Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A Socratic Dialogue


Although I didn’t know it then, but when I quoted Socrates in a wedding speech twenty years ago[i], his status as father of philosophy was far from my mind.

This autumn, I attended a series of classes under the tutelage of a doctor in both analytical and scholastic philosophy, a PhD in the fullest sense of the term.  Apart from introducing us to Socrates Plato Aristotle Descartes St Anselm and the Existentialists, he imparted knowledge about the four branches of his subject.  
In no particular order of priority they are:- 

·         What shall I do?  Ethics, the study of morality;
·         What am I? What is real?  Metaphysics, the study of being;
·         How might I know?  Epistemology, the study of truth; and
·         How might I argue?  Logic, the study of validity.

Our expert tutor warned us against pre-supposition and encouraged us to question everything, just as Socrates did in quizzing authoritative leaders ad infinitum.  
Juxtaposing this tip with a love of discourse, here was an invitation not to be ignored, an opportunity to address the four big questions and - to be sceptical about everything.  
All I needed was a pugnacious interrogator[ii].

The result is my own Elenchus, or Socratic dialogue.

Paxman: - What’s the point of philosophy in practice?  What do theories of morality, of being, of truth and argument have to offer us today?  This love of knowledge, is it wisdom for its own sake?  Is it not sophistry to be wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Me:- As an aspiring savant, I think I can relieve your existential misery.  I have acquired wisdom in recent weeks courtesy of an Expert philosopher of the mind.

P: - Let’s examine philosophy’s four theories; take metaphysics – so what are you?

M: - The stock answer to that question when posed in Northern Ireland is irrelevant.  It defies logic, frequently producing mindlessness.  Let me add that, generally speaking, this dialogue reflects my take on metaphysics epistemology logic and ethics.

P: - If you’re trying to draw me in, I'm not going to settle for mere waffle.

M: -Responding to what I am, the answer is I am more than just a lump of matter.  Anything else would be an affront to my ontological status.  Paraphrasing the philosophic bard, I say “neither monist nor dualist be.”

P: - As our American friends might say, excuse me. Would you care to illuminate?

M: - Experience and common sense suggests a trio, body mind & spirit.  The spirit expresses one’s creativity as well as a whole range of emotions like zest for life.  The brain exhibits cognitive facility, opinions and willpower, as in mind over matter.  Willpower is instanced when one participates in endurance events, going beyond perceived limits - something like the proverbial philosopher that our tutor imagined, swimming around in a metaphorical sea of ignorance while simultaneously adopting a can-do will-know attitude.

P: -So where does the human body fit into this theory of being?  Trump me.

M: -It responds to the instructions transmitted by its two drivers.  Whereas I wouldn’t deign to rationalise the USA President-elect’s metaphysics, this being is less lump of matter and more like a sacred temple, requiring healthy food (from sustainable organic sources, naturally) to optimise its operation in making the world a better place.  Manuka factor 15, natural yoghurt and kippers, for instance, and definitely no supplements.

P: -You say that this is the philosophy of the mind.  If so, perhaps you could be a bit more precise about the alleged roles of mind and spirit.

M: - It is the mind which drives one’s reasoning and logical facility, beliefs.  Distinctively, one also has instincts which produce creativity driven at times by emotions, on others inspired by heroic events or by the creativity of geniuses - like when Ireland beat the All Blacks in Chicago or the uplifting impact of listening to Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto or reading Seamus Heaney's poems.  From practicing yoga, I know that body mind and spirit work harmoniously.

P: - Are you claiming to know more than Plato and the Expert, or maybe you are a heretic?

M: -Neither, but thanks for asking.  Unlike you, I (like Socrates) acknowledge my ignorance.  My respect for the Expert - no sycophancy intended - rates very highly.

P: - Why so?

M: -He explicitly encouraged students to shun all pre-supposition.  He advocated the questioning of everything.  I accept that challenge.  So, here goes.  Just because Socrates received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Belfast Philosophy Society in 1927 does not mean he speaks Ex Cathedra, or that 2500 year-old Epistemology should apply forever and ever amen.  Or does it?  Discuss.

Plato👆 and Aristotle 👇, School of Athens by Raphael 1511, the Vatican.

P: - So, we’re moving onto the theory of truth.  Justify your stance.

M: - The critical mind is entitled, nay has a duty, to query philosophy’s practical use in the modern age given current circumstances, turbulence and uncertainty abounding.  If all that its practitioners do is deconstruct its concepts and theories to the point of numbing inconclusiveness and ultimate oblivion, one is entitled to query its raison d’être.  So look around you and ask yourself this.  This Philosophy lark, seemingly arcane in its essence – is philosophy itself real and is it capable of practicable application going into 2017?  I’m on my knees, pleading with you.....

P: - I’m the one who’s asking the awkward and penetrating questions.  You answer this, upstart.  How many decades have you been studying philosophy?

M: - Less than two months; I’m a humble novice in discourse with you the arrogant one.  But please let me elucidate.  I have absorbed knowledge at three educational levels, from life itself, and now at evening classes.  This intensive pursuit of learning fits within the very definition of philosophy because I have acted for the love of knowledge.  This means learning to retrieve old knowledge abandoned in my subconscious, supplemented with beautiful new subjects as well.

P: - So, epistemologically, what might you know?  And where does idle boasting take us?

M: - Only to illustrate that the specifics of that new knowledge have served practical purposes.  Extracurricular education has taught me much across an array of useful subjects.  Without replicating John Cleese’s cheese sketch, I know about the origins of Ulster surnames and place-names; about important aspects of jazz and classical music; add in beginners’ Italian and intermediate Irish; Russian cultural history; Matisse’s cut-outs; the history of grand parkland estates around Belfast; and the cultural history of six Celtic nations.  A Certificate in Liberal Studies as accreditation three years ago verifies the effort.  And that continuing activity yields useful, if occasionally boring, wisdom for animated conversation at polite and raucous dinner parties.

P: - As a know-it-all if self-confessed beginner to the study of philosophy, are you damning this great subject or do you see no practical benefit whatsoever in it?

M: - Fair question, and which helps me develop the truth and logic of my case.  I have become aware, in a way reminiscent of Plato’s beliefs about all knowledge being recollection and about leaders being philosophers, that philosophy is capable of practical application, theoretically at least.

P: - Logically speaking, you must tell me how might you reason.

M: - Philosophy’s language chimes with activities that occupied me in the past, although I was unaware that I was engaging in philosophy.  As a non-proletarian student of economics, I learned, for instance, that Marx’s theory was based on the Hegelian dialectic – thesis, antithesis, synthesis.  That is a process which has occupied my practical wit and existence ever since.

P: - In what ways?

M: - The theory and practice of argument.  Engaging latterly in disciplines like debating and public speaking we used rhetoric, questioning, dialogue, logic, axioms, and yes, probably dialectic too.  When I reflect, using reductio ad absurdum was a highly effective debating tool in drawing the audience’s attention to the ignorance of the other side’s so-called argument.  The addition of empirical evidence - research and statistics - to support or challenge premises endorsed the a priori case.  Likewise, the use of quotations, paradox, humour, sarcasm and irony were extra devices employed to make the oratory convincing - as well as entertaining.

P: - But two 5-person debating teams, spoofing - that sounds like ten self-indulgent monologues.

M: - Twelve, actually – you omitted the summing-up speeches.  The real art of debating lies in speakers’ ability to react and to rebut, not with prepared speeches, but with impromptu arguments attacking basic premises as well as refuting assumptions of the proposition, extemporising therein. Our Expert explained that this process of attack is central to logic. Wise judges adjudicate on the validity of arguments and counter-arguments and declare a winner.  

P: - So tell me, did you actually ever win anything?

M: - We won the UK national competition twice, in consecutive years.  Fact.

P: - Ah ha, now I've got you.  Philosophy has nothing to do with winning the argument as about drawing attention to opponents’ ignorance.  Isn’t that what your Expert pronounced?

M: -Good point, I accept.  But even you must see how people can turn off from philosophy because of what contains a reek of semantics.

P: - So, give me more examples – if you can.

M: - In pursuit of the truth, I have composed constructive polemics querying the written wisdom of authorities.  This is the essence of 3-part dialectic.  
Examples include responses to Public Consultation documents published by Government in recent years.  One such tome challenged its draft Strategy for Community Relations, an inadequately addressed problem which continues to fester.  I was shocked to discover that the author Department (at thesis stage, you could call it) ignored its own policy-making guidelines on the need to base policy on evidence.  I exemplified this emphatically (my antithesis) in order to leave not a single trace of doubt in Departmental minds as to the cogency of my argument.  The eventual final strategy is supposed to and should represent a synthesis taking proper account of all responses received.  

P: - That's not enough, I want more examples.
M: - On a previous occasion, I had composed an aide mémoire with what started as four arguments against invading Iraq and ended with a list of 12 unassailable arguments against the war.  Hans Blix would have loved it.
Sometimes internal inquiries are important as an exercise in thinking out loudly and groping for the path towards synthesis, one’s personal intellectual stance.   
So there you have it - the theory of argument backed up with real-life examples of its successful practical application.  And in reply to your question, that’s how I reason.

P: - Now you’re beginning to sound like that philosopher floundering in the ocean.

M: - I’ll take that as a compliment, Jeremy.  In a way these case studies follow in the footsteps of Socrates Plato and Aristotle who mused over issues of rationalism and empiricism.  What I will say is that transferring the experiences of public speaking and responding to Government has taught me a valuable ethical lesson.

P: - Meaning that now you must tell me what shall you do?

M: - The absence of proper dialectic is to the detriment of humankind today.  Brexit is an example, the American Presidential election another.   
Plato referred to philosophers as being the rulers of the State and those not born to be philosophers as followers.  
When campaigning reduces examination of arguments for and against a proposition to set-piece presentations, sloganising on the sides of battle buses and soap-box haranguing, robust challenge and antithesis disappears.  All the more so when empirical evidence is dismissed as irrelevant.  Victory is achieved on unethical premises - lies to you.  An almost Orwellian neologism has entered the lexicon - “post-truth politics[iii].”  Election promises (even daft ones) which provide the basis of the mandate cannot be delivered.  Democratic legitimacy is sacrificed.  Is that a reasonable price to pay?
Coarseness of dialogue besmirches tolerant democracy, and by extension to global harmony.  Angie Hobbs, Professor of Philosophy at Sheffield University[iv] argued that rhetoric which threatens equal civic rights and human rights places democracy “in extreme danger.”  In defence, she cited Plato’s Republic in support of her argument about the prospective subversion of democracy.
The role of oratory, robust questioning and proper discourse cannot be dismissed, essential in the quest to extract and to reveal the truth.  Socratic dialogue.  Eureka.  
The moral is that the foundations of philosophy - metaphysics, epistemology, logic and ethics – pertain today.  An eternal truth, in Plato-speak.  
Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

P:- Who are you trying to kid?  You got a good wife. Exactly where are the philosopher leaders when they are needed in 2017?

M:- (Silent, speechless, doing a passable impression of a certain sculptural figure posing at the Gates of Hell).

The Thinker, Rodin, 1880 & 1906, Musée Rodin Paris

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy Second Edition 1999 Robert Audi
Little Book of Big Ideas Philosophy 2006 Dr Jeremy Stangroom
Six Existentialist Thinkers 1967 H J Blackham
“Programme for Cohesion Sharing and Integration Consultation” (CSI) July 2010 Office of First & Deputy First Minister.  OFMDFM received 288 replies, listing mine as no. 35.
The Republic Plato

©Michael McSorley 2016

[i] “By all means marry.  If you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher” Socrates
[ii] Jeremy Paxman, English broadcaster, known for forthright and incisive interviewing, especially of politicians
[iii] BBC 1 TV 10 o'clock news 19 December 2016
[iv] Newsnight BBC2 on 14 November 2016. Interview of Prof Hobbs & Mathew Parris by Evan Davis


  1. Where are the philosophers when they are needed?
    And then a revered American philosopher steps up a week before the US Administration changes hands, addressing the "post-truth" issue as well - Noam Chomsky:-

  2. A BBC documentary about Socrates, broadcast on BBC4 on 1 Feb 2017 and originally broadcast in August 2015:-