three or four years later, the aim being chiefly to shut him up.

Now, it is a part of Plato's genius in presenting Socrates that he is at great pains in his dramatic presentation to insure that it is the general point behind Socrates' questioning which the reader of the dialogue is forced to focus on, rather than getting bogged down in the partisan politics of that time and place, though the latter is obvious enough to one who knows the historical setting. What is the general point? I would put it this way. Whenever people think that they really have it all figured out, they are in their greatest danger since their arrogance and pride will embolden them to enterprises which are bound to be disastrous because they have abandoned all real forethought, which requires constant and unending critical self-reflection. Things change, inevitably, and as they change one's understanding, if it becomes fixed and unchanging, becomes more and more false to the realities.

Sound familiar? Now to get the real force of it in the Socratic version you have to understand that although the purpose of his questioning always involved a concrete relevance then and there, the aim of it was not simply to show that they didn't know what they were talking about (hence didn't know what they were doing), but rather to show that the way out is to realize that one must radically re-orient oneself towards questions and answers. We naturally tend to worship answers, and if politicians, for example, feel obligated to make a pretense of knowing all of the answers it is because we demand that of them.

Questioning is regarded, then, as being in a defective condition, in need of something missing. The answer, by contrast, seems complete. But we have to invert that valuation and recognize that questions are more valuable than answers, and that, indeed, the best way to regard an answer is to make use of it as something that enables you to raise a new question.

This is much, much harder for people to accept than it may seem at first. You have to consider how, in school, tests are constantly being given in which the student is supposed to answer what are supposed to be questions, though no one -- least of all the student -- is supposed to regard anything as questionable. Exam questions are not questions at all, but demands -- threats, really -- for answers, and if I student has the gumption to respond by saying something that shows that he or she finds anything to question it will result 99 times out of a hundred in a flunking grade. The disrespect for genuine questions and questioning runs far more deeply than we commonly realize.

Why is there such animosity in regard to questions and questioning? Because questions disrupt action, can even lead to paralysis in face of the need to act. I would even suggest that there is something like an instinctive aversion to questions, though we may also have compensatory instincts of another kind.

Our dilemma as human beings is that if we act without questioning we are likely to act stupidly and disastrously, but if we stop to question we are unable to act at all, which can be equally disastrous. So of course in wartime people who raise questions can literally be strung up and hanged for doing so because of being perceived as impeding the war effort. Yet, sometimes, the war effort itself is the disaster, as was the case in the Pelopponesian War, which was foolish to start with and which the Athenians foolishly pursued long after its foolishness had become obvious and in spite of many opportunities to desist before they trashed themselves too badly. I don't know about you, but I have seen careers trashed by the asking of innocently intended questions.

Now, Socrates aim was to convert people to the idea that it is possible to live in a permanent state of question, notwithstanding all of that. Thus he clearly thought it possible, and he is consistently depicted by Plato as being anything but wishy-washy as regards action: thus he does his military duty without hesitation and with great success, and he shows no signs of hesitation when it comes to defending himself in his trial, saying at one point that it is useless for them to try to stop him from pursuing his questioning activity. That is, he is never shown as paralyzed in the least in spite of being presented as totally committed to the superior importance of questions over answers. This is puzzling on the face of it, isn't it?

Yet we actually have very good reason now to recognize that he was right. Why? Because of our success in modern times in developing research science into the most powerful and effective type of understanding we possess, which has yielded powers that make the magical powers the alchemists sought for sound unexciting. Transmute base metals into gold? No big deal. Not even a very interesting problem. Is it even worth the trouble? Why does this show that Socrates was right? Because if you consider how the research scientist in the hard sciences regards things you will see that what he or she really prizes are indeed questions rather than answers since every answer that is established is immediately fed back into the inquiry where it reappears as a premise or presupposition in further understanding about how subsequent inquiry -- questioning -- is to proceed. From the point of view of the scientist, science is not a collection of answers but a form of life having the general form of questioning. And that is what Socrates was trying to convey in his questioning of people in Athens. That human life is sane and productive only insofar as it takes on the form of questioning, and it is possible to accustom oneself to questioning as a form of life, in spite of how it may seem. (I won't go into this further here, but I have been much concerned with this problem for many years, which is right at the center of the general problem of understanding human life and how it works.)

The people he questions rarely seem to grasp that this is what it is all about. They see in it only their own humiliation at being shown up as ignorant of something they claimed to know. This is because they see him as a warrior attempting to defeat them in verbal combat rather than as someone attempting to get collaboration in a quest, and he seemed to be unable to figure out a way to convey that to them. At least that is how he is depicted by Plato. On the other hand, as long as he is able to keep them in dialogue with him, they are made to be questioners whether they want to be or not, so Socrates problem was how to keep people in dialogue in hopes that they might finally find it natural enough to do so of their own accord. (I have found that my students usually misperceive Socrates as a warrior in combat, and thus think of him as bullying people, etc. This keeps them from being able to appreciate the negative aspect of intellectual life which is necessarily there whenever criticism is appropriate. They cannot see the negative tensions in a creative way. Some can, of course, but it is depressing to realize how many just can't seem to get the hang of that. This, of course, has bearing on how to deal with the managerial mentality, its natural resistances, etc. I think it is important to understand these resistances sympathetically, as far as possible.)

Aristotle, brilliant as he was, never seems to have understood what Socrates was all about, which is shown in the difference between his idea of dialectic and Socratic dialectic. Socratic dialectic has a definite basic structure. Questioning is not at random. I won't go into detail here but just say that the essence of it is endless cycles of hypothesis testing, feedback, and correction. Natural science in antiquity followed the Aristotelian model rather than the Socratic model, in part because Socrates was not interested in natural science to begin with but rather with problems of human life.

A last point: Socrates makes a point of saying that he DOES lay claim to a kind of wisdom but it is not what everybody thinks wisdom is. People think of a wisdom figure as a person pontificating about this and that dogmatically: "Here is how you should live!". Ask Socrates about how to live and he will say "What do YOU think?" and then when you answer, subject it to rigorous criticism. Thus he does not claim to provide the answers but only the method. Socrates is simply The Questioner as such, or more exactly, he is a symbol of self-controlled methodic inquiry.

He stresses that his wisdom -- this know-how of questioning -- is distinctively human wisdom, which he contrasts with the kind of wisdom the gods are supposed to have. His point is that people confuse themselves with gods. What kind of wisdom or understanding do the gods have? Unfailing and unchanging understanding. Why? Because the gods do not live in time. Not living in time they have no projects, nothing to accomplish, and they just play constantly and aimlessly: life is pure amusement for the gods. But that is not the way it is with humans, who have to live in time. (You see where this going, Rod.) We have a natural desire to transcend the constraints of time and live in eternity where we do not have to take account of change because there is no change, and what we know we know once for all. But that is our undoing. We are essentially temporal beings, and the only way we can approximate to the condition of the gods is not by becoming eternal but rather by becoming masters of time and change, so that we are able to preserve our identities IN time and in spite of change instead of being eaten away by it, which is what will happen if we ignore it. Think of the powerful manager, seemingly on top of things, confident that he knows what it is all about and need not attend to the grubby details since he already has the big picture, etc.

I'll explain how this connects with the points you make about religion later, but it is both compatible with that and at the same time goes a little beyond it, I think.



Texas Tech University
Dept of Philosophy

Joe Ransdell

Joseph Ransdell
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