The Problem of Skepticism: What Can We Learn From Socrates?


The Problem of Skepticism    

The claim that nobody can really know anything for sure is nearly universal in the academy today. The view is not only held in the academy but has trickled down to the culture at large. How often do we hear the statement “that’s your perspective”? The notion that everyone has their own perspective, and that each perspective is “true” for each person but not “True” for all people, is an expression of skepticism. Skepticism, popularly held, is often stated as “there are so many views,” or “it’s all a matter of interpretation,” or still yet, “it’s all relative.” Philosophical skepticism is as old as the first philosophers and is the view that knowledge – certainty – is not possible. We especially cannot have certainty about what is True or what is Good. Skepticism is different from a stance of “being skeptical” or desiring more proof or evidence before committing to a belief. Skepticism, when held consistently, leads to nihilism, or the loss of all meaning. 

Philosophical skepticism is a strong position which makes universal claims about knowledge, whereas agnosticism is a more individual and private form of skepticism. Agnosticism means “no knowledge” and the term is usually used to indicate that a person does not know what is True or Good. One often hears an agnostic say “I don’t know if God exists or not.” On the other hand, a skeptic will make the stronger claim “no one can know if God exists or not.” There is a religious version of skepticism called fideism. Fideism agrees with the skeptic’s claim that “nobody can really know,” but they see the danger of nihilism that follows from being consistent with the skeptic’s claim. Instead, the fideist says: “nobody can really know, but you’ve just got to believe anyway.” This is the blind leap of faith approach. We cannot really know if God exists or not, but for life to be meaningful we need God, so you’ve just got to believe that there is a God. Both skepticism and fideism share the assumption that we really cannot know.

What happens to our public discourse when the majority of people agree, either implicitly or explicitly, that nobody can really know what is objectively True or Good? We have no shared basis for conversation if all “truths” are merely perspectival and subjective. What happens when the academy – the university – teaches that knowledge is not possible? What happens when all the university students, who become future educators, lawyers, politicians, doctors, parents, etc., either assume, adopt, or propagate (if they don’t actively fight against) the dominant skepticism of the academy? What has happened is that skepticism has crept into every institution of culture as an institutional skepticism.

The problems of skepticism are many, but the most serious is that if we cannot know what is True and Good, then there will be deepening divisions within ourselves, in our families, within and among the institutions of culture, and between cultures within the global context. If there are divisions within a culture without change, then decay and collapse of that culture are inevitable. As we study world history, we can see that cultures and civilizations of the past have collapsed. We are not immune.

Sophistry and Pragmatism

Let us step back from the collapse of civilization for a moment and survey some of the other detriments of skepticism. If knowledge is not possible, then how do we know what to do? How do we live our lives? Often we fall back on an easy pragmatism. We do what works. But what “works” depends upon our goal. Our lesser goals depend upon the goal of all goals – the Good. However, if we cannot know the Good, then how do we order our lesser goals? If we assume skepticism, what is the goal of life? Skepticism says that the goal is relative to the individual, as Protagoras a Sophist has said: “Man is the measure of all things.” Either the Good is based upon reason, and may be known by all reasoners, or the Good is based upon desire – feelings – and is not known by all, but is relative to the individual. If It feels good, is it good? If it feels bad, does that make it bad? We see this attitude of going by feeling being played out in the reality of social media shaming, safe spaces, being offended, and in the hostility of campus protests. Feeling is what leads the day. Robert George, a Princeton professor of Jurisprudence, has said as the Medieval period was an Age of Faith, and the Enlightenment an Age of Reason, today we are living in an Age of Feeling. We use the appeal to pity fallacy – presuming upon one’s disposition to compassion – to get what we desire. Or, we resort to a will to power to obtain the “good life.” If we cannot get our way, perhaps an appeal to fear, such as a threat of a lawsuit, will help in our efforts. The appeal to fear fallacy was used against Socrates in the threat to stop doing philosophy or die. If knowledge is not possible, then we obtain what we want by the power of persuasion or by use of force.

We see the power of persuasion at work in Plato’s Apology in the characters of Meletus, representing the poets, or perhaps in the Hollywood figures of popular culture today; Anytus, and the politicians of both Socrates and our day; and Lycon, representing the orators, the professors and lawyers of our day. Together, these are the Sophists – those who help to propagate skepticism and its resulting pragmatism, which over time becomes institutional skepticism – where skepticism resides in each of the institutions of culture – the educational system, the government, the church, the family, the economic world and the media and social media. The effects of institutional skepticism are nihilism, cynicism, and hopelessness concerning objective Truth and Goodness. It adds to our anxiety and fear. Isn’t that what we are experiencing in an Age of Feeling?

If each person does what is right in their own eyes, then there can be no common ground and no basis for a common life together in the Republic. There is no objective Truth – we cannot know ultimate reality. That is, we cannot know if there is a God or not. There is no objective Good – we cannot know human nature and what is good for human beings and thus what is harmful to human beings. There is no objective Beauty – beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, if the skeptics are right, then there is no basis for Justice or social justice because all is relative to the individual. Man is the measure. What would Socrates say about the skepticism of our day?

Socrates and the Sophists

 Socrates did not buy into the skepticism of his day, which was very similar to our own day. The first philosophers, also known as the pre-Socratics, rejected the traditionalism and fideism of the popular religion centered on the Homeric gods of the Iliad and Odyssey. The first philosophers held that all that exists is one and is material (material monism) and the way we know the material world is through our senses – a view called empiricism. Over time, the philosophers ran into problems: If all is matter is it always changing? Is it always one and permanent so that change is not possible? Are there many diverse particular things, or is there just one indivisible thing? Can our senses perceive the world accurately if everything is always changing, or at least always appears to be changing? Maybe nobody can really know? The skepticism generated by the uncritically held assumptions of the first philosophers gave rise to the Sophists, a group of skeptical-pragmatic rhetoricians. Protagoras, the one who claimed, “man is the measure” was the father of rhetoric – the art of speaking well for the purpose of persuasion because “nobody can really know.”

Plato, the writer of the dialogues, one of the primary ways that we know about Socrates, early philosophy, and the Sophists, often depicts Socrates in dialogue with Sophists or students toying with the idea of hiring a Sophist. In the dialogue Protagoras, Socrates is in deep discussion with Protagoras over the question: “can virtue be taught?” Early in the dialogue, Protagoras tells Socrates that he teaches the art of citizenry to young men including teaching them to be virtuous. Socrates, through the dialogue, proceeds to expose the fact that Protagoras cannot even define what virtue is. Socrates is interested in knowing what things are. He engages with the politicians, asking them “what is justice?”, and with the poets, asking “what is beauty?” He spends nearly 50 years of his life searching for what is. Over time he begins to gain a bad reputation. Sometimes he is labeled a Sophist. He is depicted as a silly figure by Aristophanes in his play The Clouds. He is a curious person that seems to have his head in the clouds. This play is the source of the early slander of which Socrates speaks in the Apology.

Plato wrote at least 35 dialogues with Socrates as a central character. The dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo give us a glimpse of the end of Socrates’ life, after 50 years of doing philosophy in the public sphere. Socrates is indicted by Miletus, a poet, and tried on the accusations of corrupting the youth of Athens and teaching strange gods not sanctioned by the state, or possibly for being an atheist. He is ultimately found guilty by 280 of 500 jurors. His penalty is death, or he could stop doing philosophy. Was Socrates corrupting the youth? If so, he did not believe he was doing so. He says that to harm the youth, he must first harm himself, and no one would knowingly harm himself. Was Socrates an atheist? He tells the story about being commissioned by the god to do philosophy. He thought he was serving the gods and his fellow Athenians by doing philosophy. Furthermore, he said he never denounced the gods. He did denounce the poets’ immoral depiction of the gods. The Apology shows us a Socrates that wants to know, a person who loves wisdom and is searching for those who have knowledge and wisdom to share. It turns out those who appear to be wise use words without meaning and are worse than unwise.

Those in authority, in a position to teach the youth, do not possess knowledge, just the appearance of knowledge. Socrates is not interested in mere appearances and wants to know what is. Was Socrates as a skeptic? Not possible. He said that he was the wisest man, according to the Oracle at Delphi, because he knew that he did not know. But he also knew what knowledge was, and he knew the benefits of having knowledge. He oriented his entire life, and death, towards the goal of obtaining knowledge.

The Theaetetus is a dialogue devoted to defining knowledge and to showing the absurdity of the empiricism and materialism of the first philosophers. Also, Socrates shows the absurdity of the relativism of Protagoras’ “man is the measure of all things.” Socrates, and his young interlocutor, Theaetetus, a student of a Sophist, attempt to define knowledge. Theaetetus begins with the claim that “knowledge is perception.” Socrates, using his dialogic method, reduces Theaetetus’ claim to absurdity. By the end of the dialogue, the two characters have reformulated the definition of knowledge as true opinion tied down with a logos. “True” is how reality is despite our perceptions. An opinion is a judgment that may either be true or false. We are justified in acting upon true opinions, according to Socrates, but knowledge only comes when our true opinions are backed by a logos, or an account, or reasons. Knowledge is true opinion tied down with reasons or proof. When tied down, true opinions cannot run away from us. We are not likely to forget what we know. This is what Socrates was after, and possession of which would help one live the good life.

How does one obtain knowledge? Socrates thought that we get it through engaging in the activity of philosophy. He was testing Theaetetus to see if he was a potential philosopher. Was Theaetetus a lover of wisdom? We define philosophy regarding its areas and features today, all of which were present throughout Socrates’ discussions in the dialogues. The areas of philosophical study include Epistemology, asking “how do we know?”; Metaphysics: asking “what is real, eternal and True?”; and Ethics, asking “what are our moral obligations, and what is the Good?” The features of philosophy include its area of study – foundational questions and the goal of life; the attitude of the love of wisdom; the method of the critical use of reason and asking what words mean before we accept the truth claims of judgments; applying philosophy to ourselves in the process of self-examination; and the last feature of philosophy is that it is systematic – involving a world and life view of the individual and cultures and civilizations of humanity.

Socrates contrasts the philosopher with the Sophist in Theaetetus 155c-d. He says the philosopher is a free man who always has time to converse in peace and at his leisure. He goes through a discussion, passing from one argument to another, no matter how long it may take until he attains Truth. The Sophist, probably a lawyer in this example, is always talking against time and is hurried by the clock. He does not have the time or opportunity to discuss or enlarge upon a subject that he chooses. He must confine himself to a set schedule of points. He is a “slave disputing about a fellow-slave before a master sitting in judgment” (172e). The philosopher is a free man in pursuit of knowing the Truth. The Sophist is a slave to his busy schedule, presumably in pursuit of some pragmatic goal, perhaps making money. The philosopher is free because he has been set free by knowing the Truth. He is set free from falsehood and misdirected goals. The Sophist is enslaved by his passions.

Philosophy requires a love of wisdom. This love is characterized by Socrates in the Symposium as eros. Eros is passion. It is what inspires a lover to pursue the beloved. To obtain wisdom, one must love wisdom with a passion that inspires pursuit. Socrates made the love of wisdom his first love. He loved it so much that he was willing to lose his physical life over giving up philosophy. One cannot passionately pursue what one does not love. The content of Socrates love can be seen in his quest to know the True, the Good, the Beautiful, and the Just. Finally, we see that Socrates teaches that philosophy, when done in private life, leads one to the good life (Crito 48 b4-5) and that public philosophy leads to the common good for the State (Republic). Philosophy is necessary for knowing the Good and the common good.

What Can We Learn From Socrates in our Time of Skeptical Crisis?

Through studying the form and content of Socrates’ pursuit of wisdom, we can learn valuable skills and arguments for countering the problem of skepticism in our day. In the area of Epistemology, we can know that empiricism (all knowledge is through the senses) leads to skepticism (we cannot really know). We learn from Socrates that knowledge is true belief with a logos (reason/ account), and that reason is our means for knowing. The use of reason is the alternative to empiricism. We learn that knowledge is possible, desirable, and attainable by using reason. We do not have to be stuck in skepticism, fideism, or agnosticism. Knowledge is gained by grasping meaning (giving definitions to words), by making judgments and providing proof for judgments. Proof is often by reductio ad absurdum in the dialogues, a method of showing what is true by the elimination of what is false because it leads to absurd and meaningless conclusions. Socrates is the master of the reductio, and we can learn much by studying his example and method. Knowledge is gained by fostering a sense of wonder at “what is” and eros in passionately pursuing the Truth. Knowledge is gained by engaging one another in the Socratic Method and exchanging logoi (reasons). Lastly, we can take courage from Socrates that Sophists can and should be silenced through reason. But we should be cautious. Silencing Sophists could cost us our lives, or livelihood.

In the area of Metaphysics, we learn from the Theaetetus that materialism as a description of reality is fatally flawed. As is Protagoras’ “flux doctrine” – that all is change and nothing is permanent. Rather, we learn in that same dialogue, that something must be eternal and permanent and that something non-material must exist. But we must be guarded here: though Socrates is a master of the reductio in addressing his interlocutors, he often fails to provide an argument for positive beliefs and sometimes resorts to mythos – imaginative stories – rather than logos to explain the non-material permanent Forms (see Timaeus, Phaedo, and Republic for some of these myths). We must use the Socratic Method to test even Socrates’ claims, especially regarding the Forms. Failure to know what is eternal/ real leads to skepticism. This is true for the Sophists, and it is true for us. Can you know what is real? Do you know?

In the area of Ethics, we learn from Socrates that knowledge of what is True leads to knowledge of the Good. Knowledge of the True is based on “what is,” or the nature of things. Knowledge of what a man is, knowledge of human nature, leads to knowledge of what is Good for each human and for all humans. The Good is the source of unity in ourselves and the source of community with others who possess the Good. Do you know the Good?

Lastly, what are some virtues that we can learn from Socrates as a means to the good life? The use of reason should lead the emotions and will, which when in balance, leads to a harmonious life. We learn in the Republic that the human soul is like a chariot. The driver of the chariot is reason, which needs the virtue of wisdom to control the other aspects of our soul. The driver, our reason, must control two contending horses. One horse, the appetites, he controls through the virtue of temperance. The second horse, the spirited will, is controlled using the virtue of courage. When the driver and the two horses are all striving together harmoniously towards the Good, we find the just man. Let reason be your guide. In an Age of Feeling, the appetitive horse is liable to take over creating an imbalance in our soul.

Another virtue we learn from Socrates is love. Love seeks the Good for oneself, for our neighbor, fellow citizens, and especially for and with our friends. Friendship is the highest relationship we can achieve because friends share a mutual love for the Good. We should cultivate the virtue of wonder at “what is,” following Socrates’ lead. We ought to be open to the Truth and teachable of Truth. We should actively and regularly engage in self-examination, asking ourselves “do I know what is True, Good, Beautiful, and Just?” Remember: the unexamined life is not worth living. To be taught the Truth requires the virtue of humility, knowing that we do not yet know as we ought to. Remember the source of Socrates’ wisdom? To find knowledge and to avoid skepticism, we will need to learn patience in dialogue. Sometimes the pursuit of the True requires much discussion. Much discussion requires much patience. Imagine the patience Socrates must have had after 50 years of discussion. We must create time in our busy, distracted, and frenetic lives to be leisurely and free to think and talk – face to face – with concentration. We can be sure Socrates would not have his smartphone out during philosophical pursuits. Would he have a smartphone? Would he engage in social media?

In our day, the “Age of Feeling” – of being offended or sparing our words for fear of giving offense – we must put on the virtue of courage. We need the courage to ask the hard questions and to accept difficult conclusions. Doing philosophy can be quite uncomfortable. We need the courage to work through the discomfort, and we need perseverance when comfort is slow in coming. Nothing good comes easily, and the Good, though easy to know, does not come to us easily. The pursuit of knowledge is hard work. What is the payoff? Was it worth it Socrates? The rewards of knowing what is True is peace and joy in growing in the Good. The Good is the source of meaning and all fulfillment in life. It’s what the Greeks called eudaimonia – flourishing. Peace and joy in knowing is the opposite of the anxiety and fear that we feel in the meaninglessness of skepticism. How does the Good make you feel? Happy. If you knew the good, would you be happy? Are you happy? If “yes” then why? If “no” then why? In this way, we begin the pursuit of the good life through self-examination, the application of philosophy.


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