Saturday, September 25, 2010


Socrates, Plato, and Science

In an important paper on “Plato’s Ideal of Science”, Professor Sigurdarson[1] undertakes to defend Plato against the charge that “he did more damage to science than good” as many scholars maintain. (Sigurdarson cites in particular B. Farrington and Olaf Pedersen.) The charge finds support in a short passage in Republic 530b6-c1 about the way Plato proposes astronomy should be studied:
It is by means of problems, then, that we shall proceed in astronomy, in the same way as we do in geometry, and we shall let the things in the heavens alone if, by doing real astronomy, we are to turn from disuse to use that part of our soul whose nature it is to be wise (to phusei phronimon en têi psuchêi) (tr. Vlastos 1980 as quoted by Sigurdarson).
I have neither competence nor desire to enter into the scholarly fray about Plato’s approach to the study of astronomy, nor do I intend to comment on Sigurdarson’s main argument which leads up to the conclusion that in Republic 530 b-c Socrates was not “talking about science as such but only about how some of the sciences can be used as tools to improve our souls and prepare them for the ultimate telos.”
However, for some reason I cannot comprehend, before discussing the Republic passage, Sigurdarson speaks of the ‘autobiography’ passage of the Phaedo. I have in several of my writings discussed the Phaedo ‘autobiography’ passage[2], 95e-101e, as I believe that its most important message has escaped students of philosophy with damaging consequences for philosophy. Now I find Sigurdarson’s linkage of the Phaedo passage to the Republic passage strongly illustrative of the failure of mainstream philosophical thinking to absorb that crucial message.
Socrates’ decision to take refuge in reasoning to examine there the reality of things that be (eis tous logous kataphugonta en ekeinois skopein tôn ontôn tên alêtheian) was not an alternative method of ‘inquiry into nature’ (peri phuseôs historia) as Sigurdarson suggests, even though Socrates’ ironical tin’ allon tropon autos eikêi phurô (“muddle out a haphazard method of my own”, Tredennick) may give that impression. Socrates’ decision to seek aitiai in the realm of reason (en logois) and not in the world of actual things (en ergois), 100a, amounted to a separation of two modes of thought, a separation more radical and more consistent than Kant’s.
Socrates renounced completely all inquiry into the things of the world outside the mind, not as unimportant or uncertain, but as totally unrelated to the questions that concerned him and that concern all philosophy proper, questions that deal with ideals and values “that do not reside in nature, but only in the mind of man, in the sense that they do not come to us from outside, and can by no means be discovered by any objective approach”. It was not “a scientific method designed to give us knowledge about the world, but was a method designed to give us the only wisdom accessible to man: understanding of ourselves.”[3]
It is thus misleading and confusing to link the Phaedo ‘autobiography’ passage to that of the Republic passage where Plato was speaking (albeit through ‘Socrates’) of ‘real astronomy’ as distinct from empirical astronomy. These do not pertain the one to philosophical thinking as understood by Socrates and the other to the inquiry into nature renounced by Socrates. These both relate to the ‘outer’ world, which, according to the Socrates of the ‘autobiography’, lies outside the sphere of philosophy proper.
Although as a rule I shy away from trespassing into the realm of science, I will venture to suggest that Plato’s distinction between the two alternative approaches to the study of astronomy may perhaps be elucidated by comparing the approach of Galileo to that of Newton. Galileo experimented by dropping objects and invented the telescope to watch the planets and the stars. He came up with important empirical results. But it was the mathematician Newton who, proceeding on the lines of Plato’s ‘real astronomy’, created the concept and the theory of gravity. Both approaches were scientific, both related to the ‘outer’ world and not to the ‘inner’ world that was the sole concern of Socrates and, in my view, of all philosophy proper; and Newton was wise enough to see clearly that gravity was nothing but an idea, a useful fiction, that enabled us to calculate and to predict the motion of things in the phenomenal world, but did not explain anything as our modern philosophers fondly believe.
I will not hesitate to re-affirm the foolish stance that I have already often maintained, namely, that our failure to acknowledge the radical distinction between philosophical thinking and scientific thinking is doing serious damage to philosophy. It is not in the power of philosophy, and it is not the purpose of philosophy, to give us knowledge about the world, but to give us understanding of ourselves, an understanding of which our ailing humanity stands in dire need.
D. R. Khashaba
Sixth-October City, Egypt
[1] Sigurdarson, Erikur Smari, “Plato’s Ideal of Science” in Essays on Plato’s Republic, ed. Erik Nis Ostenfeld, 1998.
[2] Khashaba, D. R., “Philosophy as Prophecy” in The Sphinx and the Phoenix, 2009; Plato: An Interpretation, 2005, ch. 1, pp.24-26, and ch. 5, pp. 126-9.
[3] Khashaba, D. R., Let Us Philosophize, 1998, 2008, ch. 2, p.24, p,26.


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