The Socratic Embodiment (Part I)
On “Explanation and Address” and Concluding “The Philosophy of Lack”
This week, Dr. Cadell Last, Tim Adalin, Alex Ebert, and I concluded our “Philosophy of Lack” series (though fortunately “lacks” can never be completed — that’s partly the point), and in it we discussed Socrates and how he helps us realize that we can go through most of our lives following a system of ideas that we cannot ultimately justify. Ideas guide our lives, and ideas require thought, but most of our thoughts we’ve never even thought about. Critically though, Socrates also puts himself in a place where he shares in our emotional struggle with his project. If Socrates somehow “pulls us down,” he brings us to a place where we all stand together, face-to-face, able to finally meet.
Dr. Last referred to Socrates as a “zero point,” as a place where we don’t find answers to our questions but where our presuppositions and assumptions are unveiled as being just that: presuppositions and assumptions. No, this doesn’t mean we are wrong to think this or to do that — a reason Socrates is a “zero point” is precisely because he will not make such claims (certainly is mostly impossible, anyway)— but it does mean we have to be making “informed guesses” and ultimately operate according to “incomplete information,” per se. “The map can never be the territory,” to allude to the famous idea (with a nod to Gödel), but that doesn’t mean the map is wrong or useless. It just means that we’re using an abstraction to figure out how to rightly “practice ourselves” in our concrete world, and yet “abstractions” don’t exist in nature. Humans make abstractions, and that means “a human” must be present. Socrates gradually draws attention to “the subject,” which is to say many of his dialogues ultimately draw attention to people. The ideas and moral quandaries that arise in Socrates are usually unveiled to be unsolvable, which begs the question: What are we going to do about it? From searching for explanation, our attention is thus drawn to a place of address.
Moving forward, this reflection will allude heavily to the paper, “Explained and Addressed.” Fortunately, Dr. Cadell Last provided an excellent and simple description on the difference:
Explanation is primarily about giving reasons or justifications for being.
Address is primarily about the person/subject you are speaking to.
How does Socrates “address” us? How does he “speak to us?” He is not a scientist trying to explain how our desire for justice is linked up to an evolutionary design to maintain a community to help us survive. No, Socrates helps “locate us,” which is to say that he helps us figure out “where we are.” And, looking ahead, “where we are” is a reality which is “essentially lacking,” and we need to “fully embody” and experience that “essential lack” so that we might “develop with” it (versus hide from it through “method” or “explanation”). If we do not so locate ourselves, we will easy “develop away from” ourselves — escapist and running, and possibly using explanation to help us in that flight.
The famous “Socratic Method” is generally the process by which we are questioned to the place where we realize that we have no idea what we’re talking about or doing. It’s not a hostile process or meant to ruin us; rather, “the method” can help us refine our ideas, locate the premises which don’t entirely connect, and overall become better and wiser thinkers. Colleges love claiming that they use “The Socratic Method,” but I would note that “questioning people down to their fundamental premises” is only half of what Socrates does, and frankly it is the part easiest to betray the spirit of Socrates by using in isolation (though more on that later).
There are two moves which I would like to focus on that Socrates makes in his work:
1. Unveiling to us that we “lack” any ultimate foundations and justifications for our ontological and epistemological schemas. (A step we can associate with “explanation.”)
2. Putting us in a place where both the student and teacher feel that “lack.” (A space of possible “address.”)
Socrates is not only “explaining” and he is not only “addressing” (as hopefully the main paper on this topic makes clear, we need both), though do note that his explanation is in service of address. Socrates wants to “locate us” so that he can address us (hence the “double meaning” of the word “address”), and since we are in a world that “lacks” an ultimate grounding, Socrates must remove from us our idea that “we have an ultimate grounding” so that we are actually here in the same world together. If I’m living according to “an ultimate grounding” (or A/A), while you’re living without the same kind of certainty in a world that cannot justify that certainty, then it will be hard for us to relate. “Relate” is important here: we can think of Socrates as a thinker of relations.
To expand upon “the first point,” noted above, we will focus on the Socratic dialogue, Euthyphro. “The Euthyphro Dilemma” is the famous paradox derived from this exchange, which Socrates articulates as following:
‘Is the pious being loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is being loved by the gods?’¹
I explore elsewhere the implications of this paradox; here, I only want to stress that it is complex and difficult. In light of this dilemma which Euthyphro cannot solve, I want to focus on something Socrates said earlier in the exchange:
Euthyphro, you think that your knowledge of the divine, and of piety and impiety, is so accurate that, when those things happened as you say, you have no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial?²
If Euthyphro is wrong, he is possibly doing something unimaginable: imprisoning his father and maybe even sentencing his father to execution. When Euthyphro is certain of his actions, the existential and psychological difficulties of this possibility are “contained” and not something Euthyphro must face: his certainty that the gods are on his side absolves Euthyphro the need to bear that existential weight. But, following Socrates, Euthyphro should bear that weight, for Euthyphro cannot know with certainty that what he is doing is right. Yes, Euthyphro might be right, and Socrates is not saying that he isn’t: rather, Socrates wants to make it clear that Euthyphro cannot know. How much better would it be if he could? Goodness, it might be better even if Euthyphro knew he was in the wrong: in a place of “either/or” (A/B), of a great “maybe,” Euthyphro is left with a “raw decision” (“a real choice”) — he must choose without any support from logic, reason, philosophy, theology — he must choose alone. Which, again, doesn’t mean he cannot be right or that he must be wrong; rather, it means Euthyphro is in this world like the rest of us. As we will discuss, it is by us all “seeing ourselves” in this same world that we can “address” one another — “having something in common” helps us connect — but that will require us facing great existential and psychological tension.
We cannot know how to address people unless we know their address, their location. If we are ultimately A/B, then we must treat people like they are A/B (versus A/A) to have hope of actually addressing them. As discussed throughout The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose, in the tradition of Socrates, Hegel worked hard to help us realize that we can never ultimately provide for ourselves ontological and epistemological foundations, a realization that can prove terrifying. But the very fact we cannot provide such grounding says something about who we are: as argued in “Hegel and the Ontological Implications of ‘Pure Thought’ About What’s Not There” by O.G. Rose, the fact we can think contradiction (which cannot entail correspondence in the world) “say something” about the kinds of beings we must be (not that this is easy to determine). Epistemology always entails ontological consequences, and if we are capable of thinking contradiction, then we must be “the kind of beings who can think contradiction.” According to Dr. Todd McGowen, Hegel thinks that this mean we “are” contradictory, paradoxical, or the like, which is to say that we are “lacking” “noncontradiction,” being, and A/A-ness. If Hegel is correct, something like “The Philosophy of Lack” is needed.
‘I prefer nothing, unless it is true,’ Socrates tells us, and if it’s true that Socrates “knows nothing,” does that mean he has discovered no truth?³ Perhaps, but a creative interpretation of this phrase might suggest that Socrates “prefers a lack of ontological and epistemological foundation” (A/B) unless someone can prove to him “a justified and complete foundation” (an A/A). Also, as we will explore, Socrates may also prefer “experiencing lack,” which means he prefers being brought (and bringing others) into places of possible address.
To bring this first section to a close, “the first point” or “first half” of the Socratic project described above can be associated with “The Socratic Method,” and it is this process by which Socrates “explains to us” that we are more A/B than A/A, that we are “walking paradoxes” who “lack” ontological and epistemological justifications for our lives, even if we still happen to be “correct.” This is what most of us are familiar with when it comes to Socrates, but now I would like to advance into discussing “the second half” of the Socratic project, the half which is arguably harder and deals with “address.” Without this “second half,” we cannot participate in “The Socratic Embodiment,” only a method which might contribute to escapism.
Though it varies between the dialogues, Socrates helps us realize that we don’t know anything and yet act like we know. Famously, Socrates is the wisest of all of us because he knows that he knows nothing, but how exactly does he accomplish “knowing that he knows nothing?” Well, I would argue that Socrates puts himself into places where he feels it, which means that he doesn’t only intellectually “know he knows nothing.” “Knows” in this context is “full body,” not merely abstract.
Socrates constantly humbles and humiliates, and I don’t think it’s just a performance. Yes, many of the dialogues eventually reduce his interlocutors to agreeing with him and uttering one sentence responses, but Socrates does not always get to that point, nor does he get there easily: the road is humbling. To focus on Euthyphro as a case study, Socrates is constantly telling Euthyphro that he is unsure, that he needs a teacher, that he is unable to grasp this and that — Socrates is constantly expressing his need for guidance. He “wears his ignorance on his sleeve,” per se, which in the presence of another person is extremely difficult. No doubt Socrates didn’t like doing this, as I myself don’t like admitting I got something wrong, that I’ve never heard of x or y thinker, or so on — and yet Socrates is suggesting that feeling this is necessary. There is something about Socrates and his willingness to face this humility that allows him to really “get at” and see “human nature” and “the truth of things” (which suggests that “The Philosophy of Lack” is “full body”).
Socrates probably feels irritation, annoyance, anger — every emotion imaginable — but he fights it and “develops with” it. And because Socrates does this, he is “the wisest of all of us,” for Socrates gets in his “fully body” that he “knows nothing.” Personally, I cannot think of any other way to transition from “thinking we know nothing” to “knowing we know nothing” than by putting ourselves in a place where we feel and experience our ignorance “fully body.” Socrates is in the streets, speaking with the people, and admitting his shortcomings (“a zero point,” as Dr. Last put, which is indeed interesting to think of as “the foundation of Western thought”). No, I don’t mean to say this is necessarily all we need to do (overall, we all need to go “Inside the Real,” as discussed in “Outside Catastrophes and Inside The Real” by O.G. Rose), but it is to say that we see in Socrates a critical example of “putting ourselves in the place of possible address.”
What do I mean? Well, by Socrates suffering emotional and “full body” irritation, short-temperedness, temptation, etc., he is unveiling to himself the kind of person that he “is.” He is putting himself where he must “develop” and “learn truth” with these feelings, not “away from” them say in some Ivy Tower (the image of Hegel designing his philosophy “with” Napoleon burning his home down also comes to mind). Socrates is “developing with” versus “developing from” (this later phrase suggesting both in the sense of “away from” the feelings and “from out of” them). If Socrates thought he could “develop from” those “human parts” of himself, he might stop going out in the streets and humbling himself, but he never does, which for me suggests that he believes he must always “develop with” himself. There is no “developing from” who he is — “the human nature” will always be present, the inability to be “perfect” and “complete” and free of temptations to be irritable. “Completion” is always “lacking” for Socrates, and all development must thus be “developing with” himself. If he didn’t and thought instead he had “developed from” his nature, that would be precisely when he ceased to be “the wisest of all. Socrates even takes his practice of “developing with” himself to the grave: he goes to the place where he wants to run, feels it, and “develops with” it to the most extreme limit, positivizing even death.
As already mentioned, when universities discuss “The Socratic Method,” they tend to focus on “questioning premises systematically,” often until we arrive at a place where it is unveiled the premises don’t hold together. And don’t get me wrong, I think that is important, but I find it interesting that when we discuss “The Socratic Method,” we often don’t stress the ways Socratics humiliates himself, acknowledges that he doesn’t know something, and admits mistakes. If we do note it, it’s often seen as “part of the method”: we don’t think much of “how Socrates might be feeling.” As a result, we don’t think about feelings or emotions as an important part of carrying out or experiencing “The Socratic Method,” which unfortunately primes us not to notice if we use “The Socratic Method” precisely to ironically avoid “Socratic Embodiment,” to use explanation as a way to avoid the difficulties of address.
We know Socrates is a legendary philosopher and genius, and I think this is part of the reason why we tend to think in terms of “The Socratic Method” versus “The Socratic Embodiment.” We can’t help but read Socrates as “playing a game” and Euthyphro as some irrelevant fool and nobody (heck, even Euthyphro’s name ceases to designate a person to us and instead a Socratic paradox, so great is the influence of Socrates). But this knowledge (which impedes us “knowing nothing,” perhaps) may get in the way of really “getting” what Socrates is doing. Yes, Socrates has recognition in his day, but I don’t think he is a legend, and it’s even possible that Euthyphro had more social status than Socrates. And Socrates is really humbling himself in this dialogue. Personally, I think he was probably tempted to stop the process of humbling (and I even think it’s good for me to think that way about him, for it helps me accept such humbling), which is to say that, for me, there seems to be something here in Socrates that suggests the “humbling” is a necessary part of “The Socratic Method,” a part which is often and conveniently left out of college syllabuses. We actually like the Socratic Method insomuch as we get to be Socrates at the front of the class and make “others” realize they’ve “absorbed” most of their beliefs — this makes us powerful and wise (a danger of “one-sided deconstruction”). Conveniently though, we naturally leave out the parts of the Socratic Method which require humbling (different from humility) and acknowledging our ignorance. We like Socrates for power, not for humility.
When someone asks if we read a book we haven’t, we either lie and say we have or stress that we know about it. When someone asks a question we cannot answer, we claim it is “outside the scope of our present inquiry” — the games we play our numerous. If we do this kind of thing (which is very easy and natural), we at best only use half of the Socratic project, and using half the method might mean that we use it for power exactly in ways we shouldn’t. If we are not humbled, we are not Socratic. If we are “developing from” our ignorance instead of “developing with” it, we forsake “the full education” of Socrates.
Critically, we don’t “develop with” our “lack” except in the place where we feel our “lack,” which is to say we are only ever “addressed” in the place where we feel our shortcomings. This suggests disembodied philosophy is in the business of explanation more than address (and why shouldn’t we just turn to science for such?).⁴ Socrates operates both in a space of address and in a space of explanation, doing both, but ultimately Socrates operates in service of address. He reveals that accepting our “lack of a foundation,” ontologically and epistemologically, must be accompanied by a practice and way of life that forces us to come to terms with ourselves as prideful, irritable, as thinking we know more than we do, etc. — as “lacking” complete emotional security or a finalized philosophical system. Alluding to McLuhan, it is often said that “the medium is the message”; in Socrates, we see that “the practice is the thought.”
To review, Socrates helps us realize that we live our lives thinking we have ultimate foundations and justifications for what we do, when really we mostly just “make it up as we go” (which isn’t always wrong, mind you — it depends). Socrates uses explanation to “deconstruct explanation,” to open up a space for “address,” not because explanations are bad, but because they can be bad when (out of order and) used to escape ourselves. Euthyphro had many explanations for why he did what he did, and Socrates showed that Euthyphro was overconfident by articulating a paradox Euthyphro overlooked. In discovering that paradox, which Socrates was able to arrive at by “humbling himself” (and so undergoing “address” that required him to “develop with” his feelings of pride, etc.), Socrates opens a new possible space for “address.” Unfortunately, that is when Euthyphro leaves — what will we do?
Socrates never “develops from” his ignorance, but instead “develops with” it, and I think in that act Socrates also unveils that we all operate while “lacking” fundamental foundations (that we are A/B, not A/A). We must always live “incomplete” but that means we always must live — neither Socrates, Hegel, nor Hume will not have us stop living simply because we realize we cannot isolate “fundamental principles” and build our lives up from them. Rather, to “know nothing” is to feel our own shortcomings, which we must feel to be inspired to do something about them, while also realizing there will always be work left to do. It makes us epistemically humble, and if we weren’t, why would we bother to keep learning? If we knew everything, there’d be nothing left to know, and indeed many people live their lives trying to learn nothing. Socrates offers us an alternative, a way to really know nothing.
Along with elaborations on the distinction between “developing with” and “developing from” (and the macro and systemic implications of that distinction), as we will explore in Part 2, “The Philosophy of Lack” is “A Philosophy of Invitation,” as Alex Ebert put it, for where there is “lack” there is “room.” There is a place we can enter into, if only we’d have the courage to step inside. Lack leads to invitation, which leads to an opportunity for courage. Relationships require courage, especially intimate ones, because people can hurt us. “The Philosophy of Lack” is thus “A Philosophy of Intimate Relationships,” which means it can be practiced only by facing fears. It is not nihilism, but a challenge to live.
¹Plato. Five Dialogues. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Hackett Publishing Company, 2002: 12.
²Plato. Five Dialogues. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Hackett Publishing Company, 2002: 5.
³Plato. Five Dialogues. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Hackett Publishing Company, 2002: 19.
⁴This suggests why philosophy might struggle to define itself these days.