Here is the fourth lecture of the first week of our course on Plato’s Apology. The accusations could rightly be made against the Sophists, but Socrates argues that he is doing something different from the Sophists. This would have not been obvious at all to his audience of ordinary people in Athens, and he thus takes on the challenge of describing what differentiates himself from the Sophists.
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Plato’s Apology of Socrates, otherwise known as ‘Oh I’m sorry all right, sorry for you losers‘, tells the story of Socrates’ trial, the intellectual life that would eventually lead his fellow citizens to condemn him to death. By the way, ‘apology’ comes from the Greek word Apologia, which means a speech in one’s defense. So, if Socrates seems a little, well, defensive, that’s because he is.
One of the key points of the Apology is an ideal of wisdom as recognizing one’s own ignorance. This may seem like a rather boring cliché. And indeed, it would not be that surprising if Socrates, probably the most recognizable figure in the western tradition, had turned into a cliché by now. After all, as a culture, we have had two thousand years to digest his message.
I’m going to politely suggest that we are still suffering from a form of philosophical indigestion, and that Socrates’ message causes intellectual bowel dysfunction until this very day.
I recently wrote a 1000-word-philosophy article about virtue ethics. In preparing this, I was somewhat surprised to find that people are still very bothered by the issue of explanatory power. Questions of explanatory power crop up everywhere, from introtextbooks to journal articles, from tweets to conversations with random people on the street.
I suppose with a name as cool as explanatory power, popularity is to be expected. I’m imagining a bunch of X-Men (or should it be X-People?) sitting around discussing their powers. “I have laser eyes”, “I have mind control”.
Consequentialism is in there with the cool kids saying, “well, I have X-planatory power. Now listen, you guys could do a lot more good by working as mercenaries and donating your earnings to the world’s most efficient charities.”
Virtue ethics is sadly standing outside in the snow, looking in through the window, their little wool hat decaying in the radiation of the post-apocalyptic world, saying to themselves “I wish I had X-planatory power.”
Don’t worry, virtue ethics! You can come in from the snow. Don’t let that guy with the razor claws bully you about not having X-planatory power. You can actually X-plain a lot. As we are going to see now.
When you think of a philosopher, what is the first thing that springs to mind? You might think of someone like Descartes, wondering whether all that we see around us is in fact a hallucination created by an evil demon; someone like Socrates, describing an unrealistic city, gesturing at a world of ideas, or Aristotle imagining the first unmoved mover of the universe. In short, you might think of philosophers as hopeless dreamers, the sort of people who are great to talk to, but who should not be allowed to operate any heavy equipment, to take the helm of a political system, or to go around corrupting the youth.
Then again, you might think of someone like Aristotle, gathering shellfish on the shores of what is now Turkey, developing the beginnings of a method of science; or a Helen Longino analysing the social practice of science. That is, you might also think of someone who applies critical thinking skills and an ability at abstract thought to do the same things we do every day: make decisions, uncover the truth, eat lunch. Only philosophers do it better.
For example, you might order a delicious steak for lunch. The philosopher will apply their abilities at abstract thought and critical thinking skills to order an organic quinoa salad. They may then proceed to offer painfully cogent arguments about why you should have ordered the same thing. They will thereby “win” at having lunch, perhaps at least in the sense that you will no longer have much chance of enjoying yours. If such a philosopher ever got elected to office, they would probably administer a nauseatingly pragmatic centrist government. (Not thinking of anyone in particular, M. Macron) Martha Nussbaum calls this kind of philosopher “a professional human being”, but ordinary people call them extremely annoying.
This may sound like material for a BuzzFeed quiz called “what kind of philosopher are you?”: salacious, but not exactly deep. But it actually has significant implications for philosophical method. In particular, whether you think of philosophers as hopeless dreamers or professional human beings is likely to shape what you think of a thing called “The Method of Endoxa”.
My article on virtue ethics is now up at 1000-Word Philosophy. I’m honoured to be able to contribute to this awesome project, which is bringing really accessible introductions on a wide range of fascinating philosophical topics. If you want to dive into an issue, it’s good to start there just to get your bearings, before heading deeper. I have enjoyed and learnt from a lot of the pieces on that page. I think many of them are great for launching an initial discussion in a philosophy classroom as well.
I want to add that the process of producing this piece was particularly rewarding. The editors provided in-depth comments on content and style that helped really lift the piece. It is rare to get such detailed and helpful feedback. I am very grateful for the time and energy they put into it.
Addictive substances: tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol have been with us for a long time. But the mechanisms of these substances are shrouded in chemistry. The nice thing about ‘behavioral cocaine’ is we can more or less see how it works. And this will help us to understand some of the most important problems about the position, called desire satisfaction theory, that what is good for you is just getting what you want.
If you Google “philosophy degree useless”, you will find a good deal of protest. Kristina Grob, writing in America Magazine, maintains that philosophy not only prepares you for “a wide range of jobs, the kind that can lead to more skilled mid-level positions later on“, but argues that it is excellent preparation for standardized tests such as the GMAT, GRE and LSAT. Now, admittedly, America Magazine is a Jesuit publication and we would expect those troublemakers to speak up for the world’s oldest profession. But I couldn’t resist a quote that temptated me with the promise of a more skilled mid-level position in the indeterminate beyond.
Besides, similar arguments abound among the secular: George Anders, writing for Forbes, claims that philosophy degrees are the hottest in tech. Michael Austin, an ethics columnist for Psychology Today, cites shaky Payscale data to support the bold proposition that philosophy may be “not so useless” and moreover that it will lead to relatively high salaries mid-career (thereby worsening behaviour at pedestrian crossings). The Huffington Post’s blog reprints a quora answer by none other than Richard Price, the founder of Academia.edu, arguing that philosophy is useful for entrepreneurship in that it helps to “slow one’s mind down.“
I know a more reliable, faster, and less expensive way to slow one’s mind down: and the best thing is, it’s a form of green technology…