From a Handout: Socrates as Midwife (Philosophical Questions 7)

[This was a class focused on Plato’s Theaetetus, Wittgenstein’s Blue Book and Bouwsma’s John Locke Lectures (The Flux).  The class was entitled, “The Flux”.  I taught it in the Spring of 1996.]

Back, now, to midwifery.

I recommend that Socrates be seen as logically clarifying thoughts.  His interlocutor says something–provides the datum clarificandum–and Socrates goes to work.  He pulls the interlocutor’s saying this way and that.  He compares it with first one sentence and then another.  All the while he’s asking his interlocutor to decide:  “Is this what you meant?  Could you have meant this?”  Sometimes the interlocutor keeps up for a while.

What is the midwifery comparison?  Call it an exhibitive theory of philosophizing. It shows us things we already know, but in a way that makes us see them afresh.

Socrates pictures his interlocutors as pregnant.  The have something inside them, although there is no way of knowing whether what’s inside them is going to be viable or still-born.  Socrates brings on labor pains.  He does this, I guess, by administering a potent medicine, by asking “What is x?”  Upon hearing the question, the interlocutor goes into labor.  The labor, like all labor, is painful.  (Try giving birth to Truth!)  Why is it painful?  Answering a question like “What is knowledge?” is a strenuous and hurtful mental business.

Let me try this without the midwifery idom.

Socrates knows how to ask questions.  The questions he knows how to ask are not of the “What’s his name?” or “What sort of architecture is that?” variety.  Such questions are not one that we are full of answers to, or think we are.  Sometimes we can answer them; sometimes we can’t.  As long as we aren’t taking a test or on Jeopardy, not being able to answer doesn’t matter much.  But when we can’t answer Socrates’ questions, it matters.  No test, no Jeopardy.  Socrates asks, “What is knowledge?” and we think we have to answer.  Why?  –We all know that we know what knowledge is.  That’s why!  We all talk about knowledge, use “know” or its cognates, all the time.

Theaetetus is a learner.  Theodorus is a teacher.  Surely, they know what knowledge is.

Socrates askes “What is knowledge?” and we have an answer in us.  But the answer won’t come quickly.  Augustine:  “If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”  So we huff and we puff and we try things out:  knowledge is perception.  Knowledge is true judgment.  None of these comes easily.  We have the feeling that we force each out.  The forcing hurts; it ought to be unnecessary.  Socrates helps, if that is what he chooses to do, by asking still more questions.  Each time we force out another answer, Socrates tests it.  If it won’t do, he shows us it won’t.  This is no fun, either.  After all that work, after all those words, no one wants to see an apparent new answer, apparently fresh to the world and apparently full of promise, turn out to be nonsense–a phantom answer.  Don’t rob us of our darling follies!  But Socrates is a pro.  He’s on a mission from God.  He show us.  Sometimes we go back to work forcing out another answer.  Sometimes we take our phantoms and go home.

Socrates says he can tell those who are full of answers from those who aren’t.  Those who aren’t he sends to Prodicus.  (Prodicus has an office in our English department.)  The others he helps.  They profit from this help, even if they manage no viable births.  How?

All this is strange.  Midwifery is no glamorous role for the philosopher.  He’s only around to help bring answers to light and to get rid of them, if they are monstrosities.  (Philosophy:  confusiasm over abstrocities.)  The role is thoroughly negative.  The philosopher is barren, has no answers of his own.  He can’t adopt.

No pitter-patter of little answer-feet in the philosopher’s house.

5 responses

  1. Something along these lines, Kelly, written last week.
    “It’s hard to do good philosophy, and to do good Socratic philosophy is harder. The Socratic task requires that you forgo the “objective” rigors of adding new paragraphs to the history of the subject, even paragraphs that are a critique of the subject. It requires that you ‘become subjective,’ that you place the quite particular human being that you are smack in the middle of the picture. If you are Socrates you are a subjective individual, not an objective Q.E.D. machine, and you question other “subjective” individuals — real persons. You converse, battle, sting, and nurse these other quite particular humans into birth. Socrates is a mid-wife, not an expositor of old, or inventor of new, philosophical results. He sees us naked, in labor, and steps in to help us give birth, however painful the process. . . . Having a Kierkegaard book arrive at our doorstep is like having Socrates arrive there. If he knocks in beard and sandals and announces that he’s a mid-wife come to assist, and you had expected an Amazon delivery, his arrival would be anomalous, out of bounds. Kierkegaard knows he can’t announce himself directly as our local midwife. The male population, at the least, would turn him away as a simpleton. So Kierkegaard sticks to delivering strange books, half-philosophy, half-literature, in the hope that their strangeness and allure will sting us into sensing our need. We don’t need an encyclopedia salesman hawking his books of knowledge and wisdom, nor do we need a literary dilettante hawking his film-scripts or novels. If we need his anomalous readings — not exactly literature and not exactly philosophy (at least, not non-Socratic philosophy) — it’s because they transcend both plain literature and school philosophy. Like Socrates, they administer to our souls.

  2. “It shows us things we already know, but in a way that makes us see them afresh”, I get the gist here but if we move from relatively stable things like say rocks or chairs, to more emerging things like people or even to say quasi-transcendental ‘things’ like Justice is this so much midwifery and or arche-ology or more akin to creating something new even if just a collage or bricolage if not coining something truly new. When I help folks to find their way thru creating either a work like a dissertation or even a marriage I’m not so much helping them to find some-thing that (pre)exists but has yet to be made explicit as I am guiding them through a process in the making.

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