Thursday, February 2, 2023

Socrates and thinking for yourself

There is a popular picture of Socrates as someone inviting us to think for ourselves. I was just re-reading the Euthyphro, and realizing that the popular picture is severely incomplete.

Recall the setting. Euthyphro is prosecuting a murder case against his father. The case is fraught with complexity and which a typical Greek would think should not be brought for multiple reasons, the main one being that the accused is the prosecutor’s father and we have very strong duties towards parents, and a secondary one being that the killing was unintentional and by neglect. Socrates then says:

most men would not know how they could do this and be right. It is not the part of anyone to do this, but of one who is far advanced in wisdom. (4b)

We learn in the rest of the dialogue that Euthyphro is pompous, full of himself, needs simple distinctions to be explained, and, to understate the point, is far from “advanced in wisdom”. And he thinks for himself, doing that which the ordinary Greek thinks to be a quite bad idea.

The message we get seems to be that you should abide by cultural norms, unless you are “far advanced in wisdom”. And when we add the critiques of cultural elites and ordinary competent craftsmen from the Apology, we see that almost no one is “advanced in wisdom”. The consequence is that we should not depart significantly from cultural norms.

This reading fits well with the general message we get about the poets: they don’t know how to live well, but they have some kind of a connection with the gods, so presumably we should live by their message. Perhaps there is an exception for those sufficiently wise to figure things out for themselves, but those are extremely rare, while those who think themselves wise are extremely common. There is a great risk in significantly departing from the cultural norms enshrined in the poets—for one is much more likely to be one of those who think themselves wise than one of those who are genuinely wise.

I am not endorsing this kind of complacency. For one, those of us who are religious have two rich sets of cultural norms to draw on, a secular set and a religious one, and in our present Western setting the two tend to have sufficient disagreement that complacency is not possible—one must make a choice in many cases. And then there is grace.


Walter Van den Acker said...

But how does one really make a choice if not by thinking for oneself?

SMatthewStolte said...

Is that the popular picture? I’d be less inclined to say this picture is incomplete and more inclined to say it’s wrong. Socrates doesn’t think for himself because he doesn’t think by himself. He thinks with others. When his conversation partners don’t share in his love for the truth, he can’t advance the conversation. When Meno refuses to follow the correct order of enquiry, Socrates allows himself to be led by Meno (86c–d) into an unstable dialectical enquiry. They don’t acquire knowledge in the end. Socrates almost gives up his enquiry in the Republic, too. At the end of Book 1, he says he is not satisfied with the conversation, and at the beginning of Book 2, he says that the conversation would have been over if Glaucon had not courageously insisted on continuing. Socrates is fundamentally a dependent thinker, not an independent thinker. The way I read the Euthyphro, the conversation with Euthyphro is a failure, because Euthyphro abandons Socrates. Socrates fails to learn what piety is, and he enters the courtroom unarmed against his accusers. He has no demonstration to present to the jury, proving that he is innocent of impiety, because he doesn’t know what piety is. And it’s Euthyphro’s fault!

And there’s also this from Plato’s Seventh Letter: “There is no writing of mine about these matters, nor will there ever be one. For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself.”

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's at least *a* popular picture. Just Google 'socrates "think for yourself"'.

I really like what you say about Socrates being a dependent thinker.

I suspect, though, that Socrates' worry that one needs great wisdom to depart in significant ways from the surrounding culture applies not just to individual thinkers but to small groups of thinkers. Although I don't know texts that directly address this, I don't think that Socrates would have granted that there are many _groups_ of thinkers that are "far advanced in wisdom" either. There are lots of coteries who think themselves wise, but they are often no wiser than the Athenian citizenry--and sometimes, like the wacky sophist duo of Dionysodorus and Euthydemus, even further from wisdom.

Eric said...

"Thinking for yourself" is often just code for "coming to conclusions that cut against the grain of common sense or custom." But that's not the right way to interpret that phrase. Kant and Mill, each in his own way, both hit upon its correct interpretation.

Whether you're thinking for yourself is only incidentally related to whether your conclusions are unorthodox. The person who sees for herself and can make transparent to others the reasonableness of adopting the custom and the person who sees for herself and can make transparent to others the reasonableness of rejecting it have both thought for themselves. (No one can see the reasonableness of something for you. But as Socrates (and Mill and Kant) argued, nor can you come by yourself to see the reasonableness for yourself: you must think along with others.)

The point is, there's a difference between understandingly (and perhaps autonomously) doing as is customarily done and unreflectively doing as is customarily done. Doing as is customarily done is not necessarily to cede your thinking to the many and is not necessarily evidence of a lack of wisdom.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The encouragement is indeed there. But I wonder if it makes sense from the decision-theoretic point of view. If almost nobody acquires wisdom, and if one has already escaped the illusion of thinking oneself wise, it seems that further inquiry has the following potential consequences for oneself:
1. tiny probability of a large positive payoff: gaining wisdom
2. modest probability of a large negative payoff: becoming full of oneself and thinking one has achieved wisdom when one hasn't.

It's not clear that it's worth the risk, if there are so very few wise.