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.

Philosophical Questions 3

Philosophical puzzlement:  unless this does–or may–threaten the possibility of understanding altogether, then it is not the sort of thing that has worried philosophers.  If you overlook that, then you do not see what the understanding is that is sought in philosophy; or what it is that may be reached.  But the understanding that is sought, and the understanding that may be reached–the understanding that has been achieved if philosophical difficulty has really been resolved–is not something one could formulate; as though one could now give an account of the structure of reality, and how how language corresponds to it; and to show the possibility or reality of discourse in that way.  –Rush Rhees

A most remarkable passage.  There’s much that I’d like to say about it, but I want for now to limit myself to its bearing on the issue of philosophical questions and answers.  Take Rhees to be pointing out just how hard it is to see how deep philosophical questions go, and so how hard it is to see how peculiar the answers to them must be.

Philosophical question threaten the very possibility of understanding altogether, but this means that the questions threaten their very possibility as questions, and threaten the very possibility of answers to them.  The questions challenge the reality of discourse, of understanding:  but how can a question, a mode of discourse, something that must be understood, challenge the reality of discourse or understanding?  Success would seem failure; but failure cannot be success, can it?  What sorts of questions are these?

More soon.

Rhees on Philosophical Puzzlement (or, Philosophical Questions 2)

Philosophical puzzlement:  unless this does–or may–threaten the possibility of understanding altogether, then it is not the sort of thing that has worried philosophers.  If you overlook that, then you do not see what the understanding is that is sought in philosophy; or what it is that may be reached.  But the understanding that is sought, and the understanding that may be reached–the understanding that has been achieved if philosophical difficulty has really been resolved–is not something one could formulate; as though one could now give an account of the structure of reality, and how how language corresponds to it; and to show the possibility or reality of discourse in that way.

This is from Rush Rhees’ Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse.  I will have a say about it over the next few days.

Philosophical Questions 1

I’ve been thinking lately about questions, philosophical questions.  It seems to me–although I admit to being unable to take this thought very far yet–that one useful way of gaining insight into a philosopher’s work is by working delicately to typify the relationship between the philosopher’s questions and her answers to them.  Perhaps, so stated, that seems obvious.  But what I mean is typifying the relationship as such (if that can be done), independent of the particular erototetic content or declarative content of the question and answer, respectively.  There are, I submit, a vast number of different typifying relationships to be discovered.  Part of the reason I began to think about this was re-reading a comment of mine on G. E. Moore:

Moore insists that we often ask a philosophical question without knowing quite what question our interrogatory words express.  But Moore does not ever seriously doubt that there is a philosophical question that the words express.  We can rightly say that Moore doubted the clarity of the questions that philosophers asked, and we can rightly say that he often doubted whether philosophers really believed the answers they gave to the questions; but we cannot rightly say that he doubted whether there were philosophical questions to be asked and answers to be given to them.  That Moore took this view of philosophical questions is shown by his deep unease with his own answers to them.  Moore, I think, believed his answers; but he also did not believe his answers.  (“I believe; help thou my unbelief.”)  His deep unease was the result of the mismatch between his understanding of the questions and the believability of his answers to them:  given his view of the questions, the very believability of his answers to them made the answers hard to believe.

Socrates’ questions and answers bear one sort of relationship to each other.   Augustine’s another.  Aquinas’ another.  Kant’s another–and so on.  Consider Heidegger, at least late:  he so absolutizes the question over the answer that it is no longer clear that there is, that there could be, even that there should be any answer to the question or even an attempt at an answer.  Such an attempt would violate the absoluteness of the question, allow us at least the hope of being able to end, at least for a moment, enduring the interrogative rack,  to stop bearing the question mark, to finish the forever-rising inflection–to scramble off the heath and into shelter, no longer exposed as mad Lear.  But Heidegger would have us stay.

(Ok, so I got a little carried away there.  Apologies.  But I plan to return–soberly–to this line of thought in coming days.)

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