Monday, November 19, 2012

In our end is our beginning

I woke up with this thought, and rather than develop it into a full-blown blog screed redolent with insight-that-usually-isn't, and also rather than lose it to too much contemplation in too many stolen moments, leaving a shattered bowl on the floor before it had the chance to hold anything, I'll just post the basic ideas and (maybe) come back to it.

Kierkegaard identified the Socratic purpose as an ironic undermining of knowledge, but an irony with an acidic edge, as it undermines all knowledge, including the knowledge of the position of the ironist.  A solvent that dissolves all, in other words, leaving no solution (I'm sure I'm mixing chemical metaphors and rather than producing a crystalline cleverness rendering only the kind of sludge my home chemistry experiments used to produce.  So it goes.).

Socratic irony:  Socrates is the source (admittedly through Plato, but without Plato we don't have Socrates) of Western metaphysics.

Derrida worked somewhat like Socrates.  He sought to undermine certainty by deconstructing it, forcing the contradictions inherent in reason (and especially in rhetoric) to the surface, to expose the limitations in what we thinks we discuss.  Both philosophers working that area of epistemology best identified by the Firesign Theater:  "Everything you know is wrong."

And yet Derrida ends as a philosopher of religion trying to construct a negative atheology.

Forster was right:  only connect.


  1. The limits of what we can know and what we can know about how we know it is the basic and hardly ever considered problem of intellectual life. I don't think it is susceptible to being discovered, especially in terms of science.

    I've been having an argument over at John Wilkins' blog about "The Hard Problem" of consciousness. Of course, Wilkins is taking the Brit school atheist line that there's really not much there and the difficulties aren't all that great. You can guess what I'm arguing. He got a bit upset when I pointed out that if we're all merely chemical reactions then 1. materialism couldn't claim to have access to a truth anymore than any other result of a chemical reaction, 2. that materialism wasn't exempt from its own ideological holdings and, 3. that it was mighty peculiar that if the consciousness under discussion was nothing but chemical reaction that materialists are oddly preoccupied with convincing the insignificant blips of matter of its POV.

    I'm afraid I've also upset Wilkins by pointing out that the hard parts of the hard problem are, if anything, far harder than he's admitting and unlikely to be solved in scientific terms. He got to the "the onus is on you" level, which is generally a sign that the materialists can't deal with what you've brought up. He didn't care for me rejecting a double standard that didn't apply to the "physicalist" side, which is really no different from your old fashioned Brit style materialism.

    The crisis in the Roman Catholic clergy, which is far more a turf battle for control of a massive institution than anything to do with religion, could be alleviated within months by ordaining women and married men, lots of those who were kicked out would come back and I'd bet that there would be a run on places at seminaries. The growing, albeit slowly growing, Roman Catholic Women Priests movement is interesting as is the fevered reaction to it (look on YouTube).

    That there are career possibilities that are more appealing than being a clergy member, these days, is another problem that isn't just restricted to the Catholic church. The very high levels of education required is certainly a bar to wider participation. I wonder if Jesus or the disciples could pass an entrance exam to any academic program of Christian theology.

  2. I should, I suppose, preface this by saying that I know nothing of Derrida, and little of Kierkegaard's specific views on Socrates.

    But I have of late been doing some reading in Plato, and I'm not at all sure that his portrait of Socrates comes anywhere near portraying him as a purveyor of a universal solvent.

    Of course Socrates says he knows nothing, but that is his method. He questions and questions and doubts and undermines and causes all sorts of consternation and confusion--but the end of all this is to get to something that he judges to be true.

    This process he calls dialectic, and, in the Republic, it is the method forming the crown jewel of the education of the guardians, the means by which they can apprehend the beautiful and the good, and thereby rule wisely and justly.

    That's not to say that all the Platonic Socratic dialogues end so neatly. But, ultimately, my sense is that the Platonic point was to get to and communicate truth, not to undermine or relativize all (which was, you will recall, much more the program of the sophists).

    So I don't think irony is necessarily entirely astringent. Part of that comes from Plato, part from my recently reading and re-reading some Erasmus, who loves to play the ironist, but whose irony aimed at a positive program, not a mere subversion of the excesses he decried.

  3. Rick--a brief clarification (I'm on my phone). SK removes his Socrates from Plato's. The historical v. the literary, so to speak.

    That's where he's coming from, anyway. There are certainly two classes of dialogues, so it has some basis.