The Death of Socrates and the Apathy of Philosophy

What do we talk about when we speak of “facts?” For those involved or interested in scientific, or more broadly, empirically-rooted fields, it is a thing that is indisputable; for instance, that gravity is a force that exists that keeps each and every one of us, as well as all other material things, rooted to the surface of the planet Earth. In these cases, facts are things that have been rigorously tested and examined and been found overwhelmingly to be the case; to this, we bind facts with the necessity of being true; there is no such thing as a fact that is not also true. So, while it is a fact that gravity exists and affects all of us, it is not a fact that unicorns exist, for the former has more than ample evidence for its existence, and the latter does not.

In philosophy, though, unless a member of the field is an adherent of the Vienna Circle, we find it harder to discern truth than those I have just briefly described. Particularly when our discipline takes up questions of ethics and morality, truth becomes a thing that is ultimately near impossible to ascertain given the metrics and rubrics of the sciences. The history of philosophy is ultimately one of the evolution and debate between certain men (and, occasionally, like a desperately needed breath of fresh air, women) over how it is best to think, and then later based upon that thinking, act. We are incessantly concerned with the thoughts of those long dead and buried unlike almost any other discipline; departments across the globe make hiring decisions based upon whether one focuses upon Kant rather than Hume, Aristotle versus Cicero, or Heidegger as opposed to Carnap. How well one is deemed to understand the writings of those deemed important by some and worthless by others determines entire careers, and to publish a philosophical text means to ceaselessly call back to our forbears in order to legitimize our own claims.

Yet, this understanding that is so highly valued is a kind of knowledge that is scorned outright by many in the sciences; we engaged with philosophy necessarily must think in abstract, changeable, evolving manners that must essentially spit in the face of notions of what constitutes factuality. If one person declares x thing about a passage of Spinoza, another will eventually come along and argue that said passage actually says something quite different, and the argument over which is the truth of Spinoza’s writing will span centuries, and likely never end.

However, the one absolute, concrete thing that all philosophers seem to universally call back to as a justification for what they do is the death of Socrates. The event occupies a special place in our minds; it is given special emphasis in near all of our classes, a legendary event that cemented our discipline’s ethos for all time. The great one, the true instigator of it all, we are told, willingly committed suicide by hemlock in 399 BCE because he wished to die for his ideas, his ethics, his moral code. He could not bow to the indignities demanded by small-minded government, for to do so would as well kill him as would the poison he drank. Whether we are to compromise our very being or die, the tale of Socrates tells us, the proper path is to drink deep; this preserves us, for all time.

Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Socrates.” 1787. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Since his death, times have changed drastically, and ultimately so has how philosophy goes about its way in the world. Our discipline is not particularly brave, and to claim that as a whole it ever was is questionable to say the least. Certainly, there are many philosophers who have famously fought against injustice and oppression, and have written books on the subject, but most of us are perfectly content to ignore the problems of the world, and make a life of inventing arguments as to why philosophy is special, existing outside the purview of the everyday, that only the most rarefied and excellent minds should ever be able to engage with us, and until the government comes breaking down department doors, we can safely ignore the affronts to free speech and human rights that occur all around us.

I recognize that this is a position that is, to say the least, controversial. And indeed, I should make clear that I personally do not oppose the ability of scholars to study things that are impractical and have little relevance for a wider community; were I to do so, I would be arguing essentially for the end of academia as it has existed for hundreds if not thousands of years. In this paper, I’m not going to propose anything so drastic as that. In a series of posts to come, I will present a critique of philosophy that claims itself privileged, above the everyday, and argue for a sort of more ethical thinking that is tied with a realization of the necessity for action, a philosophy that is a part of, rather than a bystander, in the world.