Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Is Socrates an Ethical Cognitivist? (Part III)

In the previous two posts regarding Socrates, the depiction of him may strike some readers of the Platonic dialogues as out of step with the central thrust of this extraordinary philosopher. Surely, some readers would argue, Socrates only threatens beliefs and even ways of life insofar as he possesses a rational method for arriving at universal and necessary ethical truth. The truth is indeed threatening to those who are attached to falsehoods, but it is also a source of hope since Socrates promises direct access to it.

My question for this post is the following: Is Socrates an ethical cognitivist? Does he provide a method for achieving this direct access to moral truth? The question admits of differing responses depending at least on the following: (i) who one takes the literary figure “Socrates” to be, and (ii) the status of Socrates’ daimon. Vlastos argues that Socrates does not intend to deceive through his use of irony (eironeia), but that this literary figure employs the trope of irony to serve his maieutic goal. Thus, Vlastos contends that Socrates avoids literal language because of the nature of learning: “if you are to come to the truth,” Vlastos writes, “it must be by yourself for yourself.”[1] Then, we may ask, to what degree of irony does Socrates invoke his daimon? The nature of this divine voice within him has to be explained in order to decide our question, because his “serious” submission to this voice seems to present a prima facie reason to deny that Socrates is an ethical cognitivist. That is, if he is truly heeding the instruction of this heteronomous authority, then Socrates does not come to ethical truth by himself or solely for himself. I assert that Vlastos’s interpretation of Socrates’ irony and the view of Socrates as a religious devotee whose fate as a tragic hero verges on sainthood suggest two things: (i) that Socrates truthfully reports the proscriptions of his daimon, and thus (ii) that his reliance on this voice in ethical matters reflects a noncognitivist ethical position.

First of all, the literary figure of “Socrates” can be understood in many ways, but from among the literary options for assessing the status of this character allow me to select the tragic view of Socrates.[2] In this view, Plato, as a tragedian superior to all other tragedians, develops the literary figure of Socrates as a tragic hero whose plight is to suffer the slings and arrows of a populace which fails to honor or understand his religious mission. Here, I disagree with Kenneth Seeskin[3] who contrasts Socrates to Oedipus by saying: “Oedipus suffered greatly…. Whatever else Socrates does in the dialogues, he does not suffer.” True, Socrates sleeps like a baby in his prison cell while his friend Crito frets anxiously, but that scene occurs near the conclusion of Socrates’ long and arduous journey in service of Apollo, at the end of which he might have said, “My feet are tired, but my soul is rested.” Seeskin, however, does recognize the heroic nature of Socrates’ tragic demise, and he correctly notes the religious aspect of Socrates’ dedication to the pursuit of philosophy. Socrates could well be viewed in this light as the patron saint of the religious practice called “moral philosophy.”

Given this hagiographic image of Socrates, the next point to examine is the specific role of his daimon in the dialogues. Does Socrates really mean he hears a divine voice which holds him in check when he is on the verge of transgression? Through Vlastos’s interpretation of Socratic irony and Seeskin’s hagiographic depiction of the philosophizing zealot, it is not difficult to accept the possibility that Socrates truthfully describes his mental states when he refers to this divine voice. Once we have granted this possibility, Socrates’ ethical cognitivism (as many philosophers view it) deserves critical scrutiny, because he relies, at least in part, on ethical assertions whose validity cannot be argued for or against. The daimon functions as a sheer existential decision or emotivist intuition, and Socrates’ insistent disavowal of moral knowledge denies him any metaphysical system within which such assertions could be rationally described and justified. Thus, this interpretation of Socrates renders him an ethical noncognitivist.

Some qualification, however, deserves mention. First, the daimon only proscribes, never prescribes. Thus, a positive principle of moral action, e.g., the virtue of benevolence, could be developed in conjunction with the noncognitivist element. Secondly, the relation of faith and reason differed significantly in the ancient world from the modern view such that the very notion of cognitivism in that context would not have precluded religious revelation. Indeed, epistemology at that time was grounded on the twin pillars of sense-perception and religious inspiration, which together comprised the totality of reason. Perhaps, then, our initial question about cognitivism is simply anachronistic.

[1]. Gregory Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 44.

[2]. I follow Alister Cameron on this view. See his Plato’s Affair with Tragedy (Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati, 1978).

[3]. Kenneth Seeskin, Dialogue and Discovery: A Study in Socratic Method (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), pp. 73-95.


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