Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map

Why Question Everything?

Both Socrates and Descartes used doubt in their quests for knowledge, but only Descartes claimed to have found certainty through doubt.

Topics on this page ...

Foreword: the background of this page is "Wittgenstein's logic of language" (q.v.), but there are many historical notes as well (many dubious). Philosophy is revising, because what at first seems correct often shows itself not to be. There may be a lot wrong with this page.

Note: the words that follow "Query" are Internet searches that were directed (or misdirected) to this Web site, and which have suggested thoughts to me.

"Question Everything"

Query: question everything, Descartes.
Query: Socrates, call everything into question.

There were many Internet searches for "the philosopher who questioned everything", and I asked myself: Which philosopher is wanted here? Was there one philosopher specially known for his philosophical method was to questioning everything? That was Socrates' method, the method of cross-questioning all claims to know to see if they can stand up to the tests of reason (contradiction) and common experience (Socratic philosophy is public and objective). But that is the first and the last step of Socrates' method, as Socratic wisdom is this: not to think you know what you don't know, not to think yourself wise when you are not.

But questioning everything was also the method of Descartes, although it was only the first step of his method. The second step was to solve the problems the first step had created, which Descartes did in his own way which was to examine the ideas he thought to be innate to his own mind (and knowable independently of experience of the world outside), asking himself if there was something he himself could not doubt, something he could use to give a sure foundation to all knowledge. [Socrates and Descartes contrasted.]

And so both these philosophers are specially known for saying that to seek wisdom -- that is, to philosophize -- you have to question everything that is claimed to be known, either with your companions and yourself (Socrates) or with only yourself alone (Descartes). [Socratic dialog | Cartesian introspection.]

Socratic skepticism

Query: what is it called to question everything you think you know?

Maybe the "examined life" of Plato's Apology 37e-38a, or it might be called Socratic philosophy, because that is what is done in Socratic philosophy: all claims to know are put to the test of cross-questioning, either to be agreed to (as today's results) or refuted (if they are found to be unclear in meaning, or logically self-contradicting, or experientially false).

Socrates held that if anyone knew anything, he could explain what he knew to others (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1), and this definition of 'know' made philosophical knowledge ("wisdom") public and therefore objective, because without that requirement how can we determine whether we know what we think we do or not?

Of course, the query may simply want a word such as 'skepticism'.

Query: question everything. Greek law.

A law is a rule (and following a rule is or may be compared to a method), and this is a rule of all Socratic philosophy. But that rule was used to contrary purpose -- i.e. to confuse rather than to discover what is true -- by some of the Sophists. If Protagoras really did, as Aristotle [Rhetoric 1402a] says, "make the worse appear the better" reason, he may have questioned the better in order to cast it in the worst light, making its truth appear doubtful.

Query: word that means to question everything.

There is a synonym for 'to doubt all things' or 'to question all things', namely 'skepticize', and where others do not question but "rush in" (A. Pope), that is where the philosopher does question. Presumption, thinking oneself to know what one doesn't know (Xenophon, Memoir iii, 9, 6), is the antithesis of philosophy. (The origin of the word 'skeptic' is the Greek word meaning 'to examine'.)

Query: question everything principle.

That is what "Question everything" is in philosophy: both (1) a method, which is applied differently by Socrates and Descartes, and (2) the motto -- (which is another common meaning of the word 'principle') -- of the philosophical way of life.

Query: what does it mean to question everything? Define.

About any statement of fact there are two questions to ask: What does it mean? (if anything, because it may be nonsense), and How do you know? (whether the statement is true of false). But although the questions are always the same, the ways they are answered are many. Compare how the statement 'It is raining' is given meaning or verified with Aristotle's statement 'Man is a rational animal' or 'Moral virtue is knowledge' or 'In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed west to go east' or 'The ways of God are incomprehensible to man'. There are many different kinds of statements of fact, not only the "This is how things stand" of mechanical physics (TLP 4.5).

Query: to doubt everything or to believe everything, what exactly does it mean?

In our context, purposeful skepticism versus child-like credulity. The opposite of questioning is prejudice -- i.e. pre-judice = pre-judgment = presumption; pre = before examining the reasons why a statement has meaning or is true or not -- or in other words, thinking we know what we don't know, which is the original sin in philosophy, and why Socrates was "of all men living most wise": because he did not think he knew what he did not know (Apology 21d).

Query: Kant, Doubt everything.

Wake from your "dogmatic slumber" -- "Dare to doubt!" And with all the self-confidence of the Enlightenment Kant wrote, "Dare to know" (Sapere aude). Question all that you have assumed to be true, for the task of philosophy is to "heal the wounded understanding" of man of its presumptions, to replace those with knowledge. Because philosophy is not "a bewitchment of the intellect" to be cured of, as Wittgenstein mistakenly thought (PI § 109), but a thoroughgoing use of reason to be cured by. That was the view of Socrates and of Kant as well. [Kant and "the unexamined life".]

Query: philosophy. Doubt everything. Question everything.

"But what did that mean, everything?"

That fragment suggests a story from the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago [v], about questioning everything. Yes, everything.

When Alexander Solzhenitsyn was as yet a Marxist-Leninist, a new prisoner was brought into his prison cell. Someone called this man "Ilyich". A.S. was shocked because no one was ever called "Ilyich" except Lenin; it was like hearing a blasphemy. This man later said to A.S., "You're a mathematician. What did Descartes say? Question everything." But, A.S. asked himself, what did that mean "everything"? Surely not everything.

That is my paraphrase from memory of the original. Compare a story from the same author's Cancer Ward [i, 11].

Query: what does "Question everything" mean?

That is the meaning (point) of Solzhenitsyn's story, the question of what 'everything' is to mean. It means that nothing is sacred if by 'sacred' is meant 'irreverent to question': the spirit of philosophy is this, that "Reason is given us that we may bring everything within the range of its action, even the most exalted ideas of religion" (Schweitzer wrote) or, as in Solzhenitsyn's example, political ideology. But then the other question is about the method that is to be used -- what is 'to question' to mean?

Query: what does "question everything" mean?

'Question everything!' doesn't in itself mean anything; but you or someone else or people generally may or may not mean something by that slogan. Words are tools that are used by someone to do some work, or not (many slogans are so nebulous as "used" as to be nonsense, i.e. do no work at all).

Conclusions of Doubt and Certainty

Socrates' method of questioning everything is to hold discourse among his companions (dialog, dialectic: the cross-questioning of theses, i.e. propositions proposed to be tested as to their meaning and as to their truth or falsity), whereas Descartes' method is "introspection" -- i.e. the solitary examining the ideas one finds in one's own mind. The first method led Socrates to find that man does not know what it is most important for man to know (or perhaps, rather, what is most important for man to know metaphysically about his existence).

There is a difference between believing one knows and knowing one knows (In other words, 'belief' and 'knowledge' are different concepts). Socrates sets a criterion for knowing: being able to explain (give an account of) what you know to others, an explanation that can stand up against refutation in dialog. If you cannot give such an account (explain to others), then you do not know what you claim to know.)

In contrast, Descartes' method led him to certainty -- i.e. knowledge -- about many things. But his claim to knowledge, (claim of knowing), was never put to test of Socratic dialectic. -- And so, was it knowledge or only the illusion of having knowledge? [Dialectic versus Introspection -- Socrates versus Descartes, the different methods.]

[The author of the story, namely Solzhenitsyn, ended in religious faith, in the recapturing of the faith of his childhood, rather than in a claim to philosophical knowledge or ignorance.]

Query: the philosopher who questioned everything.

Is it not a defining characteristic of anyone we call a 'philosopher' that he questions everything? Socrates in Plato's Apology (37e-38a) does question all things in the context of philosophy. Wittgenstein wrote: "A philosopher is not a member of any community of ideas; that is what makes him into a philosopher." -- But not every philosopher has made questioning his method in philosophy: some philosophers think in questions -- but others think in assertions: if there are questions, they are implicit.

"Test all things, keeping what is good" (Paul)

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: "Question everything; keep what is good" (1 Thes. 5.21), although how much this was in the spirit of philosophy's question everything, I don't know. For example, should you question whether the Day of the Lord is ever going to come or not (ibid. 5.2)? But if we look at Paul's words in context (5.14-22), we see that he is talking about ethics, not about doctrine. Test every act with respect to its goodness (and reject all evil acts), not test every apostolic teaching with respect to its soundness or unsoundness.

On the other hand, Albert Schweitzer wrote:

Paul vindicated for all time the rights of thought in Christianity. Above belief which drew its authority from tradition, he set the knowledge which comes from the spirit of Christ. There lives in him an unbounded and undeviating reverence for truth. He will consent to a limitation of liberty only if it is laid on him by the law of love, not imposed by doctrinal authority. (The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1931 tr. Montgomery), p. 376, quoted by Picht in his Albert Schweitzer (1964), p. 85)

"Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (2 Cor. 3.17)

And therefore a Christian is also not to set Paul's own doctrines or ideas about who Jesus was and what he thought above "the knowledge which comes from the spirit of Christ" [That spirit in Augustine's words is very far from dogmatic]. Certainly Schweitzer practiced the method of questioning everything. And he believed that every thinker -- regardless of that individual's subject -- must never silence reason, not if his motto is "reverence for truth".

Query: did God say to question everything?

Which image of God are we asking about? The Greek god Apollo, the god of truth and of philosophy, whose oracle's words make Socrates question their meaning? Or the god of obedience who demands, "Who are you to question me!"

Socrates, the philosopher.  Method. Truth. Standard.

Query: the philosopher who questioned everyone, and encouraged others to question everything. Why did Socrates want his students to question things; why did he call questioning the greatest good?

Socrates questioned everyone who was said to be wise. He did this in answer to Apollo's oracle at Delphi (Plato, Apology 21a-d), because the oracle had told Socrates' friend Chaerephon that "no man is wiser than Socrates". -- But how could that be, Socrates asked himself, because Socrates knew nothing beyond his own ignorance, i.e. that he himself was not wise -- he knew "nothing of much importance" for man to know. And so Socrates thought that he must not have understood what Apollo had meant, and so Socrates set out to find someone who was wiser than Socrates himself was. And (1) he had a method for answering that question, and (2) he was set on discovering the truth (That is why we call him a philosopher, in contrast to the Sophists who were either indifferent to the truth -- wanting only to win arguments, even by making the worse appear the better reason -- or who denied either that man is able to know the truth or that there is any truth for man to know).

Apollo and the Two Tests

Socrates' set a standard for knowing anything, namely that if anyone knows something he can explain what he knows to others (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1; Plato, Laches 190c), and that explanation can be put to the test in cross-questioning. The test was both of reason and of experience (in contrast to Plato who often used only the test of reason regardless of experience). That was Socrates' method for discovering the truth, by discovering either unclarity or contradiction -- and like all philosophy since Thales, the first philosopher -- it was the truth as known by the natural light of reason alone. (Socrates put Apollo's claim to the same two tests he put all other claims to knowledge, namely for (1) its meaning, and for (2) its truth. Socrates found a sense in which Apollo's claim that "no man is wiser than Socrates" is true; if Socrates had not, he would have gone to question Apollo's oracle at Delphi.)

Questioning everyone who claimed to be wise, i.e. to know something important for man to know (above all about how to live our life, about what is the good for man, and what is death), was Socrates' way of questioning everything.

I tell you that no greater good can happen to a man than to let no day pass without discussing human excellence and all the other subjects about which you have heard me examining both myself and others. (Plato, Apology 37e-38a, trs. Church, Tredennick, conflated)

So Socrates did encourage others, in life his companions, in Plato the people of Athens and visitors to that city, to ask questions, particularly about the meaning of words in ethics (but in which sense of the word 'meaning'). He told them that a life of asking questions -- which is what philosophy is -- is "the greatest good of man" (tr. Jowett), and indeed that "an unexamined life is not worth living" (tr. Church).

The Sophists versus Socrates

Query: who was the Greek philosopher who taught students to challenge everything? "Socrates taught us to question everything."

It was not a philosopher, but the Sophists who taught their students to challenge everything, some Sophists because they did not think it possible to know the truth, other Sophists because they were indifferent to the truth, but all because they cared more about success in political = public affairs than in the truth. And to this end, the Sophists taught their students to challenge everything with the aim of undermining the arguments of their opponents by obscuring and casting doubt, sometimes even by "making the worse appear the better reason".

In contrast to the Sophists, the philosopher Socrates did not have students who were charged a fee for instruction, and so unlike the Sophists who grew wealthy, Socrates, who had and desired no occupation but philosophizing, lived in "myriad poverty" (Plato, Apology 23b-c), but he did not mind because he had few needs (Diog. L. ii, 25).

But rather than students, Socrates had friends and companions in discussion, and it was these he taught to question everything concerning what it is most important for man to know -- not in order to undermine man's ability to know, but in order to discover the truth.

That is the meaning of Xenophon's words about Socrates, that "he never gave up considering with his companions what any given thing is" because "those who think they know what they don't know are misled themselves and mislead others", and so Socrates set the standard for himself and his companions that 'to know' = 'to be able to give an account of what you know to your companions' (Memorabilia iv, 6, 1) -- i.e. an account to be cross-questioned in Socratic dialectic (dialog).

Of course no error could be more grave than the error of thinking you know how man should live his life when you do not know that, and consequently of living your life in a way that is not in accord with the excellence that is proper and unique to man, which, in the ancient Greek understanding, is the good for man. Socrates, in the words of the query, taught us first, and most importantly, to question ourselves about everything we think we know, to see if we are wise or only think we are wise when we are not.

Query: do philosophers think critically about everything?

The Greek word 'sophia' translated 'wisdom' is very broad in meaning, and although the philosopher is a "lover of wisdom", Plato says that the philosopher does not want to know "just anything or everything" (Republic 475c-d): the philosopher thinks critically about metaphysics, logic and ethics.

But although philosophy has its own subjects, philosophers do think critically about everything they think about ("Philosophy of X") -- and more specifically they think critically about claims to know; and in that sense, philosophers do think about and question all things, regardless of whether philosophy seeks to have knowledge of those things or not. That is the Socratic project and standard, to always ask: How do you know?

Query: Socrates, nothing beyond questioning.

There is no authority in philosophy except reason (and, in Socratic philosophy, our common experience of life). And the query states what the motto Question everything would suggest, or what else is 'everything' to mean here? But the subject of Socrates' investigation was Ethics (Phaedrus 229e-230a) rather than physics (Plato, Apology 19c-d; Aristotle, Metaphysics 987b) or formal logic (as a mere curiosity).

Finally, the answer to the following query could be either Socrates or Protagoras and other Sophists and Eristics ("wrestlers in words").

Query: question everything and Greek philosophy.

But why does a philosopher doubt what the rest of his community takes to be wise or true? Why does he stand apart from his community? But those questions reverse the order of things: Doubt of that type is what makes someone into a philosopher; there is not first the philosopher and only afterwards doubt.

Query: a man who has questions and no answers.
Query: those who question everything are called?

In Plato's early Socratic dialogs (Euthyphro, Laches), Socrates is indeed a man of questions rather than answers ... although in Plato's later dialogs, Socrates is transformed from a man of questions into a man full of opinions -- Plato's opinions. ("Philosophers may be divided into dogmatics, and skeptics" (Diog. L. i, 16), i.e. into those who presume that knowledge is possible and those who do not.)

But someone who questions = doubts most everything is normally in English called a 'skeptic'. But that definition may be misleading in the context of philosophy, because skeptics, as we most often use the word 'skeptic', doubt in the sense of 'doubt' = 'permanently suspend judgment'. And in that sense of the word 'skeptic', Descartes was not a skeptic. Those who question everything should perhaps, rather than 'skeptics', be called 'philosophers', because that is what philosophers do.

But some philosophers, e.g. Pyrrho of Elis, were thoroughgoing skeptics, saying that it cannot even be known whether anything can be known, and some Sophists deceptively used skepticism as a method for "making the worse appear the better" reason.

Asking versus telling

Query: Socrates was not a skeptic.

Are you asking or telling? Socrates' method was to ask, not to tell (not to presume), and that is the method of philosophy, and so the philosophical form of the query is: "Was Socrates a skeptic?" (The conclusion comes at the end, not at the beginning of an investigation.) Religious revelation is an example of a method of telling rather than asking: Apollo's oracle tells Socrates' friend; she does not ask him.

Socrates did not ask questions in order to demonstrate, as Protagoras did (see Plato's Cratylus 386a ff: Man is the measure of all things), such propositions as that "we have no knowledge of things as they are in themselves, but know only how things appear to us as individuals". (And it may be, and according to some accounts of the aims the Sophists -- e.g. "to make the better appear the worse" reason -- that other thinkers want to demonstrate such things -- regardless of what the truth -- or sense and nonsense -- may be of what they seek to demonstrate.)

But did Socrates seek to demonstrate only that "no man is wiser than Socrates", which would be to end in skepticism by taking Apollo's words to mean that man can know nothing that it is important for man to know? Or did Socrates seek to know how we should live our life (which is the subject of ethics, the subject that was made part of philosophy by the historical Socrates) by using his method of not thinking he knew what he did not know?

What do you mean by the word 'skeptic' in your query; that is, of course, the first question to ask. The second is, which Socrates do you mean -- Plato's or Xenophon's or someone else's, for there are many accounts of who Socrates was.

"Suspect everything"

There was this philosopher Descartes. He said, "Suspect everything." (Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward i, 11, tr. Bethell, Burg)

Note that here 'suspect' means 'Ask questions, taking nothing for granted', but in the sense that the Apostle Paul intended: Question in order to reject what is not justified -- and to accept what is.

Query: skepticism used by Socrates and Descartes.

It is correct to say that both used the method of skepticism -- if by 'skepticism' we mean: calling into question things that most men take for granted -- e.g. that sense perception gives us knowledge of reality, or that we know what courage is -- as a philosophical tool.

Query: first principle, doubt everything.

... but what does that mean -- i.e. how do you doubt? what methods do you use, what distinctions do you make, for a proposition may be true or false or it may be nonsense -- but there are many other possibilities, for there are many different kinds of proposition types, among them rules of grammar and ethical statements (which if they are true are verified in different ways from statements of ordinary sense perceptions e.g. about the weather) and religious statements (pictures which are neither verifiable nor even hypothetical) or points of reference (when others might be chosen instead and which are therefore neither true nor false), metaphorical language, and so on. If you doubt using the wrong yardsticks, thinking you know what you don't know, namely the distinctions you should make .... So questioning everything isn't as simple as that slogan makes it appear.

Why question everything? Why doubt all things?

There are many answers:

For Descartes: in order to doubt his way to certainty. To find whether there is something that cannot be doubted, in order to make that something the foundation of his philosophy. Because he wanted for his philosophical foundation the absolute certainty -- i.e. the absence of even the logical possibility of doubting the truth -- which he believed he found in the model of pure mathematics.

For St. Augustine: in order to refute the absolute skeptics of his day (thinkers similar to the ancient Pyrrhoneans and Sextus Empiricus) who claimed that nothing is beyond doubt and therefore that nothing can be known. Augustine replied: Si fallor, sum: "If I doubt, I am" -- i.e. I cannot doubt whether I exist (which Descartes will later restate as "I think, therefore I am").

To doubt is to exist (Augustine)

The combination of words 'I doubt that I exist' is excluded from the language (as is e.g. 'I am sleeping'); it is nonsense, an undefined combination of words. If 'I doubt, therefore I am' were a statement of fact (rather than a rule of "grammar" or logic), then it could be true or false; however, it has no contradiction: 'If I doubt, then I do not exist' is a meaningless combination of words. This remark applies to Descartes as well as to Augustine. (Cf. Descartes' synthetic a priori project in philosophy.)

"Any proposition can be derived from other propositions" (OC § 1), but if a given proposition is a rule of grammar, then what is derivable from its tells us nothing about reality. Of course, Descartes believed that pure mathematics is not simply a game played according to rules, but that it does reveal reality to us. But must not the theorems proved by axiomatic geometry be verified by experience? That is what Rationalism denies.

For Socrates: in order to distinguish what I know from what I only think I know (but don't know). Thinking we know what we don't know is the original sin of man, the basic mistake, in philosophy -- although it is very difficult to "say no more than you know" (BB p. 45) -- i.e. not to think you know what you don't know. [Socrates' project in philosophy: "What is Socratic ignorance?" | One possible method the solitary thinker in philosophy can use to escape thinking he is wise when he is not.]

Query: 'Socratic humility' means.

Christian theologians called the presumption that one knows what one does not know "pride" and contrasted that with "humility" (i.e. self-knowledge: because the man who knows himself, knows what he knows, and acknowledges what he does not know): "Confess thine ignorance", it says in The Imitation of Christ. This type of false pride was identified as the principle obstacle to the acceptance of "faith" -- i.e. belief-without-proof: one must first reach the point of unreservedly confessing: "I don't know." (That confession is thought to enable one to embrace a childlike faith in God. And only if 'faith' = 'belief in some proposition truth as if that proposition were an hypothesis' is there a stage beyond faith in human development, namely, philosophy.)

Query: doubt can be used to find the truth; philosophy.

It's, rather, the possibility of doubt that is used in Descartes' method, not practical, everyday-living doubt. But also, the method of geometric proof (Assume the counter-thesis to be true) might also be called a method of doubting.

Query: in order to find truth, doubt everything. Descartes.

Descartes method: The truth will be whatever proposition no grounds can be found for doubting the truth of. That proposition will be the bedrock on which you can build, by deducing that other propositions are true from it.

Descartes' method in philosophy

[In his Discourse on Method (published in 1637), Descartes wrote that in each subject matter he attempted] to reflect particularly upon what might fairly be doubted and prove a source of error [and in this way to root out] all the errors which had hitherto crept into [his thinking. But, he explains,] Not that in this I imitated the Sceptics who doubt only that they may doubt, and seek nothing beyond uncertainty itself; for, on the contrary, my design was singly to find ground of assurance, and cast aside the loose earth and sand, that I might reach the rock or the clay. (Part III, tr. unknown)

Note that Descartes is not seeking to root out merely unjustified believes -- but rather unjustifiable beliefs. Because it must be logically possible for a justifiable proposition to be false, not only true -- and therefore no such proposition can be absolutely certain ("the bedrock or the clay"). And it is absolute certainty that Descartes seeks, not merely more-or-less justified belief. It is not logically possible for "I think, therefore I exist" to be false. And Descartes is not concerned with what "we" know, but only with what he himself knows; because he can doubt that anyone but he himself exists. Descartes' project begins with "know thyself" -- i.e. self-knowledge.

Query: to question everything I know, Descartes.

Or rather: question everything I think I know. The query's form of expression (thus amended) makes Descartes' method or project in philosophy clearer. It begins with the Socratic project: to distinguish what-I-know from what-I-think-I-know (but-do-not). But Descartes uses an entirely different method from Socrates to make that distinction (See the next query).

Query: Descartes' Socratic project.

Is there such a project? For Cartesian introspection is not Socratic dialectic: Socrates' project is public, but Descartes' project is not. Both projects are rational; however, the first is reason tethered to experience of life that is common to all mankind ("If a man knows something, he can give an account of what he knows to others"), whereas in Descartes' project reason is allowed to float free of the test of common experience: Descartes claims to concern himself only with what can be deduced from the "clear and distinct" ideas he finds in his own mind. That is one reply to the next query.

Query: in what way did Socrates' and Descartes' philosophical approaches differ?

I have made above a sharp distinction between Plato and Socrates. Descartes' relation to Plato lies in this view: that reason by itself alone can alone discover "the true nature of things". Thus see Plato's axiomatic method in philosophy (as well as Parmenides: do not be governed by "an aimless eye, an echoing ear" (Diog. L. ix, 3, 22)).

Query: would Descartes agree with Socrates' view about whether there are innate ideas?

First of all, as to Socrates -- the historical Socrates -- there is no reason to presume that he had any views about innate ideas at all. And second, the question rather is whether Descartes agrees with Thomas Aquinas that there are naturally known first principles or not, not whether he agrees with Plato's pre-life-in-the-body knowledge of Forms as found in Phaedo 65d, for example.

According to Etienne Gilson, Descartes' thinking shows that Descartes did not skip past the Scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages to the philosophers of ancient Greece. The God of Descartes' philosophy is not the same as the God of Aristotle's philosophy, but it is the same as the God of Aquinas' theology. Descartes' thought-background was Catholic Christianity, his teachers were Jesuits, and his "I think, therefore I am" is but an echo of Augustine's "If I doubt, then I exist". Descartes would not agree with Plato's thesis that man's knowledge of the Forms is due to the soul's existence prior to its life in the body -- because the soul Descartes finds in his own "clear and distinct ideas" is the Christian soul. Now, why would that be? It is characteristic of Descartes' method (as is Anselm's proof for the existence of the God of ethical -- i.e. all good -- monotheism -- i.e. all whole).

Descartes and Anselm: ontological proof of God's existence -- cf. Plato's Phaedo 65d: "Have you ever seen any of these things with your eyes?" "Certainly not" -- nonetheless you have the clear and distinct idea of perfection, of that than which nothing greater can be thought.

Socrates and Descartes contrasted

Query: Socrates versus Descartes.

Where is the difference here? Both Socrates and Descartes question everything ... except the one thing they take for granted. For Plato's Socrates that is common nature definitions in ethics (I don't know whether the Socrates of Xenophon takes those for granted). While for Descartes it is the applicability of the method of mathematical proof -- the method of pure mathematics and geometry -- outside mathematics. Descartes' method is called "Rationalism"; it is the claim that by the method of using reason -- and nothing but reason -- it is possible to obtain knowledge of the world. And it contrasts with "Empiricism": knowledge obtained by the method of reason examining our shared experience of the world, which is public and therefore objective; this is Socrates' method of dialectic.

In Plato's Socratic dialogs, Socrates, however, has only negative results from his method of questioning everything, and he ends in the wisdom of recognizing his own ignorance: "... so I went away, but with this reflection that anyhow I was wiser than this man; for, though in all probability neither of us knows anything, he thought he did when he did not, whereas I neither knew anything nor imagined I did" (tr. C.E. Robinson, Socrates and Apollo's Oracle at Delphi).

Descartes, on the other hand, begins by doubting everything -- but ends up with a certainty so fundamental that he is even certain of the existence of a benevolent God (albeit "the God of the philosophers", as Pascal says, not the God of religious faith). And he goes on to demonstrate -- i.e. deduce as in mathematics -- knowledge (or imagined knowledge) of many things about the physical world, e.g. that there cannot be "void space" [vacuums] despite experiments conducted by Pascal proving the contrary ["experiments are the only masters in physics"] -- and this based on Descartes' principle of reason alone (which, in Blaise Pascal's view, is nothing more than a nominal definition [or, in Wittgenstein's jargon, "rule of grammar"]) that "there can be no extension which is extension of nothing".

Both the Platonic Socrates and Descartes begin with doubt, questioning everything, but one remains in doubt -- i.e. with his questions unanswered -- while the other arrives at certainty (alleged knowledge of many things). (I am equating 'doubt' here with 'the assumption of ignorance'.)

Descartes, like Socrates, wants to distinguish between what he knows and what he only thinks he knows (but does not). But while Socrates looks out into the world to make this distinction (He questions all who are said to be wise), Descartes turns away from the world and looks within himself for that distinction.

The one [the method of Socrates] is an empiricism. Remember, however, that the method of empiricism is not experience divorced from reason, for such experience would be blind, like percepts (sense-data) without concepts (language) to organize them. But so Socrates' own method is actually conceptual investigation [although he does not see it as being such] -- because the investigation does not involve the acquisition of new experience (i.e. the gathering of new facts), but an explanation of the facts that are already in plain view -- public but not understood. (In Plato, Socrates asks for the common-nature named by the common-name: That nature is not as it were hidden under a rock -- but, of course, if it is not hidden it is not visible either. And so Plato invents his "theory of Forms" to resolve this paradox or contradiction.)

The other is a Rationalism: Descartes' model from which he takes his method is the a priori ["prior to experience"] knowledge he believes can be found in pure mathematics.

Query: Socrates' and Descartes' concepts of knowledge.

Socrates: to know = to be able give an account, an explanation of what one knows to others that can stand against refutation in dialectic, which in Plato = to state a general definition [i.e. identify a defining common nature and distinguish it from all others] -- vs. -- Descartes: to know = to have a "clear and distinct idea" and whatever follows [i.e. can be deduced] from that type of idea.

The course of the philosophical investigations of Plato's -- and Aristotle's (Metaphysics 1078b27, Topics 105a13) -- Socrates is pre-determined by an axiom, a picture (a "concept") of how our language works; that picture is the foundation of his thinking (Socrates' logic of language, philosophy's first question) about the meaning of common names. That is, Socrates does not begin with an hypothesis to be put to the test of experience: "Is there a defining common nature or quality (an "essence") of holiness, or bravery, or justice, or self-control and the other moral virtues?", but instead he begins with the requirement that those common names must have defining common natures. And his discussions examine various accounts of what those defining common natures are. What is empirical about Socrates' method is that he uses examples from our everyday life [facts of our common experience] when he seeks definitions. Plato's Socrates does not find those defining common natures, but Plato makes clear why Socrates seeks them -- namely, to use those general definitions as universal guides or standards of judgment in ethics. Not finding those general definitions would falsify Socrates' hypothesis that they exist were it an empirical hypothesis rather than a requirement he brings to his investigations.

Nonetheless, Socrates requirement is not a willful preconception -- i.e. it is not like Plato's own axiomatic method in philosophy which consciously seeks to impose Plato's preconceptions on reality.

Plato's extension of Socrates' method beyond ethics does not find defining common natures either, although there are common names for which there are general definitions, e.g. A 'simile' is a comparison using the words 'like' or 'as', or Plato's own examples of 'quickness' and 'clay'.

The method of Descartes on the other hand was exclusively Rational. [Rationalism versus empiricism, according to Wittgenstein.]

I wouldn't use the expression "conception of knowledge", because it suggests that there is some independently existent something or other (an "intangible" or "abstract" object) named 'knowledge', about the nature of which philosophers invent theories. Instead, I would say that what we find in Socrates and Descartes are different definitions of the word 'knowledge', both of which resemble and dis-resemble the everyday uses we make of the word 'knowledge' [or at least there are resemblances in the case of Socrates]. But they are nonetheless jargon [specially assigned definitions], because we don't normally require that someone state a definition of a word in order for us to say of that person that he knows something; and we don't normally call an idea 'knowledge' just because some individual finds that idea compelling ("clear and distinct").

To the above it must be added that for Socrates 'to know' something is an essentially public act, whereas for Descartes it is an essentially private act. Socrates is closer to understanding "the logic of our language" (if we accept Wittgenstein's account of it), whereas Descartes completely misunderstands it. In divorcing language from its public use Descartes removes all objectivity from meaning, making linguistic meaning solely a matter of "whatever seems correct" (but if whatever seems correct is correct, then the word 'correct' has no meaning (PI § 258); the question of what meaning "an essentially private language" could have belongs to the Philosophy of Psychology.) We could also say that Socrates wants only to speak in the third person, whereas Descartes wants to speak only in the first person singular.

"... resemble and dis-resemble the everyday usage of that word." In the case of Socrates, we do in many cases require that someone [be able to] state the grounds -- the justification -- for their assertion before we say of that person that he knows something. But that is not always the case. Wittgenstein gives the example of "knowing how a clarinet sounds" (ibid. § 78). -- Although there is a defined way to put this claim of knowledge to the test, namely, asking the person to choose among sound samples, this knowledge is not something that it is logically possible to put into words. It is like "knowing how the color blue looks": you are given color samples to choose among, but we do not define color-words verbally (i.e. by means of other words).

And perhaps we are tempted to say that Descartes' use of the word 'to know' resembles those cases, but we would be wrong. In both those cases, there is something public that a person does: and it is that public act that determines whether of not we apply the word 'to know' to them. The same is the case with the word 'to understand'.

"Think for yourself!"

Query: think for yourself, Descartes. Importance Descartes placed on thinking for yourself.

But Descartes was not Socrates and if we try to remake him in Socrates' image, we falsify history. Socrates practiced philosophy in the streets of Athens, Descartes in his own room. Socrates called all men to think for themselves (Apology 37e-38a); Descartes, as it were, called only to himself. On the other hand, however, "thinking for yourself" is what all philosophers do, what is important to them. It is authoritarian institutions, e.g. the school (Just pass the exam), the church (Just recite the creed), the military (Just obey orders), which do the opposite.

Query: questioning authority, philosophy.

Are you looking for an authority to authorize you to question authority? But how will you find what does not exist: there is no authority in philosophy. Presumption and specific human laws and customs, although these can be looked at from philosophical points of view, are not philosophy.

Query: should we doubt everything like Descartes says? Does Descartes say to examine everything?

"But what did that mean -- everything?" (Solzhenitsyn's story), because Descartes did not apply his method to examine the aspect of our life that Socrates called on every man to examine -- namely, the "no small matter, but how to live" (ethics). Descartes' concern was not ethics, but metaphysics. Socrates, in contrast, hadn't time for metaphysical speculation -- e.g. with the questions that occupied Plato, whose interests in philosophy were much broader than those of either Socrates' or Descartes' -- because Socrates judged that he must first seek to "know himself" and therefore how he should live his life, as it was written inside the temple of Apollo, who is the patron Greek god of philosophy, at Delphi.

As to Descartes and ethics: it is difficult to see how an ethics -- i.e. a guide to how man should live his life -- could emerge from his metaphysics, and what an Cartesian ethics would look like unless it were that what is correct and incorrect conduct is shown by "clear and distinct ideas", which would be no more objective than Kant's "the moral law within".

Query: why does Descartes ask us to doubt everything?

Descartes describes the method that he has himself used. He does not say that his method is the method that others should use:

... my design is not here to teach the Method which everyone should follow in order to promote the good conduct of his Reason, but only to show in what manner I have endeavored to conduct my own (Discourse, Part 1, tr. Haldane, Ross).

Some may find his method useful, but others not: "everyone may judge it for himself" (ibid.), Descartes writes.

Socrates "asks us to doubt everything" (if 'doubt everything' = 'question everything'), but Descartes does not.

Descartes, natural reason and divine revelation

Query: did Descartes doubt everything? did Descartes question everything?

Only those things known by the natural light of reason alone; thus not religious faith. "The truths revealed by God are more certain than anything man might discover for himself." (Socrates could say the same, but Socrates would also say that the meaning of revealed truth -- which is what he believed Apollo's oracle at Delphi's statements were -- must be put to the test (doubted, questioned).)

Question: was Descartes a "free-thinker", or does he belong to a very different way of life, that of Catholic Christianity? Does he only pretend to accept the hierarchy of the Church's absolute authority in religion for the sake of a quiet life, unlike e.g. Galileo? Or is he sincere when he states that in his view religious revelation ("what God has Himself revealed") is more certain than anything that man can discover for himself by the natural light of reason alone? Is it necessary to Descartes' method that he reject authority in all things?

Descartes seemed to believe that man is able to discover every naturally knowable truth by reasoning his way to it (Rationalism) -- however, he urges extreme caution about altering our way of life (ethics) while our thoughts are new to us and still in flux.

"A little learning is a dangerous thing ... shallow draughts intoxicate the brain."

Descartes resolved that while he was reevaluating what he believed he knew to be true, he would not change his way of life, his religious views or the moral values that guided his life when he began his investigations. A little learning = a little philosophizing, can lead to radical and, in the light of mature reflection, foolish changes in one's thought and way of life.

Some philosophers have stated that because the propositions of religion are not hypotheses -- if 'hypothesis' is defined as 'subject to verification by sense perception' -- there are no philosophical questions to ask about that class of propositions: one either believes in them, i.e. either holds faithfully to particular religious propositions (Wittgenstein calls them "pictures") or one does not. (There are, however, in my view, serious philosophical objections to those philosophers' statement -- as there are indeed philosophical questions to ask even about our axioms, our groundless grounds underlying all our belief.)

Descartes was not Socrates, and it is ahistorical to remake him in the image of Socrates. Descartes did not philosophize in the city's streets, but only in his own room; his work was known only to the most educated people of his time. That all men should question all things, as Socrates had done daily in the public places of Athens, was not what Descartes demanded of philosophy; for him the place of the philosopher was as it had been for Plato, "sheltering behind a wall against the storm" raised by ignorant men intent on wrong-doing (Plato, Republic 496c-d). But whether Descartes also thought, as Plato did, philosophy to be a subject for an elect few only (Republic 496a-d, I don't know.)

Query: does Descartes' method of doubt make sense as an approach to daily life?

"In any set of circumstances, discard everything that can be doubted; keep only what is certain, and base your decision on that"? I don't know the answer to the query: it does not seem to be a philosophical query, because it seems to call for an empirical rather than a conceptual investigation. In which case, we must look at actual examples of decisions we face in our life -- to see if Descartes' method is serviceable.

Query: an everyday example of the Cartesian method.

Was Sherlock Holmes' method Cartesian? "Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains is the truth." Descartes: "Eliminate everything that can be doubted. Then whatever remains is knowledge that can be used to build up a picture of the truth".

Query: did Socrates doubt his senses?

No, not the historical Socrates who spared no time for metaphysics but only for ethics, but Plato doubted that sense perception, because it can deceive, is a source of truth, and Plato's doubt was either metaphysical or a false derivation from Some to All: we can hardly deduce from optical illusions (like that the stick you see emerging from water is in fact straight, not bent, although it appears to the sense of sight to be bent), that the evidence of the senses is inherently untrustworthy, i.e. doubtful.

Query: what of Descartes' approach of using doubting-experience to explore truth?

It is possible to be deceived by the senses. Plato states well-known examples in Republic 602c-603a and further see e.g. Sophist 266b-c, and Sophist 235e-236a refers to the sculptor's technique to "fool the eye" (cf. trompe l'oeil) when crafting the head of a colossus). And therefore, Plato says, the senses are not a sure source of knowledge -- i.e. they can be doubted. The irony of this is that man is more often mistaken in is notions than in his sense perceptions. But, remember, Descartes is looking for certainty, not mere probability (positive and negative correlation).

Plato's Sophist 235e-236e contrasts "seeming [to be]" with "being". But note: where there is a question of seeming -- i.e. where there are grounds to doubt that what appears to be really is -- there are also methods for resolving that doubt. (Indeed, were there not, Plato could not make the distinction he makes between 'seeming' and 'being'. That distinction would be "mere sound without meaning".)

Metaphysics and nonsense (words without antitheses)

Query: what philosophical statement is confirmed by putting a straight stick part way into water?

That sense perception can be deceptive, that how things appear to the senses can't be trusted to be reality? But only some sense perception deceives, not all, and note that the deception is corrected by further sense perception. But it is common for metaphysics to try to use words without their antitheses (antithesis and meaning), as if it weren't nonsense to say that all sense perception is untrustworthy, all language unclear, because 'unclear' only gets its meaning in contrast to 'clear', as does 'untrustworthy' by contrast to 'trustworthy'.

"Experience shows how far experience is to be trusted" (Wittgenstein says something like this) -- that when in the particular case doubts arise about our sense experience, we use further sense experience to put that doubt to the test -- i.e. there is a doubt and a method to remove that doubt. In the query's case, we may push the stick fully under the water, and we may lift the stick fully out of the water, and we use our fingers to feel its shape, things like this.

Refusing to trust the evidence of the senses in principle -- i.e. not because there are grounds for doubt in every case but only because in some cases the evidence of sense perception is false or uncertain. That is not an aspect of Descartes' method that it is easy to see an application for in our day to day life.

The role of God in philosophy

Query: contrast Socrates' and Descartes' use of God.

The gods have no place in Socrates' philosophy. The words of Apollo's oracle are a riddle for reason to solve, and if reason were unable to solve that riddle (i.e. to discover the meaning of the god's words), then Socrates would have to set it to one side as a mystery. But Apollo's words did, according to Plato, give Socrates' method in philosophy (of questioning, cross-questioning and refutation in order to see if any man is wiser than Socrates) its direction in the context of Ethics: for "Know thyself" -- i.e. for how man should live his life. (That was the concern of the historical Socrates. Others have directed their studies in philosophy elsewhere, e.g. to epistemology and metaphysics, as did Descartes.)

In contrast, God is the guarantor of Descartes' philosophy -- because in order for Descartes to trust that his "clear and distinct ideas" are truthful, he must acknowledge the possibility of an "evil deceiver" rather than a benevolent God, although that was the only role God -- i.e. the concept 'God' -- played in Descartes' philosophy; Pascal called it a mere "fillip" to Descartes' system, no more than the last act of the deists' clock maker God to start the clock running, i.e. "the God of the philosophers and scholars" rather than the God of religious theism, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Is that also the only role of God in Aristotle's system, to be the "unmoved mover" who sets the world in motion?)

In all his philosophy [Descartes] would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God. (Pascal, Pensées ii, 77, tr. W.F. Trotter)

Socrates' philosophy is thoroughgoing reason working on verifiable experience; whereas Descartes' philosophy is reason working on -- i.e. examining -- what Descartes believes to be pre-existent-to-sense-experience ideas in his own mind.

Query: what does philosophy teach us?

As an instructor, philosophy hasn't much to teach except modesty and caution and conscientiousness -- and that one must always ask "why?" in the sense of: Am I wise to do or think this, or do I only think myself wise when I am not? Philosophy hasn't more to offer than its exhortation to rely on the gift of the "discourse of reason" that has been given to each of us, as philosophy's project is to try to understand things by the light of our natural reason alone. (Why philosophy can't be easy.)

"Think for yourself!" may be the motto of philosophy. But maybe we need to learn from teachers like Socrates how to think philosophically, although despite my belief that Socrates' own method, the standard he set for philosophy, is the wisest, well, the question of how to think philosophically -- is itself a philosophical question. But Plato did believe that being refuted in dialectic makes a man more modest and gentler than he would have been if he had continued believing that he knew what he did not know (Theaetetus 210a-c, and Sophist 230b-d), and therefore continued not knowing himself, not knowing his own limits ... if we would like to call that something that philosophy teaches us.

What does 'thinking for yourself' mean in philosophy? It does not mean trying to be original in all things, thinking your own thoughts about everything (That would simply be a path to ignorance for most human beings); but it does mean subjecting all things to critical examination before you accept them as right or wrong, true or false. Wittgenstein said about his own work in philosophy: "I think I have never invented a line of thinking but that it was always provided for me by someone else & and I have done no more than passionately take it up for my work of clarification" (CV (1998 rev. ed.) MS 154 15v: 1931 § 2). What Wittgenstein did claim to invent were "new comparisons" [similes] (ibid).

"Think for yourself!" -- What does it mean? It doesn't mean not hearing what others have said or have to say, but only not uncritically accepting what you hear (regardless of who has said it; the word 'authority' has no meaning in philosophy). "Dare to doubt!" is another way of saying "Question everything. Keep what is true."

Query: ancient question everything, doubt, philosophy.

Pyrrho of Elis (c. 365-275 B.C.) can be seen as taking the skepticism of Protagoras to its limits:

Philosophers may be divided into dogmatics ['dogma' = 'opinion'] and skeptics: all those who make assertions about things assuming that they can be know are dogmatists; while all who suspend their judgment on the ground that things are unknowable are skeptics. (Diog. L. i, 16, tr. Hicks)

Neither Socrates nor Descartes believed that "all things are unknowable", although Plato believed that "so long as we keep to the body", the soul in its imprisoned state cannot "attain satisfactorily" the knowledge we seek in philosophy (Phaedo 66b).

[The topic of Socrates and Descartes is discussed in many other places as well. Search the Site Map for these.]

Socratic Wisdom

Note: this continues the discussion "Socratic ignorance" and is Socratic ignorance also Socratic wisdom?

Query: what is the meaning of the beginning of wisdom is the acknowledgement that one knows nothing?

It means that the speaker has not understood, because that is not the beginning of wisdom -- but, instead, that is wisdom, Socratic wisdom: "What wisdom? Perhaps the only wisdom that man can have" (Apology 20d, tr. Rouse).

... a certain sort of wisdom ... wisdom such as may perhaps be attained by man ... I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit; that witness shall be the God of Delphi -- he will tell you about my wisdom, if I have any, and of what sort it is. (ibid. 20d-21a, tr. Jowett)

What is this wisdom? The wisdom of Socrates is the wisdom of every man who is wise, namely that he has no wisdom of what is most worth having wisdom of (ibid. 23a-b), for who can answer the eternal questions or discover the absolute point of reference by the natural light of reason alone? Because that man has the wisdom of God, not of man.

Query: the wisest is the one who knows nothing.

No, rather the one who knows (because he has put himself to the test of cross-questioning) that he knows nothing is wisest. Ignorance is not wisdom, but knowing that one is ignorant is. Augustine's tautology: "He only errs who thinks he knows what he does not know." In response to Apollo's oracle at Delphi, that "of all men living Socrates most wise", Socrates does not say that he knows nothing at all (for he knows his own name, of course), but only that he knows nothing of much importance for man to know.

Socrates' paradox

Query: contradiction, Socrates says that he knows nothing.

The formula 'I know only that I know nothing' (or, 'I know only my own ignorance'; cf. 'I know only that I do not know') is an example of a statement that is true if-and-only-if it is also false. Another example is the claim of the man from Crete that "Everyone from Crete is a liar" (Eubulides, The Paradox of the Liar, Diog. L. ii, 108; cf. Clark, Bertrand Russell and his World (1981), p. 26).

'Come in and don't come in!' A command of that form suggests that you are either "playing the game wrong or not playing it at all" (OC § 446), as in the giving-of-commands "language-game" (in Wittgenstein's jargon).

Background to the Socratic Method

Socrates held that if a man knew anything, he could give an account [or, explanation] of [what he knew] to others. (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1, tr. Guthrie; cf. Laches 190c: to 'know' is to 'be able to tell'.)

  1. In other words, Socrates sees that before he can say whether he knows something or not, he must set a criterion for knowing -- i.e. he must state a definition, or, give an explanation of the meaning, of the word 'know' as he going to use it.
  2. Next, Socrates has to select a way to test whether someone can "give an account" or not. And the way, or, method, he selects is dialectic (Socratic dialectic).
  3. If someone can give an account of what he claims to know that can stand against being refuted in the cross-questioning of dialectic, then he knows what he claims to know. But if his claim cannot pass that test, then he does not know what he claims to know.

If Socrates says 'I know that I do not know' or 'I know what I do not know' that means: (1) that there is a criterion for applying the word 'know' -- namely, being able to "give an account" of what you know to others -- (2) that I am willing to accept, (3) but that I am not able to meet that criterion (i.e. I cannot give an account and, therefore, I do not know). That is the Socratic definition of 'know' -- or, rather, a selection of one meaning of that word from among others.

Compare this example: "I looked in the cabinet, but I found nothing there." Well, but how can you find nothing, when surely to find is to find something? The Socratic statement 'I know that I don't know' is a contradiction. -- But the last query expresses the traditional preoccupation with form rather than with use -- i.e. the view that the meaning of language is determined by its form rather than by the use the form is put to. Socrates' statement has the form of a contradiction, but of course its meaning is not contradictory -- because the statement has a use in our language, and that use is its meaning. [The meaning of the word 'meaning' Wittgenstein selected for his logic of language.]

(We may -- if we understand the distinction aright -- want to make a distinction between contradictions in form and contradictions in sense (or, meaning); the former are not necessarily false, nor are they necessarily nonsense. Socrates' statement 'I know that I do not know' is a contradiction in form -- but it is not a "contradiction in sense" as he uses it.)

Query: is Socrates' statement 'I know that I do not know' a contradiction?

If someone offers as a thesis in Socratic dialectic the proposition 'I am wise', but later states the proposition 'I am not wise', then he has contradicted himself, and thereby been refuted (That is Socrates' method of refutation: seeking such contradictions in his own or his companion's statements). Because, as we normally use our language, 'I am wise, and I am not wise' is a contradiction, not only in form but also in sense. But that is not the thesis Socrates puts forward. What he does say is: 'I am wise because I know that I am not wise; that is the meaning of the god's words 'no man is wiser than Socrates', because to know that one is not wise is the only wisdom that a human being can have, and I have that wisdom.' And that thesis is given meaning by Socrates' definition of the word 'know': to be able to give an account of what one knows to others that can stand the test of being refuted in dialectic. Socrates has -- both in discourse with himself and with his companions -- shown that he cannot do this, and that is the reason, and not the god's authority, that Socrates' thesis is true. (Note that the Socrates of Xenophon's condition is a bit different from that of Plato's Socrates.)

If a proposition (a thesis in dialectic, for example) is a contradiction, what then -- i.e. when is that a statement is a contradiction important in philosophy? Not when it is a contradiction in form (syntax), but only when it is a contradiction in sense. Because from that a proposition is a contradiction in form, nothing about its meaning necessarily follows -- neither that the proposition is false nor that it is true; in most cases it is simply an undefined combination of words, which is what "logic of language" means when it calls a form of expression 'nonsense'.

We exclude contradictions from language; we have no clear-cut use for them, and we don't want to use them. (RPP ii § 290)

That "we don't want to use them" is the telling part here, because we might well not regard contradictions that way -- i.e. it's not that it is logically impossible to use them. For example, there is no difficulty about inventing meanings -- i.e. uses -- for combinations of words such as 'round square' or 'Come and don't come!' (e.g. we might use that combination of words to mean 'Come half-way but no farther').

Query: characteristics of the truth Socrates is seeking.

If you know something, what you know is the truth -- i.e. what you know is expressed by a true statement, not by a false statement. (The criteria for applying the word 'true' also belong to the criteria for applying the word 'know': there is a connection [intersection] between these two concepts.) And so when Socrates asks for "an account of what you know", he is asking for statements that are true. But how shall we know if those statements are true or not? We shall test them in dialectic, to see if they can be refuted by cross-questioning. Now then, what are the characteristics Socrates selected -- i.e. which sense of 'true' and of 'know' did he choose from among the others that he might have chosen?

Socrates' inductive method of definition (Aristotle)

For Plato's Socrates, the truth (or, "what you know and can tell others") is stated as a common-nature definition -- i.e. a statement of: (1) what all things that are called by a particular common name have in common, and (2) what differentiates the things called by that common name from all other things. These are found by asking for an account of what you know from anyone who claims to be wise -- i.e. to know what is most important for man to know, namely, how man should live his life, and also by asking oneself (to see if you know what you presume you do) [which is: holding discourse both with others and with oneself alone] -- because if anyone is 'wise' or 'knows the truth', he is able state he kind of common nature definition Plato describes. (According to Aristotle, Socrates' method is in this sense "induction", because it turns to experience to find the common nature of a class [category] of things.)

But note well: the truths the historical Socrates wants to discover are not truths about the natural world (physics), nor about the reality behind that world (metaphysics), but about "the correct conduct of human life" (ethics). [According to the ancient view of philosophy: Socrates introduced ethics -- i.e. that part of philosophy "concerned with life [but not in the sense of 'biology'] and all that has to do with us" -- to philosophy. (But were the Sophists not concerned with what we call ethics?)]

"I know I am not wise"

To be wise, as we normally use the word 'wise' ("and how else are we to use it?" (PI § 246)), is to have knowledge of something -- but knowledge of what? Clearly there are many things that Socrates knows, otherwise he could not (-- Note: could not, because this is a question of logical possibility --) answer such questions as: What is your name [Socrates]? In which city do you live [Athens]? What is done with the first few drops of wine [They are poured out on the ground as an offering to God]? To whom are you married? [Know thyself means more than knowing your own name.]

What Plato's Socrates lacks is "philosophical knowledge" (if there is such a thing). He seeks the essences of the cardinal virtues of Greek ethics: "courage", "piety", "justice", "temperance". If he can define those words, Plato reasons, then he will have the standard of judgment that will tell anyone in any and all circumstances how he should live his life. -- That is the criterion for 'being wise' that Socrates sets -- and because he sets this criterion, he has sufficient reason to assert that he knows -- not merely believes or suspects, but knows -- that he is not wise, namely, because he does not know the essential definitions of those words. Therefore, rather than "I know that I know nothing", it might be clearer to quote Socrates as saying "I know that I am without wisdom. I know that I am not wise" (Apology 23b).

Allegation and Historiography

When the oracle at Delphi, to Chaerephon's alleged inquiry, "Is any man wiser than Socrates?" gave the alleged reply, "No one," Socrates ascribed this to [Socrates'] profession of ignorance. (Will Durant, Life of Greece (1939), p. 367)

That statement is apparently based on Socrates' trial according to Plato (Apology 20e-21d). Durant here casts (or tries to cast) doubt on the ancient account of the oracle's words to Chaerephon. Questions: Is there any statement of ancient history to which the word 'alleged' cannot be appended? Does the word 'alleged' contrast with the words 'proved' or 'disproved'? How do we distinguish between "The story is told" (Herodotus' skepticism) and "The event really happened" (Thucydides)? What reason does Durant have to doubt the ancient story's truth? He doesn't say what he means by 'alleged' -- i.e. what work that word is to do here -- and therefore it does no work here. (A word that could be attached to any and every proposition would be a word without meaning.)

What Durant might have said is that "Many Greeks doubted that Apollo's oracle spoke these words to Chaerephon" -- if there were evidence that they did, which there is not (The jurors in Plato's Apology hardly seem open-minded) -- or that Durant himself doubts the truth of this story. But why? for it involves no prodigies of nature (It's not necessary to believe that the oracle spoke those words for Apollo, but only that the oracle spoke those words). And if this story is a fabrication, then why shouldn't Socrates' death also be -- indeed why presume that Socrates ever existed? Does Durant accuse Socrates of telling lies to the jurors? (Xenophon doesn't say that the oracle's words refer to Socrates' ignorance, but rather to Socrates' character and way of life. But Xenophon casts no doubt on the historicity of Chaerephon's and the oracle's words, but reports them as fact; it is only about the words' meaning that Xenophon is in disaccord with Plato.)

Chaerephon's Delphic story is attested by both Plato and Xenophon

Chaerephon, of Sphettus in Attica, an enthusiastic disciple of Socrates. He was banished by the Thirty Tyrants and returned with Thrasybulus in 403, but died before the trial of Socrates in 399. He is best known as having drawn from the Delphic oracle the saying that Socrates was the wisest of men; the story is related both by Plato and by Xenophon, and there is no reason to doubt its truth. The Suda [a lexicon (i.e. historical and literary encyclopedia) compiled about the end of the tenth century A.D.] refers to works of Chaerephon, but these were early lost. (W.D. Ross, OCD 2nd ed. (1970))

To know that one is not wise (not fancying oneself to be wise when one is not) is the only wisdom "the wisest of men" has according to Apollo's oracle, if Socrates has correctly understood the oracle's words. And this is the wisdom Socrates has.

Query: wisdom in recognizing ignorance.

Once having recognized one's ignorance, one will seek to know (Meno 84c) what it is important for man to know (Apology 37e-38a). That is Socratic wisdom.

Marcus Cato's view of Socrates

... he wholly despised philosophy, and out of a pride scoffed at the Greek studies and [Greek] literature, as, for example, he would say, that Socrates was a prating, seditious fellow, who did his best to tyrannize over his country, to undermine the ancient customs, and to entice and withdraw the citizens to opinions contrary to the laws. (Plutarch, Life of Marcus Cato [234-149 B.C.], Dryden's tr., rev. Clough; cf. Plato, Apology 23c-d, tr. Tredennick: "a pestilential busybody called Socrates"; tr. Jowett: "This confounded Socrates ... this villainous misleader of youth!")

The historian J.B. Bury says that M. Porcius Cato "carried national feelings to the length of miso-Hellenism" [Note: the prefix 'miso' DEF.= 'hatred of']. He was the first Roman to write history in Latin rather than Greek. (Ancient Greek Historians (1909), vii).

According to N.G.L. Hammond, Socrates was guilty in law if not in equity. And -- if his plays really should be regarded as criticism of Socrates (According to Plutarch [De educat[ione] puerorum 10c], Socrates regarded himself as simply being teased) -- Aristophanes shared Cato's view of Socrates' effect on his fellow citizens, that Socrates, like Euripides, had undermined the ancient customs that were [or had been] Athens' strength.

According to Plutarch in his Life of Pericles, a decree "that public accusation should be laid against persons who ... taught new doctrines about things above" was introduced to direct suspicion against Anaxagoras and thus against his friend Pericles. But Anaxagoras then left Athens. It may have been this decree that was later used against Socrates -- as if Socrates really had been the character named "Socrates" in Aristophanes' The Clouds, teaching about Anaxagoras' "new god" vortex. But Plato says that the new doctrine "about things above" in the court case was Socrates' daemon: "[My accuser] says I am a maker of gods" (Euthyphro 3b).

Query: Cato the Censor: the Greeks questioned everything and settled nothing.

If one is a member of a community of ideas, if one accepts tradition as Cato the Elder did, one questions nothing because everything is already settled for one. Being drawn to question the ideas -- i.e. the foundations -- of the community is "what makes a man into a philosopher" (Z § 455).

Philosophy begins in wonder, i.e. in not knowing, but in wanting to know -- and in never quite accepting that the very nature of philosophy's questions may make their answers unknowable.

Voltaire's view of Socrates

In Greece, the infant seat of arts and of errors, and where the grandeur as well as folly of the human mind went such prodigious lengths ...

Aristotle, who has been explained a thousand ways, because he is unintelligible ...

The divine Plato, master of the divine Aristotle, -- and the divine Socrates, master of the divine Plato, -- used to say that the soul was corporeal and eternal. No doubt but the demon of Socrates had instructed him in the nature of it. Some people, indeed, pretend that a man who boasted his being attended by a familiar genius must infallibly be either a knave or a madman, but this kind of people are seldom satisfied with anything but reason.

With regard to the Fathers of the Church, several in the primitive ages believed ...

(Letters on the English (Lettres Philosophiques) (1733), Letter xiii, "On Mr. Locke", tr. unknown)

There are many points of view. Voltaire had no high regard for that madman Socrates, who is my own philosophical hero. There are many points of view. At the university we were told by a rabbi who taught there that he thought Jesus belonged in the madhouse. Voltaire thought Socrates belonged there. So maybe they would not have been too bad off in the madhouse. (I would like to be in a madhouse like that rather than in a world of fools like me.)

Socrates' Daemon (daimon)

I have a certain divine guide ... I have had it from childhood. It is a kind of voice which, whenever I hear it, always turns me back from something which I was going to do, but never urges me to act. (Plato, Apology 31d, tr. Church, rev. Cumming)

What is the voice that Socrates heard? Was it what we call conscience? No, because (1) remember that for Socrates virtue is knowledge (Even if man were a donkey, he would nevertheless be a rational donkey), and (2) it was not a voice that gave him moral instruction; it was not the guardian spirit of Stoicism nor the guardian angel of Christianity. It was more akin to an instinct: it was an inner voice (a "sign") that warned Socrates of danger (It did not warn him against his death sentence, and so he was not wary of dying (Plato, Apology 40a-c); but note that Socrates did not say that therefore he knew whether death is to be feared or not (ibid. 29a), for he did not know that, despite his being confident that no moral harm can come to a good man either in this life or in any other (ibid. 41c-d)).

"He used to say that his supernatural sign warned him beforehand of the future ..." (Diog. L. ii, 32; cf. Plato, Apology 31c-d; Plato, Phaedrus 242b-c). I think that is what we call presentiment (premonition, presage, forewarning, although short of prevision), and given Socrates' belief that "the gods are mindful of us" (Xenophon, Memorabilia i, 1, 19) and the significance these presentiments had for him, it may not seem strange that he thought them to be the "voice" of a god [or demigod], for I do not think that he meant 'daimon' in a figurative sense. [The rarity of Socrates' divine sign.]

But Schweitzer's account is different from mine. I don't know what his source was for it.

That Socrates spoke of an inner, mysterious voice, the "daimonion", as being the highest moral authority in man is indeed certain, for it is mentioned in his indictment. His utilitarian rationalism is therefore completed by a kind of mysticism. An empirical ethic, that is, one established out of past experience and with a view to future experience, and an intuitive ethic live in him side by side and undistinguished ... (Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics, 2nd ed. (London, 1929), tr. C.T. Campion, Chapter 5, p. 33-34)

But the indictment says nothing about an "inner, mysterious voice ... being the highest moral authority in man".

The Athenian indictment against Socrates

The affidavit in the case, which is still preserved, says Favorinus, in the Metroön, ran as follows: "This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death." (Diog. L. ii, 40)

The Socratic "conscience" is rational rather than "categorical" (Kantian), that is, regardless of whether the source of an ethical precept was a god or a demigod, a poet, a wise man, or a presentiment, Socrates put it to the tests of reason and experience, which it had to stand up to or be refuted by. As with all the other parts of philosophy, ethics was cross-questioned. And thus even if Socrates' "inner voice" had told him "This is ethical, and this is not" -- Socrates would nonetheless have put what this voice told him to the tests of thoroughgoing reason, just as he put the oracle at Delphi's words to the test of reason. A proposition may be regarded as being a priori true (e.g. What Apollo's oracle says must be true, because gods do not tell lies) without its meaning being clear to the one who regards it as true; -- however, Socrates always demanded to know in which sense the proposition was true. To him an "undefined truth" was not a proposition to be accepted, but instead a riddle he must solve.

If "daimon" = "guiding spirit", then in which way does it guide Socrates (in which sense of the word 'guide')?

Query: does Socrates' inner voice warn him not to go to court?

No, it does not warn him against going (Plato, Apology 40a-c). Socrates never reports that his "divine sign" tells him to do anything unethical, which, as Socrates reasons, escaping his trial would be (ibid. 32b-c; cf. 39a-b) -- and it was Socrates' view that no god would ever tell him to do anything unethical, for the gods are fully rational and therefore fully good (Xenophon, Memorabilia i, 1, 19). And thus that if there ever were a conflict between premonition and reason, it would be because Socrates did not understand to what his "sign" was advising him. (Yes, that is a tautology, as it was in the case of the words of Apollo's oracle: true the words must be, but what is their meaning?)

When a friend asks Socrates if he is preparing for his defense, Socrates replies, "Don't you think I have been preparing for it all my life" -- i.e. by living a life of good and therefore having nothing that needs to be defended (ibid. iv, 8, 4).

Query: what role does Socrates' daemon play in showing him that death should not be feared?

But to fear death would be to think he knows what he does not know: "The fear of death is only an instance of thinking oneself wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know" (Plato, Apology 29a, tr. Guthrie). Thus this is not a matter of premonitions but of reasoning about the question. "I had no premonition warning me against my death" is not of philosophical, but only of personal (It shows us something about Socrates' piety), importance. The reason why death should not be feared is [of philosophical importance].

[Socrates] is busied simply with man in relation to himself and to society.... Socrates gives [ethics] no foundation but themselves.... In Socrates the ethical mysticism of devotion to the inner voice takes the place of [a] complete world-view [i.e. a unified Life- and Nature-philosophy] ... (Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics, op. cit. p. 34-35 [p. 117])

I do not know why Schweitzer says that, for it is not what is found in Xenophon [although see Xenophon's Apology i, 12], where the good for man is equated with the useful or beneficial for man, which is something reason can put to the test: is such-and-such beneficial to man? "Here are the reasons why, reasons why not", e.g. (Neither Schweitzer nor Wittgenstein understood Socrates, his thoroughgoing use of reason in ethics, nor [but this does not come in here] the classical Greeks' love of freedom, both intellectual and physical, as what makes life worth living.)

"An empirical ethics ..." Does the reasonable man say that the foreseeable consequences of our acts are of no ethical significance (and if the reasonable man does say that, then what does the unreasonable man say?) -- i.e. aren't all ethics "empirical" in that sense? But indeed Kant said that very thing, that one must always tell the truth, even to a murderer in search of his victim (The consequences are in the hands of God). This he called the "categorical imperative" and it contrasts with "empirical ethics", I think, that is, if I recall aright from so many years ago, although that is not what Aristotle meant by calling Socrates' method in ethics empirical.

"Dare to know" (Kant)

Query: Enlightenment philosopher who said question everything.

There is Voltaire, but also, and maybe more so, Immanuel Kant who said that "Dare to doubt!" [or, 'Dare to question!' (as Hume had done)] -- or, as Kant thought, "Dare to know" (to be free of the ignorance old ways of thinking (tradition) has kept you in) -- is the motto of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung ["The making clear", "The clearing up", maybe "the Clarifying"]. (What is the idea of the Enlightenment? To know? Well, there was overruling self-confidence about the men of that age: they believed that after centuries of false belief -- their age was finally the age of knowledge. And so Kant might well speak of "daring to know".) Kant's questioning was deeper than Voltaire's. It was not merely against the notions that were then common currency, but was directed to the foundation of all knowledge (The concepts 'knowledge' and 'objective' are interwoven -- "But what," Kant asks, "is the source of objectivity?" (And he answers: innate categories of the human mind, such as 'time' and 'space')).

"Was Voltaire a philosopher?"

Very highly do I regard Voltaire for the courage with which he questioned everything he thought to question, and for his powerful advocacy of free speech (something which he greatly admired about the English Enlightenment). -- But I would add that in my opinion there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Voltaire's philosophy. By the word 'reason', if I am not mistaken, Voltaire means a strict Newtonian empiricism applied to every branch of thought, with religion and, I think, most of what has historically been called philosophy (Rationalism) its arch enemy.

In questioning everything, all tradition must be questioned. And the Greek philosophers had been embraced by the Fathers and Doctors of the Catholic Christianity, which was the tradition, the way of thinking, that Voltaire had in front of him, which he called "the infamy". But we must learn to discard what is bad without also discarding what is good (There are not only weeds in Candide's garden); there is a difference between religion and superstition, and not everything that appears to be nonsense in philosophy is. And although he uses the word 'grandeur', Voltaire's writing is a mocking attack rather than a philosophical questioning. [There is often something cattish about Voltaire's criticism.]

I don't know whether to call [i.e. classify] Voltaire [as] a philosopher or a literary figure. But I might say the same about Nietzsche. So maybe I am using a too-narrow definition [vague category standard, or, inclusion criterion] for 'philosopher'.

Voltaire is not taught in the philosophy departments of universities, of course [Where then -- in history departments as a representative of the French Enlightenment? a figure in "the history of ideas"?], nor is Albert Schweitzer. Is this because the philosophy of our life's meaning (Lebensphilosophie) is also not taught there? So much the worse for the university, you say? But does the student exist for the university or the university for the student, the student for the instructor or the instructor for the student? Is youth served by not directly facing what is deepest in life, the "elementary and final" questions of philosophy, by treating the question of life's meaning as if it were just one more question, on the same level with any other, on the concourse of History, or as if it could simply be left to the English department as a matter for literary criticism? as if it were beneath the professional philosopher, something at best for an introductory course before passing on to more serious questions than "we are discussing no small matter, but how to live".

Stoicism under Rome

In this way Wittgenstein's work ("The riddle does not exist") would have a lot to answer for, were it not that it was the simpler-minded "Logical Positivism" [Wittgenstein's relation to Positivism] of his times, with its principle of universal verification -- i.e. verification not only as a criterion of truth and falsity, but also as the one criterion by which to distinguish sense from nonsense ["verificationism"] -- that denied the depth of philosophy, not the Tractatus. At the university we heard the Later Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) contemptuously dismissed as "moralists". I think their greatest sin against philosophy was writing what Norman Malcolm called "readable sentences": they deprive the "professional professor" of the role of high priest [the official who knows the meaning of the cryptic texts that "sound English" but are not].

[It seems to me fundamentally a religious rather than a philosophical attitude that sees [senses] profundity in obscurity (... although sometimes that instinct is correct, of course -- or can everything be made clear, every riddle of our existence solved? Well, none can be). And maybe as well: a superstitious attitude, an instinct remaining from childhood, of the adult as all-knowing.]

The intent of the TLP may not be well understood, but the book does at least raise the final questions ("There are indeed things that cannot be put into words") even if only to silence them on its own logic of language grounds: it does not ignore them, and thoughtful readers of that book do not ignore them either.

"In imperial times Stoicism shrivels up into a moralizing popular philosophy" is what we are usually told in treatises about ancient philosophy. [But in fact] in the later period of Græco-Roman thought [there is] a serious struggle for a living ethic which ... leads to an optimistic-ethical nature-philosophy. (Civilization and Ethics Chapter 5, p. 52)

That is to say that, according to Schweitzer, late Stoicism sought to establish a unified relationship between the ethical outlook of man (Life-philosophy) and the natural world (Nature-philosophy), which is the relationship Schweitzer calls a complete world-view.

"The elementary questions man must ask"

While still a student I was surprised to find the history of thought always written merely as a history of philosophical systems, never as the history of man's effort to arrive at a world-view.... I felt a still stronger compulsion to put to Western thought the question what it has been aiming at ... What has it to offer us when we demand from it those elemental [i.e. elementary, basic, fundamental] ideas which we need if we are to take our position in life as men who are growing in character through the experience given by work? (ibid. p. v)

It was a fatal mistake that Western thought never admitted to itself the unsatisfying result of its search for a stable and serviceable world-view. Our philosophizing became less and less elemental, losing all connection with the elementary questions which man must ask of life and of the world. More and more it found satisfaction in the handling of philosophic questions that were merely academic, and in an expert's mastery of philosophical technique. It became more and more the captive of secondary things. (ibid. p. vi)

... the most important part of the history of philosophy is the history of man's struggle for a satisfactory world-view [or, "thoroughgoing view of life"]. (ibid. Chapter 1, p. 10)

The Roman Stoics invented the concept 'humanity', or, man's universal brotherhood as the children of the one God [as Stoicism conceives -- i.e. defines the word 'God'], a concept that had not existed among the Greeks. Was that the work of "moralists"?

The historical Socrates as philosophy

Sometimes we make for ourselves a selection of the facts, especially when the facts are for the most part indistinguishable from legends and from the literary character of Socrates in Xenophon and in Plato. We recognize that other selections of the facts are possible, but our selection is directed by our vision (our idea, not by necessity). Many different accounts of Socrates "the father of philosophy" (Drury used this 'title' = 'characterization', although of course Drury did not invent it) are given, both by modern and by ancient historians.

We do not find the historical Socrates. What we do is to create a portrait of him by selecting whatever from the ancient accounts seems plausible or useful to us. (Earlier comments to Socrates in The Days of Alkibiades)

What is the place of Socrates in my thinking, then -- what picture do I have of him? Socrates is above all the representative of Philosophy -- of the thorough-going use of reason -- as a way of life, both in the sense of a method of philosophizing (The method of always "asking for an account of what you know") and in the sense of how we should live our life (Apology 38a), of self-control founded on self-knowledge (Memorabilia iv, 8, 11), directed always towards the good.

The case of Albert Schweitzer is similar, but of course apparently entirely different because he lived recently and there is a mass of historical fact recorded about him. But yet, again, I make only a selection of the facts, not in order to ignore any limitations Schweitzer may have had, but in order to emphasize whatever is "true and serviceable" about his life. What can I learn from it that may help me to become a better human being? I am not an historian or a biographer (who must account for all the data in the picture they present of their subject), but I am a student of philosophy.

What we take to be the facts may or may not be there. But in either case the question in philosophy it is important to ask oneself is: What do I want to do with those facts (or fictions)? for they may be used in many different ways.

Note: On the other hand, Aristotle does give ways to distinguish the historical Socrates from Plato -- for instance by pointing out that Socrates was not Plato's primary teacher: Heraclitus was (as was also, I believe, Parmenides). And by pointing out that Socrates did not separate common natures from the instances of their occurrence in perceptible things; Plato made that separation and called the common natures named by common names "Forms". Further, when Plato saw that the "theory of Forms" doesn't accomplish it purpose, he dismissed the character Socrates from the dialogs (beginning with the Sophist) and followed the methods of the Eleatics instead.

Last words ...

Query: do philosophers question everything?

Are you asking for a definition of the word 'philosopher'? But that alone is not the defining characteristic of 'philosopher' -- not unless we restate the definition e.g. this way: A 'philosopher' questions everything, presuming nothing, recognizing no boundaries to his investigations -- philosophers question the very foundations of human thought. Within many disciplines, e.g. the natural sciences, it is possible to question everything; but if anyone questions the very foundations of that discipline, he is doing philosophy (as indeed Isaac Newton acknowledged by his "Rules for Reasoning in Philosophy").

Query: why do philosophers question everything?

As if philosophers came first and only then was there questioning everything. Whereas it is rather the reverse, that questioning everything is what makes man into a philosopher -- i.e. it is rather that questioning everything belongs to the definition of 'philosopher' (as in "By the word 'philosopher' we mean ...").

Site copyright © September 1998. Please send corrections and criticism to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. 2nd revised edition. Last revised: 26 August 2020 : 2020-08-26 and 27 November 2014 : 2014-11-27 (Original version: Spring 2006)

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map