Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Examined Life

The Winter Quarter here at Ohio University is drawing to a close: the last week of classes is coming up, then there is a week of final exams and then a week for Spring Break. I have been remarkably fortunate this term: I taught a seminar on Plato's Theaetetus that has been, in the twenty years that I have been teaching, one of the very best classroom experiences I have ever had. It's nothing to do with me, mind you--the success of the seminar has been due entirely to the quality and intensity of the student involvement in the project.

I teach Plato in most of my courses. In my Introduction to Philosophy course I have students read the Gorgias and selections from the Theaetetus. In my survey of ancient Greek philosophy we read those dialogues and selections from many others. The Plato seminar is usually dedicated to the intensive study of a single dialogue or very small group (two or three) of dialogues. Often the class has only four or five people in it, but for some reason this particular instantiation of the class drew an enrollment of 19. When I realized that nobody was going to drop the class I began to panic, because that many people often means that the seminar format has to be abandoned: there simply isn't enough time for the intensive discussion and lengthy student reports that are the hallmarks of the traditional seminar. But I decided to stick with my original plans and see how it panned out.

I'm very happy that I did, because the 19 people in that seminar have been some of the best and brightest students I've had the pleasure to work with. Just because of their numbers, I suppose, a considerable variety of viewpoints has been represented, and class discussions have been interesting, challenging, and fruitful. To give you an idea of how closely we read the text: the Theaetetus is roughly 100 pages long; the seminar meets for two hours twice a week for ten weeks; we just barely finished the text. Although that averages out to about 2.5 pages per hour, there were some meetings where we spent the entire period discussing a single argument covering only two pages. If anybody was skipping class regularly, I did not notice: the room in which we met barely seats 20, and it always seemed to me as though it was standing room only in there.

Of course I would like to say that the instructor has something to do with the success of the class, but I can't say that in this instance, and for two reasons. First, I'm not at all sure that all of the students would agree with me about how great the seminar actually was. Some of them might have been showing up only because they didn't have anything better to do, or because they were afraid that maybe I would notice regular skipping and take vengeance at grading time. If anyone was simply going through the motions like that, however, they did a remarkably good job of disguising their true attitude behind a veneer of animated curiosity, and for that I'm grateful. But I suspect that the real reason for the success of the seminar has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Plato.

Many of Plato's philosophical dialogues center on the search for understanding--usually the search is nominally limited to the understanding of some central normative term, such as piety, justice, friendship, courage. In the Theaetetus the search is for an understanding of knowledge itself. Somewhat typically, however, the dialogue comes to an end before the participants in the conversation have satisfied themselves that they do, in fact, fully understand the nature of knowledge itself. I say "typically" because many of Plato's dialogues end in this way, with everyone agreeing that a fully satisfactory answer to the question at hand has yet to be achieved. This continued puzzlement (aporia in Greek) can be interpreted in many ways. Superficially the most obvious interpretation is that Socrates has, in fact, accomplished his mission, if the mission consists of nothing more than demonstrating to his interlocutor that it is dangerous to think that you know all about something when in fact you know very little about it. This is what Plato has Socrates say of his own mission in the work called Apologia, Plato's account of Socrates' speech in his own defense at his trial in 399 B.C. The way it is put at the very end of the Theaetetus is as follows (210c):
And so, Theaetetus, if ever in the future you should attempt to conceive or should succeed in conceiving other theories, they will be better ones as the result of this inquiry. And if you remain barren, your companions will find you gentler and less tiresome; you will be modest and not think you know what you don't know. That is all my art can achieve--nothing more.
Students sometimes find this aporia to be something of a stumbling block. They tend to want answers to questions, not further questions. Plato, however, appears to have conceived of philosophy in just this way: it is not the sort of domain of expertise that yields ready and obvious answers to clear and unambiguous questions. It is, rather, a dialectical process, a cooperative search for the truth. In some cases, as the Theaetetus nicely illustrates, much progress can be made in the absence of any great discovery of some new fact, some new result. In the immortal words of Aerosmith, life's a journey, not a destination ("Amazing"). Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Late in one session of the Plato seminar a student voiced a concern about this conception of philosophy. It is depressing to think that philosophy makes no progress, he said. What is the point of studying it, if we can gain no advantage over Plato or others in the history of the discipline by continuing to study the great issues and questions that they raised? It is a very good question. Arguably it is the question that every parent asks upon hearing that his or her son or daughter has decided to major in philosophy: what the hell are you going to do with that? Philosophy will never cure any disease other than ennui. Whatever truths are out there to be discovered by philosophy have already been discovered, and long ago--probably before even Plato. So why continue to study it at all?

It's tempting to say: Because ennui is a real disease, and it's destroying the youth of America--but I'll resist that temptation. There are even better reasons to study philosophy. Philosophy is not like physics, that's true enough, or chemistry, or medicine, or even mathematics. I'm not going to argue that it "teaches you how to think" or anything of that kind, although I've certainly heard plenty of folks claim that to be philosophy's greatest virtue. I've found that people generally already know how to think before they come to college--they just need to hone their skills a little, that's all. My own experience has been that Plato was right: one studies philosophy for its own sake. In doing so, you do not discover any new truths about the world. Rather, everything that you discover in studying philosophy has to do not with objective truths about the world, but with self-knowledge. Socrates claimed, in the Theaetetus (150c):
The common reproach against me is that I am always asking questions of other people but never express my own views about anything, because there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough. And the reason of it is this, that God compels me to attend the travail of others, but has forbidden me to procreate. So that I am not in any sense a wise man; I cannot claim as the child of my own soul any discovery worth the name of wisdom.
In other passages in other dialogues Socrates (that is, Plato, using Socrates) draws a distinction between two kinds of ignorance. One kind is the straightforward ignorance of objective facts for which no one can be held morally blameworthy unless they claim to know something that they know full well they don't know. But the other kind, which Plato appears to have regarded as a moral failing, is ignorance of the fact that one is ignorant--a kind of ignorance of one's own limitations with regard to expertise. Although Socrates always professed to be ignorant in the first sense, he admitted that he did not believe himself to be ignorant in the second sense--the sense that, for Plato, was far more important. It was precisely because Plato regarded Socrates as wise in this latter sense that he regarded Socrates as the paradigm case of a wise person.

If it accomplishes nothing else, philosophy will teach you about your own limitations, even as it illumines the limitations of others. You come to understand very quickly that, not only is there no such thing as progess in philosophy, but there is not really any such thing as progress at all, other than the banal sort that allows us to build better bridges or manufacture better textiles, machinery, and medicines. We are more technologically advanced today than the ancient Greeks were, but morally, psychologically, philosophically--in any really important sense, we are no further than they. In some ways, I imagine, we have yet to catch up with them.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. We have plenty of time to catch up, and for the philosopher, catching up is far more than half the fun: it's all the fun.
Perhaps someone might say: But Socrates, if you leave us will you not be able to live quietly, without talking? Now this is the most difficult point on which to convince some of you. If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less. What I say is true, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.

--Socrates, Apology 38a

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