Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Love Me, Love My Wisdom; or, My Mama Told Me You Better Shop Around

[Another one from my drafts folder; I'll have more to say about Plato at the Googolplex after I read more of it.]

Everybody does philosophy, if that word refers to asking questions about the Meaning of It All, and it does.  In that sense, every child is a philosopher, except that children have questions but no answers, and no idea how to get answers except to ask adults -- whose answers are often inadequate.  "Philosophy," then, means the process of learning to ask questions and evaluate the answers, both those given by others and those that one invents oneself.  One of Nietzsche's better aphorisms was "A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions!!!"

"Philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom," but that doesn't begin to define what philosophy is about.  One of Merriam-Webster's definitions for "wisdom" is "the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand", which seemed odd to me at first until I considered the possibility that many people probably do think of wisdom that way, as something that people just have naturally, instead of something they acquired through hard mental work.  Which implies that other people just naturally don't have it.

Most of us, I think, want answers, and get impatient with the process of acquiring them.  If one teacher doesn't have the answer, they'll find another one, and it's easy enough to find teachers who peddle answers.  What's harder, for the big questions, is finding someone who has the right answerBut for many questions there are no right answers, which bothers most people even more.

And here I discover again what a naïf I am at heart: I believe that most people could learn to understand why some answers to big questions are wrong, why we find those questions so hard to answer, and why there really may be no right answers to them.  That's what I mean by doing philosophy beyond the mere asking of questions: learning to evaluate answers.  To be honest, I don't know whether most people can learn to do that very well, but I believe it would be worth trying.  I know, of course, that not everyone agrees with me.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away (Pantheon, 2014) looks like an attempt to make philosophy accessible to the ordinary reader; I'm not so sure.  In large part it's Goldstein's attempt to produce some Platonic/Socratic dialogues for the twenty-first-and-a-tenth century, and so far -- I've read the first dialogue -- I'm not impressed.  This doesn't speak so badly for Goldstein, because most such efforts that I've read have not worked well, but I hoped she might do better than this. As a professor of philosophy and a novelist she's eminently qualified for the project, but I'm having trouble getting a handle on what she thinks she's doing. The book's conceit is that Plato has somehow appeared in the present and is going on a book tour, beginning with an appearance at the Googleplex in California, described by his tour wrangler (or "media escort" as she calls herself).  Cheryl the media escort gets drawn into a philosophy lesson by her charge, and I think Goldstein makes Cheryl too clueless, with no idea who Plato is, why he wears a chiton and sandals, and the like.  But the exchange is about the issue I'm writing about today, namely the relation between hoi aristoi (the excellent, who are few) and hoi polloi (the many, who are at best mediocre).

Goldstein's Plato argues, as he did 2500 years ago, that it's proper to look to experts in how to live a good life, just as we look to experts in orthodontia to straighten our children's teeth, and so on.  I should probably qualify that: as Goldstein explains, there's no agreement as to Plato's actual views on this or any other philosophical question he wrote about.  People who've spent years reading and discussing him disagree on his views, though each is confident that they know them.  But the idea of deferring to experts in the good life has generally been seen as Plato's view, partly because he himself seems to have tried to train up a philosopher-king during his career (which indicates that he thought it would be a good idea), and partly because philosophers have often liked to think they were the experts he postulated.  I admit, though, that Plato may have had mixed feelings about the issue.  Even in the dialogues I've read (and shame on me for not having read them all), he sometimes uses Socratic questioning to lead to an impasse, the kind of no-answer I've mentioned here. I think that may very be the case with the idea of looking to experts on the Good. (Next reading project: the works of Plato.)

The trouble with looking to experts on the Good is finding them in the first place.  They disagree among themselves, often vehemently.  Plato seems to have dealt with this little difficulty by accusing his competitors of bad faith.  These are now known as sophists, and supposedly they were men who did philosophy for money and entertainment.
The Sophists held no values other than winning and succeeding. They were not true believers. They were secular atheists, relativists and cynical about religious beliefs and all traditions. They believed and taught that "might makes right". They were pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost. They made a business of education and profited from it.
That's the standard line on the sophists, and it sets off my bullshit detector.  And not only mine -- some philosophers have suspected that the standard line is a caricature, rather like Aristophanes' depiction of Socrates himself as a sophist in The Clouds.  (Plato's dialogues were probably written partly as defenses and rehabilitations of Socrates, much as the gospels were written partly to defend Jesus against certain charges that had been leveled against him.)  And if Plato didn't believe every position he seemed to advocate in his dialogues, doesn't that mean he was not a "true believer"?  As for "pragmatists trusting in whatever works to bring about the desired end at whatever the cost", see Plato's doctrine of the "noble lie" in The Republic.

But even leaving the sophists out of it, modern philosophers disagree not merely on details but on basic aspects about the questions they study and debate.  Claiming that one approach or answer is motivated just to make money is intellectually lazy.  (Which is no doubt why such claims are so popular.)  To a great extent it's also irrelevant: if I say that 2 plus 2 equals 4 because someone paid me to, it has no bearing on the accuracy of the arithmetic.  (Nor, against another popular tactic, does it matter if I say 2 plus 2 equals 4 simply because I'm an asshole who likes to argue.  But then, being an asshole who likes to argue is virtually a necessary qualification to be a philosopher.)  So even if the sophists taught and argued in bad faith, the validity or invalidity of their arguments is a separate question; and the same applies to Socrates and Plato, that even if they were motivated by a pure disinterested love of wisdom, it wouldn't guarantee the validity of their arguments.  One of the first things you must learn in critical thinking is how to cut through the various kinds of obfuscation, deliberate or unintentional, in an argument to get at and analyze its actual core.