Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Socratic Position

"Popular opinion maintains that the world needs a republic, needs a new social order and a new religion—but no one considers that what the world, confused simply by too much knowledge, needs is a Socrates." (S. Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death)

Socrates considered himself a "midwife". The god, he tells Theaetetus, did not grant him the power to conceive ideas of his own, but he could help others give birth to theirs. Also, once delivered, he could help his client determine whether what had been expressed was a true brain child or a mere "wind egg". Socrates, that is, did not possess any knowledge himself. Instead, he possessed the ability to distinguish between the known and the unknown.

I like to think that this is what I do too. The difference is that Socrates practiced his art in conversation, whereas I practice it in writing. I help scholars get their ideas written down on paper, where they can be examined. I then help them edit their texts so that they become the clearest possible statement of their views.

But Socrates' approach is often distinguished from that of the Sophists, who also helped their clients express their ideas. The Sophists were spin doctors, helping people express themselves more persuasively. More concretely, Kierkegaard reminds us that Aristotle defined "sophistry as the art of making money" (PF, p. 6). That is, part of the Socratic position is not to charge the client for the service. This is something I've been able to do for the past five years by having a permanent position within an academic department. I made a salary, but I didn't charge my authors individually for services rendered. So while I did help people become more persuasive, I could say that was not thereby practicing "the art of making money".

The challenge of constructing a socratic position now lies in making sure that my economic relationship is with the institutions that hire scholars, i.e., universities. My work with the individual authors must remain that of a barren midwife helping deliver the ideas of others into the world ... for free.

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