Monday, September 28, 2009

Socrates and intellectual pain

At Philebus 51e–52b, in response to Socrates’ idea that the pleasure of coming to know something is an example of pure pleasure, Protarchus argues that it can be painful to know just in the case that you come to know that you do not know something that you need to know. (A newly known unknown, in Rumsfeldian terms; unknown unknowns are not painful, fortunately.) And coming to know that known unknown will in that case not be a pure pleasure since it is preceded by a painful ignorance.

In those terms, is the Socrates of, say, the Apology in intellectual pain? I was asked this recently and I still am unsure what to say. Well, either he is or he isn’t, I suppose… I don’t think we’re told that Socrates is living a terribly pleasant life but I’m not sure either we are shown him living a painful life, wracked with terrible intellectual distress at the realisation of his ignorance. Perhaps he is an odd case (here as in other matters) and different dialogues will tell different stories about Socrates’ own intellectual achievements. Sometimes he seems rather full of opinions, but on other occasions he stresses that he has no idea at all about what he and his interlocutor are discussing. And when it comes to questions of the affective aspect of intellectual progress, again perhaps he is an unusual case. When the Theaetetus talks about the ‘birth-pangs’ of philosophical discussion (a motif also in the Republic 490a–b) we might remember that Socrates thinks of himself as barren (Tht. 149b). He can bring on these pains in others and, if possible, relieve them; but does not either have to endure them himself or have the capacity to feel the pleasure of them being dissipated.

1 comment:

Phil said...

Is there anywhere in the early dialogues that Socrates says (or implies) that he needs to know something he doesn’t know. Nothing springs to mind. Socrates believes he has a divine mission to the Athenians. He is tasked by God to show them that they do not know what they think know about important matters like justice and piety. Socrates has, he believes, an effective tool (elenchus) to accomplish his mission. His mission does not seem to require him to know what justice & piety are, but only how to inquire earnestly and dispose of foolish misunderstandings. Socrates seems very reconciled and content with this purely zetetic role because he’s also confident that it is not his destiny to know the answers. That belief, that it is not his destiny to know, seems to be key element in his psychology that immunizes against frustrations & regrets.

If you believe your divinely ordained mission is to inquire but not to produce the final answers yourself, and it turns out you can manage important matters quite well without the answers, why would you be pained at not knowing? Socrates seems to get around the problem of not knowing in several ways. His daemon or inner voice counsels him at crucial junctions. Not knowing what justice is, he is nevertheless confident in his decision that it is just to make the defense he makes and that it is just not to escape. Confident, he says, because his daemon concurs. We don’t ever see Socrates troubled and at a loss as to how to act in an important situation because he doesn’t know something.

All of this, I think, agrees with your intuition that the Socrates of the early dialogues is a very special & unusual person. His passion and pleasure lies in doing his job, which is to inquire but not to arrive at the final answers and know.