A Philosophical History of Psychology, Cognition, and Consciousness: Part two The Sophists, Socrates and the Consciousness of method(Brett’s History of Psychology)

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Brett has a view of the Enlightenment which is distinctly Hobbesian/Humean and this is revealed particularly in his characterization of  Sophism:

“For the Sophists interpret their age in trying to restore the individual and assert his rights, and this element is common to all enlightenments, seems to furnish the peculiar flavour of their work.”

Brett then attributes this idea of a “self-determining agent” to Socrates and places him at the end of a line of Sophists which we assume must include Thrasymachus, who is generally regarded as one of the foremost figures reasoning in a manner Parmenides characterizes as “The Way of Opinion”. 

The most famous exchange between Thrasymachus and Socrates occurs in book 1 of Plato’s “Republic”. The topic of exchange is Justice and Socrates is in search of the truth and a definition. Thrasymachus inserts himself into the discussion aggressively and agrees to provide a definition that appeals to the popular status quo of governments that in fact in the name of justice pass laws that are in their own self-interest: a position that for Parmenides is a case of journeying along the path of opinion. Socrates subjects this attempt at a definition to a dose of elenchus and expresses surprise that Thrasymachus has perverted the course of the discussion by claiming that actions that are clearly unjust on any reasonable definition should be regarded as characterizing the essence of justice. Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of trickery after having made the announcement that Socrates does not have the resources to defeat him in open argument. Socrates eventually traps Thrasymachus in the jaws of a contradiction that relies on the assumption that all acts of justice require knowledge if they are to fulfill their intentions. If then, a strong government working in its own self-interests passes laws without knowledge, it is possible that the consequences that ensue might well turn out not to be in the interests of those that have passed the laws. Elenchus is a form of dialectical reasoning that is designed to arrive at the truth without contradiction and Thrasymachus probably believing that he has been tricked,  only participates sporadically and peripherally through the rest of the dialogue.

Earlier in his discussion of the Pre-Socratics Brett accused Plato of epistemologising Philosophy. In relation to this point, it is certainly the case that the Republic is claiming that it is “knowledge of the good” which determines whether or not the rulers of a city-state will cause that city-state to fall into ruin. This hardly appears to be a controversial judgment or indeed anything to do with an individual self sufficiently correctly and justly acting in accordance with   Hobbesian “principle” of self-interest.

Brett continues his account by complaining about metaphysics and its endless generation of speculative hypotheses: 

“the eternal  circling of thought around the apparently unknowable”.

The above might be a comment not just on metaphysics but also on the way of opinion that produces a manifold of hypotheses in every so-called line of interest or tradition of inquiry.  Brett claims that metaphysics is in need of Sophism in order to “emancipate the intellect” of man.  From what do we need to emancipate man? The definitions of Socrates? Perusing the Platonic dialogues can it not be said that it is precisely the method of elenchus in search of a definition which revealed the essence of the subject of inquiry that enabled the mind to organize the proliferation of hypotheses in accordance with principles?

Placing Thrasymachus and Socrates in the same class of philosophers runs contrary to Plato’s characterization of these two antagonists as dialectical opponents. Brett does then admittedly claim that he is only referring to some of the Sophists and he specifically names Protagoras in the same breath as he characterizes Sophism as having ” arrived far enough on the road of development to demand some scientific explanation of knowledge”.

Socrates and Protagoras were contemporaries and in the Platonic dialogue entitles “Protagoras” we find Socrates arguing that virtue is not an instrumental/technological matter: it is not “scientific” in that sense. If to take the example of medicine, one is ill, one consults an expert, a doctor. In matters of virtue such as justice, on the other hand, Socrates argues that we do not need an expert, because we all understand the principles of the good that are involved. Protagoras’ immediate response is an appeal to mythology: Epimetheus whose task it was at the origin of living things was to give man the powers he needed to survive, apparently forgot to give man any powers at all. Prometheus, his twin brother attempted to correct his brother’s error by stealing fire and practical(instrumental?) reasoning from the Gods. The race of man was notwithstanding these gifts on the brink of extinction thus forcing Zeus to intercede and send Hermes with the further “gifts” of shame and justice. To supplement this account that actually supports Socrates’ account as much as it does his own, he argues that we do not hold the ugly, the dwarfish or the weak-minded responsible for their actions because they cannot help not understanding what justice is. Protagoras adds a second argument that points out we do attempt to teach people who are unjust or irreligious and we expect them to learn what they do not know but need to know. Parents instruct their children and teachers continue this instruction. Not everyone, however, has the capacity to learn this skill(which Protagoras equates with learning to play the flute) and this it is claimed is evidence for the fact that what appears to be a part of human nature is not.

Socrates, as a result of the above argument, surprisingly appears to change his position and agree that virtue can be taught which is a position that must follow if the virtues are knowledge. Protagoras, on the other hand, believes that virtue can be taught because it is like a craft. But Socrates in other dialogues argues that although there is a sense in which knowledge can be learned it might not be possible to teach knowledge unless the right kind of mental work is done by the learner. This becomes clear in the dialogue of the Meno when Socrates via a series of leading questions “teaches” a slave boy the Pythagorean theorem. In relation to this accomplishment, Socrates means to establish that he did not impart this knowledge but the slave boy in some way using Socrates’ questions as a guide somehow “recollected” the Pythagorean principle from another and better world. It is difficult to interpret what is meant here but one suggestion is that the world of mathematics was being evoked in Socrates’ questions and the slave boy understood what he ought to in that world in order to answer Socrates’ questions. What this appears to illustrate is that the world of mathematics is an area of knowledge requiring understanding, a different kind of knowledge compared to that involved in the learning of skills. In the latter case the “measure” of the learning, to use Protagoras’ term is the production of an external object ” as a consequence” of the kind of knowledge involved. What, that is Socrates appears to be objecting to here is that this kind of physical consequential knowledge is very different to the mental “understanding” of a principle in an area of knowledge(a different and better world).

In Plato’s “Republic” Glaucon, Plato’s brother, is not happy with the outcome of Socrates’ use of elenchus in the discussion with Thrasymachus. He insists that Socrates has not proved that knowledge of the good is necessary if one is to lead a flourishing life. He demands that Socrates prove that “The Good” is not just good in itself as Socrates has been trying to prove but that it also has good consequences. This then seems to be a logical culmination of discussions in earlier dialogues. Indeed Glaucon appears here to be the bearer of the mantle of Sophism and this demand appears to be the logical consequence of all the earlier exchanges between Socrates and the Sophists. Glaucon prior to this demand had argued that people only respect and follow the law because they are afraid of the consequences. Were they to possess the quality of invisibility and thus the impossibility of detection they would commit the most heinous crimes. Socrates, it is important to note here does not object to Glaucon on the grounds of truth, rather he merely claims that this behaviour based on a fearful reaction does not constitute “knowledge of the good”. It seems rather, to be following the Protagorean principle that virtue is the art of calculating or measuring the consequences in accordance with the pleasures one naturally seeks and the pains one naturally seeks to avoid. Modern scholars, in Socratic spirit,  regularly accuse Protagoras of being a relativist, especially in relation to his claim that man is the measure of all the things that are and of all the things that are not. This has not prevented ethical theorists from embracing consequentialist positions that have ignored the earlier Socratic objections and later Kantian objections that would appeal in the name of knowledge of the good to the understanding of the good intention. For Kant, it is the good intention that binds the “measure” to the chain of consequences that might flow from any action. It is indeed difficult to “measure” ethical circumstances such as the soldier throwing himself on a hand grenade about to explode. He saves some children but loses his own life. Obviously, any reasonable calculation would reveal the former to be a good consequence and the latter to be a bad consequence. The question that arises from such a “calculation” is: “Does the action, then, possess both characteristics(of the good and the bad) simultaneously? Or do we need recourse to the knowledge of the soldier to resolve this matter, the knowledge namely that he knew firstly  of the consequence of saving the children and desired that  and he also knew secondly of the consequence of the loss of his life and he accepted that(on the grounds of his own complex understandable reasons). We praise this act as virtuous because we know about his “knowledge of the good”. Contrast this with Glaucon’s “fear of the consequences”: a soldier fearful of the consequences would refrain from the action but would not be praised for preserving his own life(praising a soldier for such behaviour would be an example of an “inversion of values”). 

According to the Socrates of the Republic( The Socrates that Plato uses to convey his own theories), then,  it is this knowledge of the good that unites all the virtues into “One”. Aristotle  also felt the need to address Protagoras’s  relativism, The Epistemological  aspect of Protagoras’ philosophy is as Aristotle  puts it in  his Metaphysics:

“all beliefs and appearances are true”( IV 5 1009 6-9)

What this amounts to is that when A believes p to be p, it must be p and when q appears to be p, it must be p. This is clearly a violation of the Principle of Non-Contradiction which does not, by the way, deny that something can be p at one point in time, and q at another point in time. This possibility is explained by Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory in which the potentiality of q appearing to be p at one time but at another time revealing itself to be the q it actually is: here q is actually q in Aristotle’s First Philosophy.

Given the above discussion, it is unclear why Brett wishes to praise the Sophists for as he puts it “ushering in the spirit of scientific tradition”. This case only holds water because he paradoxically includes Socrates(who was no relativist) in the class of Sophists. The bonding together of these antagonists produces unnecessary complications unless one wishes to maintain that Science is not concerned with definitions that obey the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason: unless, that is, one wishes to in some sense claim that Science itself is hypothetical and relativistic). Brett does seem to focus on Science in the context of discovery and generally ignore the contexts of explanation and justification. Certainly, if one confines oneself to this context of discovery it is reasonable to point out that hypotheses might even contradict one another in this process. This suggestion is strongly supported by statements such as :

“The truth seems to be that there are no methodological recipes for being a  successful scientist”.

A curious statement given that methodology in the form of systematic observation, experimental manipulation, and measurement of variables in the search for causes is what is commonly taught in all science courses. Characterizing this matter in the form of a “recipe” is also a kind of Freudian slip because a recipe is obviously a kind of tool in the hands of a craftsman(the cook). Insofar as Protagoras is concerned, his “recipe” for investigation consists in the demand that we always check or “measure” every statement against the experience of Man. This is obviously good advice for particular causal statements but it might not be relevant if one is dealing with the essentially  conceptual statement “All events have causes”( the principle one uses in all scientific investigations). If Protagoras is suggesting that we verify the above in terms of the experience of Man it is not clear whether that can be done given the fact that it is a condition for the investigation of the experience of man. This, in other words, is the region of science best referred to as the context of justification.

Brett referenced enlightenment periods in his introductory remarks and  Kant is the philosopher par excellence from the Age of enlightenment. He argued forcefully in his “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” for recognising a fundamental logical difference between the use of instrumental and technological reasoning used by, for example, craftsmen, and  the kind of categorical reasoning used for the understanding of a world “measured” by the true and the principle of non contradiction. Kant’s critical philosophy in many important respects supports the Socratic and Aristotelian positions and rejects the positions of many of the Sophists. For Kant, the instrumental good and the categorical good are obviously in some way related but they are distinctly different in that the latter has a universal and logical character and the former has a hypothetical and causal structure. Causal structures of action can tolerate, for example,  that one effect of a cause can be ethically bad(losing one’s life) and the effect of that effect be good(saving the children) thus permitting the judgment the effects of a cause can be both good and bad. Categorical reasoning does not tolerate the above relativistic characterisation. As we noted instrumental reasoning is certainly possible in the context of discovery in Science and a corresponding hypothetical cognitive attitude is certainly appropriate in such a context. Once, however, we reach the level of a definition of a phenomenon this ought to be a categorical dimension in which the definition must be necessarily true and free of contradiction.

The above might explain why Kant could comfortably write about the Metaphysics of material Nature and the Metaphysics of Morals in the same categorical tone. Kant’s work on the  Metaphysics of material Nature discerns two levels of scientific activity that are independent of experience, namely the transcendental and the metaphysical. The Kantian would have no difficulty integrating the categorical justifications of the categorical imperative with the categorical justifications of Science, for example, “All events must have a cause”.  Regarding  Science in a verificationist experience based spirit as Brett does makes it impossible to generate an ethics congruent with our understanding of the good. Faced with such a prospect there are, of course, two alternatives: One can either relativize ethics or one can try as Kant did focus on the contexts of explanation and justification in ones characterization of Science. Some commentators would claim that our modern age has chosen the former of the two alternatives.

Brett’s final judgment on Socrates is that he impeded the development of the Science of Psychology and he goes on to  praise Aristippus for his contribution to what he calls the theory of cognition:

“In the sphere of cognition, he recognizes only the subjective state, the inner movement of which we are conscious and from that deduces the proposition that all knowledge is subjective, the thing remaining unknown and only the effects of its action being perceived. this seems clear from the fact that things appear differently to different people or to the same people at different times…he saw clearly that feelings as feelings have in themselves no distinctions of better and worse.”

Brett regards this last statement, namely that feelings are what they are not what they ought to be or not ought to be, a “psychological truth”. On this account, a man’s relations to his feelings can only be studied by recording their occurrence historically. At every time T if there is a particular feeling it is recorded. This is one possible consequence of the above psychological truth. There is here no context of justification, only a descriptive context of discovery in which the subject discovers the next feeling in a Heraclitean flux of sensations.  What has happened to the building block of knowledge in this account, namely thought? If Socrates is famous for anything it is surely nothing to do with his sensations that are only rarely recorded in Plato’s dialogues but rather everything to do with the systematic manner of his thinking: the way in which the Socratic  method explains or justifies his thoughts and the way in which thinking links up to what we ought and ought not to do and believe.  Indeed the very concept of thought we have inherited from our knowledge of Socrates via the stylus of Plato is that of talking to oneself, a dialogue with oneself which includes the context of discovery, as well as the contexts of explanation and justification. Plato’s dialogues are records of Socrates’ thoughts whether they be facts, explanations or justifications.

In support of this, Hannah Arendt points out in her writings about the Eichmann trial that the evil we attribute to this man might be relating to his inability to think in terms of what he ought or ought not to have done. Eichmann was not a man like Socrates who pursued truth, explanation, and justification. Socrates, argues Arendt, would not have murdered anyone, let alone millions of people, because his inner voice or daemon would not have allowed him to live  in peace with a murderer given the fact that the soul is structured in terms of the part that decides to do  things and the part that determines whether what has been decided, ought or ought not to be done . The self in conversation with itself also refers to the myth described in Protagoras regarding Hermes and his “gifts” of shame and justice(the “tools” of the Freudian superego). Arendt’s work was met with a storm of controversy from the Jewish community(Arendt was herself arrested by the Nazis for being Jewish) because it was not believed that the cause of evil was as banal as the absence of thought. This thesis is not difficult to believe if one possesses a clear picture of the nature of thought and its power.

The above appeal to Aristippus reminds one distinctly of Brett’s earlier account of Science as a story that has not yet proven to be false: a story is a recorded sequence of events. Is this a consequence of  Brett’s conception of part of the cultural inheritance from the Enlightenment : a good story about an individual?