Here are a few cautionary maxims for today’s Socratic Gadflies who have no plans to drink hemlock.
Don’t try to reason with a happy drunk. He’ll hate and despise you for it.
Don’t try to wake up one who insists on sleeping. He’s likely to slap you.
Don’t try to convince someone who believes without any doubts that he has found “The Truth” and therefore that there cannot be other great truths, or that his understanding of “truth” may be limited and partial rather than total and comprehensive.
Don’t try to reason with a man who is committed in principle and practice to irrationality and absurdity, especially if he cloaks his irrationality behind a veil of rationalism and rationalization. Nothing is more crazy-making than using critical reason to deny reason and rationality, or denying the primal experience of subjectivity and consciousness, along with our experiences of narrative, aesthetics and intersubjectivity to deny the fundamental reality of subjectivity and consciousness. If “matter and the void” is all there is, that who is it that is speaking? How does an irreducibly conscious and relational being know that these subjective and inter-subjective experiences are not “really real” but merely the ghost in the machine, the epiphenomen of originally dead and mindless matter? Has one not used “rationality” to argue for the fundamentally irrationality of our minds?
Don’t try to convince anyone whose “final vocabulary” is a dogmatic, ideological and exclusive commitment to any single intellectual discourse and language-game, whether it happens to be that of science or religion, philosophy or literature, history or mythology, psychology or sociology, economics or politics. Any of these intellectual domains can become a fixation and fetish that undermine the rich and diverse ecology of mind. Our educational system today is increasingly based on narrow academic and technical specialization. Many educators and scholars live in bunkered silos that isolate them from the culture-at-large.
Don’t try to reason and dialogue with those who prefer to live exclusively in only one intellectual discipline and have an ideological axe to grind. They will not see the point in cultivating other intellectual disciplines and critical perspectives since they’ve already made up their minds and are committed to “brand loyalty.”
Don’t try to get a “One Note Charlie” to play all the notes, chords and harmonies and dissonances of the musical scale, and to play many genres of music in a wide variety of keys and registers.
Don’t try to reason with those who are absolutely committed to the dogma of exclusive bottom-up causality, of matter influencing mind but mind having no causative agency since it is a mere epiphenomenon of matter.
Don’t try to reason with those who are absolutely committed to the dogma of exclusive top-down causality, of mind influencing matter, but matter being merely an illusion of universal mind.
Don’t try to reason with those who are absolutely committed to the dogma that the mental and physical dimensions of experience are two entirely separate and non-overlapping realities.
Don’t try to broaden the perspective of anyone who has fallen insanely in love with one and only one explanatory principle that he applies mechanistically to all domains of knowledge and realms of life experience. Sometimes “multiple explanatory dimensions and levels” may be more helpful than forcing a single descriptive explanation upon all phenomena of experience.
Don’t try to convince those who are content spending all their free time watching TV and listening to the radio that reading good books and articles that invite them think more deeply about life may be a better and more rewarding use of their time. Those who prefer to be zoned out and have made this the habit of their lives will resent those who try to get them to think about anything at all.
Don’t try to explain to those who are content to live “unexamined lives” that “it is better to be Socrates discontent than a pig content.” They will tell you that “the examined life” is over-rated. Instead, they will explain that what matters is to live instinctively and sensuously in our appetites and egos as noble savages. They will tell us “to stop thinking and have a good time.” Their hedonistic counsel is “to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
When does it occur to either the “rationalist” or the “sensualist” that it is possible to integrate the entire ecology of our being, including the natural, sensuous, emotive, imaginative, cognitive, volitional, ethical, intuitive and spiritual dimensions of our lives?
Don’t try to broaden and expand the sensibilities and tastes of the exclusively partisan purveyors of “high-brow” classical culture who are contemptuous and condescending toward “middle-brow” bourgeois pop culture and “low-brow” bohemian folk culture, or of those who exclusively identify themselves with either of these two other cultural levels of experience and expression. Each has his own “elective affinity” with different sensibilities and tastes.
When does it occur the partisan purveyors of high-brow culture, middle-brow culture and low-brow culture that each speaks in its own distinct idioms and dialects, and that each “cultural brow” has something unique to contribute to the greater ecology of being?
Today’s “Socratic gadfly” who values “the examined life” encounters as many intellectual, cultural, civic and social “mind-fields” as Socrates did in his day. What we have today that was not available to Socrates is a better understanding of the role that biological genes and culture memes play in the formation of different metaphysical assumptions. It would seem that these are rooted in pre-verbal feeling and in what Michael Polanyi calls the “tacit dimension” of “personal knowledge”, and are only secondarily cognitive and empirical. We have a genetic and psychological predisposition as well as cultural and societal preference for holding a particular set of metaphysical and epistemological beliefs, as well as aesthetic tastes, ethical norms, economic interests and political values.
Today’s “Socratic gadfly” who would avoid the hemlock experience had better be prepared to encounter these irreducible differences between individual persons and fiduciary communities. He had better recognize the common tendency of human nature to see and interpret everything through the lens of one’s own predispositions, assumptions, beliefs, values, loyalties and commitments. There is no neutral and independent “view from nowhere.” All human knowledge and experience is physiologically conditioned, psychologically influenced, historically situated and linguistically expressed. It is precisely this humbling knowledge of our ignorance and limitations that makes the Socratic gadfly so irritating and perplexing, especially to those who are content to live “unexamined lives” of metaphysical and epistemological slumber. Once we begin to ask the fundamental questions of life we realize that we stand in the presence of Great Mysteries in which there are no easy answers. Here are the Socratic Questions: What is the nature of prime reality and the phenomenal world in which we live? What can we know and how can we know it? How are subjective introspective experience, intersubjective relationships, and knowledge through rational theory and empirical observation related? What are the further reaches of human nature? How ought we to live? What is our vision of the good society? What is our potential for transformation and renewal? For what can we strive and hope?
Here are a few positive maxims:
Cultivate the examined life, even if those around you prefer to remain unconscious, medicated and asleep.
Stay open to the primacy of “immediate experience” in all its paradoxical radiance and pre-linguistic plenitude where the gifts of silence, contemplation, music and art “speak” in the ineffable language of the soul that like the Tao must remain unspoken.
Seek to make meaningful and creative connections between all the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience that constitute the rich and diverse ecology of being.
Learn to speak with at least minimal fluency in all the liberal disciplines rather than putting all your eggs in one basket.
Master at least two intellectual disciplines, preferably one that is right-brain dominant such as music and arts, and another that is left-brain dominant, such as the physical and natural sciences.
Try to give “equal time” to the intellectual and creative disciplines of philosophy and literature, to ideas and narratives, concepts and conversations, theories and stories, paradigms and metaphors, principles and personalities.
Become conversant in the cultural paradigms of the primal, traditional, romantic, modern, post-modern, and trans-modern perspectives. Include the intuitive and perceptive, authoritative and fiduciary, idealistic and aesthetic, rational and scientific, eclectic and ironic, pluralistic and integrative.
Develop a healthy respect for intuition and sensation, feeling and thinking, introspection and observation, perception and judgment.
Appreciate the perennial human dialectic of pluralistic and integrative impulses, that is, the movement “outward” from the One to the Many, and the counter-movement “inward” from the Many to the One.
Finally, become a Socratic Gadfly if you must, but remember that drinking hemlock is bad for one’s health.