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Discussing Plato's "Apology."
This reading is all about how Socrates is on trial for acting like an ass and proceeds to act like an ass and so is convicted. Big surprise. On this our inaugural discussion, Mark, Seth, and Wes talk about how philosophers are arrogant bastards who neglect their children, how people of all political stripes don't usually examine their fundamental beliefs (but probably should), why it might be better to know you know nothing than to only think that you know nothing, and how Plato was a super genius all of whose texts you should worship uncritically. Plus: podcaster philosophical origin stories, like when Wes was bitten by a radioactive Anaxagoras.
To increase your enjoyment, download and read Plato's Apology.
This episode was remixed and re-edited in 2022 by Tyler Hislop.
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Julie Dougherty says
Hey! I miss you guys. got another podcast coming my way soon I hope!
I absolutely adore you guys…brilliant….
One of the key concerns raised in this discussion was the potential disconnect between abstract philosophical discourse and the practicalities of everyday life. But, perhaps the concern about this disconnect is something more peculiar to modern conceptions of what philosophy actually is?
In “The Art of Living”, John Sellars argues that Socrates had a conception of philosophy that was not just about abstract discourse. Rather, for Socrates, philosophy is more like an art or craft (techne) whose subject matter is the course and conduct of one’s own life. Like any art or craft, there is an abstract theoretical component to knowledge of the craft, but there is also an applied component, the putting into action of that knowledge. Possession of both components of this artful, craftsman-like knowledge of how to live is excellence (arete) and leads to flourishing (eudaemonia). The fruits of philosophy then are not just the settling of one’s views with regards to certain questions. Rather, the fruits of philosophy are the beneficial conduct of one’s own “soul,” which is manifested in one’s deeds and way of life. Just as a shoe maker does not exhibit knowledge of his craft by giving a lecture about or a discourse on shoe making, but rather exhibits his knowledge by making good shoes, so a philosopher doesn’t exhibit knowledge of his craft purely by means of theoretical discourse, but rather by the example of his own deeds and way of life. (Note, for instance, the heavily biographical and anecdotal flavor of Diogenes Laertius’s “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.”)
On this conception, it does not make sense to posit a disconnect between “philosophical knowledge” and pragmatic matters of conducting one’s life, because that philosophical knowledge is not just a matter of discourse and ideas, but rather is explicitly a matter of the application and manifestation of those ideas in one’s life. By way of analogy, one might argue that endless examination of the principles of making shoes invites the danger of never getting around to making good shoes to begin with. But if “knowledge of shoe making” is conceived of in a technical, applied sense rather than just an abstract theoretical sense, this disconnect is not possible. Excellence in the art of shoe making *just is* the process of making high quality shoes.
This would also make sense of the claim that “no one does wrong knowingly.” It’s not that being in possession of some ideas of what constitutes the good life automatically propels one into living the good life. Rather, it’s that doing wrong simply exhibits a lack of this applied, artful craft or “doing” that itself constitutes a craftsman-like “knowledge” of the good life. The sentiment might not be “no one who’s thoroughly read the textbook makes crappy shoes,” but rather “no one who’s mastered the art of shoe making makes crappy shoes.” Or more generally, “no one who has a skill performs their art unskillfully.”
I think this also sheds lights on the claim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” To return to the shoe making analogy, the claim might not be that it is not worth making shoes unless we examine the principles of shoe making. Rather, it might be more something like: it is not worth making shoes unless we make them well; and making shoes well does depend on possession of the principles of good shoe making, but only insofar as one is able to translate those principles into skillful action.
Just as the apprentice shoe maker must undergo regular training in order to translate abstract principles into skillful action, so the philosopher must train in the art of translating the abstract principles formed in discourse into the skillful actions of a life that is actually well lived. This is literally a training or practice or exercise whose intent is to digest those abstract principles so as to manifest them in one’s ways of behaving in the world. Sellars documents how the historical Socrates had this additional notion of practice or training in excellence and virtue, in addition to the more abstract and theoretical aims of clarifying the principles underlying that excellence. This notion of training or practice was later more explicitly taken up by the Stoics, who took themselves to be descendents of the philosophical tradition of Socrates and made it a central endeavor of their brand of philosophy to actually practice and train in the art of implementing the rational principles of the good life into one’s own actual way of living. This more applied, craftsmanlike, apprenticeship view of the aim of philosophy directly addresses the concerns about the disconnect between abstract thinking and actually living in the world.
There was a lot of talk about the distinction between the “philosophical life” and a more pragmatic life of the real world – I think the issue, at least for me, is that once we begin to put philosophical theories into actual practice – if we truly follow through – the pragmatic world as we know it sort of dissipates or cascades.. the “idea” of what a “good parent” is, when examined, may be only an idea put in place, lets say by a society or current climate.. (in our time we are supposed to raise little capitalist, that means a father has to work and bring home money to put the children through school so they can work and bring home money etc.. etc..) philosophers always challenge current ideals.. maybe socrates realized that he was actually doing better for his children by attempting to create a more virtuous world rather than sending them into the one that existed..
Seth Paskin says
Think “philosophical” = “examined” and “pragmatic” = “unexamined”. Our whole enterprise is based on finding a spot between those two extremes.
Ericka Abraham says
I realize that I am very late for the first podcasts, and your opinions and thoughts have likely been discussed thoroughly. I started to listen to some of the podcasts out of order, but it really seemed most informative to start at the start.
Anyway. I understand the impulse to throw away critical philosophy because of the absurdities it can engender, like the ‘becoming a fan’ of a dead philosopher like you’d become of a band, but not everything has to be entirely pragmatic. We have the capability as people to explore knowledge for its own sake, and though I recognize that I have a deeply held bias that this is indeed a wonderful, great, important thing ‘for itself,’ I do not think I hold that bias without reason. Additionally, sometimes fruitful ideas *can* be generated by people long dead, when you engage with their ideas on your plane in the present.
Thinking deeply is a satisfying activity; it’s rewarding. Ideas are the lifeblood of humanity. This might get me too close to pragmatism, but philosophers (at their best) kind of take the zeitgeist of the current state of knowledge and then they extrapolate. They can be on the edge, they can take a wide swath of scholarship and synthesize entirely new areas of thought and enterprise. I don’t think most scientists have that kind of liberty with their time, because indeed they do have to go into the lab and titrate. When most scientists try to delve into philosophy (or even the consequences of their own research) their arguments are laughably un-thought-out, and riddled with basic logical errors. Because it’s not necessarily their job to think of the big picture.
I do think a modern philosopher has to be well versed in scientific thought, but the fact that they don’t have to get into the lab doesn’ t make them ‘lesser’ somehow. At least make me an argument that it does! I also have a deep bias that science is the ‘best’ kind of knowledge, but that doesn’t make it true.
And that doesn’t even mean philosophy *doesn’t* have anything pragmatic to say, or that you should abandon all other aspects of your life to do it. Every field and discipline in the world has dead ends, pretentious people, blowhards, politicians, whatever. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a core of value.
EA, what is the, or a, method for capturing a big-picture/zeitgeist and how do we know if someone has got “it” right?
The very same solipsistic question can be asked of any statement made from within the frame of pragmatism, only both arguments are being performed in the form of a rationalist’s logic. We can know because the very same science which helps in part to inform us about how to lead our lives today, also reveals that the vast expanse of the world does not exist for us. The explanation that captures this world best is the strictly mathematical explanation.
Natalie Zdan says
Just wanted to let you know that I’m thoroughly enjoying this discussion and am looking forward to listening to the rest of this episode and more of these podcasts! Thanks, guys!
krishna menon says
why are there no women in your podcast group.
Mark Linsenmayer says
The women in our U of Texas peer group (at least those we still remember) went on to be actual professors, not drop-outs like us.
If you know of someone in particular who you want to put forward (or are such a person), by all means put them in touch with us. If you’ve only actually listened to 1/2 of the first episode and are actually making this comment, well, we addressed this sort of complaint recently here: http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2015/10/05/qa-pittsburgh/
Regis Chapman says
What I heard when he said that we must “daily examine our lives” is called Satsanga in India. It’s as simple as that, to me. It is just looking at the nature of truth as a group. Sat=that which does not change in the three periods of time, and sanga=the group.
Regis Chapman says
Sadhus of India wander around and consider their lives in context of the Truth itself. Diogenes, for me, was a sadhu also, but he went further and became a avadhut; avadhuts live outside society itself and are thus emboldened to critique society from the outside, and society itself recognized this to some extent.
In India, this role is still recognized to this day.
Their detachment is necessary and even imperative, and it is realized that being practical is itself pointless, as it is serving a duality that you may have transcended at that point.
Daniel Kim says
I realize this is a bit old. But I would like to point out that in today’s day and age, we do have a place where people gather to examine their lives. That is essentially what the Christian Church is meant to be. I won’t claim here that God exists. But one way or another, many churches supply philosophy through theology and help people to examine their lives through a concept of God.
Not Daniel Kim says
Why single out the christian church? Arent many religious institutions meant to encourage introspection and examination? Take any of the other abrahamic religions for example. Buddhism perhaps exceeds christianity in self analysis and relation to a so called “God” or “Brahman.” Taoist are…well, something like living participants of examination. A weekly visit to a shrink or to the bar with a friend may be more productive than singing hymns and reciting absent minded creeds. Or not, each finds their own path to salvation and walks it diligently.
In short, I would argue that religious institutions are a great reminder to live an examined life but they have limitations. Namely, each religion abides by a code that can be examined but must be obeyed. No obedience = no religion.
Η ΓΑΡ ΟΥ ΧΡΕΙ ΠΟΙΗΣΘΑΙ ΠΑΙΔΑΣ Ή ΞΥΝΔΙΑΤΑΛΑΙΠΩΡΕΙΝ ΚΑΙ ΤΡΕΦΟΝΤΑ ΚΑΙ ΠΑΙΔΕΥΟΝΤΑ.
That is his answer to your slanders, in ΠΟΛΙΤΕΙΑ.
Just discovered you. I am listening through the catalog of episodes. Think you’ll be helping me with approaches to my introductory philosophy students. None of them, I’m fairly sure, will take another philosophy course, let alone major in the subject. The way you discuss things reminds me to keep it down to earth. Thanks!
Self indulgent discussion on what you believe is not an examination of the text.
You don’t even seem to know why the Apology is the first text examined by young philosophers.
To start with, it took you 18 minutes to get to the first quote. And it was just a one-liner. Because you have so much more to say than Socrates. Oh, I’m sure you would have done much better in his shoes. Especially given your propensity for insinuation. (Like, Socrates is the guy who bugs everyone at a committee meetings – do you really take your audience for idiots?)
Jeez. you can’t even explain what the charges were. Oh you quote them. But do you understand them? The charges were: 1) corruption of youth by 2) sophism and 3) atheism. The charge of atheism was extremely dangerous all the way till the end of 18th century. In pretty much every civilization we built.
First rule of philosophical discourse: call spade a spade. Because only that clarifies what you need to understand.
And leave your opinions to literary circles. If you are annoyed by the author, put the text down and read it again when you are not annoyed. Reading any text from the position of judgement leads to idiotic books trending on Amazon but never to philosophy.
Oh yes indeed how dare he say that unexamined life is not worth living! Indeed, it means that 90% of population live worthless lives. Boo hoo. Oh, you haven’t figured out yet that philosophy is elitist? A hint, philosophy means in Greek “love of wisdom”. Still not getting the elitist part? But you did figure it out. You just need to pretend be offended so you can show of your fake egalitarianism.
You suck at this. And if you represent the American philosophy in any way, well, then the American philosophy sucks. And that explains why the Republic is failing.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Hi Alice, welcome to the podcast. You may not have noticed, but we’ve got 11 years of episodes subsequent to this and are probably now producing discussions that would better meet your standards.
However, our fans tend to like these early episodes a lot, and you seem to not understand what a podcast is, or can be. There are plenty of videos explaining the Apology online. Our aim was to create something more personal, or “self-indulgent,” as you put it, which is of course polarizing and relies on the listener coming half way in a spirit of generosity (i.e. you have to put up with or actually enjoy our personalities and style of humor).
But I take it we offended your sensibilities in our disrespect for the text and precluded an constructive, engaged attitude on your part. For us (for me, anyway), at that time 11 years ago, daring to suggest that we living, breathing people are more important in this context of a friendly discussion than this dead author and his subject are was liberating. I detected (imagined?) that reverence for this canon of figures was intimidating people away from philosophy and stifling what independent thought people are capable of (which is always going to be pretty sloppy in an improvisational setting, but perhaps on the whole more entertaining than the rehearsed answers of academics). One can always go back to these rich texts to mine further, but what’s important is always what we as individuals take away from them. By approaching texts personally, by reporting on the phenomenology of reading as well as the actual contents, we provide a model that has successfully induced literally millions of people to want to engage with these texts and ideas.
Whenever I send something out on the Internet, I ask myself, “what speech act am I engaging in?” I couldn’t see any positive way to react to your comment, and so I trashed it at first, but after reflection, thanks for the opportunity to articulate some of what we were trying to do. You might want to adopt a similar filter and so stop spurting bile out into the e-verse.
While I’d hope you’d give the rest of our catalog a try, and think it likely that after subjecting yourself to a dozen episodes or so (more recent ones) and getting to know us, you’d see the value in what we do, perhaps you should just move along to History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, which might more suit you palette.