Friday, January 20, 2012

Further Thoughts on Socrates

Stan has been good enough to put up a couple of posts on Socrates. He has read and understands the big picture of Socrates and Plato much more than I do so this is very helpful. The first post is about what Socrates means about knowing things. Excerpt:
I'd like to make a case for Socrates's sincerity. In other Platonic dialogues, Socrates makes paradoxical claims about ignorance. In Ion, Socrates claims that a poet is ignorant of the meaning of his own poems. In Cratylus, Socrates claims that a man is ignorant of his own name. In Theatetus, Socrates ironically asks a man how he can know that he knows nothing. These claims are more bewildering than Socrates's claim in the Apology, and they show that Socrates usually remains consistent about what he doesn't know.

To understand these examples, it's important to understand what Socrates means by the word "know." In Plato's dialogues (don't ask me to remember where), Socrates distinguishes between knowledge and opinion. To know something, one must be certain of it. If one can doubt a thing, then he can't really know it. He may believe it, opine it, or consider it more or less probable, but he doesn't know it. One of the major tasks of philosophy--perhaps the only task--is to determine the boundaries of doubt and certainty.
So when Socrates talks about speaking to other men who were known as wise:
When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,--for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.
He is really speaking about their misplaced certainty. The other men had (among other faults) a too vain certainty in their own knowledge. It seems that Socrates wanted to puncture that vanity.
However, Stan relates that as he was talking this through with his wife he had some second thoughts.
Lindsay said, "So, while it may be true that anything can be doubted, it seems like many doubts are not worth worrying about."

"Yeah," I agreed, "and it seems silly for Socrates to get himself killed over a quibble about absolute proofs." I felt less excited about my post. "Oh well," I continued, "it was fun to try to defend Socrates."
I can get pieces of what Socrates was talking about; certainly he makes lots of sense as he defends himself. I would have voted to acquit. But it seems he was playing a different game and that's what I can't crack. After being offered several different roads away from death, Socrates decided to dare his jury to execute him. They took him up on it.
But I don't understand what he wanted to accomplish! I don't know what grand point he was trying to prove. I can't get myself into his head and figure out what he thought he was doing.

History remembers the trial of Socrates as perhaps the first free speech trial. Athens condemned a man for saying the wrong things. I don't know what the immediate impact was but later cultures looked back and said 'this is an injustice' and decided not to follow in those footsteps. I don't get any sense whatsoever of whether or not Socrates intended this to happen but it certainly did.

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