George Watson, "Socrates' Mistake"

George Watson. The American Scholar. Washington: Spring 2005.Vol.74, Iss. 2;  pg. 78, 10 pgs
Subjects: Philosophers,  Knowledge,  Philosophy
People: Socrates (470?-399 BC)
Author(s): George Watson
Document types: Commentary
Publication title: The American Scholar. Washington: Spring 2005. Vol. 74, Iss. 2;  pg. 78, 10 pgs
Source type: Periodical
ISSN/ISBN: 00030937
ProQuest document ID: 844582071
Text Word Count 4469
Document URL:

Abstract (Document Summary)
In the fifth century before Christ, as Plato tells in early dialogues, Socrates asked the Athenians--friends, enemies, and strangers--what their concepts meant, as if the unexamined life were not worth living. The mistake is still being made--the most potent and long-lasting mistake, it seems likely, in all Western philosophy. It is all potent above all in education, and it would a rare student or professor who dared to question it. Watson discusses the philosopher's view of knowledge--forever demanding explanations, justifications, definitions, and criteria--which is a fantasy and a dangerous fantasy.


Full Text (4469   words)
Copyright Phi Beta Kappa Society Spring 2005[Headnote]

The philosopher's view of knowledge-forever demanding explanations, justifications, definitions, and criteria-is a fantasy,
and a dangerous fantasy

In the fifth century before Christ, as Plato tells in his early dialogues, Socrates asked the Athenians-friends, enemies, and strangers-what their concepts meant, as if the unexamined life were not worth living.

The mistake is still being made-the most potent and long-lasting mistake, it seems likely, in all Western philosophy. It is potent above all in education, and it would be a rare student or professor who dared to question it. The candidate who writes "I know the answer to this question, but I cannot say what it is" gets no marks, understandably. Hard to see how he could. In debates about moral and critical theory, too, logocentricity has long been the rage, and in La Nouvelle Critique a generation ago it was taken for granted that you do not know what you cannot say-which meant you did not know much. As Sartre, that supreme logocentric, put it in What is Literature1?, "I distrust the incommunicable."

Socrates talked in the marketplace and on public highways; and uniquely among the great philosophers, he left no writings. But it can be more dangerous to question than to answer, and in 399 B.C. the Athenians condemned him to death. His disciple Plato kept an academy and left dialogues, however, and might be called the first European academic, teaching the need for explanations of the moral life. It is not enough just to be good. He may even have anticipated the jet-set academic of the present age. At least the tyrant of Syracuse invited him to Sicily to advise him how to govern, with unhappy results, and his pupil Aristotle, in his turn, taught Alexander the Great. The modern passion for explanations, justifications, and criteria starts here, and among intellectuals-ordinary people have always known better-it is now largely taken for granted. It is a striking instance of what Montaigne once tartly called l'ignorance doctorale, meaning you would have to be educated to believe anything so silly. If you cannot explain, in that view, you are useless. If you cannot answer, you do not know. If you cannot justify an opinion, it is no more than an opinion, a self-expressive act. And if you cannot define your terms or state your criteria in morality and the arts, and in a manner widely acceptable, you do not know what you are talking about.

There are two large difficulties in all this that need to be more widely known.

One is that the demand for explanations conceals a contradiction. For if all propositions, to count as knowledge, need explaining and justifying, so does that proposition. Which in its turn . . . Any explanation, to count as final, would need either to exempt itself from its own requirement or accept that it is invalid.

"I wish he would explain his explanation" was Byron's answer to that sort of thing. The Socratic challenge is hopeless because it is endless; it leaves all the big questions looking ultimately insoluble. Technical terms can no doubt be usefully defined, as dictionaries do, and you can explain what a metaphor is and how it differs from a simile, though even there an example or two would make it clearer. But even technical terms are not always definable. You cannot, for example, usefully define tragedy: at least I know of no definition that has won general acceptance. It is sometimes said that tragedies end badly, but Corneille's commonly do not, and it would be outrageous to deny that Le Cid belongs here. Most people, faced with monumental counter-instances like that, would rather throw away the definition than the instance-which is right-and questions like "What is the good life?" or "What is justice?" are immeasurably harder than that.

Socrates' conversations characteristically end with bafflement or aporia and a promise to meet again, confident that the problem can be talked through. But no amount of talking would help us to agree on definitions of virtue or justice, and apona can easily turn into a state of mind little different from total skepticism. The call for explanations need stop nowhere; it is clear that the way to knowledge does not end there. So where does it begin?

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In any lifetime it begins well before language, so it cannot really be true to say that the challenging question "How do you know?"-which no infant could answer-demands an answer of everybody. A speechless infant knows a lot of things, like hunger and thirst, and can recognize a parent before knowing what words like mother and father mean. Adults also recognize friends and acquaintances without being able to give more than the sketchiest account of their appearance; and recognition, in any case, does not depend on accounts at all. You see people and know them. And so with wider issues like mortality and morality. A six-year-old who asks if everyone has to die, or if it is wrong to kill someone, usually knows the answer before he hears it, and it hardly matters how he knows. The truth of a belief is in any case independent of what caused it, and its source may not be worth seeking. I know the two-times table, for example, not because I thought of it for myself-who could do that?-or heard it proved, but because someone whose name I have forgotten taught it to me in primary school, and I do not have to remember the teacher's name to be sure that it is true. The name does not matter; the challenge "How do you know?" is no more than a rubber knife.

Plato thought knowledge the remembrance of a previous existence, which is compellingly beautiful whether you accept it or not. But the truth is that no explanation is needed. Anyone who has been around children is aware that they know a good deal about life and death, and even about the good life, before they are capable of being told anything at all. Stealing toys is wrong, and you do not have to know about the laws of property or the Ten Commandments to see that it is so. Knowledge can begin and end in the same place, more or less, by a single intuitive act. You see that it is so.

That does not satisfy the questing mind, and questing can be agonized and intense. "How do we know?" is a question to trouble and to nag. We grope for a beginning.

I must lie down where all the ladders start,

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart

was W. B. Yeats's reductive way of putting his search for themes as a poet, though what the heart knows is not all foul, and perhaps not mostly that. Mankind has good instincts, among others, and it is no more than a peaand-thimble trick to reduce love and friendship to self-interest. Much of our sense of right and wrong arises from observing exemplary and cautionary instances, in any case, where language remains unused, and nobody spends his days calculating the cost of what he does or fails to do. You learn from role models around you and act on impulse; and some impulses are good.

That is to start the quest at the deep end, with an instinctual knowledge of the good life. The shallow end, like knowing how food and drink taste, is perhaps easier. Language works here too only in a highly limited sense, if at all, as anyone who has ever been to a wine tasting knows: terms like full-bodied and dry do not carry you far, and to call a soup too salty only means something if you know how salt tastes-and nobody can tell you how it tastes. There are numerous cases where, as here, only an ostensive definition will serve. You know how it tastes because you have tasted it and heard it called salt. Reasonable to guess that terms of palatal taste-in all languages, it is said-are far more limited and far less precise than terms of color because they are less needed, though it is not clear why. The deficiency does not seem to bother anyone, presumably because you learn how food tastes and refine a knowledge of vintages by trial and error. But nobody doubts that all that counts as knowledge, somehow or other-wine experts know more about wine than other people-and it is acquired largely without words. Necessarily so. There are no sufficient words for a good wine, still less for the intimacies of friendship or of love. As Wittgenstein was fond of remarking, quoting an American evangelist: "All you need is a heart-any old turnip will do for a head."

That leaves the case for definition looking tattered, as it should, and Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, which became a vogue book in graduate schools soon after it appeared in 1957, is no longer fashionable. It was a monumental and compendious attempt by a Canadian scholar to order and define the literary kinds, and its loss of vogue was not Frye's fault, except insofar as he had implied that critics need to define and agree to their terms in order to understand them or be understood; so that the book now looks brave in a forlorn sort of way, like a defeated army straggling home from the front with torn banners. Anyone who calls farce a non-mimetic form of comedy is plainly in for a beating, and I have sat in many a seminar all the way from California to what was then the Iron Curtain listening to people struggling to make sense of all this. It is now plain that they need not have bothered, just as they need not have bothered about neo-critical puzzles like defining the limits of fiction. William Empson used to call that sort of thing bother-headed. You know whether you are reading a novel or a history, and the question of how you know is good for a cold winter evening and little else.

No objection to say there are borderline cases. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, for example, is a book that reads like a novel, though it is based on reports and court proceedings, and it recounts the events of a multiple murder. Some of it, it has been suggested, is invented. But that need bother no one. Many a history book is invented too, not to say mendacious, like a lot of Soviet history, and no one would object if a librarian housed it in the history section. A borderline case only shows that there is a border, after all, so it does not discredit distinction but reinforces it. Those who retreat from such cases in aporia, triumphantly concluding they show how little is known about the terms in use, are behaving rashly. If In ColdBloodis borderline, that confirms the case for knowledge, even certain knowledge. You could not be uncertain about one instance unless you were certain about others.

An example may help. Some years ago the Dutch government voted millions for a Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam to establish a canon of his works. Their criteria? It would waste time to ask that team of experts what their criteria of authenticity are, and I have never asked that question on visits to Amsterdam. On the other hand, they are known to concern themselves with the technical dating of wood and oil, along with issues of style and subject, in assessing the rival claims of Rembrandt's disciples and successors. These are considerations capable of influencing the intellect, as John Stuart Mill, a skeptic of criteria, aptly put it, and no doubt the intellects of the Rembrandt experts are being influenced daily and hourly. Mill's remark is suitably guarded and cautious, and the case illustrates what progress in any advanced enquiry is really like-forward and back and forward again-and it does not lose contact, in a wider sense, with what a speechless infant does or with what a scientist does in his laboratory. Both the infant and the scientist are influenced by more than one consideration at a time, and neither is bound to sort them out or to seek explanations at every point. A six-year-old, similarly, can see that all men are mortal without knowing the word and without knowing how he knows. Instructive to add that when he grows up he will still be unable to answer how, which puts paid to the notion that you should only believe what you can prove. There is no proof of universal mortality, and yet everyone knows it is true.

The Rembrandt expert, similarly, accepts that there are considerations capable of influencing his intellect-some of them, like dendrochronology (the dating of wood), of a highly technical kind. His conclusions, as you would expect, are mixed and severely tentative, though that has not stopped reporters from writing sensational headlines announcing that many of the Rembrandts in public galleries are by somebody else. The keeper of the Dutch collection in the National Gallery in London, when interviewed on radio, took a duly relaxed view: the Amsterdam team is offering an opinion, other experts may offer theirs, and anyhow they are good pictures. And that is right and in the nature of things. Some paintings attributed to Rembrandt are his and some are not; the matter may never be settled, just as the date of the Homeric poems may never be settled, just as physicists may never know how many elements there are in the universe. It is the task of the expert to go on trying.

"By Rembrandt or not": meanwhile, in the middle, there are works that are probably his, or possibly his, or partly his, or corrected by his hand. So expert knowledge can lead to doubt as well as to certainty, and the more you know, the less certain you can become. Knowing more may mean knowing you know less. Ignorance can be confident, by contrast, and the ordinary gallery visitor takes it for granted that a painting labeled Rembrandt is his. But then experts take a lot for granted too, and must, like the names of colors and familiar biblical themes like the Garden of Eden or the Crucifixion. So knowledge can make for doubt, but not for universal doubt: it is not certain, as Pascal put it riddlingly, that everything is uncertain. Even the scientist in his lab knows there are things you do not need to prove, like the colors of substances, and he could not even get started if he thought otherwise.

Advanced critical minds can feel uncomfortable about all this and tend to oscillate wildly between dogmatism and doubt, moving with alarming ease from all-explaining dogmas like Marxism to all-doubting notions like deconstruction. It is high time to settle in the middle. Knowledge is not all of one kind, and everything does not have to be proved because some things do. There is no single diagram of what it is to know.

Some knowledge is intuitive, and that vast area is strikingly neglected or (at best) underrated by all logocentric traditions, whether Socratic or other. Those who speak in its favor are easily dismissed as glib. But there are matters that we know because we belong to a species called human. Three centuries ago Francis Hutcheson, an Irish philosopher lecturing in Glasgow, wrote a book about the moral sense-a natural disposition toward benevolence-and about a knowledge of right and wrong that lies deeper than language and precedes any instruction in morality. The theme is common in 18th-century British philosophy, as in Lord Shaftesbury's Characteristics (1711), and it informs Henry Fielding's good-hearted hero Tom Jones or, a dozen years on, the Uncle Toby of Sterne's Tnstram Shandy. It is a debate that might now be usefully revived. The unexamined life can be good, after all-it is a common-place experience that it is so-and it is not self-evident that examining it analytically would make it better. You look and learn.

The notion that sentiments can be just remains immensely difficult, somehow, for educated minds to swallow, though not for the generality of mankind, since the world is full of instances of good nature and of its absence. Even harder is the notion that a sentiment might be accurate. But there too examples abound. A noise in the night can provoke the highly precise emotion of sudden fear, which is accurate if it is a burglar but not if it is a cat. Emotions, like descriptions, can be precise without being accurate. So there is nothing incoherent about the notion of just sentiments; liking and disliking can be rational activities. Some people deserve to be liked. To say "I don't know what he saw in her" is to accept that even lovers can get it right or wrong.

Bad philosophy can so distort the understanding as to degrade sentiment and to see natural virtue as self-refuting. The prejudice has been about for a long time. David Hume wrote as a friend to Hutcheson in March 1740:

I wish from my heart I could avoid concluding that since morality, according to your opinion as well as mine, is determined merely by sentiment, it regards only human nature and human life. This has been often urged against you, and the consequences are very momentous.

That is an astounding misunderstanding. Momentous, no doubt, to know that morality is a human faculty, but hardly damaging in the way that Hume implies. Why would it be an objection to the moral sense of mankind to suggest that it is no more than human-that apes and alligators do not have it? To explain a phenomenon, in any case, is not to explain it away. Arithmetic is human too.

The moral sense belongs to mankind as a species, as the usage of calling cruelty inhuman implies, and arises out of a natural aptitude like an ability to learn grammar or arithmetic in childhood. Presumably Hume would not wish to argue against the two-times table that other species know nothing of it. The targeting of moral knowledge, the determination of Western philosophy since Socrates to defame it or to demand some heavenly authority like the Mosaic law to certify it, looks perverse and unaccountable. Nobody asks to know why he should believe the two-times table. You see that it is so. No harder, surely, to see that murder is wrong.

Some difficulties are self-induced. Western civilization is an oddity in that it derives from two distinct, interpenetrating systems, the pagan and the Christian, which only fails to seem odd because we have never known anything else. On the one hand, the Socratic tradition demands a withholding of all claims to certain knowledge until justifications and explanations are offered and accepted: baffling as that is, it can easily lead to rash explanations of the human condition grouped for a century under such resounding names as Marx, Durkheim, and Freud. The intellectual world is now tiring of its Victorian nostrums, and none too soon. On the other hand, there are God-given codes like the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount from which a secular age is now in regretful retreat. No wonder if, like chameleons crawling across chessboards, a lot of people are feeling confused. The inscription over the portals of the Harvard philosophy department, "What is man that thou art mindful of him?" is said to have been carved by pious workmen after the professors, departing on their summer vacations, had voted for "Man is the measure of all things." The professors' consternation on returning for the autumn term might be instructive to imagine. It sums up the moral dilemma of Western man.

The situation is now urgent. If you take away God and the classless society and leave Socrates' mistake in place-confusing knowledge with agreed-upon account giving-the barbarians are at the gate. That is where matters now stand, or fall, for here there is no standing place. To demand accepted and justifiable accounts of moral knowledge is to doubt knowledge altogether, and forlorn hopes like reviving godliness, as in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, or a return to ideological dedications like fascism and communism, do not help. Nor do wild adventures like Islamic militancy, as the Afghan crisis of 2001 showed. Some cures are worse than the disease. Deconstruction cannot help you in a jam or anywhere else.

There are brave decisions to be taken, as the passengers on Flight 93 discovered in September 2001. They stormed the cockpit of a plane that we believe Arab hijackers were planning to crash into the White House, killing themselves and their captors. It is said that the passengers recited the Lord's Prayer before one of them uttered the immortal words "Let's roll." Perhaps religion helped. But those who stormed the cockpit may have been of any religion or none, and it seems idle to argue that you need a faith to live by. What you need, when somebody asks "Why?" is the courage to tell him it does not matter. No need for justification. Let's roll.

We do not need an answer to Socrates, and the trouble with the formulaic obsession is that it leaves a lot of his illusions in place. It assumes, like all creeds and ideologies, that knowledge only counts if you can find a set of words and a consensus to accept it. True, the Commandments do not explain but just tell, and that is not nothing. It might be useful in all sorts of ways to put moral knowledge into words like "thou shalt not kill." A formula is simple, lucid, and portable; you can get it down on the table, whether a seminar table or a Sabbath-eve tisch, and talk about it. What T. S. Eliot called a raid on the inarticulate can be a thoroughly good idea. (He meant, of course, the inarticulable, and in the Four Quartetshe refers above all to the problems of being a poet.) Motions are tabled in parliamentary assemblies, too, which then debate amendments, and it is indispensable that they should, even if they sometimes get it wrong. Someone, someday, may get it right. None of my arguments here bear against the power and dignity of language. It is not in question that the gift of speech that characterizes the human species is of a worth beyond price. This should not need to be said, but perhaps at this point it should be.

The dangers of raiding the inarticulate are twofold. One is that you might be believed when you get it wrong, as Marx was. The other is that you might come to suppose that formulations are the sole source of knowledge, as Frye's disciples did a generation ago. That is to privilege language beyond sense. It is observably false to suppose that you know what tragedy or farce is because a professor in Toronto has told you, and there are plenty of people who know that murder is wrong who have never heard of the Ten Commandments.

The Socratic tradition misplaces the source of knowledge. It forgets that critical assertions and moral analysis follow, and can only follow, what mankind already knows. Those who think God is good already believe they know what good is. The owl of Minerva, as Hegel put it in a profound and devastating aphorism, flies only by night, meaning that the goddess of intellect only begins her work when there is something to work on, like a moral sense or a familiarity with paintings and poems. That is no discredit to Minerva. It is simply in the nature of the case, and any moralist who thinks he sits enthroned above morality, any critic who sees himself greater than the arts of man, is asking to be toppled. Knowledge begins before language, as with infants or with primitive man. The logocentric view of knowledge, forever demanding explanation, justification, definitions, and criteria, is a fantasy, and a dangerous fantasy. Many people, as Hutcheson wrote in 1728, in the preface to his Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, "have been discouraged from all attempts of cultivating kind, generous affections in themselves by a perverse notion that there are no such affections in nature," so that to pretend that there are, if not downright hypocritical, is "at best some unnatural enthusiasm." No doubt those who joined Hitler's SS elite believed something like that. It is infinitely tempting to demand justifications when you have already decided on some outrageous course like mass murder and wish to confuse or gag any opposition. How do you know tolerance is a virtue?

Any call for generosity, any appeal to natural law, is easily dismissed as sentimental because its justification is unagreed or simply unknown. It can be difficult, living under the shadow of Socrates, to convince thoughtful minds that affection is real as well as agreeable, that it can refine as well as cloud the judgment. "Benevolence is natural to us," Hutcheson argued boldly in his first chapter, and it is unrealistic as well as demeaning to doubt it. You only delay the cause of moral knowledge by irrelevant challenges like "How do you know?"-and the delay is costly.

Somebody once said that he did not often make a mistake, but when he did, it was a whopper. The same might be said of Socrates. His mistake was a whopper. It might be called the Great Greek Whopper, and it is still there. Intelligent minds still need to get out from under the net of language, as Iris Murdoch once put it, and accept that knowledge is not all of one kind and often, in any case, beyond the reach of language altogether. Something, all the same, to be said, and in hushed tones, for a mistake that misled mankind for more than 2,000 years, and still looks unwinded and fit for another burst or two around the track.

Plato thought knowledge was the remembrance of a previous existence, which is compellingly beautiful, whether you accept it or not. But the truth is that no explanation is needed.

Both the infant and the scientist are influenced by more than one consideration at a time, and neither is bound to sort them out or to seek explanations at every point.

The unexamined life can be good, after all-it is a commonplace experience that it is so-and it is not self-evident that examining it analytically would make it better.

The targeting of moral knowledge, the determination of Western philosophy since Socrates to defame it or to demand some heavenly authority like the Mosaic law to certify it, looks perverse and unaccoxmtahle.

[Author Affiliation]
George Watson is a Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, and the author of The Certainty of Literature and Never Ones for Theory?