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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century 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 have always heard that you were notorious for answering somebody’s question with another question. It’s become a kind of joke, really. It seems evasive – a way to avoid answering the question. So I thought I would ask you to justify your method.


Dear Mark,

You have me cornered. Precisely what I cannot do in these columns is question my questioner! In fact this has been a source of continual frustration for me. The editor of this magazine had to twist my arm to get me to agree to this format.

I do not like to come across as an expert, you see. I am the very opposite of an expert. I claim to know very little; or at least, I claim not to know how much I may happen to know. For one thing I do know is that I have many beliefs which rest upon assumptions that are largely unexamined. Sometimes it’s just me who has not examined them; but often they are assumptions I share with others, even with everybody else, which no one in the whole wide world has sufficiently examined. Hence many of my beliefs could be, and almost certainly are, false; hence I cannot be said to know those things. But even many of my beliefs which are true could have a faulty foundation in my thinking, and so I cannot be said to know those things either.

For example, if I believed your name is Mark only because you signed your letter that way, I could be right; but even so I wouldn’t know your name is Mark, because my reason for thinking it would be quite naïve and fallible. People can sign any name they like to their letters. In your case I wouldn’t be the least surprised if you – whoever you are – had chosen ‘Mark’ as a kind of pun on ‘Question’, since your question is about questions!

If I have any expertise, therefore, it is being able to detect assumptions in need of examination. And then what I do is… question them! So this is one reason why I am likely to ‘answer’ a question with a question: if I am unsure I have any knowledge with which to answer it, I must embark upon an examination of my own assumptions to see how well my beliefs are backed up. Naturally I will enlist whatever help is available, and the handiest help is my questioner.

Thus, if you were here, I would ask you, “Do you think we have any knowledge?” But since you are not here, all I can do is tell you my own opinion that human beings do not know nearly as much as we think we do.

Well, I do not simply assert. Of course I also argue. But this still does not give you an opportunity to respond to my argument, and it deprives me of an answer to my question. I consider this a greater loss to myself than it may be to you, since you will at least know what your reply would have been, but I am left in my ignorance.

However, I do have an answer to your question about which I feel certain. As much as dialogue is a form of speaking, I have learned through hard experience that an essential part of it is also listening. If one is not merely debating for the purpose of scoring points with an audience, but instead sincerely wishes to enlist the assistance of an interlocutor in the search for truth, then one must strive to understand what the other person is saying. And this is true above all at the very outset, when somebody poses a question. Thus, to return a question for a question is a kind of dialectical “I beg your pardon?” – as if one had not clearly heard the speaker’s words. For even if one hears another’s words, their meaning – what the question really is – could be very different in the speaker’s mind than in the auditor’s.

That is why the biggest assumption I am on guard against in dialogue is that I automatically know what somebody has said to me. I may appear a simpleton or impertinent by asking my questions, but to go on without being sure of the other’s point could be a complete waste of time, or worse, lead to a false sense of agreement or disagreement between us. I wish my interlocutors would do the same. The most outlandish views have been attributed to me. What good does it do me to speak carefully if the other person does not listen carefully, or test their understanding of what I have said by inquiring of me regarding it, which comes to the same thing?

Have I answered your question, Mark?

As ever


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