Elmar Holenstein [25. 11. 2004]



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Elmar Holenstein [25.11.2004]

Socrates


A Retrospect in Europe – A Prospect in Asia1)

A philosopher who announces a lecture on Socrates wilfully places himself in the same situation as a Swissman who is supposed to hold a lecture on Wilhelm Tell. The time is passing when, from the point of view of historical science and social criticism, creative and correspondingly exuberant dismantling was on the agenda.

For someone from Switzerland, the comparison between Socrates and William Tell is close to hand. In the 18th century, during the European Enlightenment, both were en vogue, Socrates as a freethinker, Tell as a génie de la liberté. At the time, the Swiss painter Henry Fusely, working in London, paid lasting tribute to both of them with famous engravings.2) In the second half of the past century, the two best known Swiss authors placed a sort of concluding literary bouquet atop the long tradition of decomposition of these two shining lights: Max Frisch with his booklet “William Tell for School”3), Friedrich Dürrenmatt with a story about Socrates. Only Dürrenmatt is of interest here. There is some suspicion that Dürrenmatt somehow had to come to terms with the fact that about 25 years before Socrates’ death his own ancient identification figure, the dramatist Aristophanes, was the instigator of Socrates’ harassment by the Athenians.4) In Dürrenmatt’s fictive narration, Aristophanes and Socrates become drinking buddies years later. After the death sentence, Aristophanes offers to don Socrates’ mask and, unrecognized in the dim light of the jail cell, to hold the farewell dialogue written by Plato and to drink the cup of poison. Socrates flees to Syracuse. The tyrant of that city had sworn that the person who drinks him under the table will have to drink the cup of hemlock. As was to be expected, Socrates is the harder drinker. Thus, in a fate-bound tragedy, his destiny ultimately does catch up with him. So much for Dürrenmatt.

There is a second, less localized reason for the comparison between Socrates and Tell, one of a completely different kind. Through all the dismantling, both have remained identification figures, giving confidence to people in corresponding predicaments, Socrates as a freethinker, Tell as a freedom fighter.

Has a period of restoration come upon us? A philosophy that does nothing more than restore its history is no more living and invigorating than a city that has been totally and utterly restored. The visitor will not want to spend more than one visit in such a city, and the same holds for a restoration philosophy. It is not of genuinely philosophical interest who said what when and where, and whether what was said is correctly attributed to the person. Genuine philosophy is interested in whether what earlier thinkers are supposed to have said is rational, how it is groundable, and what theoretical, practical or aesthetic value it has.5) Beyond this, it only deals with history to the extent that it helps identify oneself as what one is and what one is in the course of becoming.

With this aim, genuine thinkers regularly use classical figures for orientation. They prefer to address those figures that the main street has turned its back on. Thus, Bertrand Russell, in a country marked by Locke’s philosophy, wrote a book about Leibnitz, and Noam Chomsky wrote one about Descartes, who at the time was frowned upon everywhere. The provocative choice makes it possible to emphasize one’s own individuality. Moreover, since the selected classics lived a long time ago, it is, thanks to the new state of research, relatively easy to shed light on one’s own originality vis-à-vis the pioneer.

Socrates is not a classical author of the normal kind. He was not a systematic thinker like his immediate successors Plato and Aristotle; it is their names that are used today to classify conceptions of two conspicuously divergent kinds: Platonic for researchers in foundations of mathematics and theoretical physicists (such as Werner Heisenberg), Aristotelian for life scientists (such as Ernest Mayr), political philosophers and virtue ethicists (such as Martha Nussbaum). Those people tend to refer to Socrates who would like to regard living, dying and philosophizing as a threefold unity. A central point of the Socratic philosopher’s good life is that he lives reflectively, and that at the end he also faces death reflectively. The question of the good life coincides with the question who is a good philosopher.

There are others who are not of this view. One classical figure who espoused the opposite outlook is Kumarajiva, a charismatic philosopher born in the oasis town of Kuqa on the Silk Road in what is today Xinjiang, one of the great translators of Buddhist texts into Chinese. He was not averse to the good life that at his time, in the 5th century, was possible in the cosmopolitan city of Chang’an. He is said to have admonished his admirers to follow his works, not his life: “Take the example of the stinking mud, out of which the lotus prospers. Adhere to the lotus, not to the mud!”

It is enticing to follow Kumarajiva’s self-judgement and to read what is attributed to Socrates as his philosophical reflections removed from his biography. Although, as already indicated, he was no systematic thinker, we are indebted to him for numerous intellectual impulses.6) They can be taken as pointers and standards to locate, to order and to give shape to one’s own thinking. This is the intention when the following reflections take Socrates as their point of departure.

However, chance has decreed that is just a little while ago, in 2002, that 2400 years have passed since Socrates was condemned to death at his own hand. Socrates dies 399 years before the tuning point in the European calendar. (Since in this calendar there is no year “0”, but only the point in time “0”, the 2400th anniversary does not take place in 2001, which is what would seem at first glance, but rather in the next year, 2002.) Under such circumstances it would be strange to write a text about Socrates without saying anything about his attitude to death – and to the death penalty. At the end of my lecture, I will therefore present some reflections on these points, too.

In my survey, I shall abstain from reflections on the historical relativity of Socratic philosophy within the European tradition, but not from reflections on its relativity in comparison with other philosophical traditions. To put my intentions in clear terms, I will take avail of the comparison between Switzerland and philosophy again. The Swiss – and today, this includes Swiss women – count themselves proudly and not unjustly among the politically most competent, or, as it could be put, among the most politically participative citizens of a democratic state. But up until a short time ago, this was almost exclusively competence in internal affairs. In a not quite so democratic manner, the people and the parliament left foreign affairs up to a diplomatic elite. Kant defines Enlightenment as “the emergence of man from his self-inflicted immaturity”.7) It is only partial immaturity that can be one’s own fault, self-inflicted, an incompetence in a certain field. What can be discerned in Switzerland today – now that a popular majority has finally approved the accession of the country to the United Nations – is such an emergence from a self-inflicted immaturity in foreign affairs.

In contemporary philosophy in the “West”, which regards itself as the heir and guardian of the European Enlightenment, the corresponding emergence has yet to occur. Of course it is possible to be an excellent philosopher without knowing anything about the non-European traditions of philosophy. If, however, one does philosophy not for oneself as a private person, but rather as a professional philosopher in the service of the public, and if this public is susceptible to global interchange and subject to worldwide influences, then the ignorance of other traditions is irresponsible, it is today the classical example in philosophy of self-inflicted immaturity. It is negligent and blind to the future not to inform oneself about what other people with whom we have to do think and are able to think and are inclined to think. It is interpreted by interlocutors in other cultures as a symptom of disrespect. Ask the professional philosophers in Germany how many Indian, how many Chinese philosophers they know of, if only by name. Almost without exception, you will hear of only a fraction of a half dozen.

One weakness of philosophy is that due to its predilection for background reflections it remains stuck in prolegomena to its real topic. So let me now, after this lengthy introduction, proceed to the central subject of my lecture, a selection of Socratic intellectual themes, the ones that seem appropriate to show up the contour of some of my own modest philosophical thought. In this lecture, I shall restrict myself to four of them: Philosophy is midwifery.8) Knowledge is erotic.9) Philosophy is self-knowledge.10) Philosophy is agnostic.11) (There is another Socratic intellectual topic, namely that “ethical knowledge takes effect in action”, which I have recently treated elsewhere.12))


Philosophy is midwifery
It is not the Socratic philosopher’s business to bring forth, to produce or to give birth to something himself. Comparable to a midwife, he only assists at birth. He knows how to initiate labour pains in people’s heads. He also knows the means of alleviating them. According to the situation and the requirements, he can be a diagnostician, distinguishing between genuine and merely imagined pregnancy and creativity; an abortionist, when a deformation is impending; or a procurer, who, being himself only a “lover of wisdom”, refers his customers to the truly wise who can do the real work, to scientists, poets and people with more experience in life.

Human beings do not need instruction to recognize the fundamental concepts and principles necessary to develop a science. Skilful stimulation is enough. Thus, the Socratic philosopher regards himself not as a teacher and instructor, but with more respect for human nature, only as a prompter and motivator. He gives no instructions for action. He does not misunderstand his philosophy as a normative discipline. Like a nurse, he will foster people’s natural intelligence and innate sense of value in good time. Thanks to the innate inner constitution of the human being, certain constellations of stimuli will, under natural conditions, result in highly abstract ideas (such as cause, endless continuation, intention and guilt) in a manner similar to how other constellations of stimuli result in concrete colour impressions and sound qualities. Without neural dispositions that only need a trigger to be activated, human beings would not be capable of grasping as many (social, logical, physical) interconnections as they indeed can.

Plato’s Socrates explicitly declared his midwifery to be assistance for men in giving birth, not for women. But there were ancient sages who paid more respect to women than did the Hellenic philosophers. In the “oldest book of humanity”, the “Instruction” of Ptahhotep, who probably lived in the 24th century before the common era in Memphis, Egypt, we read: “Do not be proud of your knowledge nor trust that you are a sage. Take counsel with the ignorant as well as with the educated. Faultless speech is rarer than greenstone, and yet it can be found among the servant girls at the grindstones.”13)

What is revolutionary about the Platonic Socrates, by contrast, is that in dialogue with a slave he demonstrated not only practical moral wisdom to be a universal human ability, but also mathematical knowledge.

It is still possible to find European intellectuals who believe that people outside of Europe and without contact to European culture are not capable of more than practical wisdom. Such intellectuals are the ones in need of midwifery, not the people that they regard as being in need of development. Today, no one can dispute any more that every human being is capable of learning every natural language into which he is born, including languages with a much more complex structure than what Europeans know from their own languages. Now, anyone who has the universal human capacity for language also has the competence to understand the structure of every philosophy that has been developed up to now and, under certain circumstances, to bring it forth himself. In their foundations, linguistic competence and philosophical competence coincide.

Here is a selection of important presuppositions for both, for the command of a human language and the ability to philosophize, in informal terms:14)


Human beings can speak freely. To a decisive extent, their behaviour is not stimulus determined. They can react to the stimuli that affect them on their own impetus, spontaneously, as they think fit. Facing a picture of Socrates, they can abstain from saying anything at all, and impassively turn away from him. They can angrily ask why Socrates is always represented as an old man. They can wonder why he is never shown with the two wives with whom he was presumably married at the same time, which was legal in Athens at the time, and so on.
Human beings can speak about everything. Animals typically communicate only about certain states of affairs, bees, for example, almost exclusively about the direction and distance to a source of food, but not about the human beings that crossed their flight path nor about the blue of the sky.
Human beings can say everything differently. Bees only have one way of saying that a source of honey is two kilometres away. For the same state of affairs, human beings can use spatial categories (“two kilometres”), temporal categories (“half an hour”), almost any turn of phrase, including metaphors (“a stone’s throw from here”). Their reports do not necessarily refer back to their own location as do the bees’. For orientation they can use objective givens. (“The best honey is by the last bridge over the Red Brook at the third tree on the left side going upstream.”) They can also select an abstract coordinate system. In short, they can do the same thing from various sides, with continuously changing perspectives and abstaining from their subjective perspective.
Human beings can also speak about their own language. They are capable of metalanguage and reflection.
Human beings have various ways of absolutizing and qualifying their statements. They can declare them to be necessary, universal, possible, probable, questionable, void, and so on. They are able to modalize.
Human beings can argue logically. They can give grounds for what they say. They are capable of discourse. About 1930, a Russian psychologist, Alexander Luria15), set about to test the claim made by a West European sociologist, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, that members of “primitive” cultures are not capable of thinking logically. In a remote region of Uzbekiston, he presented syllogistically formulated questions of the following kind to illiterate women: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaia Zemlia is in the Far North. What colour are bears there?” The answers were of the type: “I don’t know, I’ve never been in the North, I’ve never seen bears; to answer the question you would have to ask people who had been there and seen them.” They seemed to be impressive corroboration of Lévy-Bruhl’s claim. But when the Russian researchers spoke with their test persons, they received answers that made it clear that these people, with their purported mentalité prélogique, were indeed able to think logically. Their explanations had the following structure: “Someone who has seen the bears can answer the question. I haven’t seen them, therefore I can’t answer the question.” The scholars had posed them questions that they were used to deciding empirically. In contrast to literate young people with (formal) schooling from the same area, they were not familiar with context-free switching between concrete empirical and formal logical reasoning. What Luria did was exemplary midwifery, not only for the test persons who had underestimated themselves, but at the same time for the West European scholars who overestimated themselves and remained fraught with bias.

Knowledge is erotic
Philosophy owes its name, “love of wisdom”16), to this experience. Eros is the love of the beautiful. Knowledge is one of the most beautiful things to which human beings can be naturally attracted. Albert Einstein shared this conviction of the Hellenic philosophers. In his speech for Max Planck’s 60th birthday, he said:17) “The state that makes [Planck’s] achievements possible is not unlike the religious state or the state of being in love: the daily striving does not arise from a plan or a program, but rather from an immediate urge.”

What drives a philosopher-scientist of the type Einstein or Planck cannot be reduced to calculations of utility, thirst for glory or striving for power. The commitment of genuine scientists is testimony of a natural urge that can indeed be called erotic. There is a biological explanation for this:

Natural, innate abilities can be recognized by the fact that they are linked to an equally innate urge to make use of them. A human being who is able to stand on his own legs will also want to stand on his own legs – both in the literal and in the figurative sense. Someone who by nature is capable of solving his problems himself will also want to solve them himself. Someone who was born as a free person will also want to live freely. Moreover, in living beings that are endowed with an emotional life the use of natural abilities is associated with satisfaction and pleasure, the obstruction of their use with frustration. In the case of a being endowed with human intelligence, this is complemented by knowledge of these abilities and their significance. Accordingly, the activation of these abilities involves pride, a feeling of self-respect, “dignity” and ultimately the just claim to make use of these innate abilities.18)

It is typical of the artificial intelligence of computers and robots that the intellectual capacity, the drive to make use of it, emotionality and the knowledge of the ability are either separate from each other from the start or easy to separate. In human beings, we encounter the separation of these components of innate abilities in pathological cases that as such shock and perplex us.

Nietzsche’s criticism of Socrates19), his dualistic separation of rationality and instinct, is characteristic of the life-philosophy of his day. That which admits of conceptual distinction was regarded as factually separate (distinct also “in real life”). The result among Nietzsche’s imitators was a kind of reversed Manichaeism, with the spirit so to speak as the opponent of life.20) More recently, the life sciences have taught us philosophers to see more complexity and thus more tension in the situation. Life is more than matter and energy. In its most impressive forms, life cannot be explained without internal programming and information processing.21) On the other side, there is no innate capacity for reason without an associated intentionality to make use of it.

Philosophy is Self-Knowledge

The turn that Socrates initiated in Hellenic philosophy away from natural science to human science was pointedly described by Cicero22): “From ancient philosophy down to Socrates […] the subjects treated were numbers and motions […]. The sizes of the stars, the distances between them and their paths were enthusiastically investigated, and all celestial phenomena. But Socrates was the first to summon Philosophy down from heaven, settle her in the cities and even bring her into homes, and make her inquire about life and morals and things good and evil.”


The words that Hegel spoke were no less strong: he called Socrates a “world historical person” and the “main turning point of spirit in itself”. It is with him that “the reflection of consciousness in itself, the knowledge of consciousness about itself as such” begins.23) Socrates himself referred to a temple inscription in Delphi: “Know thyself!” – Gnothi sauton.

But it is only in the western part of the “Old World” that Socrates, with the originality peculiar to him, was the first to give philosophy this turn. From South Asia (“India”) there is a text handed down according to which the urge to a comparable turn was already felt there 150 to 350 years earlier. By Socrates’ time, it was fulfilled (by Buddha and related thinkers) with a critical and ontological radicality that was only achieved in Europe in the 18th century. The Chandogya Upanishad24) reports how a seeker, Nârada, entreated the sage Sanatkumâra:

“Teach me, sir! I know the Rig-veda, Sir, the Yagur-veda, the Sama-veda, as the fourth the Atharvana, as the fifth the Itihasa-purana (the Bharata); the Veda of the Vedas (grammar); the Pitrya (the rules for the sacrifices for the ancestors); the Rasi (the science of numbers); the Daiva (the science of portents); the Nidhi (the science of time); the Vakovikya (logic); the Ekayana (ethics); the Devavidya (etymology); the Brahma-vidya (pronunciation, siksha, ceremonial, kalpa, prosody, khandas); the Bhuta-vidya (the science of demons); the Kshatra-vidya (the science of weapons); the Nakshatra-vidya (astronomy); the Sarpa and Devagana-vidya (the science of serpents or poisons, and the sciences of the genii, such as the making of perfumes, dancing, singing, playing, and other fine arts). But, Sir, with all this I know the Mantras only, the sacred books, I do not know the Self. I have heard from men like you, that he who knows the Self overcomes grief.”

A second turn is characteristic of the more recent history of philosophy, a turn away from the individualistic orientation of traditional anthropology towards a social approach to knowledge, including knowledge of oneself. There is no self-knowledge without knowledge of other people. What does someone know of himself who only knows himself, what does one who only knows his own culture know of it? Moreover, there is no self-cultivation without social intercourse – not only because self-cultivation is dependent on the social context, but primarily because the human being is by nature a social being. For a being of this kind, socialization is at once the basis and one of the goals of self-cultivation.

After the socialization of self-knowledge, today its naturalization is impending. Socrates had taken into consideration what Plato and, as everybody knows, Descartes assumed as an indispensable point, namely that our mental abilities presuppose a substance different from our body. If, like Descartes, one adheres to a mechanistic conception of the nature of the body, a conception that for a priori, seemingly intuitive reasons seemed to the successful creators of early modern physics to be the only possibility, then such an assumption may well be a legitimate theoretical construct. Empirical sciences cannot get around various theoretical constructs, even constructs that are extremely contra-intuitive. Since human subjective experiences, in particular self-awareness, can no more be explained by means of today’s “post-modern” physics than by means of Descartes’ early modern physics, the only way out seems to be to admit that we still do not understand the constitution of physical reality (which can produce something like consciousness), and that for lack of adequate cognitive abilities, we may never comprehend it.25)

For a considerable time, writers and neuroscientists alike have been responding to the question as to who we are with propositions that would have been completely alien to Socrates and in particular to Plato – in contrast to their philosophical contemporaries in South Asia. In 1896, Joseph Conrad wrote26): “One’s own personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown.” Even if they do not share his pessimism about knowledge, many neuroscientists share Conrad’s view of the stream of consciousness as a mysteriously manipulated masquerade.

But it seems to be wrong to deny a causal role to our subjective ideas and intentions. They can have at least a psychosomatic effect on our bodily health. The quantity of data processing can lead to material wear in a computer similarly to how excessive thinking can tire us. But it would be difficult to assume that the contents of the information could have an effect on the physical state of the machine in a way that is obviously the case for human beings. Information that relates particularly to ourselves, to our existence or only to our social status occupies us not only mentally, but also somatically.

All of this means that there is no self-knowledge without knowledge of nature. The divergence of the human sciences from the natural sciences that Socrates initiated must be reversed. The reason for the reversal can already be found in the Platonic Socrates. In the dialogue Phaedrus27) we can read that without taking account of its entire nexus of action the nature of the soul can no more be understood than can, according to Hippocrates, the nature of the body. The holistic conception of medicine attributed to Hippocrates is also exemplary for philosophy. Medicine, which in practical respects has always been the core science of life, thus joins mathematics in the status of an exemplary science for philosophy. The commended naturalization of self-knowledge is thus a kind or renaturalization.

This does not, of course, answer the question as to who we are and where we come from, and how we are at all possible. It has only been passed from one scientific discipline to another. This brings us to the last of the Socratic intellectual impulses, the reflection on the limits of our knowledge.
Philosophy is agnostic
One of the basic questions of philosophy is: “What can we know?” It automatically implies the counter-question: “What can we not know?” Accordingly, the limits of knowledge are a central topic of any radical philosophy. However, it is not always the best advice radically to draw the ultimate consequences from the limits to our knowledge. Someone who falls under the sway of the gulf of ignorance that faces us when we approach the problems of the foundations of the sciences is lost for scientific research. To a considerable extent, the sciences in Europe owe their modern triumph beyond the reach of the sciences in Asia to a naïve, fundamentalist philosophical faith, the belief in the axiomatizability of all knowledge, the belief that it admits of ultimate foundation. It was not thanks to a late reception of “Eastern” wisdom that this faith was abandoned, but rather thanks to the demonstration immanent to the system itself that there are undecidable propositions within the strictest of the sciences, mathematics.

It was to the advantage of established European science that it was recognized early that empirical research is not possible and certainly is not fruitful without theoretical assumptions that cannot be derived from observational data. The new sciences thus have a point in common with the old religions, namely that they make non-empirical, that is, metaphysical assumptions. Of course, the content of their metaphysical assumptions is of a different nature. But both, science and religion, presuppose that notwithstanding the danger of error and collapse we boldly think about matters beyond the limits of our knowledge.

At an Institute of Technology, one will quickly learn that philosophers tend to be more impressed by the limits of knowledge than are natural scientists and engineers. Limits rouse their curiosity. It may be that the limits are fluid, and react elastically to incursions. It may be that they are of a fractal nature and that they can accordingly be breached. It may be that there is an unforeseen opening somewhere. It may be that they can be at least imagined from the other side.

In the early 60s, the project of developing automatic translation machines for natural human languages, which had begun so hopefully, met with fundamental feasibility limits. The few philosophers who had participated (for example Yehoshua Bar Hillel) then turned their back on it and switched to other (more abstract) projects. It had been recognized that not all the knowledge that is presupposed in order to understand simple utterances of everyday language is contained as linguistically structured knowledge in the code of these languages itself. When we communicate with language we unconsciously and effortlessly make use of too much knowledge that has to do with our embodiment, that is, with our sensomotorics; we cannot simply transfer this knowledge as is to a machine with its completely different form of existence and sensomotorics.

Engineers are more used to approaching their goals by stages, in small, insignificant steps, not in great leaps. Today there are still no completely automatic translation machines for our everyday languages which could do without a human editor. But more progress has been made than those philosophers were able to expect who in the 60s realized the fundamental limits of feasibility in this exemplary research field.

In the life sciences, we are in a comparable situation today. It has again turned out that the information explicitly contained in a code, specifically in the genetic code, is by no means sufficient for the manner in which the code acts. To work correctly in the structure of an organism, it is dependent on an extremely complex cellular context that cannot simply be artificially produced or even manipulated. Again, philosophers were among the first to point out the limits of knowledge and to advise against the corresponding technologies. Medical researchers, however, are not so unrealistic that they expect a Nobel Prize for the creation of a new human being, but rather for an incursion into the complex structure of the human organism which may well be quite modest as an advance in our knowledge of this organism, but decisive for the cure of a disease. Here, philosophical agnosticism took effect too early.

The knowledge that science and technology have to offer is enormous. But it is a knowledge that is valid under presuppositions about which no one has adequate knowledge. No one can assess all the side effects that the technical implementation of this knowledge may eventually involve.

Psychological tests28) have shown that with increasing specialized knowledge the awareness of remaining ignorance wanes. Overconfidence arises. People who regard themselves as experts have problems admitting to ignorance when faced with unanswerable questions from their field of expertise. The tests showed that they were not only intent on not exposing their weaknesses. In case of wrong answers and uncertain prognoses, they are obviously subjectively certain of the correctness of their (untenable) judgement.

Experts have the task of counselling and contributing to the formation of opinions in a difficult situation. They do not themselves have the task of making decisions. The decision must be left up to someone with common sense in addition to expertise. This involves his awareness that he does not know everything. That is Socratic philosophy. According to the Socratic conception of science, science and self-certainty are incompatible.

Socrates’ Living and Dying
Initially, Socrates owed his reputation as a free person to the way he fulfilled his tasks as a citizen. He was not open to corruption by those in office nor could the inflamed public opinion incite him when he himself held office. Just by doing this he shamed those who were not free enough to act like him. Moreover, in dialogue he argued with a Dionysian animation, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, and ironically, demonstrating to his self-certain partners how unfounded their convictions were. “This way one cannot make any friends under the sun.”29)

To bring Socrates’ character and fate close to the bone, one must transpose him, as Jacob Burckhardt advises, into one’s own time and milieu:30) “First, all craftsmen would hate him; and then those who work out of a sense of duty would hardly like him; the rabble would be just as likely to love him as he would cause discomfort to decent people; the powerful and influential would laugh at him; religious people would confront him with a deeper experience of guilt and purification; and criminals would remain completely alien to him. The proportion that would be accessible to him would be minute, and no one would accept his self-praise.”

In conclusion, just a few reflections on Socrates’ death and on the death penalty. Socrates owes his place in history to the exceptional way in which he sealed his view of a free and reflective life, that is, a philosophical life with an equally free, reflective, philosophical death. Aside from the argument that at his age the escape that was offered to him would be a hardship, and in particular that it would be undignified, what he has to say about his death and the manner of his death is disappointing. His discussion of suicide is dogmatic.31) He does not see it as a psychological problem for which there is no generalizable solution. The decision for a premature death means making a decision among value concepts that are incompatible with each other. Not every person is willing to make such a decision in every life situation. One’s own vegetative nervous system resists the performance to the very end. It is a decision that the “reverence for (one’s own) life” is no longer to be respected. Other values might require more respect than one’s own life.

Socrates does not make the death penalty a philosophical topic at all. Could it be that this is an anachronistic criticism? Is it only an impertinent late-comer who can make such an objection? Now, in the first place, Socrates did not belong to the philosophers who believe in the time dependency and cultural relativity of their themes. And in the second place, there was already a discussion of the death penalty in terms of criminal and political philosophy one century previously, in Kong Zi in Zhongguo/China.32) – According to the traditional Confucian view, the death penalty is only admissible if a socially useful, or at least peaceable reintegration of a criminal into society is unrealistic, if there is no more hope for “the human capacity for betterment”. One of the most thought-provoking ways to study how justified the corresponding optimism is in countries with an enduring Confucian tradition may be the example of the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, whose “education” in prison seems to have been a success not only in Bertolucci’s film but also in reality. Thanks to a different philosophical tradition, at any rate, he was spared the fate of Charles I, Louis XVI and Nicolas II. Today, however, the death penalty is abolished not in Zhongguo, but in Europe.

One of the last things that is attributed to Socrates is33): “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?” According to some scholars, Plato put these words in Socrates’ mouth. It is Plato’s view that the life of the body is suffering and that death is a release thanks to the god of healing, Asclepius.

Can at least a somewhat more uplifting conclusion be drawn from these rather depressing remarks on Socrates’ death? Perhaps this one: Philosophizing primarily means learning to live, and with a view to human nature and things as they are that means learning to live together, and only when there is no other way also learning to die and let die.

I would prefer to have Tanyang Zi, a Daoist woman philosopher who died prematurely in 1580 in Zhitang, a town near Suzhou in the hinterland of present-day Shanghai, put the last words in my mouth, perhaps words of the following kind: Last words are not the last word. The last word is no more words.34)
Notes
1) Farewell Lecture (in German) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich on 21 January 2002, Open Lecture for the Tang Chun-I Visiting Professorship at the Department of Philosophy of CUHK on 11 October 2004 (revised and adapted, English translation by Donald Goodwin); German original published by the Ammann-Verlag, Zürich 2002: Sokrates – 2400 Jahre nach seiner Verurteilung zum Suizid; lectures in Japan at the Institute for Ethics at the University of Tokyo, on 13 December 2002 and at the Department of Philosophy at the Ryukoku University in Kyoto on 12 June 2003 (Japanese translation by Maruyama Tokuji: “Sokuratesu – Shikei (jikeizai) go 2400 nen”, in: Ryukoku Tetsugaku Ronshu / The Philosophical Review of Ryukoku University, No. 18, 2004, 1–28.

2) Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Füssli 1741–1825, Zürich: Berichthaus, 1973, ill. 719 and 789. – All classical depictions show Socrates as an old man. Füssli (Fusely) presents his Socrates in the formative period of youth. – On Wilhelm Tell see the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, ed. by P. H. Reill and E. J. Wilson, New York: FactsOnFile, 1996, 445: “Together with Nathan the Wise by Lessing Schiller’s play [Wilhelm Tell] represents a pinnacle in the expression of the ideals of the Aufklärung (German Enlightenment)”.

3) Max Frisch, Gesammelte Werke 6.2, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976,
405–470.

4) Friedrich Dürrenmatt, “Der Tod des Sokrates”, Stoffe VII, Gesammelte Werke 6, Zürich: Diogenes, 1991, 451-483. – The informers on Socrates at court were a politician, a writer and a sophistic philosopher (a vulgar alliance of two intellectuals with a powerful politician).

5) In the Platonic dialogue Phaedrus (270c), the partner who gives the dialogue its name quotes at Socrates’ suggestion Hippocrates to support his view. Socrates thereupon suggests to him that what Hippocrates has to say is very beautiful, but that the point is not only that our views have support from Hippocrates (who at Plato’s time was already a historical authority), but also the support of reason (of the capacity for giving reasons).

6) Klaus Döring presents a good survey of the state of Socrates research, of his life, philosophy and historical influence in the “New Ueberweg”: Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie – Die Philosophie der Antike 2/1, Basel: Schwabe, 1998, 141-178. I am indebted to Rafael Ferber for additional information on the historical Socrates and Plato’s reception of his intellectual impulses, and for a stimulating philosophical discussion in this connection.

7) Immanuel Kant, “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung”, in: Kants Werke – Akademie Textausgabe VIII, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1968, 33: “Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit”.

8) Plato, Meno 82b – 85e, Theaetetus 148d – 151d.

9) Phaedrus 278d, Symposium 204b.

10) Phaedrus 229e; Xenophon, Memorabilia 4.2.24.

11) Plato, Apology 22c–d.


  1. Protagoras 358c-d, Republic 382a-c, Timaeus 86d-e, Laws 860d-e. – See my two papers on this Socratic topic: “Die kausale Rolle von Bewusstsein und Vernunft”, in: Bewusstsein, hg. von Sybille Krämer, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996, 184-212, and “Das Leben wie ein Traum: überdeterminiert”, in: Der Traum – 100 Jahre nach Freuds Traumdeutung, hg. von Brigitte Boothe, Zürich: vdf, 2000, 139-158.

13) Cf. Hellmut Brunner, Die Weisheitsbücher der Ägypter, Zurich: Artemis 1991, 104 (slightly abridged).

14) Cf. Elmar Holenstein, “Vom Ursprung der Sprache”, in: Neue Rundschau 97, 1986, Heft 213, 190-207.

15) As an associate of Lev Vygotskii; cf. A.R. Luria, Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations (1931–32), Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1976, as well as the Replica study of Sylvia Scribner in West Africa: “Modes of Thinking and Ways of Speaking: Culture and Logic Reconsidered”, in: Thinking, ed. by P.N. Johnson-Laird & P.C. Wason, Cambridge UP, 1977, 483-500.

16) Philosophy is intended to be “founded true opinions” (as distinct from “mere opinion”).

17) Albert Einstein, Mein Weltbild, Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1982, 108 f.

18) Cf. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), New York UP, 1989, Chapter IV, 101-104, and Théories du langage – Théories de l'apprentissage, ed. by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Paris: Seuil, 1979, 311 and 333. – The association of a natural ability with a drive to make use of the ability is particularly conspicuous in the case of language acquisition. Whereas it is difficult and takes a great deal of time, patience, drill and instruction to teach a chimpanzee to use a few bits of language, a deaf-mute child is able to learn the same signs playfully. It waits almost greedily for the next signs and combinations of signs to be presented.

19) Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie = The Birth of Tragedy (1871/72), Götzen-Dämmerung = Twilight of the Idols (1889) and passim.

20) Cf. Ludwig Klages, Der Geist als Widersacher der Seele (1929–32).

21) Though they are unreflected, in structure they are quite comparable to reflected planning and information processing.

22) Tusculanae disputationes V. 10 (slightly abridged). Quoted from: Cicero: Tusculan Disputations II & V with a summary of III & IV. Ed. with an introd., transl. and commentary by A. E. Douglas. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1990

23) G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie, in: Werke in zwanzig Bänden 18, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1971, 441 and 468.

24) 7.1.1-3. – Translation by F. Max Müller, The Upanisads (1879), New York,: Dover, 1962. I also consulted the translations by Paul Deussen, Sechzig Upanishad's des Veda, Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1905, 174, and by Paul Thieme, Upanischaden: Ausgewählte Texte, Stuttgart: Reclam jun., 1966, 4 (partial translation), and Patrick Olivelle, The Early Upanishads, Oxford UP, 1958, 259 and 563. The identification of individual research topics in the list is uncertain, and the translations are accordingly not uniform. Wojciech Simson helped me with the interpretation of the text. Deussen’s translation of mantravid (knowledgeable of words, sayings, formulae or science) as schriftkundig (knowledgeable of writing), as well as Müller’s paraphrase “I know only the Mantras, the sacred books” are anachronistic. In South Asia, there was only writing from the 4th or 3rd century before the common era on. My own favoured translation of the last two sentences reads: “I am ‘knowledgeable of words’ mantravid, but ‘not self-knowledgeable’ natmavid. However, I have heard that he who is ‘self-knowledgable’ atmavid overcomes grief.” – Thieme interprets atman (“self”) in the passage quoted primarily in ontological terms as “the essence of things” (in contrast to mere “names” conveyed by the texts cited). However, the traditional psychological interpretation of atman as “self” is fully consistent with the wider context. At any rate, the Chandogya Upanishad unambiguously recommends addressing knowledge reflectively to knowledge itself. Cf. 7.17 f.: “This perception, however, we must desire to understand. – This understanding, however, we must desire to understand.”

25) This was the position of the physicians among the natural philosophers from antiquity, starting with the Hippocratic writings, up to the modern era, up to Albrecht von Haller, Julien Offray de La Mettrie and Emil Du Bois-Reymond. It seemed to them as it probably does to most of us beyond doubt that the emergence basis of our feeling and thinking is our physical nature. But as to what enables our organisms to function as such an emergence basis, ignoramus, we do not know it; and we will probably never know it: ignorabismus.

26) On 23 or 24 March, on his wedding day or the day before it! – The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad 1861–97, ed. by F.R. Karl & L. Davies, Cambridge UP, 1983, 267 f.

27) 270c. See on this point note 5 above.

28) James V. Bradley, “Overconfidence in ignorant experts”, Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 17, 1981, 2. 82-84.

29) Jacob Burckhardt, Griechische Kulturgeschichte (1898), Stuttgart: Deutsche Vertragsanstalt, 1931, 3.355.

30) op.cit. 357.

31) Here, again, we can think of Jacob Burckhardt, this time of his judgement on Hellenistic philosophy in general, free of all obsequious expectations: “There is much to which, if a later philosopher had presented it, no one would pay attention.” And on Socrates in particular: “Someone who speaks so incessantly cannot always speak wisely.” op. cit. 350 f. and 355.

32) Cf.. Gregor Paul, Konfuzius, Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 2001, 14-16.

33) Phaedo 118a (quoted here in the translation of Benjamin Jowett, 1871).

34) The words attributed to Tanyang Zi (1557–1580) are accessible to me only in an non-ambiguous English translation: “Last words are no words.” Cf. Taoism and the Arts of China, ed. by Stephen Little, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, 287 und 289.





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