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9 January 2019updated 05 Apr 2022 2:00pm

Philosophy must be dragged out of the ivory tower and into the marketplace of ideas

In the first of a new series, we look at what Socrates’ life can teach us about human understanding.

By Aaron James Wendland

According to one founding myth, philosophy begins with an obstreperous old man being put to death for pestering his fellow citizens about the nature of justice and courage and other such virtues. Needless to say, execution is hardly an auspicious way to start a new academic discipline. But Socrates’ death, his characteristic doubt, and his tireless attempt to engage Athenians in dialogue tells us a great deal about the essence of human understanding.

Death indicates a limit on our apprehension of things. To see what this means, imagine the infinite understanding often assigned to God. As an immortal, infallible, and omnipotent creator, God immediately knows every last thing. Indeed, the whole of creation is said to take place within God’s being, and this suggests God is always in direct contact with reality. We humans, in contrast, can’t see everything. In fact, most of reality stands apart from us as a thought-provoking mystery. And as finite beings, our understanding is always tied to a given perspective on things.

Take a rose, for example. A physicist may say it consists of a certain set of particles and the forces that act between them. A chemist can explain its basic compounds, whereas a biologist might describe the ecosystem required for a rose to grow. An economist can identify its exchange value, an artist may depict its beauty, and a lover ought to appreciate its romantic significance. Each of these perspectives teach us something about a rose, but none on their own explains all there is to know. So, to expand our appreciation of the world, we need to accept the incomplete nature of our knowledge, question our own perspective, and adopt alternative points of view.

Socrates, for his part, embraced the finite character of human understanding. “Real wisdom is the property of the gods,” he said when on trial for his life. And he famously claimed his distinctive insight consisted solely in this: “I do not think I know what I do not know.”

Socrates’ rejection of any pretense to divine understanding and his doubt over the extent of his own knowledge drove him to question the customs and traditions of his city. Indeed, he spent most of his days trolling, in both senses, the agora: a public square and marketplace where nearly every important debate in Athens took place. Here Socrates would interrupt the daily activities of everyone from doctors and lawyers to poets and priests, and then he would challenge and press them on their deeply held beliefs.

More often than not, Socrates used his superior skill in the art of argumentation to highlight the limitations, inadequacies, and contradictions in a particular person’s point of view. In doing this, he left many of his interlocutors unconvinced and even gained a reputation as a sophist: a professional orator who could play with words to make the weaker argument the stronger.

Ultimately, Socrates’ irreverence for Athenian practices, his persistent inquiry into the essence of things, and his uncanny ability to annoy his fellow citizens led to his undoing. In fact, his peers found his way of arguing so irritating that a greater percentage of them actually condemned him to death than thought he was guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth.

Unsurprisingly, Socrates saw his radical questioning in a different light. Specifically, he took himself to be a “gadfly” who, through his stinging criticism, was able to stimulate the reflection required for genuine understanding and a bona-fide education. And while most Athenians were uncomfortable putting their customs and traditions to the test, Socrates developed a following amongst a motley crew of open-minded students, merchants, aristocrats, and dramatists. These disciples took Socrates’ challenge seriously and not only cast doubt on their cultural inheritance but began to formulate new answers to tough questions about happiness, human flourishing, the ethical basis of our actions, and our comprehension of reality itself.

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The critical exchanges and fruitful dialogues Socrates initiated with his friends and colleagues defined the subsequent practice of philosophy. Indeed, the Socratic method of asking hard questions in order to encourage reflection, draw out the unwarranted assumptions of an accepted view, and then posit something new characterizes the movement of our intellectual history, generally.

Aristotle, for instance, found fault in Plato’s account of the good life in which reason dominates our unruly passions, and Aristotle’s criticisms paved the way for the Epicurean claim that our passions have a positive role to play in our well-being. Similarly, Einstein’s response to anomalies in Newtonian mechanics led to a shift in our understanding of the universe, and Einstein’s theories were largely responsible for the major technological advances in the 20th century.

With Einstein’s work we have come a long way from a grumpy old man in Ancient Greece accosting his fellow citizens in the agora, and the aim of our new column is precisely to drag philosophy out of the ivory tower and put it back in the marketplace. Practically speaking, we plan to provide a space for publicly minded thinkers to draw on their education and experience in order to address contemporary social, cultural, and political issues from a philosophical point of view. In doing so, we intend to provide our readers with insightful, intellectually stimulating, and provocative commentary from a slightly different angle.

Following Socrates’ lead, the column is also designed to be a site for reasonable debate over contentious issues, with the goal of fostering dialogue between engaged citizens across the ideological spectrum. In short, “Agora: A Market Place of Ideas” is meant to carry on the Socratic legacy – though we certainly hope our contributors are spared Socrates’ fate.    

Agora is moderated by Aaron James Wendland, assistant professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics and the co-editor of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Heidegger on Technology. Follow him on Twitter at @ajwendland.

You can read other columns in the series here.

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