Socrates on Intellectual Humility and the Philosophical Quest

Wetsern philosophy does not start with Socrates; that distinction belongs to the Presocratic philosophers who collectively invented critical rationalism, as I covered in the last post. But Socrates does represent a turning point in philosophy, for a few reasons.

First, Socrates applied the critical rationalism (via intensive questioning and critique) of the Presocratics exclusively to ethical issues, effectively ignoring metaphysics and natural philosophy altogether. As Cicero was to write later, “Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from the heavens and to place it in cities, and even to introduce it into homes and compel it to inquire about life and standards and goods and evils.” 

Socrates would have approved when Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.” Even if Socrates thought that the questions of metaphysics could be answered—which he did not—the more important questions of ethics would still remain unresolved. If Thales was right, for example, and all is made of water, in what way would that help us to determine the ultimate nature of, say, justice or piety? Socrates preferred to cut to the questions of foremost and immediate human concern. (Although, it can be said, natural philosophy would eventually lead to science and all the benefits to humanity that science brings.)

Second, Socrates redefined the definition of wisdom. As the story goes, the Oracle of Delphi had told one of Socrates’ friends that no man was wiser than Socrates. Surprised by this verdict, Socrates set out to prove the Oracle wrong. To do so, he would interrogate countless people to see if they possessed wisdom and could be said to be wiser than himself. He would employ what is now known as the Socratic method, a method of questioning used to draw out definitions and assumptions and penetrate deeply into issues.

What he found, as he described in the Apology, is that those thought to be most wise were exactly the opposite. The politicians were frauds, the poets didn’t understand their own poetry, and the artisans over-extended their knowledge to matters outside their expertise. 

In trying to contradict the Oracle, Socrates instead confirmed that he was indeed the wisest, but only in the sense that he recognized his own ignorance. As Socrates stated:

“When I left him, I reasoned thus with myself: I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

According to Socrates, wisdom lies in the recognition of one’s own ignorance. Intellectual humility, then, seems to be the virtue of highest importance for Socrates, combined with a willingness to examine one’s life and actions in a rigorous and humble manner.  

Both his focus on ethics and his prioritization of intellectual humility combined with rigorous discussion leads to, in my mind, Socrates’ most important contribution to philosophy: the idea that the method in which one conducts their ethical investigation is the basis of ethics, and that truth and method in philosophy cannot be separated. 

The Socratic mission is full of seeming contradiction; Socrates insists that he knows nothing and yet continues to investigate philosophical issues, the end result being—in most of his dialogues—aporia, or a state of puzzlement. In the dialogue Theaetetus, for example, Socrates and his interlocutor ultimately fail to provide an adequate definition of knowledge itself. 

A reasonable question to ask is, what’s the point? The admission of ignorance, combined with a state of aporia at the conclusion of philosophical examination could lead one to adopt the skeptical position that no knowledge is possible at all. 

But that’s not how I read Socrates. The value of the Socratic method is not the establishment of certain knowledge and universal rules. Socrates is showing us, in each dialogue, that absolute certainty is impossible and that there are always exceptions to every universal rule. Only through rigorous questioning and discussion can we uncover these exceptions and inch our way closer to better and more precise definitions of important moral virtues. It is therefore less important that one can provide a definitive account of, say, justice or courage, and more important that one is willing to make the attempt in a rigorous and logical manner.

The Socratic method is the ethics of Socrates. Socrates has no claim to morality because he can provide some conclusive or final definition of the term; his claim to morality is established through his willingness to attempt to provide an account of moral behavior—along with the process of dialogue that seeks mutual agreement with others. 

When we feel compelled to justify our beliefs and actions to others in a rigorous and logical way—and others feel the same obligation to us—we end up building a more just society through the process of reciprocal justification. 

Socrates’ core teaching was that his method of intense questioning is the foundation of morality and the just society. This explains why, when facing a sentence of death, Socrates refused to forgo the activities that led to his trial. Here was his reply:

“Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this…the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living.”

The unexamined life is not worth living because it leads to both a degradation of the soul and collectively to an unjust society of individuals that lack both curiosity and intellectual humility. The pursuit of money, fame, and material possessions is morally bankrupt when not accompanied by a philosophical turn of mind. As Socrates said:

“I set to do you—each one of you, individually and in private—what I hold to be the greatest possible service. I tried to persuade each one of you to concern himself less with what he has than with what he is, so as to render himself as excellent and rational as possible.”

As Socrates said, as quoted by Diogenes Laertius, “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.” We may fall short of attaining absolute certainty, but the process of making the attempt in a humble and rigorous manner is all we can ask of ourselves and each other. In this way, Socrates has more in common with the critical rationalism of the Presocratics than is often supposed. 

Further reading

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