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.

A Quick Thought on Plato

I have been teaching lots of Plato lately:  The Theaetetus in my Intro to Phil class; the Euthydemus and the Phaedrus (so far) in Ancient; and I’m doing a reading group on the Symposium (using Shelley’s translation–edited and introduced by the inimitable David O’Conner). It’s been a long time since I have been so Plato supersaturated.  One thing that has struck me is the depth of Plato’s engagement with sophistry–and just how difficult he finds isolating the threat of sophistry to be:  I don’t think I realized before just how formidable and how central a philosophical problem sophistry itself is for Plato.  Part of what makes it so formidable and so central is the remarkable way in which, over and over, sophistry looks more like philosophy than philosophy itself does.  (Put in other terms, it is the sophists who look like the rationalists, Socrates who looks like the irrationalist.)

Sophistry is internal to philosophy; philosophy cannot eliminate (the possibility of) sophistry without eliminating (the possibility of) itself. And so Socrates’s war with the sophists never ends, even if battles sometimes do.

I know this is a leap, but (what the hell) I will make it:  one of my chief complaints about the self-understanding of many analytic philosophers I know is their easy confidence that philosophy as they do it can eliminate (the possibililty of) sophistry through a new acquist of ever more sternly regulated techniques–a technique for clarity, a technique for rigor, a technique for explicitness.  But of course it is just this elevation of and reliance on technique that typifies sophistry.  Now, by that I do not mean that these analytic philosophers I know are sophists.  They aren’t—mostly.  But they are far closer to sophistry than they know.  What is meant to safeguard them from sophistry is what keeps them exposed to it.

Draft of MMP Talk

Here is a draft of a talk I am to give soon.  I was asked to present something that might inspire majors and non-majors, and to do something more like what I would do in a class than what I would do giving a conference paper.  This is the result so far.  It is a  formalization of the sort of thing I might do in an upper-level class.  Since I think of it as a talk and not a paper, it is not bedecked with all the scholarly niceties–footnotes or full footnotes, etc.  Most of the footnotes are really just drawers in which I have stashed useful quotations or (I hope) brief, helpful clarifications.  Comments welcome.

Socrates–Poem (Edward Young)

Night is fair Virtue’s immemorial friend.
The conscious moon through every distant age
Has held a lamp to Wisdom, and let fall
On Contemplation’s eye her purging ray.
The famed Athenian, he who wooed from heaven
Philosophy the fair, to dwell with men,
And form their manners, not inflame their pride;
While o’er his head, as fearful to molest
His laboring mind, the stars in silence slide,
And seem all gazing on their future guest,
See him soliciting his ardent suit,
In private audience; all the livelong night
Rigid in thought, and motionless he stands,
Nor quits his theme or posture, till the sun
Disturbs his nobler intellectual beam,
And gives him to the tumult of the world.

Ed Mooney on Living One’s Own Life

I feel like I’m entering a wonderfully complex discussion, and fear I may be just muddying the waters, but let me just dive in. It’s surely correct that the self knowledge we seek is not informational, not a “knowledge that x”. We know Socrates knows himself because he’s steady in his living, and seems to ‘know what he’s doing’ in complex situations that could baffle an ordinary mortal. So knowing himself seems close to knowing how to be himself, or knowing what ‘living-as-Socrates’ must amount to. Now that knowledge is not observational (HE doesn’t conduct observations) and probably isn’t intentional: he doesn’t say to himself “I must try out living as Socrates today.” It may be retrospective: we can imagine him reflecting after a good bit of life is behind him on whether he’s happy with his comportment–has he been living a strange life, or his own life.  That’s a funny question to ask, perhaps, yet people can get alienated from themselves, and regret that they’re “living-as-my-father-wants” rather than “living my own life.”

Prospectively, I think self knowledge is a “knowing how” that requires intimate acknowledgment of one’s desires, feelings, commitments and their weights, and so forth, and that sort of knowing how — knowing how to dig through all that — always questioning, always weighing, always proceeding in fear and trembling that one might be kidding oneself — is hard to share or expose or make public and will sound like a confession full of fits and starts and ill-formed thoughts. But along with that ‘reflective” and “confessional” side seems to be a willingness to pledge or promise, to stay true to something often only dimly apprehended. So Socrates remained true to things (say the assurance that the oracle was trustworthy, or that Diotima had something worthy to say) even while it’s hard to say what undergirds that pledge to honor a truth intrinsic to who one must be. “Living-as-Socrates”, knowing how to do that, is something Socrates has to work out for himself — we can’t guide him.

And if we LEARN from Socrates, how does that happen? Perhaps, as Kelly suggests, if I learn from a poem it may show up in my writing my own poem. If I learn ‘knowing how live out the unfolding self I am” by holding Socratic living in mind, that can’t mean Socrates has authority to tell me how to live. If I learn from him, it will not be that I learn how to “live-as-Socrates” (except in the most general way: for example, ‘think about what words you use in probing yourself’). Learning from him will be much more learning how to “live-as-me” — “learning” what can I pledge myself to, to give my life that sort of solidity and continuity that in the longer run I can look back (and my friends can look back) and say: “for all his (propositional, informational, doctrinal) ignorance he knew himself, he led his own life. And “learning what I can pledge myself to” is perhaps mostly just pledging-in-the-relative-dark: not ‘finding out” but “doing.”

This is a comment on a previous post, a comment by Ed Mooney.  I have found it of so much interest that I wanted to station it in a more visible spot.  I plan to write something responsive in the next couple of days.  (The title here is mine, not Ed’s.)

Drama of the Soul in Exile: PI, (Yet) Again

Those who have been following the blog will recognize this as a both recapitulation and variation on earlier bits and pieces.  It is from the essay I am working on.

Soul in Exile

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