Friday, April 22, 2011

Socrates and Wittgenstein

I’ve started writing something larger about moral convictions, and am beginning by thinking about the practical aspects of having to make hard choices between conflicting goods, the kind of thing Sartre discusses in part of his “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Such choices are a basic source of anxiety. Socrates, by contrast with the anxious chooser, strikes me as someone with very little anxiety, and despite his “ignorance,” is firmly committed to several substantive moral views. Among them: 1) an unexamined life isn’t worth living, 2) it is wrong to renege on one’s moral principles merely to save one’s own life, 3) revenge (viz. wronging one who has wronged oneself) is wrong, and 4) a good person cannot be harmed by a bad person. All of these are either controversial or hard to live up to (except maybe the first one), but what is struck me the other evening is that Socrates doesn’t really argue in defense of any of these principles. He elucidates his view on (3) in Crito, but he isn’t really arguing for it. He notes, as I’ve mentioned previously, that people disagree about revenge (this isn’t quite the way he puts it). He says few people really disapprove of revenge, but that those who disagree about the issue cannot really argue about it but “can only despise one another,” because they have no common ground.

I found myself wondering what to make of Socrates’ moral positions, and what his sense of their status might be. Are they just obvious to him, and so not in need of argument? But what should we make of the comment about “common ground”? It’s typical to portray Socrates as some kind of realist—specifically one who rejects divine command theory (in the Euthyphro)—and so perhaps either some kind of moral naturalist or non-naturalist. At any rate, he searches for “essences” and though he doesn’t discover the essence of the good (or the holy) in Euthyphro, we might be left assuming that he’s committed to there being some essence. But then I found myself wondering whether a Wittgensteinian reading of Socrates could be employed to dig into some of these assumptions. All we know is that Socrates has some moral positions. He doesn’t have any theoretical framework, or any sophisticated positive arguments on which to ground them. It might be thought that he is some kind of eudaimonist—that the end of moral action is the promotion of moral health and a healthy soul. (He does say we should care more about our souls than about money or physical health.) But that’s fairly thin, and appeals to the health of the soul (in order to explain the wrongness of an action) may often seem a bit circular.

I’m also thinking about how to square Socrates’ “moral wisdom” with his “ignorance” and his remarks in the Apology that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. He could just be saying that we don’t know much, and that seems true. But if his “moral wisdom” is really important, then that seems like something. Maybe he means that knowing how to live isn’t enough—it’s no guarantee that we will act correctly. That conflicts with his internalism (that our moral beliefs motivate us to act), although perhaps he would just say that the fact that people often don’t act correctly just shows that they don’t really believe what they say they do in polite company.

Here’s where the Wittgensteinian reading comes in, tentatively. Perhaps “moral wisdom” is not propositional. So “knowing” that revenge is wrong is not like knowing that the cat is on the mat, or that grass is green, or whatnot. Moral wisdom might instead be more like knowing how to do something, and perhaps how to get on within a particular “form of life.” (Some, however, will say that procedural knowledge can be cashed out in propositional terms. I’m not sure about this.) The significance of this is that you can’t argue someone into a form of life—that is, you can’t convince someone that this is how he or she should live simply by arguing about it. You can demonstrate what it is to live that way, and you can correct someone who is trying to live that way but getting it wrong. And we might think that is what Socrates is doing in the Apology and the Crito.

I also think that fruitful comparisons could be made between Socrates’ claim that a good person can’t be harmed, and Wittgenstein’s experience of feeling “absolutely safe” in the “Lecture on Ethics.” Here, the question is what to make of these claims that can seem like so much nonsense. Wittgenstein realizes that he cannot justify this experience by appealing to the validity of his own experience, because an experience is just a fact. (And other people don’t have the experience, so what does his experience really prove? He could be delusional.) Socrates’ remark may just be a cheeky thing to say to his accusers, although his point, presumably, is that no one else can compromise his soul, his integrity. That seems plausible. But it also seems strange to say that nothing else really counts as a harm.

I’m not sure whether pursuing this will be fruitful, or if these various comparisons can be made to hang together. However, M.W. Rowe has a paper that I look forward to reading called, “Wittgenstein, Plato, and the Historical Socrates.”


  1. You might want to look at Caleb Thompson's "Pictures of Socrates" too. I don't remember the details, but I think it's relevant. It was published in Philosophical Investigations in 1993.

  2. Thanks, DR. I read the Rowe paper. It's quite interesting.