Transcript: A course in philosophy and human values may seem paradoxical because philosophy was that discipline in our traditions – that’s western traditions, western civilisation – that began with a search for unconditioned knowledge. Unconditioned by human knowledge, of things that transcend this world or any other. That tradition is very much alive in philosophy today, mostly in formal logic and mathematics, where it seems in place, and professional philosophers have a name for that tradition. It’s the “analytic” tradition in philosophy. A course in philosophy and human values has very little to gain from that tradition. And the reason for that, I think, is quite simple. It’s because philosophy and its interaction with societies, cultures, and in its historical context is very difficult to quantify; its very difficult to turn into a logical formula. And as a matter of fact no-one – I think, and I have met a lot of philosophers, since that’s sort of what I do for a living – has ever demonstrated that a deductive argument, a logical argument, one that’s purely formal, has ever solved a single philosophical problem. Except internally; the ones they made themselves. It’s kind of like housekeeping, where you spill the stuff, and then you clean it up, and then you spill it again… and a lot of analytic philosophy is like that.
What I’d like to try today is to do something a little different. And that’s to place philosophy in a historical context, and then go through that and follow the mutation of problems, centered on what it means to be human. A question that, for me… will begin with a kind of skeptical attitude. In other words, we won’t begin as though we know what human nature is. A common, and I think absolutely insidious fallacy promulgated – especially in a society like ours, that’s capitalist and so on – where subjects need to be of a certain kind in order to function in the state, and in the economy. So it’s important in a society like that to have a rigid definition of what “human being” is… for a whole host of reasons that I hope will become apparent. But I would like to begin with it as a kind of skeptical questioning… so, I’ll come to my first topic.
A book standardly used in introductory philosophy courses, and one that i will refer to only briefly today, is “The Trial and Death of Socrates“, by a little known author named Plato. So if there are any members of the audience, or that are watching this that are worried about: “Is this going to be a talk, sort of… off of the standard texts?”, you know, “Some talk about… the lesbian phallus in romantic novels”, don’t worry about it. We are going to be talking about Plato. So you know, you can relax, chill out, it’s not going to be… it’s not going to be a problem.
Socrates inaugurates the western philosophical tradition in a very interesting way. And one of the ways he does it is by separating philosophical discourse, in a kind of a way, from scientific discourse. We can think of the earliest Greek philosophers: Thales, Anaximander and Anaxagoras and others, who studied the cosmos. And I think you are familiar with the word cosmos from other famous television shows. I mean, you’ve heard Carl Sagan: “Cosmos…”. You know, and that’s kind of the way you need to say it for the Greeks too because we get other English words from “cosmos”, for example: “cosmetic”.
Where, for the Greeks, the cosmos was sort of cosmetic; it appeared, and that was enough. And it appeared to be harmonious and beautiful and orderly. That made it an object of study. If it had appeared chaotic to them… it wouldn’t have been an object of study. It was its order that made it possible to study it. And we know from – at least we think we know – from the texts, that when Socrates was young he studied in this tradition and was interested in the cosmos, in what things were made of. And the Greeks had rather simple answers; things were made of fire, some thought of water, some thought of earth, fire, water and air, and various other accounts… and for a rather long time in western civilisation the account that there were four elements: earth, fire, water, and air was the dominant scientific account for a long time.
In any case, Socrates began in this tradition, but he inaugurates philosophy in the spirit in which I hope that I am going to talk about it for the next few hours; by changing the focus away from the investigation into the movements of stars and the composition of the earth, and directs the investigation of philosophy towards human beings. And this should be well known. It’s an ordinary thing to know about Socrates. “Know thyself”, for Socrates, was the beginning of wisdom, and Socrates – for him – this was more than a mere motto.
All the Socratic dialogues are in a sense… it’s important to understand first that they are dialogues. They are written in dialogic form. In Greek society – and this will be my first amature sociological remark – in Greek society, knowledge comes to be in a public place, where reasoned arguments have to take place in the open; in a public forum. That’s to be greatly contrasted – just by point of contrast – with a society like ours, where most of the important arguments that shape our destiny are secret. In Greek society, that’s unthinkable because a polis is a place where the only force that a free person is supposed to recognise, is that peculiar unforced force of the better argument. That’s what differentiates you from a slave. You don’t argue with slaves in Greek society, they obey, and you tell them. But when it’s a discussion among free citizens, they can’t recognise your force as part of the argument. It has to be that strange unforced force that happens, when someone just convinces you with an argument that you… “Oh wow, I think that’s better than my argument. I think you’re right”.
So, the dialogues are built on that form of political life. Where dialogue is essential to knowledge. Later in the course when we discuss the rise of modern society, we will get a peculiar new way of human beings understanding themselves. A way that I will attach the name Descartes to right now. A way where you sort of introspect and figure things out. Sort of a forerunner to Shirley Maclaine, except more sophisticated. You kind of introspect and sort of talk to your own inner self. Well for the Greeks, this was no way to achieve knowledge. It was through talking with other people, and… I don’t want to make this sound sort of too… I don’t know… “prep schooly“, because if you read the dialogues, Socrates is flirting with both the men and the women that he talks to. He mostly talks to men, this is western tradition, right? Women, I guess are doing the housework and, and showing up, you know, in the jail cell when he’s about to die and stuff, and whining or whatever… however these guys wrote it. You know, it’s why I am a little dubious about some of the text.
In any case… the two important points that I hope that I have sort of moved around: One, Socrates turns the investigation of philosophy towards human concerns, and away from the cosomos. And that already begins a fateful distinction that will later be discussed in – I guess the book was in the 40’s or whatever – C. P. Snow‘s book “The Two Cultures“, okay. The culture of science, and the culture of the humanities. That split has its origin in a way in Socrates turning his attention away from, sort of, one of the cultures; the culture that was going to investigate nature and human beings as though they were simply in it somewhere, and the culture that investigates human beings who are human. In other words, as human, as opposed to as one species among others or whatever.
So… that makes knowing yourself a crucially important part of knowledge. Now I’ll make this as simple as I can. I love to use references to movies, I mean not many of us read any more, but a lot of us go to movies. In Superman ONE okay – lets get down to a real case, okay – in Superman One, little baby superman is flying from the very sophisticated planet to earth, and there are all these knowledge crystals…
…and I didn’t like the series that much okay, so don’t frown at me. It’s not that great a movie, I am just illustrating here. These knowledge crystals tell him all the known physics of this advanced civilisation, but the last and the most precious crystal is symbolically important. Because now that you know all this – you know, all these things – you may want to know what is most important; and that’s who you are. And so the last crystal is supposed to give him the Socratic style of knowledge.
So Socrates believed… I mean this is a nice illustration, because Socrates believed that one could have ALL the other kinds of knowledge, and be totally lost – totally aimless – if one didn’t have the other kind of knowledge, which was knowledge of one’s self. And this is nice to remember today, I think. It’s a cautionary tale, because today we live in a society saturated with information. Just… information… which I would want to radically distinguish from wisdom or knowledge… but just saturated with information. But I think in our society, the Socratic question is not only difficult to answer, but even a sense for its importance is being lost. We are just saturated with information. We are told so frequently who we are, or given a certain set of roles that are pre-arranged, pre-established, and which in a free society one is able to vary slightly. In other words, to give an example, we all know what a yuppie is, but we know that within that category that there is some variation possible. You could be sandy haired or red haired. You could wear black Reeboks or white ones. I mean there is a little variation possible. But I am trying to give you a sense for the strange distance between – historical distance – between the Socratic search for wisdom, and this kind of way of finding out who you are. It’s very different. It’s a very different thing.
Okay, well, lets see. Should I finally throw in an argument? No, not yet. Socrates… in the dialogues, his primary antagonists are called the Sophists. And the best historical analogy for the Sophists… and I don’t like to use the word like most philosophers do – as a pejorative – because the word “Sophist”… they were simply folks who went around and they taught things. They taught how to do well in a market place: “business school”. They taught how to win your cases in the law court: “law school”. You know. They taught how to run the state well: “public policy” at Duke, or wherever. So, you know… I mean, they went around and they got paid for doing this. In fact, it’s interesting that at the trial of Socrates his one defence that’s really convincing that he’s not a Sophist, is that he doesn’t get paid to teach. Of course, under that rubric, in our society we are all Sophists, right? Everybody in front of every podium at university is a Sophist. Whether they belong to the National Association of Scholars or not, they are still getting paid, and the presumption by at least some Greeks was that if you got paid to say something, it was to be taken with a great deal of suspicion. So that was a defense of Socrates.
Well, the Sophists had a general view that backed it up that I think today, again, is a view that we can understand in our own time. The Sophist position is stated variously by various Sophists; I am not going to run through the various ones. In most of the dialogues, Socrates… his interlocutors will be one of them. In most of the Socratic dialogues, he will be talking to one of these people. But Protagoras was the best known Sophist, and his view has come down and is very famous, and it is that “man is the measure of all things”. Now, that is an ambiguous statement, it’s one that Socrates is wanting to point out the ambiguity in.
“Man is the measure of all things” can be read – in a modern era that sounds like – “individuals”; a constructed historical category by the way. “Individuals” are the locus of knowledge. You have heard that argument, I am sure, in regard to art. For example, someone will say: “Well, you know… I don’t know what art is, but I know what I like”, and that’s a knockdown argument in art, a lot of us think. You know. I happen to like Mel Gibson’s Hamlet. You know. It’s weird, I like it, but… that’s supposed to be a knockdown argument.
On this argument by the Sophists though, knowledge is impossible. Because each individual will have – just like a nose – an opinion, and a right to it, and no-ones’ will be more right than the other. That’s one way to understand his position. Another, more sophisiticated way to understand Protagoras is for him to be saying something like this: “Each tribe or cultures’ standards of knowledge will be the standards that will hold for that tribe or that culture” That’s a more sophisiticated version of what some philosophers like to call relativism.
Now Socrates is a very peculiar person – and I’ll connect this back up with human values in a minute – because Socrates won’t accept either version of the relativist argument. And in our context, one would think that would make him a dogmatist. I mean, because we are all, I think, immersed in a culture of what I might call sophomoric relativism. By that I mean, we go: “Well, that’s my opinion, damnit!”. You know, sort of, like interviewing someone for USA Today: “Well, thats what I think, damnit!”, “Let a nuke over Baghdad, damnit!”… you know. And Old Henry goes, “Well, that’s Old Bill’s opinion, y’know… I respect that”. And in a democracy, we are supposed to be democratic about knowledge, you know… right? Well, everybody’s got a right to be a damn fool… and I am not opposed to that necessarily. I just want to point out that that doesn’t end debate, right. I mean, you can still argue with Old Henry, or Old Harry, or Old Sam… you can tell I have been in North Carolina for too long from these names.
Anyway… Socrates’ position was that the relativists had to be wrong, but it didn’t follow from that that Socrates himself had to know the absolute truth. In other words, Socrates thought that he absolutely knew there must be some truths that were absolutely important for human beings, without making the further claim that he knew what they were. See, the further claim is what I like to call the Jerry Falwell claim: “I am not a relativist, there are absolute truths, and by God, I know them”. Where the “by God” is more than a mere, you know, conjoining there. I mean it’s really: “by God I know them”. Well, Socrates held a position that was neither one of these: “There must be absolute truths, but I myself don’t possess them”.
Now, that gives the explanation. And I am sure all of you have read a Socratic dialogue at one time or another. Most people have been forced to at one time or another, right? Kind of peculiar, but most people have been forced to read one. And, it’s irritating to read this old man’s questioning. We need to remember Socrates was very ugly, according to the busts… you know, of his face. Kind of like me: sort of short, fat, ugly, irritating person. As Nietzsche said, “To be ugly in Greece was already an objection”… you know. And, I mean I guess that’s where the modern word for Greeks comes from, on univeristy campuses, right? Because the show up ugly is already… you know… you’re out. Ah, so to be ugly in Greece was already an objection, Socrates was a fat, ugly, little guy.
As I said, he engaged in this practice of questioning, and it’s irritating to read them, because you go, “Oh, those questions just run in circles”. Have you ever got that feeling, when you were reading them? “It’s just silly… that’s not getting anywhere”. It’s a kind of American response, you know. “What’s he getting at?”, you know… “And when is he going to get around to it?”. Well, the Socratic procedure in the dialogues may not be to get around to anything. Just the pure charm and beauty of the talk, may itself contain a glimmer of truth or transcendence. It’s not necessary in all the dialogues that he get to something. I mean, the power of thought, just for its own autonomy, and its own beauty, might be something the Greeks were interested in… and conversation, for its own sake. We are a little too busy now for that kind of thing. But just for its own sake, it might be interesting.
So, Socrates held this position; as I say, a middle ground position. Which is that there must be absolute truths, but he didn’t know them. Why that’s important, is that gives a reason for the dialogues. When Socrates questions people about beauty, honour, justice, truth – I finally mentioned the big words philosophy is after, right, you know. When he talks about them, they all sound like pompous words today. I just feel crazy, you know, discussing philosophy today. Because, in a society, sort of, where – as one modern philosopher put it – cynical reason prevails, the very use of these words is bound to sound like advertising slogans.
That’s the objective context within which people who try to teach what I teach have to fight a kind of historical battle. Because how in the hell can I compete with… well… I am on television right now, “Hello”… ah, no… How can I compete a huge media and advertising industry that uses these same words that used to code the most important things about human beings, as the characteristics of products, which you can get in a mediated way by consuming them. It’s just so difficult then to re-establish, sort of, their meaning.
But for Socrates it was crucially important to try to get at the meanings of these words: truth, beauty, goodness, courage, justice, and so on. And it was important not only for its own sake, but for what it would tell him about himself and about his fellow citizens. So, it was a profoundly civic act. Thus, when Socrates was found guilty at his trial, he suggested that the state should not execute him, or even send him to exile, but rather should put him up as a public figure to be supported by the state forever, for the service he performed for them. Okay? Which at a Greek trial was not a good counter-sentence. It was liable to irritate the Jury, right. You know, it could really tick off the Jury. It didnt seem to hurt in the Olly North affair, but you know, Socrates probably didn’t have that good a speech coach or whatever.
In any case, let me give the argument that Socrates gives against relativism. Because it’s one of our little philosophical tricks we learn from him, and may itself be a piece of Sophistry. But, against people like Protagoras, Socrates would argue as follows, and this is probably familiar to at least some of you. He would take the proposition – “the truth”, for example being one important concept – “the truth is relative”. About which he would ask Protagoras: “Is the sentence you just uttered – ‘the truth is relative’ – itself a relative truth, or an absolute one?”. Well, if Protagoras or some other Sophist responds that its an absolute one, then there is such a thing as absolute truth, and they’ve discovered at least one of them: that the truth is relative. On the other hand, if the truth is relative, then if you hold Socrates’ view that there is such a thing as absolute truth, you are absolutely right too. You see how the dilemna works? Either way the relativist responds, a space is opened up into which it’s possible to search for truths that transcend the here and now. Because… even if there is one absolute truth – that there aren’t any – so then you might begin to say, “Well, there might be others; you figured out one, maybe I could too”. On the other hand, if you respond the other way, then at least a view like Socrates’ is still absolutely right, because everybody is absolutely right. Of course Socrates is too. So this famous, sort of, self-referential problem continues to this day to be sort of a thorn in the side of what I will call “Sophomoric Relativism”. It really is a problem, for that position.
Okay… back again now to the human meaning of the Socratic project. And now I am going to do just a little biography, which is not really… well, biography of this kind is supposed to have some kind of philosophic import. Not only was Socrates… ugly, and sort of a pain in the… behind, but the people that he questioned on the various topics in order to find out more about himself, and about his fellow citizens, were experts. And this is another point where I will like to contrast us with modern society. It’s really hard to imagine a citizen publically confronting Dan Quayle, and being allowed to go on for thirty minutes on the… well since Dan Quayle reads “The Republic”, he reads Plato, so he ought to be able to do this, right? What is it? He tries to read Plato, that’s I guess… that’s different. Anyway, to get a Socratic parallel, you would need to imagine another free citizen encountering him, and going: “What is statesmanship?”. See, all the Socratic dialogues are sort of – the Socratic ones; Plato writes other, later dialogues – the Socratic dialogues are all of the form: “What is X?”, where the X in question will be one of these important words to human beings. So you go, “What is statecraft, or politics?”, and he will go to someone who is understood to be an expert by the society, you know, in that. If its courage, he’ll go to a General, and ask: “What is courage?”.
Now, I think how Socrates got in trouble – other than being ugly and irritating – was that as he questioned these people, it became apparent that they didn’t have the faintest idea of what the hell they were doing. Which is a feeling I get every time I walk into a mall. I look at people and I would like to just say something like: “What are you doing?”, and you know, after you get the word “shopping”, what the hell do you suppose they’d say? “Well, it’s Saturday, and everybody’s gotta be somewhere…”, and you know… I mean, Socrates would, like, nail you and keep going with that “What are you doing?” question. Where “What are you doing?” caried the connotations of more than just right now, but, “What are you doing with your life? What is it about? Does it have a theme? Is there anything important going on?”. Which is an even more important question today, when the planet is full of more people, right?, than have lived in the whole previous history of the world. We need an answer to that, just to justify taking up the amount of air we do. There are so many people on the globe, we are in somebody’s way right now. So, it’s good to have an answer to the question of “What the hell are you doing?”.
So, philosophy… I’d like to start this course with the banal question that we should at least try to develop some answer on our own life to a question as simple as “What the hell am I doing?”. And, you would be surprised. I mean some of you go: “Well, I know what I’m doing”. Well Socrates’ presumption was that if you thought about it long enough, you wouldn’t be so sure. You wouldn’t be so sure about it. In any case, I was talking about how he got in trouble… and trying to get into a little trouble too, maybe.
Socrates would… confront a General, a Statesman, a Poet, you know, a great Artist: “What’s great art?” Well, we know the kind of answers you get there, if you ever read the interviews with William Faulkner. Aren’t we all glad that he wrote… that he didn’t know what he was doing? Because if he was doing what he said in his interviews he was doing, the books would have been just… eckkkk. But, because he didn’t know what he was doing, we were lucky, the books were great. Thank God they are not as stupid as what he said about them, see? And Socrates would ask a poet: “What are you doing?”, and the poet would say some completely off-the-wall stuff. Thank goodness they expressed themselves as poets and didn’t have to explain themselves. But the Socratic drive was to get people to explain themselves.
Now, a social thing had happened in Greece that was unfortunate for Socrates was that the young would gather around to listen to these conversations. And, you can imagine a scene something like this, where some young people gathered around Dan Quayle – forced not to leave, and nobody to pull him away – in a thirty minute discussion with a clever person like Socrates, about Statecraft. One can imagine a sort of, 15 or 16 year old today raised on Public Enemy and MTV, the kind of hilarity that might arise, and the irritation that Dan might feel, trapped in such a situation. He would consider it “trapped”, but for the Greeks, it would be of the essence of a free person to be in a situation of dialogue. In any case, that’s another difference.
In any case… this got him into a lot of trouble, and was another factor that led up to the rather dramatic title of this book – which is really just a collection of the various dialogues – about “The Trial and Death of Socrates”, which led up to his trial and subsequently being sentenced to death. So philosophy has, in terms of human values, I think, a rather noble beginning. It begins on a quest for meanings that transcend the here and now…
…these, for me, are not necessarily universal, and certainly have more to say about local conditions than universal ones. I do think we can make historical comparisons, I have been doing that pretty routinely up here. But he thought that these questions had something profoundly important to tell us about what human beings… were.
Now, one further point that I want to make about Socrates and about the Greeks’ way of life – as it will be presented throughout here – and this is by way of sort of distancing myself from a rather standard presentation of Socrates. We now know, that what are called “the Greeks”, and what I have been referring to as “The Greeks”… we know that from the scholarship of African Americans and others, that this was largely – and my whole lecture has been based on this text, and I don’t mind evoking these Greek values, because I think they are still very important, but you should have this note of suspicion – and that’s that largely it was 19th century German scholarship that as it were, invented the Greeks for us. I mean, at one time, they were just, you know, like in the 16th century, they were one among other earlier civilisations.
The 19th century Germans, I don’t know if you know this, were extremely impressed with the Greeks. It’s kind of obvious if one looks at their art or reads their literature, right? They were very impressed with the Greeks, and what they found out about them. In any case, the Greeks as understood today, through that tradition is the only possible topic that I could bring up here. Because in a certain sense – and this is not a relativist argument – the past is only accessible through readings and reinterpretations of the past, in the absence of a time machine. I mean, I think that’s at the basis of our wonderful time machine fantasy of our history. Because all of us would kind of like to know what it was really like. You know. What was it really like.
The trouble with the past is it’s kind of like the present; we don’t know. I mean, we don’t know what it was really like. And our further worry is that even if we had been there, the odds that people who have been socialised to speak an informational language, not to seek these things that are advertising slogans to us. It’s very doubtful we would understand what the hell was going on if we were there. It might sound as peculiar as it does to my students to be forced to read these things… “What the devil is that? All this time talking about beauty? About goodness? I mean, good grief”.
I would like to now make a historical point about something that philosophers today are more aware of than they used to be, and which is important. Not all kinds of inquiry can appear in just any setting. There are conditions for the possibility of certain questions being asked. And in the case of Greek society, they went along with a relatively unproblematic discourse for quite a while, especially during the very high days of their empire, when their empire was in a really secure position. In that social setting, and under those social conditions, there was no Socrates, and no condition for the possibility of there being one. And here is why. Because in the sort of classic Greek language, the one that comes out of the oral tradition of Homer and others, it would be insane to ask something like “What is courage?”, because the response – which many of you may have had in the back your mind as I was speaking – would be: “Don’t you have a dictionary?”. In other words, we all know what it means. We have got a cohesive society. We are unified, it’s like about the war now, we’re all together on this. We know what courage is. So there would have been no space for the Socratic inquiry.
It was only after a rather unpleasant experience in a war; Greek war, some of you may know about it. Kind of a famous war. Good journalists back then too: Thucydides, fairly decent journalist. Could have got a job with “The Post”, probably. But after a tragic experience with the war, and a military dictaroship, the words that had become standard in their culture, and had been used unproblematically with meanings attaching to definite positions, began to be sources of irritation.
And so, the ground and the possiblity for Socrates’ inquiry was not really his individual genius, although that itself is a nice thing; I am not against it. But it was not possible except against a background of a society that had deeply begun to question what these words really meant. And one can’t help but think – for example, to try to make this parallel come alive – that the radical questioning that has been going on about the cannons of knowledge; the instruments of knowledge, has not been profoundly effected – as Time magazine admits – but no… it’s clear that the current struggle over the cannon and the meaning of these classic texts, all of which… I have selected only classic texts for this course. I am not going to read them necessarily, or discuss them in necessarily a classic way… but the point of all this questioning is that after this countries’ experience in the 50’s and the 60’s of both the civil rights movement, anti war movement, counter culture and so on, it became again a problem to say: “What does it mean to be, for example, a good woman?”. Well, there was something, sort of, in 1951 that that meant that clearly is a matter of debate now. Okay. Is that a good example? It’s pretty clear.
Well, I’ll pick one that is a little more controversial. “What’s a patriot?” became a matter of debate. In, sort of, 1954, it was not all that confusing. And I am old enough to remember people not being confused by it. I think people want it to not be non confusing again, desperately. They may want it more than they want even money, which is amazing. The point is that philosophy – philosophical inquiry, of the dangerous kind, as opposed to the analytic, boring, academic kind – philosophic inquiry of the dangerous kind catches a society at a moment when its insecure about what the main terms that hold it together mean. Like man, woman, patriot, and in particular: “human being”. So that is the human edge of philosophy. It’s that you catch society at a moment of danger when a term or a set of terms that are very important to the identity of a lot of people are in question. Or possible. That the questioning of it is at least possible. It may be that we are today.
And since I am trying to remind myself as I talk about eternal values – and not being a relativist – and I do think its important to search for values that transcend the here and now. On the other hand, in the time since Socrates, we have become more dubious about eternal ones. Me too. We are all a little dubious about those. But I would like to look for values that transcend the here and now, and for obvious reasons. The obvious reason in my case being that I think the ones that prevail in the here and now suck. Good English word… right? We all know what that means.
By the way, it’s interesting to note – sidebar here, for you ah, amature philosophers who want to read more books of this kind – most of the texts are translated to get those kinds of words out of them. But the language spoken by Socrates, as recorded by Plato, is a quite… is not a fancy language just filled with technical terms… but is a pretty ordinary Greek. And it’s only later, sort of, mid 20th century or early 20th century, when philosophy starts to develop a “professionalised” vocabulary. See, in all its previous history it tried to communicate with at least some class of people. Its only recently that it tries to communicate with no-one. I mean, the Journal of Philosophy. If twelve people go down on the same flight, there won’t be any more Journal of Philosophy. Because its eleven guys writing to this other guy. What I am trying to do today is to broaden out the interest of philosophy a little more than that, to the extent that it means anything more than another niche in an intellectual marketplace…
…intellectual marketplace already filled up with so much garbage, you’d be lucky… it’s kind of like a big sale. You are lucky to find the scarf you want ’cause it’s just filled with crappy scarves, and there’s one you might want. And so, all I can do is to make philosophy and it’s kind of enquiry insofar as it’s critical, insofar as it catches society at a moment of danger, insofar as it asks us who we are, and who our fellow citizens are. I want to make that look important, like an attractive scarf in the pile. I’d like to be able to give it more punch than that, but then I’m speaking in the here and now. In quite a dark moment of the history of this country, in my opinion. One I will discuss at length, and I will in the question period, and outside in the hall, and in public forums, to the extent that it’s still allowed to do so.
In the first lecture, I wanted to just introduce you to some of the things I’ll pursue throughout the lectures. “What does it mean…” – and the grand theme, one that I certainly won’t answer as these lectures progress is – “What does it mean to be a human being?”. I will try to localise the question. Today I have tried to say what it was like – in a way – what was it like; how did the Greeks understand a certain set of human practices. And I have said almost nothing about it, except about the practice of Socrates. So, as we go through these lectures, I’m going to lay out various – what I will call – ways of living. And the Socratic one is one of critical inquiry. And this shouldn’t be understood the way we understand inquiry today; as just sitting on your butt and looking through a microscope – no – inquiry in Socrates’ sense; critical inquiry, is to go around in a kind of passionate search, for what’s really important. Where that itself is up for grabs. It’s not like you know what that is for sure.
Socrates doesn’t just ask “What is truth, beauty and the good?”, he has one dialogue where he asks: “What’s fine?”. And the best translation would be the English “fine” in the sense of: “Boy, you’re finee”, “Isn’t that fineee”. So that doesn’t sound like truth or beauty. The dialogue is about “what’s fine?”. So, I mean, Socrates goes around looking for these things, in order to get a fix on what is important about being human. What’s special about it. In order, also, finally, to disprove the Delphic Oracle who when asked “Who is the wisest man in the world?” said: “Socrates”. And this was reported to him, and he went: “This is nuts, can’t be true, I don’t know anything”. And he finally figured out the riddle of the oracle. He was only the wisest man in Greece, because he not only didn’t know anything, but he had a meta-belief about that. He knew that he didn’t know anything. Very important distinction.
And as I make some of the rather dogmatic remarks that I am going to make through the lecture, I should make my own position as a philosopher clear. I am not a relativist and I am not an absolutist, in the sense in which I have discussed them today. I am a fallibilist. That means something like this. A fallibilist is someone who passionately believes certain things. Passionately believes certain things, some of them quite bizzare, as you’ll find out as we go along. But about those beliefs, I believe that they could be wrong. A peculiarly modern attitude, but one that I find myself forced to, through long, and bitter historical experience. Not only philosophical by the way, but historical in a more bloody and mundane sense. It seems only wise policy both philosophically, and politically to be able to hold a belief passionately, but to hold a belief about that belief that it could be wrong. Some of you may think that’s absolutely paradoxical; that if one must believe something passionately, then you have got to just believe it. And I hope that turns out to be wrong, because it doesn’t seem to make me feel any more schizophrenic that the rest of you to both know I hold a series of beliefs quite deeply, and yet to have a belief about them at another order, that they could be wrong. I mean, I hope that that will work. Anyway.
In any case, that’s not a bad characterisation of the position of fallibilism. And I am a fallibilist about fallibilism. Let me go ahead and go a little further, which means that that whole stance could be wrong. So, I am a fallibilist all the way down, see, because even that way of looking at knowledge could be wrong, and so on. And to be philosophical is not to stop pursuing the question when it becomes inconvenient. It is the opposite, in that sense. The kind of inquiry I want to pursue is kind of the opposite of a televised news conference. Where everyone knows the limits of questioning, and obeys without question like slaves and lackeys. Beneath the level of humanity, of free human beings. Ought to make us ashamed. But philosophy doesn’t behave in that way. Not at its best. It has been known to. In fact, like religion, it has frequently served the powers that be. I am trying to pick out a certain group of philosophers that at their best, don’t do that. At their best they question radically. I want to distinguish that from say, a news conference, where the spectrum of questions are quite simple and very prescribed. And, moreover, the answers are already written. And we could supply them without waiting for the parties to answer.
If you watch enough of this stuff, I mean, you know, I have become a CNN junkie. So now, I can just give the report before they give it. I can just say: “Well, what happened in the war today?” – “We won!”. Short summary of the news: “Lots of them died, not many of us did. We won”. You know. I mean, I heard that for seven years, earlier in my life: “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel”. Well, whenever you see a light at the end of the tunnel, philosophy reminds you that there is at least the dim possibility that the light at the end of the tunnel will turn out to be a cave… a candle at the end of a cave. I mean, that doesn’t mean it is going to come out the other side of anything worthwhile.
Okay… Socrates: know thyself, ask embarassing questions. And yet, try to avoid his fate, which is… don’t be tried, found guilty and executed, unless you are his age. So, I want to leave you with a sort of a joke about philosophy for this first lecture. And that’s that it’s a very interesting question whether Socrates would have escaped from prison – many of you know this story, I didn’t want to repeat it, and waste my 45 minutes – it’s a very interesting question about whether Socrates would have chosen to escape from prison, which was one of his choices, if he had been a 25 year old inquirer, as opposed to a 71-72 year old inquirer. It would have been very interesting. I think the choice would have been quite different. He might then have considered some of his friends’ plans to escape. Certainly we know that later, Aristotle later did. He fled Athens and said “I don’t want them to sin twice against philosophy”.
And I do think that the analogy that I would like to leave your attention on is that this kind of critical inquiry – if it can be carried out at all – can be carried out when societies are troubled. In other words, when the meanings of words become topics for debate and redefinition. And that’s not a matter of just debate, because the way we describe our lives and understand them is intimately and inextricably connected to the way we live them. You describe yourself as an insurance salesman – it’s okay, I’m not mad at any of you if you do that – if that’s all the description that you’ve got, that’s going to structure a certain kind of life. That set of descriptions, and those sets of beliefs. And I want to open up a possibility that there might be a way, even under these conditions to expand such definitions. Maybe not eternal ones, but localisable, and to be American in the last instance, usable ones.