37 Arguments as Occasions for Learning

The great Socrates (c. 400 BCE) argued that philosophical arguments never disappoint. His line of reasoning might be presented as follows: any two people either have knowledge about something, or they do not. If they both have knowledge, then they will agree, and they will not need to argue. If one of them has knowledge and the other does not, then the one with knowledge will teach the other. If neither of them has knowledge (but perhaps they falsely think they do), then a philosophical argument will soon demonstrate to both of them that, in fact, they do not have knowledge—which will be an improvement upon falsely thinking that they have knowledge. So, in all cases, philosophical arguments lead to somebody’s improvement.


In Socrates’s own case, he had been told by an oracle of the gods that he was the wisest of all humans. He could not see how this could be true, so he went to the reputed experts of his day to try to find someone who was wiser that he was. What he found was that many people were regarded as wise, and regarded themselves as wise, but in reality did not have any wisdom. In the end, he thought that he was the wisest of all humans only in the sense that he knew he had no wisdom while so many other people falsely believed that they had wisdom when they didn’t. In that regard, he was wiser than they were.


Socrates’s arguments with the alleged experts were of the third sort mentioned above. Neither Socrates nor the alleged expert had knowledge, and the argument showed this to be true. Or it was supposed to show this. Very often the alleged experts refused to admit their own ignorance, and they began to regard Socrates as an annoying pest. He was eventually accused of impiety and corrupting the youth, and at his trial, he refused to stop doing what he was doing:


Gentlemen of the jury, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and, in my usual way, to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: “Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth or the best possible state of your soul?” Then, if one of you disputes this and says he does care, I shall not let him go at once or leave him, but I shall question him, examine him, and test him, and if I do not think he has attained the goodness that he says he has, I shall reproach him because he attaches little importance to the most important things and greater importance to inferior things. (Plato’s Apology, 29d-30a)[1]


It is a beautiful and moving speech. Of course, Socrates was in a life-or-death situation (which unfortunately ended up being death for him). We are not typically in that sort of situation. But there is something in Socrates’s general attitude that is worthy of emulation. His attitude is that we should place a very high value on truth and that we should not be afraid of being wrong. We should enter into conversations and arguments about what is true and be willing to admit when we are wrong since then we will have learned something.


This Socratic attitude fits nicely with the “open society” envisioned by Karl Popper (as we saw in chapter 7). In an open society, we are free to think as we please and say what we think. We are also free to criticize or object to what others say. Along with these freedoms, though, comes a responsibility to be reasonable and value the truth and admit to our own mistakes. An open society in which everyone just blabs whatever they wish to blab about will not be much of a society to be proud of. But one in which everyone is exchanging ideas and engaged in reasonable discussion of those ideas—in short, an open society in which everyone adopts the Socratic attitude—would be a truly great society.

  1. Plato, “Apology,” in Plato: Five Dialogues, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981).


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