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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,

You have spoken about the importance of questioning other people, and of their questioning you, for the purpose of understanding what each other, and even oneself, is saying. I know that you have infinite patience for this activity, and in fact enjoy it more than any other. The same cannot be said of most of your interlocutors, whose impatience turns to umbrage, anger, frustration, calumnies and prosecuting you in law courts. But what I want to know is why there is so much misunderstanding in the first place. Let’s start with a single language community. Don’t we all know the meanings of our words? Don’t you understand what I am writing to you right now? Indeed, for questioning to serve its purpose, must one not be able to understand the question?

Yours truly,

Dear Ludwig,

That is a good point you make with your final, rhetorical question. I do understand you. Let me therefore clarify what I intend to assert when I say that we must continually probe one another’s, as well as our own, utterances and beliefs.

The basic state of mind of all beings is that the way they see things is the way things are. This makes eminent sense for at least two reasons. If we were continually distrusting our senses and ideas we would never do anything at all, out of fear. Under such conditions we could not even survive. So the very fact that we are here attests to our not being perpetually stymied by doubt. Furthermore, our existence implies that we must be getting things right a lot of the time.

However, it is also obvious to any person who has experience of the world that other people have different beliefs from them. This is itself one of the facts about the world that each of us perceives – or should perceive. But I also point out at once, it often comes as a complete surprise and shock to discover that not everybody shares all of one’s most basic assumptions about what is true and what is good.

The way we commonly fit this peculiarly philosophical awakening into our worldview is by conceiving the beliefs of others as mere beliefs. In other words, when others’ beliefs differ or seem to differ from our own, we do not consider the content of other people’s beliefs as reflecting the world. For example, if you see or conceive the Earth as round, and you also learn (or believe) that some other people see it as flat, then your worldview includes a round Earth on which live some people who see the Earth as round and other people who see the Earth as flat. Your worldview does not include a flat Earth, not to mention an Earth that is somehow both round and flat. (I cannot help but note an emotional consequence of dealing with divergent worldviews in this way. While thereby avoiding the Scylla of having to reject one’s own fundamental beliefs about the literal or figurative shape of things, one has landed in the belly of the Charybdis of living in a world of seeming lunatics. For recognizing that others, perhaps all others, do not share all your most basic beliefs is disconcerting, to put it mildly; one becomes a stranger in a strange land. Really, which would be more bizarre: discovering that the world is flat, or discovering that most people think it is? For a philosopher, whose life is spent examining fundamental assumptions, a growing sense of existential solitude can be the greatest occupational hazard.)

Now, what I consider to be the fundamental fact of philosophy is that we are also capable of conceiving our own beliefs as beliefs – that is, as fallible. Everyday encounters with people who hold opposing beliefs to one’s own elicit the knee-jerk reaction that those other people are in error, perhaps insane, possibly even evil. But a reflective encounter with others (or even just one’s own logical ponderings) throws one’s own beliefs into doubt, however tenuously or tentatively.

Taking this to the extreme, one could undergo a gestalt shift from experiencing the world as objective to experiencing the world as subjective. What I mean is that the initial, naïve view is that everybody sees the same world, ‘the real world’, unless someone is mistaken or impaired – but after taking the philosophical turn, one will sometimes view ‘the world’ one sees as inextricably private to one’s own experience, and hence by extension everybody else’s is too. Both perception of reality and communication with others become problematic.

Curiously, both these extremes seem to be forms of solipsism. The former ‘objective’ view discounts the very possibility that others could be seeing a different world, while the latter ‘subjective’ view confines everyone to his or her own world, which is merely a set of beliefs. Neither is a true solipsism however, because both presume the existence of others. It is just that the former fails to appreciate their true otherness, while the latter exaggerates their otherness and inaccessibility. Both extremes are untenable for the reasons we have considered. The philosopher overcomes them by entering into dialogue with others, where the humble purpose is simply to discover which – it does not matter whose – beliefs are the true ones.

As ever,


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