On political agnosticism

I am a political agnostic, or at least I try to be.

Let me put this agnosticism in personal context. Just like anyone else, I have my political opinions and habitual reactions to political happenings. I like everyone else suffer from biases that color my view of the world: I “see” more acutely confirmatory evidence for my opinions and can glaze over those that call them into question. I enjoy polemics against leaders from other political persuasion. I can point out evidential support for my beliefs, but such “evidence” is within the context of my prior opinions. However much I would like to attribute my opinions to a superior intellect or access to better information, I simply can’t. I meet intelligent people of varying stripes: those whose opinion agree with mine and others who disagree.

Beliefs are not knowledge. In fact political beliefs can be the very impediment for becoming knowledgeable about that which we tend to overlook or discount. So while I have beliefs, I don’t credit them as being knowledge. They simply are not.

Note that by claiming to be an agnostic, I am not therefore what is called an independent or moderate. For however those labels may take a stance of agnosticism toward parties and partisanship, neither is shy about professing and acting upon their beliefs as if they were knowledgeable.

Well, what to do? How ought I participate in a democratic process? The essence of injustice for Plato is to act upon another without knowledge of the sphere in which they operate, without appropriate respect for the immanent law/nomos of the good in which they know how to effect. Justice is “doing one’s own work and not meddling in the proper work of another.” I cannot see how voting or assuming political office in our current system is consistent with that conception of justice. (See my earlier post “On Tyranny” for some background to my thinking on this.) The positive side of justice to “do one’s own work,” i.e. to accomplish what one knowingly can, obedient to the immanent laws of the production of good in the world. The baking of the baker and the carpentry of the carpenter are positive expressions of just action. But the presumptive meddling of the carpenter in the baking of the baker (or vice-versa) is unjust. Our system is unjust in the Platonic sense of being institutionalized meddling, whether Republican, Democrat, Green Party, Libertarian, etc.

The most heretical-sounding position toward which my philosophical education leads concerns voting. The world is complicated and not reducible to sound-bites and political platforms. Those who pursue zealously the opportunity to rule over others, despite their manifest ignorance concerning the mass of this complication, are hubristic in the extreme. To choose right-wing hubris over left-wing hubris or vice-versa is akin to choosing the color of the whips and chains used against others. Can we really vote knowingly when candidates must practice every form of disguise and keep us diverted from the fact of their own ignorance? Professions of ignorance and doubt are punished at the ballot box. Confident-sounding opinions are extravagantly rewarded. I don’t vote not out of apathy, but in open acknowledgment of my ignorance. I would like to know, but find that I don’t. I am still waiting for the barest evidence of knowledge (even knowledge of ignorance) in those who would presume to rule me and others.

To practice the “political art” of Plato and Socrates in modern America requires, or it seems to me, the following:

1. To pursue excellence in one’s craft.

2. To respect the excellence and autonomy of the other’s craft.

3. To acknowledge that where the other is expert, the other is authoritative for me.

4. Not to participate in systems of meddling, nor act as an authority where one is not — which includes not voting.

5. To pursue political knowledge and work to cure one’s own political ignorance.

6. To question the claims to political knowledge of those who would presume to rule, perhaps leading them or others into pursuing a more just course, such as a humble life in pursuit of excellent work.

7. To acknowledge openly and inquiringly my own ignorance, submitting it to whatever would cure me.

So — in the light of number 5, 6 and 7 above, feel free to correct me in the comments where you find me in error. Make clear to me political obligations that my ignorance keep me from seeing. I truly want to be a good citizen and contribute as I can to a just political order.

Any thoughts?

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?


Rules for Socratic dialectic

From the Gorgias of Plato it is possible to extrapolate a set of rules for Socratic dialectic as it is used in the Gorgias and in the dialogues generally…A compendium of rules derivable from the Gorgias follows:

  • The answers must be short. When Socrates asks Gorgias a question, he answers with a long speech; Socrates requests that he keeps his answers short (448e)
  • Both participants must desire to understand what the argument is about; in this way they advance the argument (453b).
  • Both parties in the dialogue must understand that the one who asks the questions is speaking on behalf of the audience, many of whom are too shy to speak. In short, the questioner is interested not only for his own sake but also for that of people in general (455d).
  • Both speakers must have good will and must be consistent. If both parties are not alike in this respect, the conversation must be ended. If the answerer gets caught in a contradiction — an aporia (the Greek word means “a place of no exit”) — he must not become angry. To be caught in a contradiction is not a disgrace, if one’s answers were sincere; in fact, it is a blessing, for now he knows that what he thought was in error. And surely, Socrates says, no person wants to be in error (457d).
  • Each interlocutor aims at getting the other to be a witness to what the interlocutor has said: what the other is to be a witness to is the truth of what has been said, for such agreement means that the arguments square with reality. If such an agreement is not reached, nothing will have been accomplished (472b, 474a, and 475).
  • When such agreement is achieved, we have friendship. Truth has the power to unite human beings in friendship, but error and falsehooods do not (473a).
  • The dialogue must be between two people only. The practitioner of dialectic must speak with only one person at a time (474b).
  • Contradiction guarantees what is said is not true; if there is a choice between what is contradictory and what is not contradictory, what is  not contradictory, however absurd, must be true (480e).
  • There are three prerequisites of intellectual character for engaging in dialogue (487a): (1) knowledge: each participant must know something and recognize knowledge when he sees it; that is, he must recognize when words square with reality; (2) good will: that is, each participant must have his opponent’s welfare at heart; he must be arguing for truth, not victory; (3) that each must speak freely; that is, each must say what is on his mind and not hedge or equivocate or hold back (487a).
  • Each participant must be aware that repetition does not invalidate truth. No matter how familiar a truth may be to a participant, no matter how trite a truism may sound, he must acknowledge its truth and not turn away out of boredom, looking for something different out of a desire for novelty (490e).
  • Sincerity is essential in each interlocutor: each must say what he believes or the implied contract in the dialectical conversation is broken (495a).
  • Engaging in the dialogue is the greatest good in and for life, for this is to engage in philosophy (500c).
  • All people should compete in the pursuit of truth through this dialectic, for only from sincere, prolonged competition will truth emerge. And truth is a common good for humankind (505e).
  • If an argument is true, one must see what follows from it. In other words, the dialogue must go on, no matter where it leads (508b).

From “Appendix B” of Plato: Gorgias, translated by James A. Arieti and Roger M. Burns, Focus Publishing, 2007.

I think it is worth the effort to meditate slowly over this list and ask why each of these injunctions are important.

By the way, my absolutely favorite translations of Greek texts are those done by Focus Philosophical Library. Arieti and Burns’ translation of the Gorgias is an exemplary edition with a nice critical apparatus. Highly recommended. I just reread Joe Sach’s volume by Focus called Socrates and the Sophists and was delighted in its profundity, particularly Sachs’ introduction to the volume.


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 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:

Republic Slow Reading project, day 5

This is the last of our “slow reads” of Book I of the Republic. Today, we are discussing 350d to the end of Book I, a continuation of the conversation/argument between Socrates and Thrasymachus.

Tomorrow, I will post some observations about Book I that require the perspective of having read the rest of the dialogue. I didn’t want to bring any of this material into the discussion since I thought (1) it would disrupt the close, attentive reading that was our goal, and (2) I didn’t want to “spoil” the rest of the Republic for those who are coming at it for the first time.


1. In 350d Socrates claims that Thrasymachus and he “agreed” that justice is virtue and wisdom and that (more…)