Saturday, February 11, 2006

Socratic Reflections

I teach Plato for a living. One of the main points to be made from any reading of the early Socratic dialogues is the benefits of confusion. Socrates doesn't pretend to know what piety is, but he knows that he doesn't know, and he wants to get Euthyphro to join him in a productive confusion. He doesn't claim to know what virtue is or if it can be taught, but he wants to play torpedo fish and get Meno as confused as he is. This is because confusion is better than confident ignorance. I diagram it like this:

Confident Ignorance

Wisdom is the best state, of course, and confusion is good because it is directed toward wisdom. Once I know that I don't know, I will ask questions in order to know. The slave boy doesn't know the answer to the geometry problem, butas long as he thinks he knows, he will never really know. Confident ignorance is the worst state, since one is likely wrong, and will never come out of the ignorance because of the confidence. "Yes, I know all about piety. Just ask me!" says Euthyphro. As long as he thinks this, he will always remain ignorant about piety, and will never have any hope of wisdom.

I was thinking about this the other day, and I think I have made a discovery. We do not have many people in states of Confident Ignorance anymore. No-one claims to know anything about the forms, about moral matters. We all claim confusion. In fact, we are Confidently Confused. We don't know anything except that it is impossible for us to know anything. It is, as Cardinal Ratzinger put it somewhere, the unquestioned dogma of the age.

Confident Ignorance was better, because Socrates could shock people out of that state by dismantling their confidence. What would Socrates do today, when people are so confident that they are confused? To reduce them to confusion via the Socratic method only confirms what they already think!

I don't know the solution. How does one puncture dogmatic doubt? Perhaps like the rabbi who, when confronted by an atheist, says "Despite all that, perhaps it is true." (I get the rabbinical story from Cardinal Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity, where he quotes Martin Buber.)


Hoots said...

Outstanding little essay. You have a great blog because you don't clutter it up all the time with a lot of chatter like most of us do. So when the aggregator indicates you have a post, I know I can go there and read what has been said and move on. I can't do that with most blogs when time is short. Most of them rattle on too much and it's easier to just skip it.

As to confident ignorance, you have hit the nail on the head. I was halfway through college before I decided that my mission was not to find out how much I could know but how much I would never know.

We don't know anything except that it is impossible for us to know anything.

That, in a nutshell, looks like the sum total of what is politely called "post-modernism."

Keep up the good work.

Karl said...

Dear Hoots,

Thanks! It's nice to know my laziness with regard to the blog has become its virtue.

Theway2k said...

I am confused for I seem to grasp for the answer and often find air. Yet I often engage in confident ignorance if believing what many consider the absurd. So I guess I am confidently confused??