Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy

by Gareth B. Matthews - Reviewed by Øyvind Olsholt

Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy

This is Gareth B. Mattews' latest work; it was published in 1999. But this time, Matthews does not direct himself toward the Philosophy with Children-audience, with which he has had such tremendous success with his previous books, but instead toward a purely academic audience, i.e. toward the professional philosophers. In fact this book is not about Philosophy with Children at all. Rather it circles around the particular variant of Socratic "perplexity" (puzzlement, bafflement) which is found repeatedly in Plato's early dialogues, a perplexity that seems to arise when Socrates and his partners in the dialogue confront certain philosophical propositions of paradoxical nature.

What strikes me at first is: is this not a strange and pretty narrow topic for a philosopher like Matthews to write a book about? In his earlier works, Matthews is renowned for his perceptive, or indeed, magic depiction of childrens encounter with philosophy. And not only does it seem to be a strange choice of topic, also his narrative voice has taken on quite another pitch than we have grown accustomed to in his Philosophy with Children-books. Now he suddenly writes rather heavily and detailed with lots of quotes and footnotes about Socrates as he appears in Plato's early dialogues—"scholarly" as this style is often euphemistically denoted. Gone is the causerie-like, almost playful narrative which made "Philosophy and the Young Child" (1980) a chart-topper. It seems he has simply changed target. The purpose of this book is definitely not to quench the philosophical thirst of teachers and parents. But what is the purpose then?

An important aim with this book, Matthews says, is "to awaken a new appreciation for the importance of perplexity to philosophy, and to enhance our understanding of the variety of ways perplexity may be used, treated, or appealed to, in doing philosophy" (s. 121). In other words he wants us to realize the urgency of experiencing true, Socratic confusion or puzzlement in philosophy, but at the same time to help us understand the fresh possibilities this experience yields as we set forth to do philosophy (i.e. to initiate and lead philosophical discussions).

Is he actually telling us that we really do need "confusion" and "puzzlement" (i.e. perplexity) in order to converse philosophically? If so, it appears unavoidable to seriously question the slogans about philosophy and philosophical conversations as the road to insight, clarity, certainty and self-confidence—slogans hitherto more or less taken for granted, at least by non-philosophers. Are these slogans hereby disqualified? Or may perhaps a bewildering experience of not knowing one's way out of a puzzle constitute a positive or even an edifying experience?

The reason this question hits the surface in the first place, is, as we have already noted, that Socrates—the ancestor and spiritual mentor of every philosophical practitioner—comes to a perplexing halt over and over again in Plato's early dialogues. What's more, Socrates holds this to be an inescapable, even a natural halt. Let us look at an example. In the dialogue Euthyphron the question is raised: what is piety. Euthyphron himself suggests at first that piety is what the gods love and impiety what the gods hate. However, following a long and complex discussion, Socrates and Euthyphron conclude that this suggestion entails a major difficulty. Thus Socrates formulates the difficulty: is an action loved by the gods because it is pious—or—is an action pious because it is loved by the gods? This formulation is then the output of Socrates' critique. A definite answer to this perplexing question is not forwarded in the dialogue. It simply remains as a paradox of thought.

Many people consider paradoxes like this as a mere intellectual offence, i.e. as the product of fawlty, incomplete or lacking argumentation. Such people will always try to find a solution to the "riddle", i.e. they will never accept that this is an unrepealable, insoluble paradox for the human thought. But then, according to Matthews, they will also most likely fail to observe an important trait of the so-called "ignorant" Socrates, and Matthews adds: "A philosopher who can make us appreciate how problematic a concept like knowledge or virtue or time or causality or life or mind [or "piety"] is, does us a service, even if we are never able to come up with a satisfactory analysis of that concept [...]" (s. 126). The reason for this is, as Socrates comments to Theaitetos in the dialogue by the same name: "If you remain barren, you will be gentler and more agreeable to your companions, having the good sense not to fancy you know what you do not know" (Theaitetos 210c).

But this attitude converges deeply with another crucial attribute of Socrates, namely his art of midwifery. The philosophical midwife as we know does not give birth to his own ideas, rather he helps other people to give birth to their ideas. But again, this is only possible if the midwife remains steadfastly in the perplexity as it occurs. Should, however, the midwife, exhilarated by his own quest for knowledge, hasten towards a transcending of the enigmatic paradox, his conversational partner would probably never reach the opportunity to experience for himself, to feel and to remain within, the mystery and the perplexity itself. Then no philosophical ideas would have been born in the partner. The deep, intriguing, philosophical puzzlement would have been reduced to a mere challenge to the intellect. The mystery in philosophy would have been lost altogether. Wonderment would have been overshadowed by mere curiosity, fascination by mere irritation—not having found an answer by which the mind might fall to rest.

Now we are perhaps beginning to see why Matthews wrote this book. He wants us to become less afraid of the insoluble riddles, less prone to a precipitous elimination of philosophical paradoxes just because some consider them to be embarrassing fallacies or foolish blind alleys. He wants, by showing us the importance of the perplexity in central parts of the philosophy of the Greek Antiquity, open our eyes to our own wondering "ignorance" and thus help us to realize that this very ignorance, far from being a stigma, is indeed a sign of spiritual nobility—even though the indifferent and unphilosophical individuals more than once in history has displayed their utter incompetence to keep these distinctions apart.

Now, all this is surely equally relevant for the one who wishes to discuss philosophically with children. So maybe Matthews, by writing a whole book all about the importance of perplexity and aporia in philosophy, thereby also suggests some sort of hidden critique of certain "divisions" of the Philosophy with Children-movement where there tends to be a bit too much emphasis on ready conclusions and concrete results. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he just felt a desire to legitimize to the professional reader his own inner experience of puzzlement in confrontation with the eternal questions of life. If so, he is probably not the only one.

Gareth B. Matthews
Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy
Oxford University Press, 1999
137p., hardback
ISBN 0-19-823828-2

Page created: 27.10.04. Page last modified: 29.09.06 19:25.