What is Philosophy? Socrates and Perplexity

Some thoughts after a particularly good couple of seminars today.

It is easy to understate how annoying Socrates was. His status as one of the key fathers of western thought and culture is deserved, but his reputation as a wise, sedate, humble, Dumbledore-like figure is a little harder to defend. When I re-read Plato’s dialogues, usualy for the purposes of teaching, there is always something I find that makes me laugh, because it is clear that the interlocutors are ready to punch him.

This just happened to me when preparing to write this post. I was searching for a quote from the Gorgias to use in this blog. The passage has Callicles, a friend of Socrates, give a very long argument about how philosophy is a waste of time. He concludes by saying,

[…] my good fellow, cease your questioning, and practice the fairer music of affairs and try something that will win you a name for good sense, and leave to others these dainty devices, whether we should call them babblings or follies […] you should not emulate those who investigate these trifling matters but those who enjoy a livelihood and a reputation and many other blessings.

In other words, please stop ruining your life by wasting your time with philosophy. Everyone thinks you’re an idiot, you’re poor, and you would do better to sort yourself and do something more respectable. When Socrates replies immediately with an off the wall, typically Socratic question beginning ‘If my soul were wrought of gold…’, one can almost hear the exasperation in Callicles response: ‘What is your point in asking me this Socrates?’ What are you on about now, Socrates? Can’t you just leave me alone, Socrates? I don’t care, Socrates

In a culture where the most important thing was being remembered for doing great deeds, Socrates was content to wander the marketplace, starting arguments and embarrassing people. Small wonder then that one of these people eventually conspired to have him killed.

Socrates defends his obscure activity in several places, most notably The Apology, the speech he gave defending himself in his trial (he lost). The name he gave to this activity was φιλοσοφια, philosophia, philosophy. Every undergraduate philosophy course begins with its translation: the love of wisdom. Most will run it parallel with the discussion of eros in the Symposium, where Socrates argues that you cannot love or desire something that you have. In other words, to love widsom is to lack wisdom and yearn for it. Socrates himself famously says in The Apology that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing.

This statements are so hackneyed that they have fallen into self-evidence. They lack any immediate potency, and so let this whole enterprise be interpreted as scepticism (philosophers don’t think they know anything, they aren’t as arrogant as scientists, for e.g.). However, the word φιλοσοφια must mean more than this. Socrates dedicated his life to this activity, annoying Athens unto death. If the word φιλοσοφια is intended to offer an explanation for this strange behaviour, it must cont therefore be a serious attempt to capture what it is.

As I said above, we can develop the idea of the ‘love of wisdom’ to mean something like ‘yearning for knowledge’ precisley because we have not got it. Philosophy is based on a sense of lack of wisdom, and a desire to remedy this problem. To put this in a more natural mode, philosophy begins with the feeling of uncertainty, with genuine doubt. Why else would someone dedicate one’s life to pondering metaphysical puzzles than because of a near ineffable feeling that it is important to do so, because we feel something is wrong with the common sense, with how people usually look at things.

With the word φιλοσοφα, the Ancient Greek thinkers attempted to express a basic experience of fundamental doubt, a feeling that nothing is certain, but that certainty can be found by asking questions about the problems (aporia) that puzzle us. It is a curious mix of doubt and optimism, a sense there is a problem but that it can be solved.

Both concepts must be held onto: the doubt and the instinct to use rational thought extinguish it. The former is the power in philosophy to raise questions about the status quo, but the latter is the technical potency of philosophy to order and control, salvation and nihilism in one movement.

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