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Friday, July 26, 2013

Relativism, Tolerance, and The Socratic Fate

Had an interesting talk with a student on comparing short snippets from Sextus Empiricus and Lorraine Code. We suggested that skepticism is to the individual person what relativism is to society, a reversal of Plato's republic in one respect. Just as in the individual, the cultivation of suspended judgment through personal inquiry leads to the cessation of perplexity, so the cultivation of relativism through public education leads to social tolerance (apathy). There is an important sense in which we have not fallen all that far from pre-modern thought, except Socratic pre-modern thought.

Society is making an existential leap by gambling that inquiry and education based on it will always be able to maintain or recover the indifferent equilibrium of "tolerance", in as much proportion to the Socratic leap by gambling that absolute truth is out there and can be discovered. It must calculate the balance of value differently between risk of losing ultimate truth and final happiness by ignoring them and the exquisite unpleasantness of indefinitely prolonged perplexity and the humiliation of the surrender of intellectual self-sufficiency.

But tolerance won on these terms and based itself on the gamble for suspended judgment. If someone tries to argue in behalf of the Socratic spirit, the neo-skeptics will argue that the project of classical foundationalism proved a failure, denying any possibility of finding Truth even if it existed, and that since then science has made the prospect of Big T Truth even less likely. Still, would neo-skeptics consider seriously and sympathetically promoting the study of the grounds that call evolution and materialism into question or even the skeptical commitment to indifference itself. It turns out that commitment to indifference is taking a side after all. Consequently one group that cannot be tolerated are Socratic revivalists. 

But Socratic revivalists can tolerate skeptics since, for revivalists, tolerance is not contingent on a belief state but a practical virtue to be cultivated, an accepting of folks you disagree with even though you think you are right and they are wrong. The Socratic raw confidence in the intellect that starts with wonder rather than doubt and takes an innocent until proven guilty policy on the intellect is orthoganal to classical foundationalism which was adopted in the first place to oppose the Socratic approach. Also, the value of obtaining even a shadow of the Truth is so high that is able to compensate for the additional riskiness of the pursuit.

The Socratic approach remains a live option for human beings. But the Neo-skeptic cannot tolerate that Socratic for long and must eventually impose his relativism on all. Thus, even contemporary followers of Socrates may share his fate.