SHADOWS

WISDOM AND DIALECTIC

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

The Love of Wisdom

1. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote many dialogues, thought-experiments in the form of conversations involving a number of characters. These dialogues (about thirty-five in all) are based on Plato's real acquaintance with important thinkers, politicians, and other citizens who walked the streets of Athens. In most of these intellectual "give-and-takes," the chief character is Socrates, a savvy old guy who was fond of critiquing the political and cultural status quo. Socrates insisted that what counts in life is to cross-examine one's own ideas, as well as the ideas of others, particularly those who don't really know what they are talking about, but think they do.

2. In The Symposium (the setting is a banquet or drinking party), Plato has Socrates and his companions discuss the origin and meaning of "love" (the Greek word eros). Despite his companions' high praise and somewhat bawdy comments about "goddess Love," Socrates claims that Love is not a god, but rather the child of two parents -- Plenty and Poverty. Love, he maintains, is something between "having" and "lacking." We think we know what we are looking for and that we would recognize it if we found it, but we are still searching for it.

3. The same goes for having and lacking when it comes to wisdom -- reliable insight into the things that matter to us in our everyday lives. We look for wisdom, because we think it will give us some peace of mind, some "enlightenment," some clarification of the otherwise foggy ups and downs of experience. We want to make sense of things. We want some sort of a map of the whole, what it all means, and how best to navigate it. We know that experience counts for something, but only if we learn from it, reflect upon it, conclude something from it. Experience without "reason" or understanding, doing and undergoing without a clue as to the meaning of it, are not enough. We get through life successfully by soaking ourselves in it, while staying alert, critical, and thoughtful.

4. Philosophy is traditionally referred to as the "love of wisdom." The word itself comes from two Greek words -- philos, which means "friend of" or "love of," and sophia, which means "wisdom," in the sense of highly developed skill, expertise, or know-how when it comes to the most important things, such as how should one live one's life, what are the highest priorities, what does it all mean, what is our place within the "scheme" of things. What counts in the quest for wisdom is to keep going. In this quest there are successes and failures, problems and solutions. Sometimes, the object of the search seems close at hand, and things feel right for a change. Other times, wisdom is elusive. The attitude of the philosopher is one of wonder and humility. Wonder is a feeling of awe and bafflement before a universe that is both extraordinarly beautiful and troublesome. We feel humble, because we realize that understanding it all is way beyond our power.

The Limits of "Human" Wisdom

5. Socrates (and Plato) were very hard on those who pretended to know what they didn't really know, especially when this foolishness had to do with how to live well or how to govern wisely. Socrates believed that self-appointed "experts" who considered themselves wise, lacked the humility, curiosity, and self-knowledge that characterize the philosopher. One who thinks himself or herself wise is far from wise. In Socrates' view, God alone is wise. Human wisdom consists in realizing our humanity, of understanding ourselves as limited seekers, and in appreciating the distance between partial human understanding and complete divine wisdom (complete knowledge of all things). Socratic ignorance is self-understanding or critical self-awareness, that appreciates the difference between being a human being and being a god.

6. Philosophical "wisdom," in the human and limited sense, is a habit of mind that never tires of asking questions, examining "established" views of things, weighing beliefs on the scale of experience, and testing ideas against other ideas. It is an approach of open-mindedness, skepticism, and inquisitiveness. It is an attitude and way of seeing things. It knows better, not beause it "knows more things," but because it "knows" them differently. It is both intellectual and practical, because wisdom about what is going on includes practical wisdom about how to live well and stay focussed on the things that really matter. Philosophy does not compete with specialized sciences or other "fields of knowledge." It is an outlook or "method" which animates, welcomes, and unifies all types of inquiry and search for evidence.

7. Philosophy is as individual as individual people are. It is tailored to the intellect and temperament of unique persons who hope to discover a view of the world as a whole (world-view) and the place of human beings (including themselves) within that whole. In this activity, there is both movement and rest, seeking and stopping for a while. After much experience and thinking, we might arrive at a temporary way-station, a world-view, a perspective, a "philosophy." If we remain honest with ourselves, self-critical, and open-minded, we do not make any such way-station a permanent home. That would imply superhuman wisdom. Rather, after a short stay with ideas that seem valid and fruitful at the time, we once again take to the road -- think things over again, revise our opinions, come to new conclusions. New experiences challenge old answers; new suffering revokes old generalizations.

8. According to William James, the process of thought includes a series of "perches and flights." After a period of questioning, reflection, and discovery, we arrive at a point of relative stability -- we perch for a while. We are content with our results, for the time being. Then, seeing new problems or new lines of inquiry, we move on -- our thought takes flight. Thus, Philosophy is both result and process. As "result," it is a view of things and includes ideas or beliefs which are more or less coherent, consistent, and organized. A system is an ordered and coherent set of ideas. In a system (belief-system), ideas do not contradict one another. Ordinarily, our personal "philosophy" is full of opinions that do not belong together. Thinking attempts to resolve inconsistencies among ideas, as well as to reconcile and adjust ideas to the hard facts of lived experience. Indeed, every conscious person has a "philosophy" (as belief-system or world-view). The activity or process of philosophy is to think about "philosophies" -- to evaluate, test, and revise ideas that we and others have and use.

Question: Where do ideas come from? How many of them can we really call our own? Name some "external sources" of ideas.

Traditional "Branches" of Philosophy

9. Ideas cover a wide range of territories. We can break these down into what are called the traditional "branches" of Philosophy:

  • Metaphysics: theory of reality as a whole, what does it mean for anything to be, why are things the way they are.
  • Philosophical Psychology: theory of human nature, role of consciousness, understanding of perception.
  • Ethics: theory that examines purposes (teleology -- study of ends), principles, and values and the art of making good choices or moral decisions.
  • Cosmology: theory of the natural universe.
  • Logic: examination of the principles of correct reasoning, including the nature of valid reasoning and the nature of scientific method.
  • Social and Political Philosophy: study of human social structures and forms of government.
  • Philosophy of History: study of cause and effect patterns and basic trends in history.
  • Epistemology: theory of knowledge, what can we know or not know.
But the list goes on, almost endlessly. We can talk about Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Mathematics, and Philosophical Anthropology. The term "philosophy" can be associated with any attempt to reach a unified view of any aspect of our lives. We hear politicians refer to "philosophy of campaigning" and coaches talk about their "philosophy of offense or defense." In each case, what is indicated is a collection of ideas -- more or less refined and ordered -- about a particular aspect of reality. In the most general sense, in a particular individual, philosophy is a way of looking at things that includes and holds together all "sub-philosophies." It is the "big picture" which includes all other areas or "fields."

Philosophy as System and Process

10. Philosophy is both result (set of views about reality) and process (activity of thinking and investigating). Some traditional academic philosophers have emphasized the result side of philosophy. We call them "system-builders." As the pyramid-builders of Egypt built their monuments stone by stone, so system-building philosophers stack ideas upon ideas (beginning with foundations and working their way up) and endeavor in this way to construct an awesome and complete picture of reality. Among these system-builders were Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, and -- the most ambitious of them perhaps -- Hegel. Hegel attempted in words to weave the final and absolute world-view, one that would forever settle all disputes and bring an end to controversy. The trouble with philosophy preoccupied with answers is that it aims to bring an end to philosophy as inquiry and thinking. If all the answers are there, the search is over. Philosophies which emphasize finished results (system) tend to endanger and suppress Philosophy as process (thinking). System-builders often claim that their answers to the basic problems of existence are certain, true, and indubitable -- or could be, with a little more revision and modification. The problem with believing you have the right answer is that you are likely to stop asking the question and even more likely to stop listening to opposing points of view. Systems can become rigid, even dictatorial or authoritarian.

Question: How would Socrates react to system-building? The Greek word hybris (used in Greek drama) referred to the human tendency to put oneself in the place of God and to forget that one is a human being. Discuss the benefit and the danger of being certain of something.
11. System-builders often place more emphasis on having the truth than seeking it, on knowing than learning, on being right than on thinking. They tend to worship the finished product and demean the producing. Philosophers who emphasize process counter: What if truth is not a thing we can put in our "hip pocket" or wear "on our sleeves"? What if there is truth, but we don't know when we possess it? What if truth "possesses us" more than we can possess it? What if truth is existential rather than intellectual? What if there is no such thing as "absolute truth"? What if being right and knowing we are right are two different things? Then we must be more humble about our theories; we must see them as forever needing further testing and criticism and judging in the light of life-experience (which, whatever our "fixed" views, never stands still). Life flows, changes, bends, twists, and turns. The process philosopher maintains that theories should be as fluid and changeable as life itself is. The result-orientated thinker might counter-argue: what is the point of a journey that never ends, traveling that never arrives, process without result? Process is not an end-in-itself. What is aimed at is an outcome, not the aiming itself.
Question: What happens if the quest of the "quest for wisdom" is made absolute? Like verbs without objects? What is the proper attitude to take toward our own opinions? Is this itself a hard and fast opinion, set in concrete?
12. Let's put the opposition in terms of means and ends. System-builders often see thinking as a means to an end, not worthwhile in itself. In this view, building a system is like building a house. Building (with all the effort involved) is the means. Having a place to live is an end or goal. Once you finish the house, you don't have to build anymore. In a similar way, once you have a "philosophy," you don't have to think anymore. You have an answer to every question; you are an expert, a "wise person," a know-it-all. Like many people who work only for their retirement, so many system-builders work for the day when no one will have to think anymore -- only retire or rest in their perfect house of pat answers. It is in this sense that Kant uses the term "dogmatic slumber," the sleep of rigid thinking, as it were. From the standpoint of philosophy as process, the dogmatist is asleep.
Question: How can one steer one's life between fixation on results, on the one hand, and wandering aimlessly or stressing "activity for its own sake," on the other hand?

13. System-builders often give rise to their opposites -- the skeptics, the system-destroyers. These sometimes maintain that truth is impossible, that theories are but sandcastles (Nietzsche), playfully built up and soon destroyed. For them, it is the thinking itself which counts, not the need to secure a result. So we have a contest between authority-figures and rebels, those who build in stone and those who break things down. We are inclined to use both approaches. We know that life is too complicated and unpredictable to understand completely, but we would like to have some idea of what is going on. We're not going to put on some traditional or popular "philosophy" and have it fit out lives perfectly. We want to listen to what others have to say -- even the system-builders, but we want to think for ourselves. We also believe that thinking is worthwhile in itself, even apart from answers we come up with. We are hard on ourselves and others when we or they are "thoughtless," when we or they act without awareness of what we or they are doing. We wince when others believe some bit of propaganda without thinking about it, when they parrot the opinions of this or that person, when they make or do something without planning in advance. We believe there is value in thinking before, during, and after much of what we do, especially if what we do has important consequences for ourselves and those we love.

14. In summary, philosophy is the activity of thinking that arrives at, weighs, and revises opinions about ourselves, our world, and our relation with that world. More precisely, philosophy is the acquired habit or tendency or disposition to think about what we are about -- what we believe, what we do, what we hope, what we make, what we feel, what we are, where we belong, what we are for others and what they are for us.

15. Philosophy is the quest for wisdom. The motive or desire that stimulates thinking is the desire to know, the itch to find out. We are frankly puzzled about our situation. But no answer brings thinking to an end; rather, every answer stimulates new thinking, breeds new questions. Thinking and its results whet our appetite for more thinking. Thus, we have the cliche, "the more you know, the more you know you don't know." Every answer is both an end to one process of thinking and a fresh beginning of new thinking. From one perspective, thinking is a means and a settled opinion is an end. From another point of view, every opinion is a means, a basis, an instrument, a tool for new thinking.

Question: Is this view too optimistic? Does this view square with the facts? Why do people think at all?

Thinking and Dialectic

16. Thinking is a habit. That means we are not born thinkers. We become thoughtful or philosophical by practicing thinking, as one must practice playing the piano. There are, of course, certain situations that make anybody stop and think, even one who normally doesn't think or question very much at all. A death of a loved one, unemployment, homelessness, divorce -- in a word, a crisis -- will often evoke thought; but it is a good idea to develop an ongoing habit of thinking that operates in even non-critical situations. If we practice thinking about lots of things, not only will our lives make more sense (have more meaning), but we will do what we do a whole lot better, handle social relations a whole lot better, and be more prepared and less prone to collapse in the big situations.

17. There are many kinds of thinking, too many to name here. Even our subconscious dreams are ways of figuring things out. The artist may do his or her thinking in the medium of concrete images, as the musician may think with musical tones. In a sense, every work of art is a kind of argument leading to a conclusion.

Question: What happens when we think? Name some varieties or forms of thinking. What is the goal of each?

18. Socrates describes thinking as a conversation one has with himself, a debate (an "argument"), wherein one argues both sides (pro and con) of a question. It is interesting to observe that for the Greeks, philosophy took place in public in the form of debate and dialogue with others. In this sense, private reflection was seen as secondary and derivative. Plato's dialogues are processes of thought that are given the literary form of public debates.

Question: In what ways is dialogue or thoughtful conversation with others more likely to be objective or to reach a true conclusion? Why is it hard to debate honestly with oneself?

19. Thinking in this sense is dialectic or the process of weighing alternative points of view, of arguing both sides of a case in order to determine which view is true or has more evidence (reasons) to back it up. It is as if an opinion were brought to trial and our mind were constrained to act as both prosecutor and defense attorney, summoning all sorts of witnesses (reasons and facts) to support their respective clients. Dialectic is an argument or debate (not heated necessarily) that we have with ourselves. Alternative or opposite points of view are presented and reasons are advanced for believing or disbelieving each. On the basis of this evidence, the mind judges or reaches a conclusion. It chooses one opinion over the other. But double jeopardy does not hold. The same opinion can be tried many times -- and ought to be. For each new trial yields new evidence and reasons for believing. Opinions, if they are worthwhile, become stronger when tested. Thus, it goes something like this:

(1) Statement of opinion, (thesis) e.g.: "The purpose of human life is to seek pleasure and to avoid pain."
(2) Positing of alternative, (antithesis) e.g.: "The purpose of human life is not to seek pleasure and to avoid pain."
(3) Showing reasons (intellectual, moral, emotional, factual) for believing and/or disbelieving each. (pros and cons).
(4) In light of the evidence presented, affirming one or the other opinion, judging it to be "true."

20. Dialectic is very similar to the process of deliberation, which is the thinking we do in order to make an intelligent decision about what to do or how to act. Debating with oneself concerning alternative courses of action (what we should do) is called deliberation. Argument or deliberation in this sense ends with a decision. Decision-making is the culmination of a process of deliberation or consideration of alternative possible behaviors. One weighs the pros and cons of doing this or that, largely in terms of achieving the best consequences or remaining faithful to values and principles. When our thinking is more theoretical (how we see things) than practical (what should we do?) or aims at thinking a certain way (hypothesis) rather than doing this or that, it is called dialectic. Dialectic is the exercise of considering reasons for believing (evidence, proof, consistency) alternative possible views in order to reach some new conclusion or have a deeper understanding and appreciation of what we already believed to be true. In either case, we are changing our minds, because even defending what we already believe changes the quality and solidity of that belief. Ideas with reasons for believing them are different from ideas held casually or without "testing."

21. Dialectic or crossexamination of an idea or belief comes to an end with a judgment or verdict based on the weight of the evidence or "reasons." Just as debate with another person ends when, for the time being, both parties agree (or agree to disagree), so dialectic with regard to a particular belief ends when the mind is finally in agreement with itself or concludes. Very often, the thinking mind postpones this judgment until more evidence, advice, and experience can be gathered. And, since double jeopardy does not apply to thinking, one is always free to crossexamine old ideas over and over again, as scientific hypotheses are constantly subject to reinvestigation.

Question: Give an example of deliberation. Give an example of dialectic. Provide reasons pro and con.
Question: Is it possible to think without disagreeing with oneself?
Question: Why consider opposing views with supporting evidence if you are satisfied with the opinions you already hold?
Question: Why are some people afraid to consider alternative views, afraid to "think too much"?
22. The key to thinking as deliberation or dialectic is negation -- being able to entertain the "no" or the "not" or to let in the words "maybe not." When considering any view, we can say to ourselves, "Maybe not." That sets the stage for a debate in our minds. This is often called methodic doubt or denying a thesis for the sake of argument and further understanding. Doubt is the tool of a careful mind, a mind that wants to make sure, to test its views. Doubt is also the instrument of a careful (prudent) deliberator (who wants to do what is best). Doubt allows a person to give a full and fair hearing to both sides of any issue. Methodic doubt, applied to our views for the sake of thinking, is not to be confused with lack of conviction or existential doubt (when we really don't know what to believe). In fact, it is often the one who lacks conviction (is not sure of being right subconsciously) who is afraid of doubt, thinking, and alternative views. Very often, dogmatism (holding to one's opinion rigidly) is a veneer for deeper uncertainty and insecurity. On the other hand, once the "examination" of dialectic begins, there is always the chance we may change our views in the light of new evidence or reasons.
Question: Do doubt and debate weaken or strengthen worthwhile opinions? Back up what you say with reasons and examples.

23. The history of philosophy (as history of ideas) provides ample material for thinking. There are numerous alternative and opposing points of view regarding the meaning of human life, the role of human society, the existence of God. One can add to these views one's own consonant and dissonant views. In the end, perhaps the student of philosophy returns to what he or she has thought before, as a traveler learns from abroad how good it is to be home. But the ideas and the thinker have not remained the same; both have been deepened by the venture. Heraclitus said, "One cannot step twice into the same river." After thinking, even if one thinks the same, one thinks the same differently.

Presuppositions

24. Presuppositions are opinions that influence other opinions or actions. They are often hidden, even to the one who holds them. Part of the work of thinking is to uncover hidden presuppositions that operate "behind the scenes" and influence both thought and action. A prejudice is a kind of presupposition. Thus, we can ask of every opinion that we examine: What does this opinion presuppose? What more general opinion or opinions are implied or "operating" behind this opinion? When the most general presuppositions about human life, society, non-human nature, and God are brought to light, these too can be tested, examined, weighed, "cross-examined" in the court of dialectic. In this way, even the most "sneaky" and subterranean presuppositions can be properly evaluated.

25. In a sense every opinion is a presupposition. Insofar as we already have opinions and bring these opinions with us into our discussions and activities, we presuppose them or believe them in advance -- beforehand. It is impossible to have a completely empty or open mind. Our conscious and our subconscious mind is teeming with opinions borrowed, fabricated, inherited, or acquired. Our parents, the media, our peers, our educators, the books we read and the videos we view -- all put "ideas in our heads." The task of Philosophy is to scrutinize this collection, to make sure we agree with all of our views and that they agree with one another and with "reality." We intend to test these opinions against facts we experience and values we hold dear. Thus, one purpose of thinking is to expose hidden presuppositions to the light of day, to the light of reason. This project requires that we not be defensive about the opinions we possess (clinging to them tenaciously), that we be willing to weigh them against alternative views (dialectic).

26. One presupposition often held is that ideas are harmless, that what people believe or think is their own business and need not affect theirs or anybody else's everyday life. While it is true that some ideas have little or no influence on one's actions (they are compartmentalized and filed away), other ideas do influence or direct speech and action. A prejudice is a presupposition or view held in advance that determines how one will act with or treat others. In fact, one might say that every idea is a kind of "prejudice" that predisposes us to think or act in certain ways, a kind of rut or habit of thought that inclines us to lean in a certain direction.

27. Just as individuals have opinions, presuppositions, prejudices, and predispositions, so whole cultures and societies have sets of views or cultural presuppositions (habitual ways of thinking or "customs") that guide and direct thought, speech, and behavior. Our own American culture is an intricate fabric of historically held views and presuppositions. Thinkers test these cultural approaches, interrogate them, and weigh them. They avoid blind loyalty and encourage growth and self-correction in themselves and in society as a whole. Thus, thinkers are social critics and are therefore often considered dangerous by citizens who defend the status quo or prevailing views of things. Dialectic loosens the tight grip of old untested views. The "maybe" and "maybe not" of dialectic keep the mind democratic by entertaining a plurality of alternative views, even as public debate encourages growth in social democracy -- unity and community based on diversity, difference, and debate. Dialectic is the fruitful habit of being on good terms with oneself even as one argues with oneself, as dialogue is the fruitful habit of being on good terms with others (friendship) even as one debates openly and honestly with others.

Question: Describe how presuppositions might influence thinking and behavior.



Direct inquiries and comments to:

Copyright © 1996 - 2013 Gordon L. Ziniewicz

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.