Socratic Wisdom

“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him” (Plato, Apology, Jowett trans.).

The greatest wisdom a human can have is to recognize what we don’t really know. This can be a touchy point, because people who think they just know things they imagine to be true usually don’t like to be told otherwise. But in most areas, the best we can aim for is well-founded belief, which is to say belief that is capable of responding resiliently and in good faith to open-ended Socratic questioning or dialogue, and thus is responsive to the space of reasons. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

“Secondary” Literature

One of my favorite Hegelian aphorisms is that philosophy is inseparable from the history of philosophy. Presentations ordered in the form of “my system of the world” or “the Truth according to me” rather quickly become tedious, and contribute to the misapprehension that there is no possibility of a cumulative development. Far better is a reflexive turn that interrogates the best that has been said before.

Socrates — at least, the Socrates of Plato’s “Socratic” dialogues — inaugurated a related approach, treating serious pursuit of questions as more valuable than supposed answers. Aristotle especially deserves credit for initially showing how such questioning can lead to a truly cumulative development, with many tentative answers along the way. Many later figures approached philosophy primarily as a sort of dialogue with Aristotle or Plato, or meditation or commentary on their works. In the later European middle ages, very extensive catalogs of nuanced alternative views, interpretations, and arguments were recorded by individual authors. This tradition rather suddenly died in the 17th century. In the midst of many scientific and technical advances, philosophy largely regressed from hermeneutic engagement to competing “systems of the world” that mostly talked past each other.

Hegel himself largely initiated serious interest in the history of philosophy. His historical view enabled him to recover the possibility of a cumulative development. Nowadays, philosophers again spend much of their time writing about other philosophers. Very important philosophical work takes place in what is nominally “secondary” literature, and “primary” works are full of secondary references. Without extensive secondary literature, the works of great later philosophers like Kant and Hegel would remain largely closed books. High-quality secondary literature on historical philosophers has especially flourished since the later 20th century, so it is really quite a recent development.

After 20 years of engagement, I have come to include Brandom on the short list of the very greatest philosophers that I can count on one hand. He is the first analytic philosopher to rise nearly so high in my estimation. His Woodbridge lectures revived my interest in Hegel, and overcame my previous deep reservations about Kant. Now, for the first time, in Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust we have a true Great Book by a true great philosopher that is nominally a “secondary” work about another philosopher. Needless to say, it is also a work of great originality. I still look to others for closer textual engagement and a more historical view, but Brandom’s Hegel requires less in the way of apologetics than I ever would have expected from reading Hegel himself.

Nietzsche, Ethics, Historiography

Nietzsche famously criticized received notions of good and evil, and pointed out the inglorious role of “reactive” and resentful thinking about morals. To negatively frame our notions of goodness and virtue in terms of emotional reactions to bad things done by others is not an auspicious beginning for ethics. It results in a bad order of explanation that puts negative judgments of others before positive consideration of what is right.

Nietzsche pointed out that this occurs more often than we might think. A recurring emphasis on negative, blaming attitudes toward other people over affirmative values is unfortunately all too common not only in ordinary life and actually existing religious practice, but across what passes for the political spectrum. We ought to distance ourselves from this, and develop our values in positive rather than negative terms. We should aim to be good by what we do, not by contrasting ourselves with those other people. As an antidote to resentment, Nietzsche recommended we cultivate forgetfulness of wrongs done by others. I would add that we can have strong concern for justice without focusing on blame or revenge.

Like Aristotle, but without ever mentioning the connection, Nietzsche emphasized a certain sort of character development, and effectively advocated something close to Aristotle’s notion of magnanimity, or “great-souledness” as contrasted with small-mindedness. But in common with some modern interpretations of “virtue ethics”, Nietzsche tended to make whatever a presumably great-souled person might in fact do into a criterion, and consequently downplayed the role of the rational deliberation jointly emphasized by Aristotle and Kant.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche seems to have been so outraged by what he saw as widespread hypocrisy that he sometimes failed to take his own advice to avoid dwelling on the negative. This comes out in his tendency to make sweeping historical generalizations. Thus, he presented all religion in a negative light, and even went so far as to blame the “moralism” of Socrates and Plato for many later historical ills, while failing to note his own partial convergence with Aristotle.

Even at the peak of my youthful enthusiasm for Nietzsche, this negative judgment of Socrates and Plato always seemed wrong to me. Textual evidence just does not support the attribution of primarily “resentful” attitudes to either of them. On the contrary, Socrates and Plato began a completely unprecedented attempt to understand what is good in positive terms, and took great care to avoid prejudice in the process.

Partly as a consequence of his sweeping rejection of Socrates and Plato, Nietzsche looked for alternate heroes among the pre-Socratics, especially favoring Heraclitus. (In the 20th century, with different motivations, Heidegger expanded on Nietzsche’s valorization of the pre-Socratics over Plato and Aristotle, claiming that Heraclitus and Parmenides “had Being in sight” in ways that Plato and Aristotle did not. This seems to me like nonsense. As distinct from poetry and other artistic endeavors (which I value highly, but in a different way), philosophy is not about primordial vision or its recovery; it is about rational understanding and development toward an end, starting from wherever we actually find ourselves. While the pre-Socratics are important in a sort of prehistory of philosophy, the level of rational development they achieved was minimal. Extended rational development first bloomed with Plato, and then was taken to a yet higher level by Aristotle.)

Nietzsche also denied the reality or effective relevance of anything like Aristotelian potentiality, claiming that only what is actual is real. The semantic or expressive category of potentiality underwrites logical and linguistic modality, which among other things in turn underwrites the possibility of expressing objective judgments of “should”, as well as of causality, of which Nietzsche seems to have taken a Humean view. The general role of potentiality and modality is independent of all issues of the correctness or possibly prejudiced character of particular judgments.

Nietzsche’s denial of potentiality is thus related to a denial of any objective good and evil. It is akin to other views that attempt to explain values by facts. He thought mostly in terms of actually occurring valuations, and did distinguish better from worse ones, but mainly in terms of a kind of ad hominem argument from great-souledness or small-mindedness.

In my view, he should have been content to point out that many particular judgments are prejudiced or incorrect, and at any moment we have no sure way of knowing we accurately recognize which these are. Objectivity in ethics cannot be assumed as a starting point, but that does not mean there can never be any. Where it occurs, it is a relative status that is the product of a development. (See also Genealogy.)

Nietzsche’s poetic notion of the Eternal Return does in a way partly make up for his overly strong denial of any objective good or evil. The Eternal Return works especially as an ethical, selective thought that distinguishes purely affirmative valuations from others. I used to want to think this was enough to recover something objective that acts like a notion of good as affirmativeness, but that is contrary to what he says explicitly.