Does Philosophy Reveal Truth?

May 7, 2015

After learning about Socrates and philosophy, Plato, Socrates and other philosophers devoted their life to finding the truth and discovering our world. After reading the Republic, it seems that the ideal city- how it’s supposed to run, how everyone is supposed to stay in their place and how everyone is then good if they will only be their one thing for the rest of their life and how this then creates justice- is the truth that Socrates has found through his study and life as a philosopher. But I think that if you have found the truth, it should be undisputable, it should be a fact of life and become unchallengeable. But Socrates’ “truth” was and still is very arguable and disputable. I don’t think the ideal city is the truth because Aristophanes, among others, was able to write a play criticizing Socrates and Socratic thinking. If his type of thinking can be so criticized and debated, what differentiates philosophy from regular political debate? If the ideal city is not truth because it can be argued against or tweaked, then it is just another idea for governing similar to democracy, socialism, or communism, except Socrates would have much, much more control over his citizens than any of the other political theories and seems to be the most extreme of all of them with the least amount of freedom. If you are able to agree or disagree with the ideal city and the way its run, then you automatically make it just a concept of justice of Socrates, which ultimately just fulfills Thrasymachus’ definition of justice as ‘whatever is in the interest of the larger party’. While I understand Socratic thinking, and I see how the ideal city can create justice, but I don’t think there should be such control over people and do not see that much control as just. If I can come up with this thinking, than the ideal city must not be the truth. A truth, to my perception, is finding that the sun illuminates the earth during the day. No one can adequately disagree with that statement because it is true. There is no other alternative or explanation as to what illuminates the earth during the day. But when it comes to justice and the debate over the definition of justice, everybody’s definition can be debated as the definition, which makes them all untrue. The definition that is closest to truth is Thrasymachus’ definition because it seems to be the least debatable of all of the definitions given. If Socrates never reached his goal of finding the truth or if none of the other philosophers reached their goal as well, and given that there are still flaws in Socratic thinking, what was the point of Socrates dying to uphold his ideas and why do we still study them?


Applications of the Allegory of the Cave

May 1, 2015

After talking about the Allegory Of the Cave, it seems, from my understanding, that Socrates’ opinion of the world around us is that it is all just a concept that we turn it into. A pencil is only a pencil because that’s what we say it is, otherwise it would just be a combination of wood and lead. So far, from my understanding, everything in our world does not actually exist or is just an attempt to create something that cannot exist. This concept and understanding has mad me wonder what the point of learning this and understanding the forms is? For a quick summary of the Allegory of the Cave, a prisoner who sees a shadow of a dog on the cave wall all his life is dragged up the cave to view the fire and the puppet of the dog and then ragged out of the cave to see a real dog and see the sun and then sent back down to rule over the other prisoners. My question is; why does the prisoner need to understand that the shadows aren’t the truth in order to rule the other prisoners? Why does viewing the sun and the fire and the actual dog make him any more qualified to rule then any of the other prisoners? I understand the forms now more than an average person. I know they exist and I know they tell us that everything is merely a concept and everything is just what we make it. Essentially, I am further up the cave than the other prisoners. I know there is a fire and a puppet so to speak. Although I recognize there is much more study to be done and I am not a philosopher, knowing the forms and understanding they exist has changed absolutely nothing about the way I see the world. A chair is still a chair, a chalkboard is still a chalkboard and I feel no more qualified to rule anything than the average person. So if this bit knowledge has changed nothing about me, what is the point of learning? And what is the point of fully learning it? The prisoners seem perfectly content to stare at the shadows without knowing of the sun and the real dog as people seem perfectly content to call a pen a pen instead of realizing it’s just an imitation of their concept of a pen that can’t actually be. Why does fully realizing this concept make a person a more qualified ruler? Even if you fully understood the forms and the form of the good, it does not change anything in the physical space around you. Nothing will actually change. The shadows are still on the wall, the imitation of the pen will still exist in the physical universe and the perfect pen will not and cannot, so what’s the point of being unsatisfied when nothing can be changed? And what does the knowledge of the forms change about the way someone rule that makes them a better leader?

Celebrity Spotlight: Socrates

April 18, 2015

As I was waiting in line at Javas Cafe down Gibbs street, I wondered what it would be like if I had a chat with Socrates.

First of all, I know I would be interrogated greatly by Socrates about everything. Something that struck out to me though, was Socrates’s explanation that he was not the wisest man.

“What ever is the god saying,
and what riddle is he posing? For I am conscious that I am not at all
wise, either much or little. So what ever is he saying when he
claims that I am wisest? Surely he is not saying something false, at
least; for that is not sanctioned for him.” (The Apology, 21b)

Like the majority of the Athenians, this was taken by surprise that Socrates’s, the man who can easily bash and interrogate and argue with any kind of subject of life disagrees with the oracle of Delphi  statement that he is not the wisest man, and being Socrates, he goes and interrogates men who were highly esteemed of wisdom-first the politicians, then poets then craftsmen, and concludes that none of them have knowledge but rather that their “wisdom” is not in fact wisdom but came from some sort of inspiration. Socrates agrees that possibly he is the wisest because he knows he is not the wisest. This video gives a good summary of Socrates’s  point of view.

This part of the Apology caught my attention because Socrates is basically a ancient greek celebrity. Although he didn’t have the most appropriate attitude most of the time, and back then his wisdom basically put him to death, we still study about Socrates and his life and his knowledge. But why do we study about someone who isn’t really a hero or the typical “great” man that everyone looks up to?

Even though Socrates was hated so much it’s hard to deny that he wasn’t clever. He most definitely was. So if I were to ask Socrates. “why are we studying about your wisdom in school?” What would he say?

I can imagine him take a sip of his black coffee, and mention that he knows he is not the wisest man, and that he doesn’t even know why we are learning about him. But that every idea mentioned about society and politics are in fact true, even after 2,500 years. Our society today just proves Socrates ideas, and we are the examples of Socrates’s ideas of society, politics, knowledge, virtue etc. Although not everything is in fact as planned by some of his ideas, Socrates would say it’s because there are those who have corrupted society by not learning and practicing philosophy, as he takes another sip of his bitter coffee. No sugar, no cream. “It’s simple”, he would say, “as long as you stop playing cello and continue learning about philosophy, you can live your life with the highest value of life.” That, is where I dismiss myself containing my annoyance and walk out. He takes another sip of his coffee in peace.


Reading Questions for the Republic, Book I

March 16, 2015

Let me start with some background information about the setting of this dialogue. The Republic occurs in the port town of Piraeus. This was the port for the city of Athens, and it had a whole slew of cultural connotations. First, like many port cities, Piraeus was a bustling and disorderly place. It had a high concentration of non-citizens (resident aliens), criminals, and so forth. Second, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (in 404), Sparta installed a government known as the “Thirty Tyrants.” During this time, Piraeus became a hotbed of democratic resistance to this government. If we keep in mind that Socrates will, later in the Republic, designate democracy as the second worst type of regime, we might try to think about what Plato is doing in setting this dialogue in this location.

Next, the Republic takes place in around 422; this is during the so-called Peace of Nicias (a brief suspension of hostilities during the Peloponnesian War). Plato wrote the dialogue around 375 (so about 50 years later). Most of the characters in the dialogue were historical figures. Cephalus, the first participant in the dialogue with Socrates, was a wealthy businessman. Later on, the Thirty Tyrants confiscated his wealth, and they also executed his son, Polemarchus (Socrates’ second interlocutor). Thrasymachus, Socrates’ main opponent in Book 1, was also a historical figure. He was a well-known sophist (alas, his writings have been lost). Adiemantus and Glaucon—the main figures after Book 1 ends—were Plato’s brothers. This provides another set of questions for you to consider: do Cephalus’ and Polemarchus’ fates shed light on their respective definitions of justice?

OK, now onto the proper discussion questions:

  • Note the first encounter between Socrates and those who wish him to stay in Piraeus for the evening’s festival: What language do Socrates and his friends use when discussing whether he will stay?
  • What is Cephalus’ definition of justice? What is wrong with this definition?
  • What is Cephalus like as a character? What are his limitations?
  • Polemarchus soon steps in to take over his father’s argument. What is Polemarchus’ definition?
  • Is Polemarchus’ definition a genuine definition in the Socratic sense? A more general question: what is the difference between a Socratic definition and a dictionary defintion?
  • How does Socrates go about refuting Polemarchus’ definition (he offers three critiques)? Now, generalize for a moment: what is the overall lesson that one can learn from Socrates’ refutation?
  • What is Thrasymachus like as a character?
  • What is Thrasymachus’ first definition of justice? In what ways does it differ from the other accounts we have seen so far? In what sense is Thrasymachus’ definition of justice challenging to Socrates’ method of philosophy? (Hint: to my mind, it is a profound challenge to Socratic philosophy; if Thrasymachus is right, then Socrates’ whole method is flawed from the start).
  • How does Socrates first criticize Thrasymachus’ definition? How does Thrasymachus modify his definition to meet the critique?
  • How does Socrates’ refute Thrasymachus’ modification?
  • After this second set of criticisms, Thrasymachus launches into a new speech where he compares a politician to a shepherd. What is the significance of Thrasymachus’ analogy?
  • With this new speech, the dialogue takes an unexpected turn. We now no longer are talking about the definition of justice (here I think Thrasymachus and Socrates have reached a stalemate), but instead the question of whether a just life or an unjust life is happier and more profitable. What is Thrasymachus’ position on this question?
  • How does Socrates try to refute Thrasymachus’ claims about whether justice or injustice is more profitable? Again Socrates has two responses. Be ready to identify both of them.
  • What are the flaws with Socrates’ refutations of Thrasymachus’ position? What general lessons can we learn from this discussion so far?

At the risk of running afoul of British authorities…

March 14, 2015

One curious difficulty that emerges when teaching Plato’s “Apology” is that students often have a difficult time understanding how Socrates could be put on trial for things like corrupting the youth and impiety. At least according to the social studies textbooks students read in 8th grade, the U.S. (and “western societies” in general) have realized that freedom of speech is an essential value, and we have declared that religious worship is an individual matter. The government should not coerce speech, nor should it dictate which God or gods one worships (or does not worship, as the case may be). So Socrates’ trial seems to be an anachronism, perhaps an historical curiosity, but also one with rather few contemporary implications.

In class, I tried to refute this assumption by presenting Socrates’ position in different terms. Socrates isn’t interested in what we call freedom of speech or freedom of religion; he is, I argued, offering a meditation on the fraught relation between politics and philosophy, or between the appearances that sway public opinion, and the philosopher’s orientation toward a truth that transcends such appearances and opinions.

However, I leave this aside for now so as to focus on this contemporary concern about impiety and corruption of the youth. The British government has now published its final version of what it calls the “Prevent” program, which is a counter-terrorism policy designed to prevent youths from being drawn into terrorist networks. The premise of this program is that people are first drawn into “extremist” networks by being exposed to:

vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of the armed forces.

To prevent exposure to such extremist beliefs, “All relevant curriculum areas will need to be engaged, with a single contact point for delivery of Prevent-related activity.” So here we have a call for a curriculum review to prevent students from being exposed to anti-democratic ideas or ideas that challenge individual liberties, and compliance with these principles will be “monitored centrally via the Home Office and through appropriate inspection regimes in each sector.”

I hope the themes of the “Apology” are apparent here. The Prevent guidelines are more or less explicitly concerned with the corruption of the youth, and they have set up certain values (“democracy,” “individual liberty,” and so on) have effectively been set up as gods, such that any challenging of those attitudes becomes an act of impiety.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that these guidelines, if taken literally, would mean the end of political philosophy. Historically speaking, almost no philosophers defend democracy or individual liberty (Plato, as we’ll see, detested such ideas). Even those who defend some notion of democracy often have bad things to say about it. But of course, not to worry: It seems quite unlikely that the overseers of the Prevent guidelines will use them to prevent the teaching of Plato. Rather, it seems much more likely that these guidelines will be used (and abused) to target other groups. I’ll leave it to you all to figure out who these other groups might be….

Plato’s Forms in Response to Bonnie Honig

March 9, 2015

Socrates’ Antigone has been the subject of countless debates over the the course of nearly two and a half millennia. Who performed the first burial? How do we make sense of Antigone’s dirge? What, if anything, do the characters symbolize? In 2009, a profound political theorist by the name of Bonnie Honig approached the last question in this article. In summary, she interprets this play as Creon representing democratic values, while Antigone represents that of the aristocracy. Honig asserts that Creon’s emphasis on total equality and the replaceability of individuals is demonstrative of democracy. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, Antigone believes her brother is utterly unique, prompting her to wail in excess at his death; Honig takes this as an example of her Homeric/aristocratic values.

Naturally, at the end of the play, just about everybody Creon loved has killed themselves, leaving him to feel mournful, for he seems to realize that his wife and son were utterly unique to him. All the while he mourns in silence. Creon mourns these losses and decides to bury all those who he swore not to bury, in respect for the dead (an Homeric/aristocratic act). However, at the same time, his mourning is subdued and not outward (a democratic response to death). Honig assesses this to mean that Creon has become a combination of both himself and Antigone.  This poses the problem I will attempt to address.

For now, let’s briefly set this aside and think about Plato’s Forms.

Plato believed that everything existed in both a physical and metaphysical sense. The physical world is constantly changing, but in the metaphysical world, everything is constant and unchanging. A good explanation of Plato’s Forms can be found here. What we see are not physical objects, but rather “Forms” of the object. Why is a rotting apple still an apple? Because its Form is still an apple. A rotting apple still holds the same “apple-ness” as that of a perfectly ripe one because it still holds the Form of an apple.

But how does this relate to Honig’s analysis?

As stated before, Honig suggests that by the time Antigone draws to a close, Creon is the embodiment of both Homeric/aristocratic values and democracy. In other words, Creon has “Creon-ness” and “Antigone-ness.” According to the Theory of the Forms, one’s Form exists only as one’s self. Creon should theoretically exist as Creon, not Creon and Antigone. Therefore, Honig’s reading of Antigone does not adhere to the Theory of the Forms; by these standards, Plato would deem her reading incorrect. Of course, it was Plato, not Socrates who came up with the Forms, so Honig’s reading can still be considered a plausible analysis.

Reading questions for Plato’s Euthyphro

February 24, 2015

Platonic dialogues are peculiar things. Situated somewhere between what we traditionally call “literature” and philosophy, we have to evaluate them on both levels. That is, we need to examine both the text’s literary devices and the philosophical arguments presented in them. And we also need to be thinking about why Plato might have chosen to write this way: why present a philosophical position via the mechanism of a dialogue? Why not instead present it as a traditional argumentative essay?


  • What is the subject of this dialogue?
  • What is the setting? Include the two characters, their traits, why they are talking, and so on.
  • What is Euthyphro doing when he encounters Socrates? What traits does Euthyphro display?
  • Do you think Euthyphro’s efforts to bring charges against his father are just? What do you think Socrates thinks about that question?
  • Most of the dialogue is structured around three basic definitions that Euthyphro offers; he offers his first definition on p. 46; the second appears on p. 48 (with a modification on p. 52); and the third appears on p. 57.
    1. List each definition; it is useful to write it out.
    2. How does Socrates go about refuting each definition?
  • The most famous portion of the dialogue concerns Socrates’ refutation of Euthyphro’s second definition of piety (pp. 52-54). It is also a somewhat weird refutation; what is Socrates getting at in his argument?
  • What do you think Socrates’ conception of the pious is? Are there any hints of it in this dialogue?
  • What do you think is the general social purpose of piety? Are pious actions done to please God (or the gods), or do they serve some other purpose? Given this general purpose, are Euthyphro’s actions pious?
  • What do you suppose Socrates aims to show Euthyphro?