Yesterday I heard Christopher Phillips on a local PBS station discussing the benefits of Socratic or philosophical dialogue. Phillips has written several books about applying philosophical reasoning to one’s everyday life. He argues that when people engage in genuine, rational dialogue about such important concepts as justice, goodness, courage, and virtue, they sharpen their minds and open their minds and hearts to other people’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions in ways that bring people together in mutual understanding and caring. He also argues that it makes us less vulnerable to the rhetorical manipulations of politicians, advertisers, and demagogues.
I’m inclined to agree. I realize that most of us are so busy working and taking care of other pressing duties that we have little time or energy left for philosophizing about abstract concepts such as justice or engaging in reflective dialogue with others about them. And yet I fear that our failure to do these things does indeed promote fuzzy thinking about important matters, sacrifice the opportunity to draw closer to others, and make us more susceptible to being controlled by people acting against our best interests.
Yet, I have taken enough philosophy courses in school and done enough philosophizing on my own to realize that philosophical musings often lead to a frustrated sense of having wasted one’s time, and I’m not aware of the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues ever arriving at a definitive definition of the qualities he attempted to define and understand through the method of reasoning that bears his name. I suspect that this is probably because there is no way of perfectly defining such highly abstract qualities as justice or goodness or virtue. No matter how clear and refined the definition, it is always possible to pose an example that intuitively seems to embody the quality in question but doesn’t fit our definition, or an example that fits the definition but doesn’t intuitively seem to embody the quality so defined, or not to know, because of the abstract ambiguity of some of the words in the definition itself, whether that definition does or doesn’t apply to a particular example. For example, if one defines ‘justice’ as ‘giving everyone who has illegitimately harmed another or been harmed by an act what they deserve as a result of that act,” how does one know if a given act is ‘illegitimate’ or what everyone involved on both sides of the act actually ‘deserve’?
No, philosophical reasoning by oneself or together with others in something approximating Socratic dialogue is not, in itself, the pathway to Truth and fulfillment. But I’m reminded of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. One man feels the trunk and thinks that’s what an elephant looks like. Another feels the tail and thinks that’s the whole elephant. And another feels a leg and mistakes that for the entire animal. Only when each impression is combined with all of the others does a more complete understanding of the elephant begin to emerge. In much the same way, only when philosophical reasoning is combined with other ways of learning and living does one’s understanding of oneself, others, and the world grow beyond the narrower proportions of what it is for all too many of us today.