More on Protagoras

I want to continue some thoughts about what may be gleaned about Protagoras’ reputation in preparation for reading the dialogue named after him. (Link to previous Protagoras post.) The dramatic date of the Protagoras is around 433 BCE. Since the character Protagoras was probably the most famous intellectual in the world at the time, an adequate reading of the dialogue demands that we review what has been said about Protagoras outside the text itself, even if the source material is somewhat dubious. What follows are a few quotations from Diogenes Laertius’ “Life of Protagoras” along with my comments on them. Of course, it must be remembered that Diogenes Laertius lived 600 years after Protagoras, so these passages should be taken for what they are — legendary vestiges of popular rumors:

 

1. He was the first person who asserted that in every question there were two sides to the argument exactly opposite to one another. And he used to employ them in his arguments, being the first person who did so.

COMMENT: The sophists were notorious for being willing and able to defend either side of an argument. Protagoras was accused of “making the weaker argument stronger,” a charge often leveled at Socrates as well. But all genuine thinking must (more…)

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Democracy and the ‘Wisdom’ of Crowds

In an earlier post, “On political agnosticism”, I shared my struggle with participating in electoral politics in a way consistent with Platonic notions of justice. (Please understand that I am not advocating that anyone else adopt my practice of not-voting — perhaps it is my understanding of Platonic justice that is in error.) In this post, I want to think against myself a little bit.

Perhaps democratic elections are a phenomenon of the type described by James Surowiecki’s (excellent) book “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  There Surowiecki provides some vivid examples of crowds converging on truth through the aggregation of their untutored guessing. A few of the more impressive of his illustrations:

1. In 1906, the British scientist Francis Galton attended a livestock fair, which had as one of its diversions a contest to guess the weight of fat ox on display. The closest guess would win a prize. Each of the 800 contestants paid 6 pence each to enter the contest. The participants were a diverse lot. The crowd of guessers included some who might be presumed to have some particular expertise in reckoning weight such as butchers and cattle farmers, but a fair number of non-experts competed. The correct weight was 1197; the average guess of the crowd was 1198 — a nearly perfect guess!

2. In 1968, the U.S. submarine Scorpion disappeared in the North Atlantic and the Navy had only a vague idea of where it may have gone down. Although the search are was a seemingly manageable twenty miles in diameter, it may have well have been the entire ocean given the great depths involved (many thousands of feet). Something closer to pinpoint accuracy would be required to find a submarine on the bottom of the ocean. The Navy consulted a variety of experts with diverse forms of knowledge relevant to the task, not only submariners but oceanographers, meteorologists, mathematicians and salvage men. Again the results were aggregated (although this time not averaged but employing Bayesean updating of the original guess based on the various inputs.) When the submarine was originally found five months later, it was a mere 220 yards from the aggregated result.

Surely these two examples are impressive pieces of evidence for the value of the aggregation of guesses. Perhaps something similar happens in a democracy. You may be biased one way and I in another, so that, when we vote, our biases cancel and our best notions converge toward something like a good result. Perhaps good governance can be the emergent effect of a lot of good and bad surmises — the bad guesses tend to cancel and the good guesses tend to converge. (Since two opinions may or may not be in agreement; two knowers always are.) That is the hope that lies behind our faith in democracies, yes?

There is a problem though. The “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon is only effective if the guesses are uncorrelated with each other. For a democratic process to converge on wisdom, the voters must be diverse and independent of one another. But in a media saturated age, they rarely are. The voices of the loudest demagogues and media sources cause the aggregation of bias, and not distributed wisdom. The scandalized response of each side to the bias of the other side then tends to enforces each bias rather than cancelling it. So if we imagine independent opinion scattered in a bell-curve pattern around a virtuous mean position (which is a presupposition of the wisdom of crowds phenomenon) then the correlating of bias leads to the extremes to be favored over the virtuous mean. We get a choice between biases and not a choice that contributes to the dampening of bias. This is the absurd position toward which elections in the media-age lead us. Pick your poison.

You can see this problem of a contaminating correlations in committees. The wisdom of crowds only function if there is sufficient diversity of opinion in the group. Assuming that diversity exists (i.e. rarely), a vote should be taken right away, before anyone sways the opinion of anyone else. This is not what happens. Instead, the committee will discuss the issue; and the less confident will become swayed by the more confident, decreasing the diversity and increasing the correlation with the bias of the more confident. When the vote is taken, the dominant bias is confirmed, the very bias that we hope to eliminate by aggregating diverse opinions. Committees often produce results that are dumber than the sum of its parts. Perhaps you have noticed.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it…good and hard.” — H. L. Mencken

Where diversity of opinion is lost, the demos becomes an ochlos, an undifferentiated crowd. The “motives” of a crowd are by their very definition purposeless and random. A crowd usually moves toward whatever attracts its basest impulses. Since cultural/personal advance must often move against the gravity of the pull of mere sentiment and appetite, the target of those playing to the crowd must often be the civilizing forces that urge moderating checks on appetitive behavior, along with hatreds, resentments and fears. The result is usually not pretty.

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” — Soren Kierkegaard

Now, I am certainly a believer in the distributed wisdom of the many in a society. I agree with the proponents of democracy that everyone has something vital to contribute to defining the concrete ends of politics. I do not want to hand the reigns of society over to “experts” who disregard the people’s true interests. (FYI — I don’t think Plato did either.) I simply disagree that the mechanism of voting for electoral candidates is a productive means for teasing out the collective wisdom that is the aim of a virtuous politics. I think the virtuous political path can never be to turn my ignorance into power at the ballot box.

It opens the question as to what Socrates meant when he said in the Gorgias that he was the only practitioner of the “true political art:

“I am one of the few Athenians perhaps indeed the only one who studies the true political art, and that I alone of my contemporaries put it into practice, because what I say on any occasion is not designed to please, and because I aim not at what is most agreeable but at what is best.” (Gorgias, 512d)

Is the “true political art” really just the Socratic form of pedagogy? And can it serve as a model for virtuous practice for anyone else? Why isn’t Plato’s Gorgias at the forefront of political education?

The testing of souls

I still ascribe to the quaint notion that philosophy is ultimately about living well. Everything else — epistemology, ontology, ethics, metaphysics, etc. — is valuable to only to the extent it is interesting, since interest points us toward what is vital in life. A corollary (too often neglected) is that each of us should apply ourselves to abstract notions of living well only to the extent they illuminate the concrete act of living well. (This is why I shrink from teaching classes in ethics — the academic concern tends to overwhelm the performative.) Whatever habit formation is required to translate from abstract philosophical theory into the concrete cultivation of practical wisdom is also part of philosophy, in fact, its most important part. Let me therefore distinguish the theoretical component of philosophy from its performative component. The former can be inscribed with ink on paper, but the latter can only be inscribe on a living soul and is not reducible to ink.

I can, by own admission, therefore only point or gesture toward this difference. One of the first things to understand both (more…)

Ignorance as absence and presence

Ignorance is an absence. But to call it merely an absence is to leave the matter incomplete. An absence is always an absence of, just as hunger is the absence of nourishing food and darkness is the absence of light. Absence is a marker of intentionality and without an intended presence, there is no absence. So ignorance is an absence of something — let’s call it wisdom.

Ignorance, like any absence, is in some sort of dynamic relation to that of which it is deprived, i.e. wisdom. (The idea of a nothingness without this relation to some quality of positive being is not even thinkable. This was the chief insight of Hegel’s Logic, that being and nothing both presuppose becoming.) Absence is not featureless — it has a phenomenal character defined by what is dynamically felt as missing. It is an intermediate, a metaxy, between emptiness and fullness. Ignorance is one mode of an encompassing desire to know.

Yesterday, I posed two platonic questions:

1. Which sort of human beings are those who learn, the wise or the ignorant?

2. Do learners learn what they know or what they don’t know?

Let’s try to answer them in some way. The questions in the Euthydemus dialogue are posed by a sophist, one who is ready to pounce on anyone who takes a side of the either/or dilemma. But however ignobly intended, the questions pose a serious question for the lover of wisdom. A true answer will have to avoid the either/or and must hazard the potential confusion of a both/and. I say hazard, because we can easily get trapped in an equivocation of terms if we are not careful. In one sense, we must distinguish between the ignorant and the wise and prefer the latter state to the former. Let’s call the one who is wise in this good Socratic sense, WISE (with a capital W), and similarly the one who is ignorant in the bad sense, IGNORANT. The two mental states will remain uncapitalized.

I have just made the case (I think) that there is no ignorance without dynamic relation to wisdom. Is the opposite also true? Is there a (human) wisdom that does not contain within it at least a kernel of ignorance? I think that the answer is negative: all human wisdom is also in dynamic relation to an enfolded ignorance. The character of this relation of ignorance-to-wisdom and wisdom-to-ignorance must be encountered differently by the WISE and the IGNORANT. Let’s try to spell this out:

The WISE recognize, even if tacitly, that ignorance is in relation to the wisdom of which it is the deprivation. Wisdom is already anticipated in the experience of ignorance. This anticipation guides the search for the wisdom that would overcome the ignorance. It is now a commonplace of mathematical heuristics that naming the unknown is a powerful first step to solving problems. Naming the unknown makes it focal, rescues it from a state of nonrelational absence and places it into relationship with the known features of the problem. The WISE are those who take ignorance as a positive marker of the to-be-known. Self-knowingly claiming the ignorance, setting them in dynamic relation is WISDOM and WISDOM is always learning.

The IGNORANT on the other hand have lost the dynamic connection between ignorance and wisdom. To them, ignorance and wisdom are contradictories, not just contraries. Wisdom-without-igorance and ignorance-without-wisdom are binary, static, lifeless possibilities. Accepting the either/or presupposition of the question is already to be stuck in ignorance. Learning is not possible in either state.

Teaching that is based on the either/or understanding of wisdom/ignorance is a lifeless thing. Real teaching must keep the student aware of his/her ignorance not only before the learning event, but also during and after.

Two questions on learning

Here are two questions (both from Plato’s Euthydemus dialogue) that can provoke much thought:

1. Which sort of human beings are those who learn, the wise or the ignorant?

2. Do learners learn what they know or what they don’t know?

I will leave you to ponder those for a day before commenting myself. Try to think about what those questions open up concerning the nature of learning.

Philosophy and conversion

One of the chief teachings of Plato is that the aim of philosophical pedagogy is periogage, i.e. conversion. In Book VII of the Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon:

“Education is not the sort of thing certain people who claim to be professors claim that it is. Surely they claim they put knowledge into a soul it wasn’t present in, as though they were putting sight in blind eyes…

But the current discussion indicates…that this power is present in the soul of each person, and the instrument by which each ones learns, as if were an eye that’s not able to turn away from darkness toward the light in any other way than along with the whole body, needs to be turned around along with the whole soul, away from what’s fleeting, until it becomes able to endure gazing at what is and at the brightest of what is, and this, we’re claiming, is the good…

Then there would be an art to this very thing…this turning around, having to do with the way the soul would be most easily and effectively redirected, not an art of implanting sight into it, but of how to contrive that from someone who who has sight, but doesn’t have it turned the right way or looking at what it needs to.   — Republic, translated by Joe Sachs, 518b – d.

One of the frustrations of teaching philosophy in a university setting is the narrowly circumscribed (more…)

Ignorance and Pedagogy

This post is something of a coda to my previous slow reading assignment of Book 2 of the Republic. There, two young brothers of Plato, Glaucon and Adeimantus, revisit the Thrasymachus argument that a just life is worse than an unjust one, despite (i) having just witnessed Thrasymachus “losing” the argument to Socrates, and (ii) expressing the firm belief that the just life is better. They do not waver in the belief and yet are willing and ready to put that belief at peril by making Thrasymachus’ argument even stronger. Belief as such always includes a residuum of doubt, and the brothers voice this doubt as a way of encouraging further thinking with Socrates’ help. Socrates is amazed at his students. (So am I when the same thing happens to me among my own.) This has encouraged me to think again about belief and thinking. I hope this isn’t too repetitive, but here goes:
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