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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 are said not to favor the sophists. This is confirmed by the devastating attacks of your acclaimed and professed disciple, namely Mr Plato. I don’t mean to question your logic and less your being a genius, but sophists are clever, and that seems to me to be all that philosophy is about. That is the only real thing we may hope to attain in the long and endless quest for Truth. Don’t you think so?

Truly yours,

Dear Said,

Thank you very much for your question. No, I do not agree that cleverness is all, but the reason why not bears discussing. What I have frequently insisted upon in these columns (as well as in the dialogues Plato recorded) is sincerity. I see now that that is ambiguous, so let me clarify.

First of all, any truly philosophical interlocutor should care about the outcome. But which outcome? The outcome that matters most to me is, as you have put it, Truth. This implies several things. One is that Truth matters for its own sake and not only because it could result in some further gain, such as personal financial wealth or even the improvement of society. Another implication is that the interlocutor is indifferent to who is right. In other words, he or she does not care about that outcome, for example, that he or she might be proven wrong about what is true.

This is a subtle but crucial distinction, for a person who is passionate in argument may appear to be egotistical or arrogant when in fact he or she is only intent upon learning what is true. I have had this kind of suspicion and accusation lodged against me countless times. I suppose it is because most people do act from such motives when they are energetic, so it is a natural inference to make that I am acting from the same sort of motive when I press an argument. But if I am any judge of my own motives, I would say that my sincerity lies in my caring about the truth and not at all about whether I am right.

I will offer one qualification. Perhaps we should not speak of truth with a capital ‘t’. For the proper concern that constitutes sincerity is not truth as such, but the truth about a particular subject one genuinely cares about. For example, it is not really of interest to me at all whether 2657 x 6543 = 17,384,751; but I do very much want to know whether virtue can be taught. And note that this makes for a double removal from the egotist, who is not only indifferent to truth, whether as such or about a particular subject, but is also wholly content to be proven right about anything whatever.

Another implication, then, is that disputation for its own sake is not my game. (Although I will admit that a liking for it could make it more likely that someone would be drawn to philosophy.) Thus, whenever agreement is reached between my interlocutor and myself, I am pleased to leave it at that. If we happen to agree in the first place, then there is nothing to pursue. I will caution, however, that it is still wise to engage in some give-and-take to be sure that there really is agreement, for more often than not, in my experience, an initial agreement is only apparent and not real. Not only is it easy to misunderstand another person’s actual position, but one may fail to recognize some uncomfortable implication of one’s own position until one has tried to articulate it to the other person.

Disputatious fellow that I am, I will now take issue with my own remarks. In this I have been inspired by one of your Twentieth Century philosophers, Paul Feyerabend – a firebrand if ever there was one. He argued for the value of opposing positions even in the face of consensus, indeed, perhaps especially in that case. I don’t take him to be defending this procedure ‘for its own sake’ but for its utility. Still, in actual practice it may seem as if one were doing it for no other reason than to be contrary. The usefulness resides in a demonstrated fact of the history of thought (and, for Feyerabend, for science in particular), namely, that the consensus has so often turned out to be flat-out wrong – at least from the viewpoint of the subsequent consensus!

I think, however, that we may also usefully invoke the Delphic injunction of nothing in excess. What to make, for instance, of the recent case of a woman who, having been diagnosed as HIV positive, chose to contest the consensus significance of that by declining not only the recommended drug regime for herself but also the precautions advised for the two children she subsequently bore? Here I can question neither the mother’s sincerity of opposition to the mainstream medical opinion nor her love of her children. But at what point does sincere advocacy become delusion, whose self-consistency no counterevidence could ever refute? The mother’s second child died at age 3, apparently of AIDS-related pneumonia, although this diagnosis the mother also disputes. When we consider that utility can be negative as well as positive, must we not ask if there is a point at which even merely doubting becomes unjustified?

I myself choose to ply a middle path, which is questioning only so long as I see a clear reason for doing so. A sophist will ‘question’ for as long as monetary gain, or even mere sport, can be anticipated. Others will continue to question only because they cannot accept or do not like the answer. To me these are not the right reason. Ascertaining one’s grasp of the truth is.

As ever,


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