Socrates and the ‘physikoi’

Tom asked:

In claiming that Socrates was not concerned with the metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe (which led to many of these types of philosophers being called heretics), mainly because he simply did not know the answers to those questions and wasn’t good at discovering them, he did not want to be confused with… what?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Well, I hate to say it, but this is another pretty dumb instructor’s essay question. You really don’t need to read my answer, just read Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. (Try hard to suppress your tears when you reach the end. Plato really knew how to lard it on.)

Socrates didn’t want to be confused with the ‘physikoi’, the thinkers such as Anaxagoras who speculated about the nature of the physical universe. These were not ‘metaphysical’ questions (where did your instructor get that idea?).

If you are looking for ‘metaphysical’ inquiry, then the Presocratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus would the most relevant — but their theories were the precursors to Plato’s own theory of Forms, which he developed from Socrates’ teaching about the soul and the virtues.

Socrates’ concern is with ‘Man’. (Women, as distinct from men, weren’t really a topic.) However, his concern with human beings is not ‘humanistic’ in the modern sense. The soul of man is ‘akin to the Forms’ he says in the Phaedo, that is how philosophers are able to obtain knowledge of the Forms through the inquiry which Plato called ‘dialectic’ (again, modelled on the example of Socrates’ method of philosophical interrogation — the  ‘elenchus’).

This is metaphysics, in its most scary, full-blooded form!

In Aristophanes’ Comedy Clouds, the figure of Socrates is lampooned as a typical example of the ‘physical philosopher’, which shows how little the Athenians understood the revolution that was taking place. After the death of Socrates, Plato set out to set the record straight. He succeeded brilliantly, largely because of his immense literary gifts. (According to the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his book Plato’s Progress 1966, Plato’s dialogues were performed to live audiences.)

In the process, the great Greek Sophists, such as Gorgias and Protagoras — keen admirers of the physikoi — were abused and stigmatized, and forever banned from the Academy.

I’m sorry to say, the wellsprings of philosophy in the Western tradition are thoroughly fascist. (Karl Popper said it first, in The Open Society and its Enemies 1945.) Today, we have academic philosophy — fascism with a liberal face.


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