Thursday, February 14, 2008

Conversations with Truth: Socrates, Bullshit and Jesus

During the 2004-2005 academic year, I was among a dozen seniors at Xavier University working on their senior theses for their baccalaureate in Philosophy. Perhaps the most interesting idea for a thesis within that group belonged to my classmate Brandon. He wanted to use Plato's Apology and Aristophanes' Clouds as vehicles to compare and contrast the form of the fictional narrative with philosophy as methods for arriving at truth. At the time, I was certainly leaning towards his view that the trial and conviction of Socrates in Plato's Apology suggests that the negative portrait of Socrates in Aristophanes' Clouds convinced more people of the `truth' of Socrates' poor character did than any of the philosophy that Socrates put forth in his own defense.

But I recently attended a lecture by Malcolm Schofield of Cambridge that changed my mind. (Let's ignore for a moment the fact that I've also been working on translating Xenophon's Apology which starts out with the observation that Socrates' defense makes little sense if one does not understand that he wanted to be put to death rather than to face the slow failings of old age.) The suggestion Schofield put forth is that, to Socrates, to engage in philosophy was to engage in conversation. This separate Socrates from those who had gone before who made elaborate systems and put down much in writing and constructed various arguments about the cosmos, about nature, and about the nature of truth. Unlike those who had gone before, Socrates did not write anything down, thereby refusing to firmly place himself in history for future generations, did not create any formal system, denied he knew anything meaningful about anything, and engaged in conversation with just about anyone who approached him without regard for wealth, social status, or political clout.

These aspects of the Socratic dialogue puts Socrates at odds with not only those who came before but also those who came after. Specifically, a good argument can be made that Socrates would very much at odds with his pupil Plato whose pedagogic method involved writing, establishing a formal school, holding himself up as an expert and holding himself aloof from those who were not `philosophers.' The Socratic tool of philosophical conversation is probably much more like the picture that Harry Frankfurt presents in his essay On Bullshit.
What is distinctive about the sort of informal discussion among males that constitutes a bull session is, it seems to me, something like this: while the discussion may be intense and significant, it is in a certain respect not ``for real.''

The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life--for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say: it is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. [Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2005, pp. 36-38]
If I am understanding Schofield's point about the invention of philosophical conversation correctly, he's arguing essentially that Socrates used his alleged state of not knowing anything as a device to engage in bullshitting. While it may be that Socrates really thought that he knew nothing, it seems to me that it is more likely that it is more likely that this was an artificial device such that he ``might not be taken too seriously'' and to allow for those involved in the conversation ``to try out various thoughts and attitudes.''

If I'm correct in that Schofield is essentially arguing that the great innovation Socrates made was in being a bullshitter of the highest order (and that this is a good thing!), then I am compelled to bring forth the observation that bull sessions require a multiplicity of participants in the conversation. One cannot bullshit alone. To bullshit requires multiple persons in an act of communion. Without speaking and hearing on both sides of the conversation, there is no communion and without communion there is no growth; the hearer and the speaker both leave the conversation just as they had come to the conversation, without change. Without this change, without this meeting of minds, there is no conversation but only an exchange of words.

To philosophize, then, in this view is to engage in communion with another person. Truth, rather than being an abstraction to approach or a set of facts to systematize, is something personal. Perhaps this personal view of truth is why some early Christians such as Saint Justin the Martyr argued that Socrates was a proto-Christian, a Christian before Christ. Perhaps it wasn't simply Socrates death in pursuit of truth that attracted these early men of faith, but Socrates pursuit of truth by means of communion with another person. For in the Christian faith, truth itself is considered to be a person, the Logos, Jesus Christ who is God enfleshed.

This view of truth, truth as communion, is also why the Incarnation of Christ is so essential to Christianity. It is the Incarnation that allows for communion to happen. The mystery of the dual natures of Christ makes possible what was not possible before, communion with God as a person. God, by definition, is immutable, unchangeable. Without God becoming man, true communion could never happen. The conversation would be a one way street, a lecture rather than a dialog. Rather than being participants in conversation with God, would would be passive hearers of God's message. But because of the second Adam, the God-man Jesus Christ, it becomes possible to have a conversation with deity itself. And in this communion, this philosophical conversation with truth itself, we can discover both God and our ourselves.


Steve said...

First, that is a well written blog.

Secondly, I'm not sure that "bullshitting" would be a correct term for what Socrates was doing in the streets of Athens. Not that I'm offended, I'm speaking in terms of how Frankfurt defines a bull session.

Perhaps, by playing the fool or the empty vessel Socrates was indirectly saying to his counterpart, "I'm not too lofty to speak with you and your reason for being is no less important than anyone else."

The Frankfurt article points out that we bullshit to throw out ideas that we like but aren't confident in, this point being made by the fact that we fear to be taken too seriously.

You point out that Socrates was using this device to allow others to bounce ideas off of him, but if he was an intelligent man, he would know that people were doing just that; henceforth, he wouldn't be delving deeper into the human condition but further from it.

Furthermore, if people were not truly revealing themselves, then would he began to see a pattern in groups, i.e. the rich, poor, soldiers, etc.. or would ideas be unique to each individual?

I guess my point in this question/comment is, "Was Socrates searching for a higher truth or was he searching for answers to the human condition?" Or, are these two questions essentially intertwined?

I love your comment on truth being personal!

Lee Malatesta said...


My apologies for the delay in replying. I've just moved my family from Cincinnati to the DC area. It's taken a while to get back into the swing of things.

I've given my copy of Frankfurt's slim little tome away since writing this, but if I recall correctly, he pointed out that bullshitting has a number of different senses. From what I recall about the bit about late night bull sessions is that, while we're `testing' out ideas due to not being fully confident in them, this doesn't make them any less weighty. I wouldn't say that it is exactly akin to Plato's depiction of Socrates in the earlier dialogs, but I think there is certainly a similar approach. The largest difference is that most of us aren't Socrates.

The bit you wrote about Socrates driving further away from the human condition rather than deeper into it if he is merely allowing people to bounce ideas off of him, I think, neglects the personal aspect of truth. Even if someone were trying to bullshit Socrates in the most pejorative sense of the word, there would remain the personal element of the discussion which would advance the search for truth. But as it stands, I think the Socratic dialogs show a mix of people engaging in Socrates on different levels. Certainly, some come across as being purely sophistic. But not all do. There is a spectrum of responses and those that are driven the most closely towards truth are those that go into the discussion uncertain that what they know is what they know and are willing to engage Socrates as a person.