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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

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.

Dear Socrates,

I find you arrogant. Well, I don’t mean you personally, because I have never met you. But ‘you’ as a class of persons – the kind who are always demanding reasons for things. Isn’t dialectic really a form of interrogation? Why should other people have to explain themselves to you? Why isn’t it enough that they have their opinions? Can’t you just respect that? Don’t you want other people to respect your opinions? Why must everybody justify themselves to you and submit to your judgment?

Elizabeth Bennet
Pemberley, Derbyshire

My dear Ms Bennet,

You make me feel the world has gone topsy-turvy. Here I am accustomed to engage in dialectic as an act of the profoundest humility, and you make it sound as if rationality itself were a kind of vice.

Let me make my position plain. I view dialectic as a way to approach truth; that is its goal and none other. It happens to be a collective activity, and possibly only for simple, practical reasons. For example, if I am pondering a subject, if I just sit by myself and try to guide my mind through the ins and outs of a subject, I am very likely to keep moving in the wrong direction, or to lose my way, or just to grow impatient or weary after a fruitless trek. But if I am discussing the subject with another – especially a person who begins with a different bias from my own – then I have my errors pointed out to me in short order, and I am also spurred on by the social give-and-take. In a word, then, dialectic just makes thinking easier.

But in this process you seem to believe that I am actually exploiting my interlocutors, for I may disrupt their time, indeed their life as some of their most deeply held assumptions are shaken by my questioning. Am I being selfish, therefore, as well as insensitive? It is true, I admit, that I participate in dialectic mainly for my own benefit. Frankly, it is a rarity that anybody (myself included) changes his or her convictions or assumptions, so it cannot be that the main defense of dialectic is persuasion. Nevertheless, I maintain this ‘selfish’ motive is a noble one; for in the process of defending my own views in debate, I deepen my understanding of them. In this way my positions become more reasoned and less blind; so also are they less likely to deteriorate over time – since dialectic should be continuous – into ignorant adherence to positions I had quite forgotten the reasons for (as so often happens among the followers of a Great Idea). My interlocutors presumably benefit in the same way. Furthermore, my tolerance is enhanced as I realize that my interlocutors also have reasons upon reasons for their positions. True, I may not find those reasons to be persuasive; but that would be arrogance, I should think, only if I failed to accord respect to an interlocutor’s analogous inability to find my own reasons persuasive.

I am still being arrogant, you say, because I am not allowing people to carry on with their own beliefs unless they prove them to my satisfaction. I am not only challenging their opinions, but also the manner in which they hold them … leaving very little intact of their own prerogatives. Yet from my perspective, I am showing the utmost respect to my partners in dialogue, precisely by exposing my arguments to their scrutiny as I examine theirs. The dialogue is intended as a ‘contest’ among equals – and the stronger the ‘opponents’, the better the prospects for arriving at the truth.

Moreover, I find that stating a position and an argument in simple, forceful terms – even though I myself may be aware of a possible alternative or rejoinder – inspires the most effective response. (Please do not misunderstand me: I would not feign a position in order to debate, for it is only by arguing from one’s heartfelt beliefs that one is likely to come up with the best and most relevant arguments.) This mode of conversation crystallizes the thought of the interlocutor, who may then proceed to lambast my argument. (Granted, this will also at times reveal an interlocutor’s real reason in such a way that he or she is instantly exposed to ‘checkmate’.) One who views this strategy as an attack or as arrogant self-assurance is surely, then, misperceiving my intentions, as well as the very ground rules of the proceeding. It is as if a person were to call the police after glimpsing a violent stage play through a closed window: The whole meaning and context is lost.

On the other hand, it is also true that I am against all pretension, and so I am ready to needle anybody who claims certain knowledge of a subject (if only implicitly, by their designation as an ‘expert’ or a ‘professional’). But I do this not merely to gain the satisfaction of puncturing their real arrogance, but mainly because their status in the world gives them power; and power is especially dangerous in the hands of those who think they know everything. Alas, such people are also likely to be the most stubborn in their self-assurance, and hence, their resistance to dialectic, although their methods of diverting critical scrutiny can be subtle, as when they claim the right of every person to hold his or her own opinion, Ms Bennet.

Yours as ever,

Elizabeth Bennet replies:

Oh, Socrates, I was only teasing you. Can’t you take a dose of your own medicine? I wanted to get the best arguments out of you, so I put my own in the most provocative form.

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: socrates@philosophynow.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.

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