Friday, December 9, 2011

On Socrates and Telling People How to Read

   A common reading of Socrates is as a gadfly who provokes people into asking questions and thus helps them to attain wisdom through realizing that they do not understand some concept as well as they supposed.  However, Socrates characterizes himself as never intending to lead others into being ponderous, but rather as genuinely seeking to learn from them – it is only a side effect of his questioning that others are thrown into confusion, not the result of a scheme.  Now, there may be some textual evidence to support that Socrates is, at times, toying with an interlocutor, but to read Socrates as the essential gadfly is to make the hero of Plato’s dialogues into a trouble maker, and – I feel – this degrades Plato’s dialogues immensely.
   While I am interested in getting further into the literary discussion of the character of Socrates (and I hope that broaching the subject leads to at least some discussion on this matter), it is actually a different matter that leads me to bring him up.  The reason why I have always been so taken by Socrates is that he is always genuinely asking, and never telling others what they should do philosophically.  What would he tell them, seeing as he doesn’t himself know?  If he were to be able to tell you how you should live, he would be a sophist (as the concern of the Protagoras seems to characterize them).  What I mean is that in matters of loving wisdom, Socrates has nothing to offer in terms of advice; he only has questions, and questioning seems to nearly exhaust his own pursuit.
   We often tell others what to do with impunity in cases where we are concerned that they are acting contrary to their own ends.  For example, yelling, “Watch out!” to someone about to be hit by a projectile is not really is usually safely assumed to be a good idea, and acceptable behavior because you assume that this unfortunate does not wish to be hit.  What is more a matter of concern is telling someone what ends they should take rather than advising them how best to conform to their own ends.  This is a problem for me in philosophical discussions when I feel like I am on the verge of simply telling others how they should read a text.  This leads me back to my discussion of Socrates.
   In the reading of Socrates as a gadfly, he is covertly trying to get people to ask questions because he thinks that this will contribute to their living good lives, or becoming wise, in short, to become a lover of wisdom.  This version of Socrates can be seen as helping people to be more in line with their ends, and maybe the enthusiastic philosopher will allow themselves to see it in this way: everyone is really pursuing wisdom, though in a confused manner, and Socrates just helps them to recognize that they would better pursue their (essential) ends by asking more questions.  There is certainly a sense in which I find this agreeable, and I think this is a central element in Plato: everyone ultimately has the Good as their end.
   While I am happy to glibly agree with Plato that everyone does what they think in best, even if they are in error, I can understand concerns about this manner of speaking that would rather emphasize what we immediately hold as our task.  A distinction is here in order.  I take an end to be explicit when it is known to the pursuer that they are acting in order to attain that end; an end is implicit when it is being pursued without recognition, for example, if one end is assumed in following another end.  Gadfly Socrates is concerned with explicit ends, since he wants people to take being thoughtful as their goal.  The Socrates I idealize for myself is concerned with implicit ends, and so is interested in self-inquiry so he can discover what it is that he depends upon; for example, the way that Socrates inquiry into the virtues seems to lead to the consideration of wisdom as an implicit end of all of them so that the pursuit of courage is covertly a pursuit of wisdom.
   Now, my concern of telling others how to read philosophical texts aligns me with sophists since I am telling others what is good for them (though I don’t charge).  I am also sometimes like my less preferred Socrates, and simply pose interesting questions about what we depend upon in our interpretations of texts, and so reveal that a different end is already assumed in our reading than we recognize on the surface.  It is much less frequent in social situations that I attain to the ideal Socrates, and only for brief moments.  How might I increase my chances of simply participating in questioning, without anything to prove?  What is preventing me from attaining to this idea?  Ultimately I think that I get hung up on others who are going about different tasks then I am in questioning, and that simply ignoring them is not an option socially, and simple questioning isn’t necessarily met with sincerity – and quite frequently suspicion (a topic I hope to address soon).
   A parting concern: this reminds me a lot of an essay by Schiller (that I need to reread) on the difference between simple and sentimental poetry.  To present the matter of this essay in its relation to this blog post: Socrates is simple because he just attends to his questioning naturally, whereas I am sentimental Socrates (not that I have earned that name), since I react and attempt to act as Socrates while holding him as an ideal.  Schiller would seem to suggest that no matter what, Socrates will always have the advantage over me in his manner of the pursuit of wisdom.  This makes sense, unless I can manage to forget about Socrates and concentrate on the questioning.  This is a difficult task for me, since Socrates is a constant inspiration.

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