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Society, Reason and Knowledge

by Rick Lewis

“I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.”
Socrates, in Plato’s Apology

According to Plato, this was part of Socrates’ defence speech in the trial that ended with his execution – so clearly the jurors found it unpersuasive. Socrates was a deeply irritating man, wandering around Athens entrapping prominent citizens into debates which usually ended in them blatantly contradicting themselves and admitting their own confusion and ignorance. Did he really know better than they? Or was he, as he claimed, merely a gadfly stinging them out of their complacency? He saw himself as serving the public good, and his statement above makes him sound a little like scientists today who have theories and opinions but also (ideally) hold their views provisionally, with a readiness to re-examine them and if necessary abandon them in the face of fresh evidence.

In any case, his occupation was a dangerous one. Many affronted Athenian worthies saw him as dangerously undermining the moral and political truths upon which their state was built. Questioning the meaning of courage, or the nature of justice? No wonder they accused him of “Corrupting the young.”

Don’t be too swift to mock the Athenians. How many of us have never said “Of course I support free speech, but not right now, not on this particular subject”? The concepts that Socrates was questioning were indeed foundational, part of the shared ‘knowledge’ that helped keep society functioning.

Socrates’ trial is an example of the intricate, contested and shifting relationship between society, reasoning and knowledge, which is the main theme of this issue of Philosophy Now. Different aspects of that relationship are covered by the different articles in the themed section.

Scientific knowledge comes from reason and experiment, but what is somehow counted as ‘knowledge’ in society can also include customs, rules, gossip, disinformation, and often, shared beliefs about religion and morality, and general know-how about how to function in a social context. Also, as that very sociable saying goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” How can reason help us sift through all this and assess it and the roles it plays?

What we can say is that society is, among other things, a system for the exchange and transmission of knowledge and belief about everything from market prices for apples, to nuclear physics, to how to behave towards other citizens. Society also generates knowledge in various ways, and knowledge sustains society, in various ways. Reasoning discovers knowledge and knowledge in turn provides the basis for further reasoning. Society, reason and knowledge are intertwined and interdependent in all sorts of complex ways.

Is there only one way to reason? Cultural relativists claim that what is true in one society might not be true in another, and that what counts as a good reason for believing something also varies from one place and time to another. But can it be the case that there could be more than one kind of reasoning, or is logic universally true for all times and places? Potentially, the rather technical sounding question of whether there is only one type of logic or whether there could be many – explored by Griffiths and Paseau in our opening article – may have wide-ranging social implications. Following that, we have articles on the difference between knowledge and belief; on the nature of the world wide web (is it a universal library, or more like a new space in which people live and interact?); on how postmodernism has dangerously undermined scientific thinking; on how to avoid becoming a conspiracy theorist; and also on a concept you may not have encountered before – bricolage, a type of tinkering with and piecemeal accumulation of knowledge.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that Big Data is watching you! We’ve always known that “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing” – so does it follow that a lot of knowledge is even more dangerous? The late and ever-controversial Michel Foucault certainly seemed to think so, and exploring the interplay between society, knowledge and power was the basis of his scariest books. When we have knowledge, should we share it? In science that is very much expected and necessary, but what about more generally? And if you have knowledge, under what circumstances should you keep quiet about it? According to a popular joke: Knowledge is like underwear; you need to have it but you don’t need to show it.

Price Rise

Unfortunately we’ve had to raise our cover price, starting with this issue. This has been forced upon us by dramatically increased printing and postage costs, in turn due mainly to repeated steep rises in the price of paper and energy in 2022. We think the prices have now stabilised, but at a high level. We are going to keep the prices of subscriptions unchanged until the end of March, but will then have to raise those as well. Therefore, do please consider subscribing now, at the old prices, both to help us and to save some money. (See philosophynow.org/shop)

Sadly, the German philosophy magazine Hohe Luft, based in Hamburg, closed in December due to rising costs. Hopefully, with your support, we can avoid the same fate and continue bringing the best in philosophy to the world’s most thoughtful magazine readers.

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