You've probably been in philosophical discussions
with people that literally didn't go anywhere at all, or that ended with
some of the participants having very bad feelings about the discussion.
Or maybe you've been in discussions in which one or more of the participants
(maybe even you?) seemed to have some other agenda in the discussion than
a simple desire to discover together what was actually true. Maybe one or
more of the participants had some special axe to grind, or maybe someone
was being self-centered or fearful or angry, or maybe someone was not being
a good listener, or maybe someone just had a hard time putting aside their
own personal agendas enough to dispassionately look together for the simple
truth about what you were discussing. I think most of us have probably been
in discussions like that which just went absolutely nowhere.
But most of us have probably also been in discussions
that went superbly well, in which the participants were somehow able to
genuinely work together toward understanding the matter under discussion.
When that kind of discussion happens, it can be truly fruitful and meaningful.
The following passage (from a book about Socratic
dialog) refers to some of the personal moral qualities you'd like to see
in those who participate in philosophical discussions, if the discussions
are to be truly fruitful. Please read through this short selection, and
then there will be a couple of questions I'd like you to respond to and
discuss in the classroom.
... It follows that elenchus
[philosophical discussion] is more than an exercise in philosophical
analysis. In asking people to state and defend the moral intuitions which
underlie their way of life, Socrates inevitably reveals something about
their characters. Elenchus, then, has as much to do with honesty,
reasonableness, and courage as it does with logical acumen - the honesty
to say what one really thinks, the reasonableness to admit what
one does not know, and the courage to continue the investigation.
Most of Socrates' respondents are lacking in all three. Protagoras becomes
angry, Polus resorts to cheap rhetorical tricks, Callicles begins to sulk,
Critias loses his self-control, Meno wants to quit. [These examples are
all from dialogues we're not reading this quarter.] While their reactions
leave much to be desired, Socrates' respondents do emerge from the pages
of the dialogues as real people. Not only is there a clash of ideas but
a clash of the personalities who have adopted them. So while the Socratic
dialogues deal with virtue, they are never simple morality plays.
This book argues that elenchus is central to Socratic philosophy
and that only if we understand how elenchus places moral
demands on questioner and respondent will that philosophy make sense.
The purpose of elenchus is to facilitate discovery, but in a Socratic
context, discovery is not a sudden flash of illumination; it is something
which must be prepared for, something which the soul must earn. The
subject of Socratic epistemology, then, is, in Tarrant's words, a moral
agent. To acquire knowledge, the soul must free itself of the anger, arrogance,
and laziness present in so many of Socrates' companions...." (-
Kenneth Seeskin, Dialogue and Discovery: A Study in Socratic Method,
SUNY Press, 1987)
Please respond to the following questions, and
then discuss them, in the classroom forum for week one.
1. In a
very brief summary, what do you think (in your own words) the author of
this passage is saying?
2. We all
have weaknesses, of course, but what would be some personal (or moral) weaknesses
that participants in a conversation could have which would truly get in
the way of a healthy and fruitful philosophical dialog? That is, what characteristics
would you like to not see in people with whom you are having a discussion,
particularly one about religion?
would be some personal (or moral) strengths that participants in a conversation
might have which could help make for a healthy and fruitful philosophical
dialog? Or stated another way, what would be some of the strengths and virtues
that you would like to see, both in yourself and in your fellow participants,
in a good late-night philosophical conversation, particularly one about