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Dear Socrates

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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,

May I say how gratified I was to have sparked off a debate between such illustrious forbears on the subject of wisdom (Issue 33, pp.38-42). However I confess myself more than a little puzzled about your own initial answer to my question, upon which the entire symposium was predicated. For I asked you whether wisdom was knowledge or perhaps intelligence or some virtue, and you replied that wisdom is “the recognition that our claims to knowledge are always based upon assumptions.” I find myself not much the ‘wiser’ for this response, for what exactly is this recognition: Is it knowledge and, if so, is it also based upon assumptions, and so on forever? Or is this recognition perhaps a kind of understanding other than knowledge? Furthermore, if knowledge is always based upon assumptions, does this mean that scientific truths do not depend purely on observation and experiment as many of us thought, but on unproved assumptions? Are these assumptions social conventions, or a priori or what?

Dave Henley

Dear Socrates,

Your style of philosophy seems to be a search for useful knowledge of oneself, fellow man, and society. What say you of philosophy’s current state, where people claim to be incapable of knowledge of anything, or else limit their knowledge to the absolutely logical or mathematical?

Clint

Dear Dave and Clint,

Philosophy seems to be an odd combination of humility and criticism. One might suppose these to be opposed traits, for does not criticism imply self-certainty? But I disagree. The peculiar sort of criticism that belongs to philosophy is based upon a sense of one’s own inadequacy as well as one’s interlocutor’s.

Thus I say to you, Dave, that, indeed, even contemporary science is built on a foundation of sand. Assumptions are inescapable in any realm of knowledge. What is the nature of these assumptions, you ask. It scarcely matters, I reply. It is just that they are taken to be unquestionable at the time (if one is even aware of them). They may have been inculcated by a particular culture, or be an inevitable consequence of upbringing in any human society, or have come from a genetic predisposition to believe something, for all I know or care. But if we tried to conduct our quest for knowledge without any assumptions at all, I think we should not even be able to begin it.

Whenever I read a highly sophisticated treatise of your modern age, such as an article in a scientific journal, which marshals the evidence and arguments for some particular claim, I am almost painfully aware of its tendentiousness, at times its downright question-beggingness. It is really like reading a fictional narrative. It may be quite intelligent and persuasive. I would only fault it for its pretention to be something other than a cunningly told story.

Yet I would deny no person the right to express himself. This is a deep need we have, to tell our story (whether it be a literary one or a scientific one). Despite Plato’s turning me into a despiser of dramatic poetry, therefore, I now assert, to the contrary, that the main mistake is to fail to realize that all of our knowledge is a kind of poetry. And this is precisely the advantage of logic and mathematics, Clint, that they make no bones about beginning with assumptions: They revel in this dependence!

Are we left, then, with an utter skepticism? Has philosophy, in particular, nothing to offer but a mocking assessment of all claims to knowledge (not excluding its own claim to wisdom in these matters; for this could seem to be nothing more than a certain kind of personality, a peculiar sort of defensiveness, which feels it must justify everything)? I think there is that, but I also think there are positive implications. I have spoken before of the value of intellectual humility, as promoting caution and tolerance, and, as Dave put it, improved understanding, if only of the nature of some problem that confronts us.

Now I will add a further benefit to this list. A lifetime of practicing dialectic has convinced me that, while positive truth may never emerge from the process, a more valid basis for conviction can. When instead of simply asserting something to somebody, one elicits the other person’s thoughts on the subject, and then engages in the ensuing back and forth, both parties to the discussion are likely to arrive at a firmer reason for holding whatever views they do, or for modifying them or changing them altogether. Far from withering under such an examination, a person may develop a more authentic ownership of his or her opinion, precisely because it is able to withstand this critical scrutiny of all attendant arguments and uncertainties.

Instead of bias or dogma, opinion becomes, then, under these conditions, a living entity. To be sure, assumptions will forever remain; but they are no longer hardened. They turn into flexible, even delightful things to be played with. And that is why ‘Dear Socrates’ is not intended to be an advice column, but rather a dialogue. I pray, then, that more readers will submit arguments and not just questions.

Yours as ever,

Socrates

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