Tag Archives: Plato

Serious Conversations, 11

“When in the Republic Thrasymachus says that justice is in the interest of the stronger, and Socrates starts to question him about this, Thrasymachus should hit Socrates over the head,” writes Robert Nozick in Philosophical Explanations.

He concedes too much when he enters an activity, discussion, that assumes that there is some mark of correctness and rightness other than (and superior to) strength. Similarly, there are norms of discussion that Thrasymachus draws upon — for instance, that anyone’s objection put seriously and sincerely ought to be replied to — and these norms, too, are incompatible with the position he states. Must the stronger also reply to an objection, if it is not in his interest?

Nozick returns to Thrasymachus’ surrender in his discussion of moral dialogue:

When someone raises a moral objection to something we are doing or planning, we feel we owe him an answer, a moral answer. It will not do simply to hit him on the head or to shrug our shoulders. An ethical egoist would reply only if he thought doing so was in his own interest; we feel we have to respond with moral reasons. (However, we do not have to expend our life’s savings to track down the person who objected and then went off to travel in inaccessible places. We ought to respond, prima facie, although this ‘ought’ can be overridden by other considerations.) Only by responding are we treating him as a value-seeking I; the only way to respond to his requesting moral reasons or raising moral objections, the only response to it qua that, is to offer moral reasons in justification or defense of our actions, to engage, if need be, in a moral dialogue with him. (Recall our earlier remark about how Thrasymachus undercuts his own position by engaging in discussion.) To engage in moral dialogue with someone is itself a moral act, whose moral character does not lie solely in being an attempt to get at the moral truth, or in being a vehicle to change and deepen a personal relationship and thereby be a means toward resolving moral conflict. Rather, (sincere) engagement in moral dialogue is itself a moral response to the other’s basic moral characteristic [as a value-seeking I], apart from its being a means toward satisfactory accommodation with the other. It is itself responsive to him; perhaps that is why openness in moral dialogue, considering carefully and responding closely to the concerns of the other, so often is an effective means toward resolution of conflict. When each is aware that the other is responsive to his or her own (valuable) characteristics in the very act of discussion and in the course the discussion takes, then this noticing of mutual respect is itself a force for good will and the moderation of demands; the altered conditions created by the dialogue may fit different moral principles so that new solutions are appropriate.

A moral dialogue of this sort is an especially clear example of a mutual value-theoretic situation…where each participant is responsive to the other’s basic moral characteristic, is aware that the other is responsive to her own, and is responsive to the other’s responsiveness, is aware of the other’s second-level responsiveness and is responsive to it, and so on….We want to be in mutual value-theoretic situations; only then is the value in us (including our own value responsiveness) adequately answered. Hegel’s discussion of the master-slave relation elaborates how domination thwarts this; the master cannot force this responsiveness from the slave, and unless the master shows responsiveness to the slave’s basic moral characteristic (but then he could not remain his master) the slave cannot respond to that.

Sourcing a Philosophy Quotation from Twitter

Everybody loves quotations. There are handbooks of quotations, compendia and florilegia of memorable words, inspiring sentences and big thoughts; there are books and websites and RSS feeds and Twitter accounts that will provide you with a daily trove of memorable and notable and quotable sayings. Many of these rely on terrible translations of primary texts; they rarely include a citation (a title, a page number, chapter and verse, a Stephanus number or anything along those lines) that will allow you to track the original down; and some are just downright wrong in their attribution. I suspect this is the case because compilers and publishers of quotations are not drawing on primary sources but on compilations and collections of quotations. Any trace of the original has been long ago lost.

Today, for instance, a Twitter bot (I assume it’s a bot) that publishes philosophy quotations posted this: “knowledge which is divorced from justice, may be called cunning rather than wisdom.” The quotation was attributed to Cicero.

I’ve been interested in “cunning” for a while now, but I’ll leave that for another time. My curiosity got the better of me, and I wanted to have a look at what Cicero actually said. I certainly wasn’t going to get anything out of that ungainly English translation.

I managed to find the source of the quotation in De Officiis (I.xix.63). The first thing that struck me was this: the quotation attributed to Cicero is itself a quotation. He is quoting Plato — “praeclarum igitur illud Platonis”:

This then is a fine saying of Plato’s: “Not only must all knowledge that is divorced from justice be called cunning (calliditas) rather than wisdom,” he says, “but even the courage that is prompt to face danger, if it is inspired not by public spirit, but by its own selfish purposes, should have the name of effrontery rather than of courage.”

A gloss in my Loeb edition (which includes the Walter Miller translation I’m quoting) directs the reader to a dialogue of Plato’s called Menexenus.

It’s a very curious dialogue, not least because it consists almost entirely of a quotation.

The argument here puts us in familiar territory: it concerns rhetoric and its power to lift the spirit, celebrate the city, praise even those who “may not have been good for much,” and intoxicate citizens by flattering them. Socrates himself upon listening to the speeches of the funeral orators becomes “enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater, nobler and finer man than I was before.” Only four or five days later, he says, does he come to his senses.

The rest of the dialogue demonstrates the sort of thing Socrates is talking about. At the urging of Menexenus, a young, aspiring politician, Socrates recites a speech his own teacher and Pericles’ consort, Aspasia the Milesian, has prepared for an upcoming public funeral. The speech is a sophisticated parody of the public funeral oration. At the very least it re-opens the question of Pericles’ legacy and its political influence. (More on all that here and here.)

Though the speaker for the funeral has not yet been chosen, Aspasia has decided what the speaker should say. “She repeated to me the sort of speech which he should deliver, partly improvising and partly from previous thought, putting together fragments of the funeral oration Pericles spoke but which, as I believe, she composed.” So even this speech is not entirely original, but a patchwork; and “every rhetorician,” Socrates says, “has speeches ready made.”

In any case, the relevant passage – the passage to which Cicero seems to refer – finds Socrates quoting Aspasia who is, in turn, quoting the “heroes” she has been celebrating in her funeral oration, or at least what they “desired to have to said to you who are their survivors…. I will tell you what I heard them say, and what, if they had only speech, they would fain be saying, judging from what they then said. And you must imagine that you hear them saying what I now repeat to you.”

With Socrates quoting Aspasia who – in a self-conscious allusion to Thucydides — is quoting what the dead heroes would have said, we arrive at what seems to be the original:

Whatever is your aim let virtue be the condition of the attainment of your aim, and know that without this all possessions and pursuits are dishonourable and evil. For neither does wealth bring honour to the owner, if he be a coward; of such a one the wealth belongs to another, and not to himself. Nor does beauty and strength of body, when dwelling in a base and cowardly man, appear comely, but the reverse of comely, making the possessor more conspicuous, and manifesting forth his cowardice. And all knowledge, when separated from justice and virtue, is seen to be cunning and not wisdom; wherefore make this your first and last and constant and all-absorbing aim, to exceed, if possible, not only us but all your ancestors in virtue. (246E-247A)

Which may, in turn, answer this passage in Pericles’ funeral oration (Thucydides 2.40): “We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it.”

Will Entrepreneurs Usher In the End of Social Science?

Karl Popper did more than most writers in the twentieth century to debunk the toxic idea of scientific planning and managment of society — and the corollary idea that there could be a social “science” deserving of the name.

Popper’s masterwork in this area, The Open Society and Its Enemies, first appeared in 1945, in the aftermath of World War II. It is a sustained, at times passionate philosophical attack on social planners and utopians from Plato to Marx and their pretensions to scientific rigor. Small wonder, then, that Popper would be out of favor in most academic circles. (The charge I’ve most often heard levelled against him by academics is that he is a “positivist,” as if spitting out the word itself was sufficient argument; and yet Popper himself wrote wisely and critically of positivism. So I was never sure exactly what he was being accused of, but it was clear his accusers had their backs up. Could it be because in Popper’s pages they found themselves and the philosophers they most admired ranked among the enemies of openness? Or was it simply that they had never bothered to read his work, but took it on faith that he was among the heretics?)

And yet, even as Popper has never really been fully appreciated (or understood?) by the windy authorities who fill chairs in humanities and social science departments around the country with the ever expanding girth of their knowledge, he has gained on another front: in the real world, Popper’s thinking may be having a more profound influence on thinking about social change than anybody could have ever anticipated.

Let me take a step back here and observe that most thinking people with some practical experience easily ignore academic judgments on books and philosophers. (I count that a good thing.) Instead, they find another measure in conversation with people they trust and in the observable practical consequences, both intendend and unintended, of a philosopher’s ideas. So it’s worth noticing that George Soros claims in official biographical statements that that Popper had “a profound influence on his thinking and later on his professional and philanthropic activities.” Popper, the poo-pooed positivist? None other: he was teaching at the London School of Economics when Soros arrived, in 1947. Soros’ Open Society Institute even takes its name from the title of Popper’s book. Maybe there’s something to all that open society stuff, after all.

Of course, being admired by one of the world’s richest men is not necessarily a recommendation. (Consider Ivana Trump.) And people who wear their philosophical credentials on their sleeves are usually suspect — as are organizations like the German bank I came across a while ago, somewhere online, that claims to draw inspiration from Popper’s work. But the successful entrepreneur who made his way to America from Eastern Europe and made his fortune in the world financial markets has earned some credibility, and even his detractors must acknowledge that he is one of the most successful or at least one of the most visible social entrepreneurs.

Did Soros learn to be a social entrepreneur from Karl Popper? Probably not. In a 2000 interview, he claims he used to be “opposed to social entrepreneurship,” but now, he says, he’s a believer. What brought on the conversion? Not anything he read, I assume, but more likely things he saw and consequences of things he did. Still, it might be the case that Popper’s work in the second half of the twentieth century nicely anticipates a trend in the first decade of the twenty-first century away from the profession of a social “science” and toward the practice of social entrepreneurship. Or at least it provides some of the necessary philosophical underpinnings for that trend.

But it’s not simply a question of whether Popper’s work will be vindicated or whether it will outlast the inanities that currently engage social scientific mind. Of course it will. There’s a bigger question worth considering. Could it be that the century of social science is now yielding to the decade of the social entrepreneur? And that the trend toward social entrepreneurship could usher in the end of social science?

Certainly all the intellectual momentum is with the social entrepreneurs; social scientists and their tag-alongs in humanities departments may have mass but they don’t have velocity, and you need both for momentum. You can get a sense of some of the intellectual ferment around social entrepreneurship on sites like Social Edge (or the blog that Paul Light keeps for Social Edge), or have a look at Ashoka. Better yet, follow the money in the non-profit and economic development sector and you’ll see that social entrepreneurs are stealing all the thunder from social scientists.

And there’s a simple reason for that. The entrepreneur already belongs to the social world as an agent of change; she is a participant, not an outside observer pretending to disinterested objectivity or aiming to make a final report. There is nothing final or definitive or authoritative about the work of the entrepreneur; it’s partly an act of faith in market forces and in unintended consequences, which implies a deeper faith in the power of self-interest and human ingenuity, people’s real world aspirations, and the informal networks in which individuals share and communicate and work together.

Of course, to ask whether the trend toward social entrepreneurship marks the beginning of the end of social science also raises more serious questions — about the future of education, for instance. The question who will guard this new breed of self-appointed social guardians is a more serious one still, and one that Popper himself would have asked.