Socrates and common sense

I find it curious how minds work – or at least, how mine works. For the last couple of weeks I developed an increasing urge to revisit some books I have about Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher. Socrates is the closest I have to a philosophical hero, but he’s a bit of an enigma. Not because his writing is obscure or difficult to understand, but because, as far as we know, he wrote nothing. The only accounts we have of his ‘philosophy’ are the writings of others, primarily Plato, who used the character of Socrates as the central figure in his dialogues . Of these, it’s generally regarded that Plato’s earliest writings (those which recorded the last weeks of Socrates life) are the most historically accurate – though it’s impossible to be certain.

This lack of a ‘philosophy’ however is his greatest attraction. He didn’t wander around the ancient market of Athens trying to teach any particular idea or thesis. No, in effect, he did the complete opposite. He went up to people who claimed to know the answers, who talked about their ideas with and air of authority, and challenged their certainty. Through the careful questioning of what they said he effectively deconstructed the reasoning of his interlocuter and the arguments they used to justify their lives. Through conversation he urged them to explore the principles by which they lived and what they understood by ‘the good life’. He lured them into examining the meaning of their existence and the consistency of their beliefs. That’s what appeals to me about him anyway.

But why does that appeal to me? It drove his fellow citizens of Athens up the wall and caused some to find a reason to get rid of him. His approach to philosophy appeals to me because I think contemporary life is in desperate need of it. Because I do not think that there are any certainties in life (except, of course “death and taxes”, and even the latter of these is questionable for some) and those that think there are need challenging. Because not enough of us are challenging basic assumptions like the measuring of our success in life by the wealth we have accumulated or the fame / celebrity status we have gained. We are not asking and discussing basic questions like what constitutes a good life and what sort or person should we aspire to become?

Relax, though, you’re safe. However much I would like to I will not be wandering around Bridport on market day challenging what people say and think. My urge to do this, however, is partly met by the Philosophy in Pubs group that I run. Once a month we meet in a local pub and discuss a topic that a group member has prepared an introduction to. The aim of the discussion is very much about challenging ideas and asking questions and not at all about giving a lecture or arguing for a particular point of view. Whilst this, I hope, proves to be very satisfying for those people who attend – those that do attend are not necessarily the people that I think would benefit most from the questioning.

At the last meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group we discussed ‘common sense’. Without attempting to summarise the discussion I would like to briefly refer to Antonio Gramsci’s take on the topic, one that I think particularly relevant to the comments that I’ve made above. In his Prison Notebooks he describes common sense as that comforting set of certainties in which we feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the world we inhabit. For him these are the basic realities we use to explain that world.
However, whilst we may have no choice but to begin from the common sense into which we are born, we should not accept its comforting familiarities unthinkingly. Instead we should continually question them; we should drag them into the light of day and expose all the implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions that otherwise present themselves as simple reality. In short, for Gramsci, ‘common sense’ is a confusion of unexamined truisms that must be continually challenged. Now that is philosophy in the spirit of Socrates. That is the philosophy that I like. That is what the world so desperately needs right now.

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