The pragmatic aim of Socratic/Platonic philosophy


The end of Socratic/Platonic philosophy is practical and not theoretical. Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia said,

“I am growing in goodness and I am making better friends. And that I may say, is my constant thought.”

There is a feedback loop in Platonic philosophy between theory and practice — each is judged against the other. The dialogue form, with its interplay between dramatic form and (partially) theoretical matter, exemplifies what I take to be Plato’s intention. Certainly one finds plenty of speculative metaphysics in the dialogues, but its primary purpose is to orient practice. Any criticism of Plato’s metaphysics, to the extent that one can be accurately discerned, must be contextualized always within its experiential, practical and concrete setting. To interpret Plato rightly, it is important therefore to reconstruct the engendering experience of metaphysical concern.

Take for instance anamnesis — the idea that learning happens through recollection of forms:

“Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things. For as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing—an act which men call learning—discover everything else, if we have courage and faint not in the search; since, it would seem, research and learning are wholly recollection (anamnesis).”  — Meno, 81c-d, translated by W.R.M. Lamb, Perseus Project edition

Taken by itself, it is an incredible doctrine: that we can supposedly understand learning in the concrete by appealing to an prenatal visit by our immortal soul to all the realms of heavenly knowledge. It even contains a contradiction — for if we explain learning by recollection, how is that we “learned” in our pre-bodily state? Why take a simple, mundane question and answer it though the circuit of a two-worlds metaphysics? It seems that we transformed a simple question into a kaleidoscope of complicated ones. Why then does Socrates invoke it?

Pay attention to what Socrates says next:

“So we must not hearken to that captious (eristic) argument: it would make us idle, and is pleasing only to the indolent ear, whereas the other makes us energetic and inquiring. Putting my trust in its truth, I am ready to inquire with you into the nature of virtue.” — Ibid., 81d-e

Socrates here points to the pragmatic consequences of “trusting” the doctrine. His only real claim for it is that it makes searching possible, whereas the assumptions about learning undergirding “Meno’s paradox” (that one can’t search for what what one doesn’t already know, since one must know what one is searching for in order to search for it at all) makes it impossible. Unless one is predisposed to deny the everyday experience of coming-to-know, then one must accept that not-knowing already somehow anticipates what-is-to-be-known. How it anticipates is an interesting question, and an interesting question makes us courageous and vigorous in searching for what we don’t know. Since metaphysical answers are always transcendent to the the questions that give rise to them, to hold such an “answer” is really to hold on to a perpetual question, restless and dynamic.

Notice also Socrates assertion in the first of these quotes, almost an aside, that “all nature is akin” so that everything can be discovered if any one thing is known. This gets to the heart of the phenomenology of anamnesis and points to what I call “defective reading.” To know anything in part is to anticipate the whole of which it is a part. That everything that can be known is subsumed under a larger whole must be what Socrates means by claiming that “all nature is akin.” The Greek work for kinship is suggenes (which we know in Latin as “cognate”) means literally “born together”.  A part is “born” with other parts, sprung from its common parent, i.e. the whole. If I know anything about what it is to be cold, I also know tacitly at least what cold is. If I know hot and cold together, I know something about opposition and difference, being and becoming, appearance and reality…the list goes on. Human knowing, to the extent it is *partial,*  is always haunted, whether in anxiety or desire, by the whole that gives it meaning and thus by the other parts. (Test the “doctrine” — Take a moment to consider any burning question in your life. Has it not been generated by your prior answers to other burning questions?)

I claim that before one can make metaphysical sense of a metaphysical doctrine, one must make experiential sense of it. Whatever is generically true of the experience of inquiry is by that measure metaphysically true in the only meaningful sense. My guess is that whatever metaphysical doctrine does not purchase increasing goodness and better friendship is of no interest to either Socrates or Plato. Metaphysics’ proper fruit is an eros toward truth; it has no other end.

Let me conclude with a profound passage in the anonymous 14th Century contemplation manual, The Cloud of Knowing that speaks to a similar understanding of things:

“Rational creatures such as men and angels possess two principal faculties, a knowing power and a loving power. No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge; but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.”

Excerpted from The Cloud of Unknowing by Edited by William Johnston Copyright © 2005 by William Johnston


A defective reading of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

The “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rainer Maria Rilke is a poem of great power. (Here is a link to the Stephen Mitchell translation, which I recommend you read before proceeding with the rest.) The surprising shock of the final words (You must change your life.) always seem new and true to me, no matter how many times I read it. The poem at once shifts from a detached aesthetic gaze to a hard ethical demand (i.e. subjectivity in Kierkegaard’s sense), from potency to actuality. (It is not surprising to discover that Rilke studied Kierkegaard intently in the years leading up to writing this poem.) Let’s begin by taking the title apart:


Some thoughts on goodness

1. Let’s distinguish between intentional goodness and effective goodness. Any of us can intend something good without that intention being effective, either because: (1) we don’t know or understand what we need in order to accomplish a good end; (2) we lack the power or resources to bring about the good end.

2. By intentional goodness, I mean something that intends concrete performance, and thus intends effectiveness. An intention unconcerned with effect is no intention at all — it is merely a sentiment.

3. Sentimental goodness is a state of feeling approving of some (apparent) good. Such sentiment is not in itself a bad thing; it is even a good thing if it leads to the intentional good. Sentimental goodness is blameworthy when it mistakes the pleasant feelings of the apparent, prospective good with the satisfaction that ought to attend the achievement of an actual good. Sentimental goodness is the good-felt-in-prospect stripped of the difficulties of actually being effectively good. It confuses itself with good intention, when it is nothing of the sort. Sentimental goodness is usually (and prematurely) self-congratulatory.

4. Intentional goodness is still a very good thing, but not as good as effective goodness, since an ineffective intentional goodness would include as one of its aims the cultivation of effectiveness and would consider itself defective until the effective good is achieved. Intentional goodness is a dynamic mean between sentiment and right action.

5. One cannot be effectively good without intelligence and good judgment. It is a duty of intentional goodness to recognize that fact and to act upon it. Intentional goodness that does not concern itself with an education that would make it effectively good is not sufficiently intentional — in fact it is merely sentimental.

6. An intentional goodness that has not reached a level of knowledge or power sufficient to be effective is not blameworthy; in fact it is praiseworthy, provided: (1) it is willing to strive for the requisite intelligence, good judgment, etc. that it lacks, and (2) it defers from acting carelessly outside the sphere of its own competence. If it must act, it should act very carefully, conscious of its ignorance and alert for the means of correcting it.

7. An effectively good person is the only adequate rule of right action. Against such there can be no valid law.

My discovery of the mystery of being

I want to share three experiences from my early childhood that planted in my soul the questions which still motivate me.  These are not academic questions to me at all, but living, concrete, personal provocations for living and thinking. I hope that, by this detour into autobiography (somewhat embarrassing to me), my peculiar questions (and my peculiar way of answering them) will acquire some context for you.

First memory. My father was serving in the U.S. Navy when I was born and so I spent my early years moving (more…)