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Socrates and the Philosophic Commitment . Questions. What does it mean to say that something is “dangerous?” Can an idea be dangerous?. The Holocaust was a hoax. Women are inferior to men (or blacks inferior to whites, etc.) Global warming isn’t happening.

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What does it mean to say that something is “dangerous?”

Can an idea be dangerous?

The Holocaust was a hoax.

Women are inferior to men (or blacks inferior to whites, etc.)

Global warming isn’t happening.

Faith is more powerful than reason (or vice versa).


Where do our ideas come from?

Do we catch ideas like we catch colds?

What makes an idea our own idea and how do we know when we “own” an idea—and how do we know when an idea “owns” us?

What is the relationship between our ideas and our sense of identity and self?

Are ideas “real?”


Knowledge > Ignorance?

What does it mean to be wise and how is it different from being knowledgeable?

Who are the wise people among us?

How does one attain wisdom?

What are the obstacles to attaining wisdom?


What does it mean to say that an idea is “true?”

Is truth more valuable than lies?

Why do we sometimes feel irritated by rather than grateful for those who show us our ideas are false?

How can lies be comfortable and truth painful?

Is Socrates right when he says we should put the pursuit of true and false knowledge above all else?

socrates claims
Socrates claims….

That a person is not a body but a possessor of a body.

That a good person cannot be harmed by a bad person.

That ideas are more real than bodies because ideas are eternal and unchanging but bodies are temporary.

where did p hilosophy come from
Where did philosophy come from?
  • What is a myth or “mythos?”
  • What does a myth do?
  • Why is a mythos valuable?

Situates the world within a context the provides meaning to life and events—e.g. natural events have supernatural causes (Zeus and thunder).

Promotes community—we’re all in the same story.

Very stable society: “So behaved the sacred ancestors; so must we behave.”

Provides moral code.

What is this hurricane and why is it happening?


Theater of Miletus

6th Century BCE (600 BCE-501 BCE); near coast of present-day Turkey.

Collapse of social and political structures leads to collapse of mythos.

Collapse of mythos: You’re still in the story, but it’s not clear in what sense it’s a story with characters. The story itself is in question.


Greek for “word.”

Source of English “logic”—psychology, biology, sociology, etc.

Logos refers to speaking or setting forth ideas in words, which implies a certain kind of thinking about, reflection upon, and evaluation of those words—LOGICAL ANALYSIS.

The force of thought leads to wisdom (Sophia) & those who have love (Philo) for wisdom and devote themselves to its pursuit are engaged in “philosophia”—the love of wisdom.

the pre socratics
The “Pre-Socratics”

Idea: “I can create explanations of what happens by observing phenomena and using reason/logic to draw inferences.”

The challenge: Find a way to create order and harmony without the myths.

“Inquirers” who used reason and senses (and not just gods and myths) to determine the nature of the universe & its phenomena.

Began the Western tradition of “philosophy.”

Empedocles fragment

thales of miletus @580c bce
Thales of Miletus (@580c. BCE)

Things change—bodies decay, plants grow, etc.

If there is change, there must be something that changes AND something that doesn’t change—otherwise, chaos.

Therefore, unity (Oneness) underneath the plurality of the world.

So what is the unifying, unchanging substance that is hidden by the appearance of constant change?


It changes without changing.

Hogwash? How far is the leap from the claim that water is the building block of everything and the claim that atoms are?

Key insight? Plurality of the world must be reducible to one category.

“The first principle and basic nature of all things is water,” says Thales.

Rivers turn into deltas….waters turns into ice and then back into water….which turns into steam…which becomes air….which becomes wind….which fans fire, etc.

anaximander @610 546 bce
Anaximander (@610-546 BCE)

Student of Thales.

How can water become its opposite, fire?

The source of all things has to be greater than any of the things.

In fact, it has to be greater than any “thing”—it has to be a non-thing or beyond-thing.


The “Boundless” or “Unlimited” (apeiron).

The Boundless is opposed to nothing because everything is it.

Boundless originally in vortex, disrupted, fragmented into elements (Big Bang?).

World will end and return elements to unified Boundless.

anaximenes @545 bce
Anaximenes(@545 BCE)

Criticism of Anaximander: An unspecific, indeterminate, “something-or-other” is no better than nothing at all.

Besides, “Nihilo nihil” (from nothing comes nothing).

Air is it. Less dense=fire. Condensed=cloud and water. More condensed=earth and rock.

Key idea: Differences in quality are really differences in quantity.

some pre socratics focused not on explanations of the material world but on nature of ideas
Some Pre-Socratics Focused Not on Explanations of the Material World but on Nature of Ideas

Xenophanes of Elea (@570 BCE)

“But mortals suppose that the gods are born (as they themselves are), and that they wear man’s clothing and have a human voice and body.” (fragment 5)

(fragment 6)

parmenides @515 440 bce
Parmenides (@515-440 BCE)

Shows that the nature of reality can be demonstrated through logic without observation.

Follow this:

  • “It is” is a truth of reason that does not depend on observation.
  • “It is” cannot be denied without self-contradiction: “It is not” is “It is nothing,” but if “nothing” exists, then it is not nothing; it is something. “It is.”

Since “nothing” cannot be thought without thinking of it as “something,” there is no nothing, only Being.

Being must, therefore, be uncreated (if it were created it would have been created from nothing, and there is no nothing);

indestructible (if destroyed, it would turn into non-Being, but there is no nothing);

eternal (if it were not eternal it would eventually become non-Being);

indivisible (if it could be divided, there would be spaces of non-Being between it parts, but there is no non-Being).

and therefore parmenides says
And, therefore, Parmenides says….

Motion is impossible.

For Being to move, it would have to go from where Being is to where Being isn’t (but there can’t be any such place where Being isn’t!)

zeno of elea @490 bce
Zeno of Elea (@490 BCE)

Defended Parmenides.

Even given the possibility of motion, it is impossible to ever get anywhere.

parmenides and zeno
Parmenides and Zeno

Force a choice between sensory observation and mathematics and logic.

The senses deceive, so reason/logic should reign.

This later becomes the tension between empiricism and rationalism.

socrates 469 399 bce
Socrates (469-399 BCE)
  • Didn’t write anything.
  • What we know comes from Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon.

Served in military in 20’s, fought in 3 wars, honored for valor.

Wandered marketplace and gymnasium talking with young, old, slaves, women, men.

Regarded as a “teacher,” but he refused to accept money and insisted he didn’t actually “teach” anything (more on this when we discuss sophists later).

Embraced poverty.

what happened
What Happened

Oracle at Delphi tells Chaerephon that Socrates is the wisest of men.

Socrates sets out to find someone wiser and fails.

Concludes that he is wiser than others in the sense that he knows he doesn’t know what the others claim to know but don’t.

Ruins of the Temple at Delphi

This is embarrassing: the guy who says he knows nothing demonstrates through questioning that those with authority (poets and politicians) know even less.

the trial
The Trial


Accuser/Prosecutor: Meletus

“A beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown” (Plato).

Probably a religious fanatic, more upset about impiety than corruption.

As a poet, probably didn’t like Socrates’ disdain for the mythos-promoting poets.

Failing to believe in state gods.

Corrupting the youth.

Ostrakas: Greek Banishment Ballots

socrates on the attack
Socrates on the Attack

If I am a corruptor, who are the improvers?

If I believe in demigods, don’t I also, by necessity, believe in the gods?

A bad man cannot injure a good man.

A man is not his body.

Performing a bad act injures the person performing the act more than the recipient of the act.

the verdict punishment
The Verdict & Punishment

280 guilty to 220 acquittal.

360 to 140 in favor of death. So much for Olympic dreams.

socrates and death
Socrates and Death

“Either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.”

Either way, I win, Socrates says, because I did not sacrifice myself to live the inauthentic life the state wants me to and there’s a chance I may get to keep doing what I like best: searching out true and false knowledge.