Socrates’ heirs: Plato v. Diogenes

In “Socrates, Cynics and Flat-Nailed, Featherless Bipeds,” Nickolas Pappas describes two competing philosophical types that arose from the example Socrates set: sober Academics like Plato and mangy Cynics like Diogenes. “Philosophy has pulled in both directions, systematic and subversive, for as long as it has remembered Socrates. … The Academy had the originality to envision an intellectual society  … distinguished by the virtues of modesty and self-control, always ready to usher new students into the tradition. Philosophy as a tradition would have withered without an academy to live in. If it sometimes appears to be withering within the academy, that is because the subversive side of Socrates has its appeal: the virtues of the eccentric, above all eccentric courage, and the willingness to make your life an improvisation.”


Whom does philosophy speak for?

In “Whom Does Philosophy Speak For,” Seyla Benhabib and George Yancy consider that sometimes philosophy speaks for and about everyone and yet at other times seems not to. Unfortunately, “a dynamic of freedom for some and domination for others is present in much of Western philosophy.” This has a significant bearing on our understanding of democracy. Benhabib says, “Western philosophy, as distinguished from myth, literature, drama and many other forms of human expression, speaks in the name of the universal. Philosophy emerges when Socrates and Plato show how we have to free ourselves from the ‘idols of the city,’ and when the pre-Socratics ask about what constitutes matter and the universe, rejecting the answers provided by the Greek polytheistic myths.” And yet she also agrees when Yancy points out “that within the Western philosophical tradition, the mind, coded as white and male, is privileged over the body, coded as female or a signification of blackness, creating a false, disembodied practice.”

Is there any way to settle moral disagreements?

When people disagree about moral issues, is there any rational way to resolve those disputes? Some think there are moral principles that any rational person must accept. But in “Can Moral Disputes Be Resolves?” Alex Rosenberg says there aren’t any such principles. The problem, according to Rosenberg, is that moral judgments are not true or false statements based on applying moral principles to particular circumstances. They are instead expressions of our responses to conduct. “Many people will not find this a satisfactory outcome. They will hope to show that even if moral judgments are expressions of our emotions, nevertheless at least some among these attitudes are objective, right, correct, well justified. But if we can’t find objective grounds for our emotional response to honor killing, our condemnation of it might turn out to just be cultural prejudice.”

Cheeseburger ethics

Are professional ethicists more moral than others? Apparently not. According to Eric Schwitzgebel, many professional ethicists tend to be “cheeseburger ethicists.” A cheeseburger ethicist is someone who reasons that it is morally wrong to eat meat and nevertheless enjoys a cheeseburger because everyone else does it. “In most cases, we already know what is good. No special effort or skill is required to figure that out. Much more interesting and practical is the question of how far short of the ideal we are comfortable being.” And professional ethicists seem more or less as comfortable as everyone else in falling short of their moral ideals. So … what is the point of philosophical reflection about how we ought to live? “Genuine philosophical thinking critiques its prior strictures, including even the assumption that we ought to be morally good. It damages almost as often as it aids, is free, wild and unpredictable, always breaks its harness. It will take you somewhere, up, down, sideways – you can’t know in advance. But you are responsible for trying to go in the right direction with it, and also for your failure when you don’t get there.”

Willful ignorance

Lee McIntyre says in “The Attack on Truth” that we have entered the age of willful ignorance. “There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant.” And once you have chosen to remain ignorant, what does the truth matter? McIntyre explains how we got to this point and what we might be able to do about it. “Respecting truth is a choice.”

In the beginning

Cosmology attempts to understand the origin and structure of everything. Where is cosmology headed today? Ross Anderson asks: “Cosmology has been on a long, hot streak, racking up one imaginative and scientific triumph after another. Is it over?” From ancient Greece to the modern world, philosophy played a big part in developing conceptions of the cosmos. “To create a cosmos, a story that encompasses the origins and ultimate fate of all that is, you have to leave established science behind. You have to face down the cold void of the unknown. Philosophers are always in a dogfight to prove their utility to society, but this is something they do well.” And if the physicists working on cosmology today are facing a creative crisis, philosophical methods and distinctions may help. Indeed, Paul Steinhardt, the director of the Princeton Center for Theoretical Sciences, says, “I wish the philosophers would get involved.”