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The Importance of Understanding Each Other in Philosophy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 March 2015


What is philosophy? How is it possible? This essay constitutes an attempt to contribute to a better understanding of what might be a good answer to either of these questions by reflecting on one particular characteristic of philosophy, specifically as it presents itself in the philosophical practice of Socrates, Plato and Wittgenstein. Throughout this essay, I conduct the systematic discussion of my topic in parallel lines with the historico-methodological comparison of my three main authors. First, I describe a certain neglected aspect of the Socratic method. Then, exploring the flipside of this aspect, I show that despite the fact that both Socrates and Wittgenstein understand their philosophical approaches as being essentially directed at the particular problems and modes of understanding that are unique to single individuals, they nevertheless aspire to philosophical understanding of the more ‘mundane’ kind that is directed at the world. Finally, interpreting parts of Plato's dialogues Phaedrus and Laches, I further develop my case for seeing the role of mutual understanding in philosophy as fundamentally twofold, being directed both at the individual and what they say (the word), and at things that are ‘external’ to this human relation at any particular moment of philosophical understanding (the world).

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Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2015 

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1 Cavell, Stanley, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969/1976), xxiiiGoogle Scholar.

2 I do not claim the Socrates presented in this essay to be closer to the historical Socrates than any other presentation of ‘Socrates’. However, saving myself (and you) the hassle of using some sort of index to mark the textual conditions of my Socrates and equally – given the sheer number of such pretensions on offer in the literature – not seeing a good reason to make those who do not read this footnote not believe that the following is supposed to give a true account of the historical Socrates' methods, I shall continue to call my Socrates simply ‘Socrates’.

For reasons of accuracy, however, I should note that the examples of Socrates' philosophical practice that I discuss are all drawn from Plato's ‘Socratic dialogues’ where there is general agreement concerning Plato's authorship, viz. Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Ion, Laches, Lesser Hippias, Lysis, Menexenus and Protagoras (following John Cooper's classification, according to which ‘the term [“Socratic dialogue”] is understood to make no chronological claims, but rather simply to indicate certain broad thematic affinities . . . characteristic of the historical Socrates’ own philosophical conversations' (Introduction to Plato. Complete Works, edited by Cooper, John M. (associate editor Hutchinson, D. S.) (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), xv))Google Scholar.

3 ‘First and foremost elenchus is search. . . . its object is always that positive outreach for truth which is expressed by words for searching . . . , inquiring . . . , investigating’ (Gregory Vlastos, The Socratic elenchus: method is all’, in Vlastos, Gregory, Socratic Studies, edited by Burnyeat, Myles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 4Google Scholar).

4 Ibid.


5 All translations of Platonic dialogues are cited after Plato. Complete Works, op. cit. note 2.

6 See, for example, the Charmides, Lysis and Menexenus.

7 See, for example, the ending of the Laches; see also Apology 28a.

8 Geach, P. T., ‘Plato's Euthyphro’, The Monist 50 (3) (1966), 369–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Benson, Hugh, ‘Socratic Method’, in The Cambridge Companion to Socrates, edited by Morrison, Donald R. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

10 See, for example, Cooper's presentation of the standard reading: ‘just when [Socrates] is ready to press further to help Euthyphro express his knowledge, if indeed he does possess it, Euthyphro begs off on the excuse of business elsewhere’ (Introductory note to the Euthyphro in Plato. Complete Works, op. cit. note 2, 1).

11 See, for example, Euthyphro 3d–4c; Crito 43c–d, 44c, 45a; Laches 181d; Lesser Hippias 363a–b.

12 See also Protagoras 359c–d.

13 See also Crito 49d.

14 See, for example, Charmides 167c–d, 170a–d, 173a, 174c–d; Laches 185b, 190d–191e, 191e–192c; Lysis 216c–d, 218d–e; Euthydemus 279d, 293d–e; Gorgias 447c–d, 461d–462a, 463e, 463e–465a, 466c–d, 491d–e.

15 See, for example, Euthyphro 13a–d; Charmides 173d–174a; Laches 195a, 195c, 195d, 196a–d; Lysis 208a, 212b; Protagoras 333d, 334a; Gorgias 450b–451a, 466a–b, 488b–d, 489d, 499d; Lesser Hippias 364c–d, 369d; Ion 540b–c, 540e–541a.

16 Op. cit. note 9, 194.

17 Stanley Cavell, ‘Must We Mean What We Say?’, in op. cit. note 1, 19.

18 It may be of interest to also note that, for instance, in an attempt to explain Wittgenstein's ‘anti-Platonism’ Luigi Perissinotto commits the same mistake as Benson. The only difference is that Perissinotto tries to turn the fabricated dichotomy of word and world against Socrates (rather than Wittgenstein), riding on the cliché of Socrates the silly old essentialist. See Perissinotto, Luigi, ‘“The Socratic Method!”: Wittgenstein and Plato’, in Wittgenstein and Plato, edited by Perissinotto, Luigi and Cámara, Begoña Ramón (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Op. cit. note 17, 21.

20 G. E. Moore's note in ‘Wittgenstein's Lectures in 1930–33’ (1954) remains true of Wittgenstein also in later years: ‘[Wittgenstein] did discuss at very great length . . . certain very general questions about language; but he said, more than once, that he did not discuss these questions because he thought that language was the subject-matter of philosophy. . . . He discussed it only because he thought that particular philosophical errors or “troubles in our thought” were due to false analogies suggested by our actual use of expressions; and he emphasized that it was only necessary for him to discuss those points about language which, as he thought, led to these particular errors or “troubles”’ (‘Wittgenstein's Lectures in 1930–33’, Mind 63 (249) (1954), 56)Google Scholar.

21 Cited after Wittgenstein, Ludwig, The Big Typescript. TS 213 [1930s], edited and translated by Luckhardt, C. G. and Aue, M. A. E. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 However, relevant secondary literature dates back as far as to authors such as Friedrich Waismann and John Wisdom. See, for example, Waismann, Friedrich, ‘How I See Philosophy’ [1956], in How I See Philosophy, edited by Harré, Rom (London: Macmillan, 1968)CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Wisdom, John, ‘Philosophical Perplexity’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 37 (1936), 7188CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 The most striking recent example of this tendency is Badiou, Alain's Wittgenstein's Antiphilosophy (London: Verso, 2011)Google Scholar. See also Jacquette, Dale, ‘Later Wittgenstein's Anti-Philosophical Therapy’, Philosophy 89 (2) (2014), 251–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Kenny, Anthony, ‘Wittgenstein on the Nature of Philosophy’, in Wittgenstein and His Times, edited by Kenny, Anthony and McGuinness, Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 45Google Scholar.

25 See ibid., 17–19. Wittgenstein expresses a similar idea in CV 22 (Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Vermischte Bemerkungen. Eine Auswahl aus dem Nachlaß / Culture and Value. A Selection from the Posthumous Remains [1914–51], edited by von Wright, Georg Henrik in collaboration with Nyman, Heikki, revised edition of the text by Pichler, Alois, translated by Winch, Peter (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977/1998)Google Scholar).


26 For the same kind of move cf. also Strawson, P. F., ‘Construction and Analysis’, in The Revolution in Philosophy, edited by Ayer, A. J., Kneale, W. C., Paul, G. A., Pears, D. F., Strawson, P. F., Warnock, G. J. and Wollheim, R. A. (New York: St Martin's Press, 1956)Google Scholar.

27 PI = Philosophical Investigations, edited by Anscombe, G. E. M. and Rhees, Rush, revised fourth edition by Hacker, P. M. S. and Schulte, Joachim, translated by Anscombe, G. E. M., Hacker, P. M. S. and Schulte, J. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953/2009)Google Scholar.

28 Cf. the ironic end of the Lysis: ‘[Socrates:] “Now we've done it, Lysis and Menexenus—made fools of ourselves, I, an old man, and you as well. These people here will go away saying that we are friends of one another—for I count myself in with you—but what a friend is we have not yet been able to find out”’ (Lysis 223b).

29 Op. cit. note 24, 25.

30 Dale Jacquette has recently argued against the consistence of this last mentioned aspect of Wittgenstein's methodology, hence rejecting the ‘psychological’ component and embracing the ‘semantic’ component instead, viz. that the real problems for Wittgenstein lay in our common language (‘language itself’) rather than the ‘language-using subject’ (see Jacquette, op. cit. note 23, 264 ff.). However, as I shall argue in the following, it is in fact essential not to let these two vital components come apart (as in Jacquette's account) in order to see the positive effects of this method that it has in both ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ matters, viz. how Wittgenstein's (later) philosophy, pace Jacquette, is not some kind of ‘anti-philosophy’. Cf., for example, the following reflection of Wittgenstein's in this connection: ‘What is it that is repulsive in the idea that we study the use of a word, point to mistakes in the description of this use and so on? First and foremost one asks oneself: How could that be so important to us? It depends on whether what one calls a “wrong description” is a description that does not accord with established usage – or one which does not accord with the practice of the person giving the description. Only in the second case does a philosophical conflict arise’ (RPP I §548 = Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology. Vol. I [1945–47], edited by Anscombe, G. E. M. and von Wright, G. H., translated by Anscombe, G. E. M. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980)Google Scholar).

31 Goldfarb, Warren, ‘Wittgenstein on Understanding’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 17 (1) (1992), 109122CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 111. Goldfarb takes the story from Kreisel, Georg, ‘Wittgenstein's Theory and Practice of Philosophy’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 11 (43) (1960), 238–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cf. also Wittgenstein's discussion in PI §351.

32 Op. cit. note 31.

33 The full quote of the passage that is commonly referred to as the source of this insight goes, of course, as follows: ‘For a large class of cases of the employment of the word “meaning” – though not for all – this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language’ (PI §43).

34 Bouwsma, O. K., ‘The Blue Book’, Journal of Philosophy 58 (6) (1961), 141–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 158–9.

35 Notably, however, even Anthony Kenny ran into these problems; see Kenny, Anthony, Wittgenstein, revised edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1973/2006)Google Scholar, chap. 9.

36 For an elaborated treatment of related questions concerning philosophical authorship see my ‘The Morals of Writing Philosophy: Socrates, Plato, Wittgenstein’, in Modernism and the Moral Life, edited by Ben Ware (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming).

37 Conversely, then, the following can be said: ‘The definition of the number two, “That is called ‘two’” – pointing to two nuts – is perfectly exact' (PI §28), as is in fact noted by Wittgenstein early on in the relevant passage. Thanks to Warren Goldfarb for reminding me of this important line.

38 See for instance the discussion of such wrong effects in Conant, James, ‘Wittgenstein on Meaning and Use’, Philosophical Investigations 21 (3) (1998), 222–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Op. cit. note 34, 159.

40 These ‘methods and techniques’ should now also be seen to comprise the equivalents of the Socratic ones listed in section 2, in particular those listed under (b)–(g).

41 See also Phaedrus 261a and 278d.

42 See also Phaedrus 268a–269d.

43 See also Phaedrus 277b–c.

44 See, for instance, Gregory Vlastos, op. cit. note 3, 1.

45 As I have argued above, the elenchus is better understood as merely one prominent technique of his.

46 On this latter point see also Cooper, John M., ‘Socrates and Philosophy as a Way of Life’, in Maieusis: Essays in Ancient Philosophy in Honour of Myles Burnyeat, edited by Scott, Dominic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)Google Scholar, 24 and Gregory Vlastos, op. cit. note 3, 6–7.

47 This, it should be said, is itself a beautiful moment.

48 Wittgensteinians, in particular, tend to think of this practice in the pejorative mode; for instance, it is frequently contrasted with Wittgenstein's ideas about ‘family resemblance’. Such a polemic attitude, however, as I have argued in this essay, is what really should be shunned in philosophy.

49 Commentators, wrongly, have often not believed the Phaedrus' Socrates when he says that he himself is a ‘lover of these divisions’, but tend to ascribe the ‘method of divisions’ exclusively to the mature Plato instead (esp. in the Sophist and Statesman).

50 Note that in denying this I do not mean to argue in favour of a ‘(strongly) realist’ interpretation of Plato or Socrates either.

51 Earlier versions of the material published here have been presented over the past two years at events in Bergen, Cambridge, Canterbury, Helsinki, Kiev, Kirchberg, London, Madrid, Manchester and Oxford. I would like to thank both the participants and the organisers of these events for many useful discussions. Special thanks go to Joel Backström, Bill Child, Jim Conant, Stefan Giesewetter, Andrew Godfrey, Jen Hornsby, Oskari Kuusela, Hannes Nykänen, Alois Pichler, Marie Rowe (a.k.a. McGinn) and Severin Schroeder.

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