Rhetoric and Philosophy, Socrates and the Sophists, W. Derek Bowman

Author Information: W. Derek Bowman, Providence College, wdbowman@gmail.com

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2R5

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I am gratified to learn that Frodeman and Briggle and I are in greater agreement than I realized. In particular, it seems we agree that many contemporary philosophers are already engaged in wide ranging forms of outreach and engagement both within and outside the academy. We also agree that a discussion of the history of philosophy in general requires nuanced analysis, and I look forward to reading their more nuanced account of Socrates in Socrates Tenured. Finally, I agree that the important element of our remaining disagreement over Socrates is primarily a matter of philosophical substance. Nonetheless, my historical interpretation of Socrates is intended precisely to raise those substantive issues. 

First, however, let me discuss an aspect of this controversy that Frodeman and Briggle emphasize: rhetoric. Consider the authors’ titular claim that philosophy has “lost its way,” their claim that philosophy has been “‘purified’—separated from society,” and their sweeping claim that “[a]pplied ethics has been a failure.” These claims are certainly useful at attracting attention—and at provoking the kind of detailed scholarly response that they characterize as a distraction from their main point. But I do not see how those claims are useful for convincing the wider public that philosophers have valuable skills and insights. All a general reader of “When Philosophy Lost Its Way” learns are the defects of a discipline that has fallen from the glory days of the past. How far must such a reader get into Socrates Tenured before they learn about all the great treasures that contemporary philosophers have to offer the wider public? Why do the authors expect philosophers—including those who care enough about public engagement to devote their careers to applied ethics—to see this account as a call to action, rather than a rebuke? If their piece is not generating the reaction they hoped for, perhaps it is time for a new rhetorical approach.

Now back to Socrates. My point in discussing his reluctance to call himself a teacher is not to raise the independently interesting question of whether, and in what sense he really was a teacher. The point is to emphasize the reason he was reluctant to call himself a teacher. Yes, he wanted to distinguish himself from the sophists, but why? Because the sophists claimed they could make the youth they trained into better, more successful men. Socrates refused to make such claims because he lacked the knowledge of virtue necessary to determine what makes someone better and what counts as success. The sophists promised “success” and “improvement” in terms of prevailing social standards; Socrates challenged and rejected those standards.

Similarly my distinction between two very different senses of “public” engagement is not simply a pedantic point of interpretation. Socrates does not merely eschew elected office, itself a very minor part of Athenian democracy. He abstains from explicitly political activity altogether. To repeat myself, speaking about virtue in the agora—or love at Agathon’s party—is a very different matter than getting involved with the practical business of the city. Socrates was happy to practice philosophy publicly, but he did not bring his philosophy to the Assembly where the practical decisions of the city were made.

Once we’ve made this distinction, it is clear that the kind of public philosophy that Socrates refused to engage in is precisely the kind of activity Frodeman and Briggle advocate under the heading “field philosophy.” Field philosophy involves “working with policy makers, on their timeline” and consulting with the European Commission on fiscal accountability (“Toward New Virtues” and “Is Anyone Still Reading?”). It is an attempt to provide the public with reasons they would recognize to keep funding philosophy. This is exactly what Socrates did not do—and did not seek to do. This more resembles the calling card of the sophists: pay us and we will show you how to put our knowledge and skills to use.

Of course this analysis of Socrates does not settle the issue—professional philosophers depart from our Socratic heritage the moment we accept a fee for teaching. But Socrates had reasons for his refusal to get involved with politics and other practical business, and if we are to profit from his example we must contend with those reasons.

Finally, I don’t know what I think of “field philosophy,” since the pieces I’ve read spend more time on historical stage setting than explaining concretely what it is or how it works. A careful analysis of the model of Socrates leaves us with a number of questions:

  • Why does someone need a decade of post-secondary education to become a non-expert gadfly?
  • How does the non-expert gadfly convince businesspeople and policy-makers to invite her into their decision making process?
  • How free is the non-expert gadfly to challenge the assumptions of decision makers about fundamental matters of knowledge, morality, virtue, and success?
  • Are the nuance and precision required for the non-expert gadfly’s search for the truth compatible with the rhetorical needs of public engagement?

Answering these questions requires taking seriously the reasons philosophers since Socrates have had to avoid, or be suspicious of, direct engagement with practical affairs. That is why the history matters, and that is what is wrong with the simplified grand narrative Frodeman and Briggle have offered.

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