The inescapablity of tradition

The greatest changes of all come not as a thief in the night, as the oak-tree from the acorn. The most radical of thinkers is soaked in tradition; he spends a lifetime bending ancient ideas to a slightly different use, and his followers soon revert to the familiar pattern while still mumbling the novel terms. And it is so: men can work only upon what they have inherited. Fresh experience and novel problems they must understand with instruments they have learned from those who came before them. New ideas they must grasp in the concepts they already know, for they have no others; new habits they must work slowly into the accustomed pattern of their lives.

— J. H. Randall, The Career of Philosophy, quoted in Kostas Kalimtzis, Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease

 

Some thoughts:

1. We cannot think in a vacuum. We never start from scratch. Even to reject a tradition is to be rooted in it.

2. A sentence is a vehicle of thought, a carrier of meaning, but the meaning of a string of written or spoken words is never confined to those words. Words neither initiate nor complete the meanings that they summon. Words have both histories and destinies, both of which are part of what the words “mean.”

3. Like any doxa, a tradition has both its satisfaction and dissatisfaction. The traditionalist is one who would remain comfortably ensconced in the satisfaction, against which the dissatisfaction is seen as threatening to his repose. The rebel would view the positive accomplishments of the tradition as excuses against participation in the energetic demands created by dissatisfaction. Both the satisfaction and dissatisfaction, affirmation and denial, are partial glimpses into the truth that tradition makes possible.

4. Fidelity to a tradition demands that we remain attentive to the dissatisfaction to which it gives rise. Every valid rejection is grounded in an affirmation that we have (perhaps unknowingly) inherited from our tradition.

5. We don’t reach truth by either simply rejecting or accepting doxa, but by thinking through it and by it.

The Divided Line as organizational key to Plato’s Republic

In my last post, I gave a very compressed explanation of the four segments of the Divided Line Analogy. (Republic, 509d-511e) But the Divided Line can be best understood by using it as an overlay for different parts of the Republic — then the parts and whole of the dialogue are mutually illuminating. The Divided Line Analogy is the representative of the whole; it give the logos or ratio of the parts in relation both to each other and to the whole itself. ( It took me about a decade of reading and rereading to figure all this out.) Here is a schematic version of some of those overlays, each of which I hope to unpack in future posts:

 

THE CAVE ALLEGORY
First, we need to distinguish the three main levels, each with its own type of object:

1. bottom level — where the prisoners sit shackled. The only “objects” are the shadows and echoes.
2. middle level — the level of the puppets, puppeteers and fire. A partition divides this level in two: (a) a front side in which only puppets are seen; (b) a back side, where one can see the puppets, the puppeteers and the fire.
3. top level — the ground outside the cave opening. The objects of attention here are the animals-themselves, the plants-themselves, and the light of the sun.

Given those three levels, one of which is divided by a partition, we get the following four “stations”:

1. eikasia — (Level 1) — turning from the shadows on the cave wall;
2. pistis — (Level 2a) — seeing the puppets on the front side of the partition wall;
3. dianoia — (Level 2b) — seeing the puppets, puppeteers and illumining fire behind the partition wall;
4. noesis — (Level 3) — emerging from the cave.

 

THE GENESIS OF THE CITIES
The parts of the Divided Line map to the four gradations of city in Books 2 through 5. (These divisions come from Eric Voegelin’s Order and History, Volume III: Plato and Aristotle.)

eikasia — Primitive City (369b – 372c)
pistis — Luxurious City (372c – 375c)
dianoia — Purified City (376e – 448e)
noesis — Philosopher’s City (449a – 541b)

 

THE VIRTUES
eikasia — justice/dikaiosyne
pistis — courage/andreia
dianoia — moderation/sophrosyne
noesis — wisdom/sophia

 

THE TRIPARTITE PSYCHOLOGY (See Republic, 436a-b)
eikasia — desiring-part/epithymia
pistis — spirited-part/thumoeides
dianoia — calculating-part/logistikon
noesis — not included. Thus, Socrates calls the threefold scheme, “deficient.” (504b)

 

THE MAJOR CHARACTERS
eikasia — Cephalus
pistis — Polemarchus
dianoia — Thrasymachus, Adeimantus, Glaucon
noesis — Socrates

 

IGNORANCE – OPINION – KNOWLEDGE (See Republic, 477a – 478e)
eikasia — ignorance/agnoia/aporia
pistis — opinion/doxa (as belief)
dianoia — opinion/doxa (as hypothesis)
noesis — knowledge/episteme

 

FOUR “DRAFTS” OF THE REPUBLIC (discussed here)
eikasia — A first aporetic (i.e. unsatisfying) draft, i.e. Book I alone.
pistis — A second poretic (i.e. satisfying) draft comprised of Books I – IV and Books VIII – X
dianoia — The final written draft, i.e. the Republic as we have it.
noesis — The *real* final draft — the teaching of the Republic realized in the soul of its reader.

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.

What Socrates claimed to know

There are only a few places in the entire Platonic corpus in which Socrates claimed to know anything, at least as far as I have been able to discover:

1. “I claim to know nothing aside from erotic matters…” — Symposium, 177d. (Ta erotika could also be rendered variously, “erotic things,” “the erotic,” “erotic matters”)

2. “It is certainly not conjecture to say that right opinion and knowledge are different. There are few things I would claim to know, but that is among them at least…” — Meno, 98b

3. “Come then, tell me this, [Euthydemus] said: Do you know anything? Certainly, [Socrates] replied, many things, though trifling.” — Euthydemus, 293b.  (The relevant objects of knowledge are qualified as polla, i.e. “many,” and as smikra, which is “small” or “unimportant” or, as I have rendered it in my translation, “trifling.”)

4. “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us seems to know anything great and good; but he imagines that he knows something, even though he knows nothing; whereas I, not knowing anything, do not believe that I do. In this trifling thing (smikron) then, I seem to be wiser than he is, because I do not believe that I know what I do not know.” — Apology, 21; (It must be said that this is the closest as Plato’s Socrates ever gets to saying, “I know that I do not know.” Literally, this is not what is said, although it is not clear how recognizing one’s lack of knowledge could ever be doubtful if recognized at all. Notice that this recognition of a difference between himself and the one claiming wisdom is also called a “trifling thing.”)

Is there some way in which Socrates’ few admitted objects of knowledge — (i) the difference between opinion & knowledge, (ii) erotic matters, (iii) many trifling things, and (iv) one’s own ignorance — are related in some way?

 

Whom to believe?

I recently listened to a debate/conversation between atmospheric scientists on both sides of the climate change debate. The conversation was unusually civil and I learned a lot from it. Now, I’m not here to tell you about whom to believe concerning climate change. I admit to my ignorance of the facts and science (although I am fully aware of the headline facts and the headline science.)  I simply don’t know enough to be much of a partisan for either side, and I am just not able to devote the time to attain a PhD level in atmospheric science. I fully admit that the question matters, but we can only do what we can do. Better to admit ignorance when the knowledge is out of reach. This post is about thinking how we might generally justify assuming any belief at all. Here are a few ideas:

1. We are stuck with beliefs; there is no getting around our practical need for them. We believe a host of things we cannot prove but which have proven reliable for the purpose of governing our lives. Our minds would be terribly impoverished, our worlds much more circumscribed, without the treasury of beliefs that we learned from teachers (who learned them from their teachers.) I can confidently assert that holding belief can be quite reasonable and that to refuse belief altogether is unreasonable.

2. I believe quite confidently that the earth traces an elliptical orbit around the sun. I haven’t taken made the careful observations or done the math necessary to ground that belief. I just trust the scientists on this one. More than that, I trust the self-correcting process among the community of astronomers. I understand the scientific method and how it operates and I grasp why trusting its results is better than merely speculating on matters of physical fact.

3. The self-criticism is an essential feature of the process. I want to see that the purveyor of belief is appropriately critical of his/her methods and sources. If any supposed knower dismisses a legitimate doubt or qualm out of hand, then I would recommend not trusting him/her.

4. I trust no one who is not transparent about how he/she came to believe what he/she knows. Every belief comes with a genealogy that shouldn’t be suppressed.

5. An authority ought to be frank about the caveats and boundaries of their knowing. All empirical knowledge reaches a limit beyond which certainty breaks down. All empirical knowledge has a range of reasonable confidence, outside of which it must confess its ignorance. Knowledge must be self-aware of these limits/caveats.

6. I tend not to trust people who grow shrill or angry in response to critical questioning.

7. I trust no one who’s best defense is an ad hominem attack on the other side.

8. The public advocates of politically-charged scientific positions had better be humble in the face of questioning, willing to accept their critics as potentially reasonable people, or I pay them no mind.

9. Some situations are critical in the sense that refusing to believe in such situations is practically to take a side. In a crisis, not deciding is as consequential as deciding. (Perhaps the global warming debate is of this type. I am still trying to decide.)

10. Beware of mood affiliation in which we trust/distrust a line of argument based on how we feel about its conclusion.

11. Similarly, we must try to work around our own confirmation bias and seek out the most reasonable advocates for the position we are biased to disbelieve. An abundance of “proof” is not our friend when we are in the grip of this bias.

12. We, and by extension our preferred authorities, ought to be open about our susceptibility to bias and be able to demonstrate the steps we have taken in our own learning process to overcome it.

On political opining

How much do you know about Ukraine? Or better, how much did you know before the recent political turmoil there? For my own part, I must confess I knew pitifully little. I have of course never been there. I knew bits of trivia, like the fact that its capital is Kiev. I knew about the Crimean War (vaguely) and that Florence Nightingale made her reputation there. I have read just two books that are located (at least partially) in Ukraine: one is Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, the other is Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, which has a horrific description of the Stalinist manufactured famine of 1932-3. I remember somewhat Ukraine breaking away from the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. And I knew that it was a fertile agricultural land, the “bread-basket” of the USSR. That’s pretty much it.

Since the recent crisis, my treasury of facts has increased quite a bit. I have a nice little wikipedia education on aspects of Ukrainian history. I have read a couple of decent essays on Ukrainian/Russian relations. I went from knowing next-to-nothing to knowing next-to-next-to-nothing. Good for me.

Yet, I know more than enough to offer a strong opinion on the Ukraine. I can sound really learned in an argument with other poorly-informed opinionated persons. (I am pretty good at sounding smart about something I know little of.) We opiners can really go at it, getting angrier in turns, at each other if we disagree or someone else (Putin or Obama or the opposition party perhaps) if we agree. Of course, we will think the person who disagrees with us is ignorant or poorly informed without noticing that we are as well. And in a representative democracy, this rhetoric has an effect as our representatives fall all over themselves to ally themselves to the majority opinion, to voice strongly the pundit-manufactured opinions of the poorly informed, and they are armed with confident-sounding phrases decorated with a few decontextualized facts. The result can be utterly tragic. Let’s hope it is not in this case.

Do we understand what we are doing when we do this? One of the aims of the Platonic dialogues is to make the strong case about the dangers of assertive, immoderate doxa/opinion. When talk is cheap we forget that it is also consequential. Countering doxa with a louder, contradicting version of the same type of doxa leads to an ever increasing scandal. We must be critical of punditry as such, not just the pundits with whom we disagree. (Nate Silver recently tweeted: “Never would have guessed how many political pundits also happen to be experts on Crimea.”) Let’s remember that pundits get paid to be opiners, not knowers.  Making clear to ourselves and others the ignorance inherent in opinion is the only antidote that I know for the chief political disease.  But that requires a kind of self-critical thinking that is much less fun in a world that celebrates rhetorically effective opinion. In all the hubbub about this crisis or that, what has really escaped notice is that philosophy is always the proper response.

Here are a few of my former posts on the nature of opinion: here, here, and here.

What is tyranny?

The original meaning of tyrannos is not bad/oppressive rule, although it did come to mean that, but rather rule by someone foreign to the jurisdiction in which he governs. Not coincidentally, the word itself seems to be a foreign term ingested into the Greek language, perhaps during some epoch of occupation by a foreign power. To cite one well-known example of this relation between tyranny and foreignness: Oedipus Tyrannos isn’t given that epithet for being evil but for being raised outside of Thebes — Oedipus for the most part seems to have been considered a good ruler. So how does the word “tyrant” come to mean what we now take it to mean? (more…)

What grounds opinion?

The short answer is that nothing grounds an opinion. If it were grounded, it would constitute knowledge and would no longer be opinion. OK, what settles opinion then? Obviously, there are many opinions and to hold a particular opinion is to settle on one rather than moving on to another. To answer this question, I will rely on the schema of the tripartite soul in Book IV of the Republic. The tripartite psychology articulated there results from Socrates pointing out that the soul is often in conflict with itself, which he takes as evidence that the soul has parts. The city/soul analogy leads (more…)

The Relation between Knowledge and Understanding

Knowledge and Understanding are intimately related, and yet different, operations. In my post on The Phenomenon of Questioning, I made the claim that “Knowledge is parasitic on understanding — we can’t really know what is not meaningful to us…One may certainly have another type of relationship to someone/something that isn’t understood, but that relationship is not knower-to-known.” As a follow up, I want to explore a bit the differences and relationship between knowledge and understanding. I will be relying on some of the insights from my (more…)