Bar Fight with Socrates

So, I have a running list of miscellaneous “post ideas.” Topics I’m thinking about but not ready to write on yet or things the come up over the weekend or a vacation.

I consult the list periodically to see if I’m moved to tackle a subject I may have neglected. And when I checked the list earlier this week, I saw I’d previously suggested a rather intriguing topic:

Bar Fight with Socrates, I’d written.

I’m not quite sure what I meant when I wrote that, though I hope someday I’m inspired to write a post far better than this one on the topic.

All I can imagine is that I was thinking – if I had a drink with Socrates, we’d probably get into a fight.

And not a proper dialectic debate with a little heat of intensity. I imagine a full our bar brawl.

Perhaps this image particularly struck me today because I just finished Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations – a work which I would desperately like to see turned into a one act play in which the protagonist gets increasing inebriated during his philosophical soliloquy.

Seriously. Wittgenstein writes like a drunk man talking to himself.  Which I mean, of course, as a complement.

What I want to teach is: to pass from unobvious nonsense to obvious nonsense.

A lot of Wittgenstein sounds like madness, but there’s a certain Zen meaning in his words. It reminds me of that old koan:

Before you study Zen, a mountain is a mountain
When you study Zen, a mountain is no longer a mountain
When you master Zen, a mountain is a mountain again

Wittgenstein is at home in the uncertainty. He tries to reason it all out using thoughtful, well crafted arguments. He tries to get at the root of language and meaning through examples and thought experiments. But even in doing so, he cleverly shows the folly of such an approach:

To say “This combination of words has no sense” excludes it from the sphere of language, and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary, it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players are supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may show where the property of one person ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary-line, that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for.

Compare all this to rigid Socrates, who always seemed to me to proudly use his skill in dialectic to belittle those around him. I have no doubt I’d lose to him in a debate, but I’m not sure I would consider it a fair fight.

Dialectic is a remarkable skill, no doubt, but is it wisdom?

I prefer the approach of Wittgenstein, who reflects:

But if someone says, “How am I to know what he means – I see only his signs?”, then I say, “How is he to know what he means, he too has only his signs?”


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