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.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010



While translating my Plato: An Interpretation into Arabic, I made a number of corrections in the original, these were mostly minor typos, but there were also a couple of words that I had to alter and a couple of phrases that had to be reconstructed. I arranged with Virtualbookworm to incorporate the corrections in copies to be printed in future. I am giving below the list of corrections as submitted to Virtualbookworm, in case any reader who already has a copy may care to print out these corrections and pin them to the book. Subsequently I found that I had missed one typo: on page 196, para. 1, l. 7, the word eporexesthai appears with an extra h in the final syllable.

Page Para Line Present text Replace with
2 2 5 own garden. and offer own garden, and offer
2 4 last line consequence consequences.
2 5 7 intesity intensity
8 3 10 of Plato’a theory of Plato’s theory
11 2 4 in the Republic says in the Republic says
26 1 3 Ethics with his eight Ethics with his eight
27 3 11 phronêis phronêsis
27 4 4 phronêis phronêsis
29 3 17 (245e). (246a).
36 3 2 (choris men) (chôris men)
36 3 3 (choris de) (chôris de)
47 last line on page are not agred upon are not agreed upon
59 1 8 (29c-30a.) (29d-30a.)
66 2 2 but it does not give us but this does not give us
68 3 8 and readily agrees and he readily agrees
90 last 6 To lead people to care For people to care
119 1 2 neither adds nor neither adds to nor
135 2 8 comes Socrates warning comes Socrates’ warning
139 5 4 sense of proof. sense of proof
140 2 16 poteron on ê ouk on? poteron on ê ouk on;
141 1 5 poteron on ê ouk on? poteron on ê ouk on;
145 2 3 the greatest of studies the greatest of studies?
147 4 1 What gives truth to What gives reality to
164 2 18 anagkê toutous allelôn anagkê toutous allêlôn
191 2 7 (47a-e). (472a-e).
210 2 8-11 Present text: but since we say that reality and knowledge are a unity, we find one section also representing the lowest degree of knowing which we may call belief or opinion, and the other section the relatively higher degree of knowledge of things perceptible.
Replace with: but since we say that reality and knowledge are a unity, we find one section also representing the lowest degree of knowing, and the other section the relatively higher degree of knowledge of things perceptible which we may call belief or opinion.
228 last 1 imitator of imitators imitator of imitations
241 2 1 kai apodexesthai logon kai apodexasthai logon
251 1 3 Thales to Plato, 1914 Thales to Plato, 1914
308 1 7 Present text: dimension of reality, of the ultimate creative intelligence
Replace with: dimension of reality, these being two dimensions of the ultimate creative intelligence
312 6 9 and ship-buiding and ship-building

I am afraid the above may not be very helpful. If you would care to have it in a better form, email me at and I will gladly send you a properly set version.
I have now edited the post to make it somewhat better. I hope now it is of some use.

D. R. Khashaba
September 21, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hawking and the search for reality

The Guardian (September 14, 2010) has a delightful little piece: “Digested read: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow”: ­-- I do not know how fair the ‘digest’ is to the book, but still I think I can safely venture to say that the troube with Hawking and all scientifically-moulded intellects is that they cannot get the simple insight of Socrates: no amount of objective investigation, no amount of objective speculation, can get us to the inside of what is outside of us. No science can give us the Why or the ultimate What of anything. The ultimate Why and the ultimate What only have relevance to what is of the mind and is in the mind. We can only ‘know’ what is outside us from the outside; the only understanding open to us is understanding of what is of us, in us, and we are denying outselves that by looking outwards, thinking that is the only Where of ‘reality’. But I have been saying all of this over and over and over again, and I am wasting my breath as much as Hawking seems to have been wasting his.

D. R. Khashaba
September 14, 2010.