Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Contemporary Need for Socrates

In our highly technical age, it might seem that the crucial element in education is its scientific content. But I am convinced that it is not science, but Socrates, that we really need. And the more technical our culture becomes, the more necessary becomes Socrates.

The key aspect of science to keep in view is that it is science only if you do it. A physics student investigating Newton's laws of motion in his lab is doing science; a casual reader of Discover magazine reading about the discovery of a new planet is not doing science but only reading about the science that others have done. Actual science is painstaking and time-consuming, with the consequence that a genuine scientific relationship to knowledge is possible, even for the most intelligent and ambitious man, for only a very limited range of topics. On everything else, a man does not have a scientific relationship to knowledge, but only a relationship to a scientific relationship to knowledge. Put simply, most of what we think of as scientific knowledge is not genuinely scientific, but only science at second hand - which is not genuinely scientific knowledge for us at all.

The more our scientific culture advances, the more any particular scientific career becomes an exercise in specialization. Back in the days of Pascal and Boyle, a man of talent could easily bring himself abreast of the current state of scientific knowledge. He could even replicate for himself many of the relevant experiments, thus making his relationship to the knowledge genuinely scientific. Those days are long gone, not merely because the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge is far too vast for any single man to have any hope of mastering, but because scientific investigation nowadays typically involves expensive equipment available to only a few. Galileo's homemade telescope isn't good enough anymore; now you need the Hubble Space Telescope.

The paradox, then, is that as our scientific culture advances our individual relationships to science become less direct and increasingly mediated through others. Maintaining a reasonable relationship to science no longer means performing experiments like it did for Pascal (except for a few), but maintaining a reasonable relationship to those conducting and reporting science. And this relationship is not a matter of science, but of philosophy - and Socrates is its master. For the Socratic excellence was not the ability to discover knowledge on his own, but to discern whether others had in fact discovered knowledge - or only thought they knew things when they really did not.

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