Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy

Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy

Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy

Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy

Synopsis

Gareth Matthews suggests that we can better understand the nature of philosophical inquiry if we recognize the central role played by perplexity. The seminal representation of philosophical perplexity is in Plato's dialogues; Matthews invites us to view this as a response to something inherently problematic in the basic notions that philosophy deals with. He examines the intriguing shifts in Plato's attitude to perplexity and suggests that this development may be seen as an archetypal pattern that philosophers follow even today. So it is that one may be won over to philosophy in the first place by the example of a Socratic teacher who displays an uncanny gift at getting one perplexed about something one thought one understood perfectly well. Later, however, wanting like Plato to move beyond perplexity to produce philosophical 'results', one may be chagrined to discover that one's very best attempt to develop a philosophical theory induces its own perplexity. Then, like late Plato and like Aristotle, the philosopher may seek to 'normalize' perplexity in a way that both allows for progress and yet respects the peculiarly baffling character of philosophical questions.

Excerpt

No doubt some philosophers are much more given to perplexity than others. Certainly some of us admit to being perplexed much more readily than others do. Still, perplexity is so central to philosophy, to what interests us in philosophical questions in the first place, and to what keeps us awake at night thinking about them, that it is hard to imagine a good philosopher who is not thoroughly familiar with the bewilderingly unsettling experience of being philosophically perplexed.

Take Descartes. He is not a philosopher who finds it easy to acknowledge that he is perplexed. Whereas we speak of 'Socratic perplexity', it is 'Cartesian doubt' we talk about, not 'Cartesian perplexity'. Descartes gives the clear impression that he likes to be in charge of what he is doing. Certainly he puts himself in charge of doubting. He even has a method for doing so, the 'Method of Cartesian Doubt'. He uses doubt to search for the indubitable. Thus he harnesses doubt to produce knowledge. But being perplexed is very different from doubting. One is gripped by perplexity. One is at its mercy. To be sure, perplexity can be a great motivator. But one cannot command perplexity, the way Descartes commands doubt.

Yet there are passages in which even Descartes shows that he is perfectly well acquainted with the state of being perplexed. Thus, after detailing in Meditation I the profoundly disturbing realization that he might not, after all, be 'sitting by the fire, wearing a winter dressing-gown', that he might instead be only dreaming that he is doing those things, Descartes begins Meditation II with a striking, if brief, expression of epistemological vertigo. 'It feels', he writes, 'as if I have fallen unexpectedly into a deep whirlpool which tumbles me around so that I can neither stand on the bottom nor swim up to the . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.