Socratic Turn: Knowledge of Good and Evil in an Age of Science

Socratic Turn: Knowledge of Good and Evil in an Age of Science

Socratic Turn: Knowledge of Good and Evil in an Age of Science

Socratic Turn: Knowledge of Good and Evil in an Age of Science

Synopsis

The Socratic Turn addresses the question of whether we can acquire genuine knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. Reputedly, Socrates was the first philosopher to make the attempt. But Socrates was a materialistic natural scientist in his youth, and it was only much later in life--after he had rejected materialistic natural science--that he finally turned, around the age of forty, to the examination of ordinary moral and political opinions, or to moral-political philosophy so understood.

Through a consideration of Plato's account of Socrates' intellectual development, and with a view to relevant works of the pre-Socratics, Xenophon, Aristotle, Hesiod, Homer, and Aristophanes, Dustin Sebell reproduces the course of thought that carried Socrates from materialistic natural science to moral-political philosophy. By doing so, he seeks to recover an all but forgotten approach to the question of justice, one still worthy of being called scientific.

Excerpt

Over fifty years ago, Robert Dahl argued that the difficulty with “traditional” or “normative” political theory, what seems to make it more akin to literary criticism, for example, than scientific analysis (1958, 97–98), is that it can “rarely, if ever, meet rigorous criteria of truth” (95). Dahl’s main point was not that he himself knew the criteria in question and knew, as a result, that they could not be met by political theory (cf. 97); it was that, so far as he could see, political theorists themselves had not made a serious effort to spell out the kind of evidence from which they take their bearings or the criteria on the basis of which they evaluate it. and in the absence of a serious effort along those lines, political theory necessarily suffers from a degree and kind of “vagueness” hardly compatible with an aspiration to be counted among the (social) sciences (97). Dahl demanded, therefore, that political theorists say with some “high degree of precision what would constitute a fair test of a political theory” (95, 97, 98).

On the other hand, in a seminal work that, according to one later assessment of it, more than any other in the 1960s “summed up the frustrations and hopes of the contemporary political theorists” (Scaff 1980, 1155; Gunnell 2006, 772) in the face of the behavioralists’ objections, Sheldon Wolin made a case against truth that is “rigorous, precise, and quantifiable” in favor of “tacit political knowledge,” as Michael Polanyi first put it (1964), which is none of these things (1969, 1069–77, cf. 1063). By Wolin’s own account, tacit political knowledge and the criteria of evaluating it— that is, “[judgments] about the nature and perplexities of . . .

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