The trifling knowledge of Socrates

As I listed in a previous post, Socrates (in the Platonic dialogues at least) claims to know only a few things:

(1) erotic matters;  (2) that there is a difference between knowledge and right opinion; (3) many small/trifling things; (4) his own ignorance.

At the end of the post listing the actual texts, I asked whether or not there may be anything that these bits of knowledge have in common. Let me give a stab at collecting them together within a single logos:

1. Erotic matters. Can we love something that we know anything at all about? Mustn’t we have some precognition of what is moving us to longing? In an early post in this blog, I discussed a phenomenon known as “felt absence” in which we are aware of something missing. I think this awareness of absence is at base an erotic phenomenon. [Perhaps I should note here that “erotic” does not mean narrowly “sexual” as it does in our culture. Eros can refer to any strong desire for consummation that is fueled by a sense of one’s own lack.] I may not yet “know” what it is I am after, particularly in the regime of intellectual eros, but I have at least a presentiment of knowledge that (a) makes the lack of knowledge present to me in a dynamically effective way, (b) guides my pursuit by strengthening or weakening as I get closer or farther from the object of desire, and (c) indicates a difference between what I have and what I want. Such knowledge is far from “trifling” to a philosopher, but is so to those who value fullness over lack.

2. The difference between knowledge and opinion. Notice that Socrates doesn’t claim to know what the difference is, only that there is such a difference. The fruit of Socratic virtue is to cultivate a dissatisfaction with mere opinion. The goal is not to jettison any opinion that fails to rise to knowledge for that would be to jettison all thinking. The goal is not to cultivate dissatisfaction as an end in itself, but as a goad toward that knowledge of which it is the presentiment. It is to cultivate a dissatisfaction specific to the opinion at hand, as an avenue for exciting an eros for the knowledge that it already intends yet lacks. The effect of the difference between knowledge and opinion is eros, an eros directed toward and hungering for a consummating knowledge. Knowledge of the difference between opinion and knowledge is a desire for knowledge growing out of dissatisfaction for a particular opinion.

3. Many small/trifling things. Clearly we can be sure that Socrates does know many things, that the sun is or is not shining for instance. All such things are true but not existentially urgent, i.e “trifling.” But I think there are other things Socrates knows that are trifling to those who consider ignorance a trifling matter, easily dismissed. Most prefer a strong opinion to the hesitations of doubt. But opinion is always partial. To the extent that opinion intends knowing, this partiality is always subordinate to some animating, comprehending whole. Desire for knowledge of the whole, which is the root of philosophical eros, is reflected in every still-partial opinion. There is felt difference between an opinion and the knowledge that would perfect it. Socrates “knows” an ignorance correlative to every bit of opinion he holds. For each opinion, there is a knowledge of specific ignorance related to it. 

4. His own ignorance. We have already seen how knowledge of ignorance informs every other nontrivial claim to knowledge that Socrates makes. Self-knowledge of his own ignorance is at the root of all of his other claims to knowledge.

My root hypothesis is merely speculative, but at least plausible: that Socrates had ignorance-seeking-knowledge in mind when he made his various claims to knowledge. Socrates prefers the desire for knowledge to the satisfaction of mere opinion. The former is better because it has a potency for knowledge that the latter lacks. His desire is not directionless, but is informed in each case by the defects peculiar to his best available opinion. To describe his profound knowledge of ignorance as “trifling,” is just as ironic as to call ignorance “knowledge” in the first place.

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