Tag Archives: elenchus

Why philosophy should be verbal


Meditations of a 21st century incarnation of Socrates as composed by Brent Silby


Many of my friends have heard of my distaste for the written word. You may think it rather strange, then, that in my prison cell I wrote poetry. But notice that I wrote poetry and not philosophy. It is philosophy, the way I practice it, that is best done verbally.

You will be aware of some of my reasons. For one, the written word cannot be interrogated. You cannot ask it a question. The words never answer you. Written words give one the appearance of knowledge when none exists. By the gods, I cannot count how many times someone has quoted a passage from a written text, as if they have wisdom and understand the author’s words, yet a quick examination reveals that they do not know what they think they know. Your modern educators are familiar with this when reading student essays. You call it “cut n paste”.

But most importantly, I have found that philosophy is best practiced verbally because it involves examining one’s life. When one reads philosophy, it is very easy to put the book aside when it asks difficult questions. In reading, there is a detachment between the reader and the book. If philosophy is about examining the way we live, one must put one’s self on the line and front up to the elenchus (the style of dialogue I favor) and be willing to answer questions. I consider myself something of a gadfly — an annoying insect that won’t let up. My friends may want to walk away, but if the goal is to live the good life, and if this goal requires one to question the way one lives, then one should endure the questions. Difficulty in answering can show one where they need to focus their thoughts.

Now, my dear reader, again I will be accused of hypocrisy for writing this down. But a dialogue is possible in this forum. This is an invitation. And you may read many of my other recorded dialogues as an insight into what form a philosophical discussion takes. I have had many dialogues transcribed by my students and most are available.

To the examined life!

— Socrates

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Questioning famous people

By Socrates

In this morning’s news feed I saw someone ask: “what would it be to have a Socrates nowadays questioning famous people?” What would it be, indeed? Would it help people understand justice? Would it help people achieve happiness? Would it help people to become virtuous? Since somehow surviving my death in 399BC I have continued to question people, both famous and otherwise. It is my intention to learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me. Whether my dialogues have actually helped people, I am unsure. But I continue, nonetheless.

Back to the question: “what would it be to have a Socrates nowadays questioning famous people?” Is the assumption that only I can ask effective questions? This assumption surely is unjustified. Many people I have met are skilled at asking questions and identifying faulty reasoning. Questioning people is not an activity exclusive to me. We can all do it, and I encourage everyone to do it.

— Socrates

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