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Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.
The heart of your dialectical method seems to be the detection and elimination of contradiction. You draw out incompatible assertions from your interlocutors and then challenge them to reconcile their own thoughts. I was wondering: Do you ever perform this operation on yourself?
You have hit the nail on the head. I hardly know where to begin my response to your excellent question because absolutely everything hangs on it.
I agree with you that the heart of my critical method has been the exposing of contradictions in people’s own beliefs and assumptions. For example, upon my prodding, Euthyphro blurted out that piety is what the gods love. But this immediately got him into trouble because the gods, being multiple, love things that are sometimes at odds with one another; therefore, Euthyphro’s conception of piety is empty of consistent content – nonsense, really.
What is the point of pointing this out, to Euthyphro, or to anybody else? Just to score points? Certainly not: That is mere debate, for which I have only disdain. Instead, I view it as clearing the junk out of the mental attic, so that we might discover some hidden treasure there – something we had forgotten we had stored away (or so was my Attic conception of all supposed learning as really being recollecting). And the treasure we hope to find is truth.
But how does uncovering contradiction help us to reach that goal? After all, there will still be two possibilities, A and NOT-A: Which one is true? My reply is that the search for the answer cannot even begin until one realizes that one does not know the answer, and prior to my critical demonstrations most people aren’t aware that they harbor conflicting views, even at the most fundamental level of their being. Admittedly, however, the building up of positive knowledge to replace discredited claims to knowledge is a task of a different sort, and perhaps can only be brought about by some sort of divine inspiration or mystic transport. Then again, maybe we can think of it on the model of my other profession: Critical reflection and dialogue might bare reality in much the same way that the sculptor chips away at the rough stone to reveal the refined image of Apollo contained within.
I have voiced such opinions before. But a new thought has bedeviled me since my return to the world’s surface. To put it bluntly: What if contradiction is fundamental to the fabric of the world, and not just a function of our ignorance of it? In other words, my faith in Truth itself could be unfounded; that there is such a thing could be yet another unexamined assumption, which when examined, furthermore, yields … contradiction!
Why would such a bizarre idea occur to me? Well, I suppose it could be considered a natural outcome of a long life devoted to seeking out truth by the very means you described: the detection and elimination of contradiction, where, however, the result has always been the detection of further contradiction. In other words, the elimination of contradiction has only been attempted, not effected, for the elimination of one contradiction typically gives rise to another.
On the other hand, it has occurred to me that this phenomenon could be an artefact of psyche. Perhaps thought itself is intrinsically dialectic, quite apart from (and as opposed to being a part of) the world it ponders. Thus, no sooner do we think of a good reason to believe A than an objection arises in our mind (or in an interlocutor’s), or even an argument for believing NOT-A.
Or this knee-jerk contrariety might just be a function of personality. In my own Delphic quest to know myself, I have noticed that I tend to take statements literally, and this could be why I have now come to see the whole world as a set of contradictions; rather than understanding most verbal assertions for what they probably are, namely, expressions of tentative commitment, I hear them as absolute avowals. Maybe Euthyphro only had some of the gods in mind when he pinned piety to divine partiality, and I bullied him into standing up for the universal generalization. (But no more than I bully myself into endless dialogues with myself.)
And now, in this very letter that I write to you, you see evidence of the phenomenon, for no sooner did I consider that the world could be contradictory than it occurred to me that, instead, the culprit might be psyche. And that counter-thought might just have been the mind being its dialectical self, or just me being my literalist and contrary self, or the world being its self-contradictory self … or all three together!
Are you with me, Abram?
I will tell you what I think it all means: Reality reveals itself by the very contradictoriness of all that we believe and feel and attempt to achieve. For the absence of contradiction is, after all, the criterion of the real, and therefore our inability to resolve the omnipresent incongruities of our experience must convince us that all we take for reality is not. The fruits of this wisdom shall then be greater understanding and tolerance.
Yours as ever,
Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org Socrates will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.