What could the social interventions of a present-day Socratic practice look like? How might a contemporary Socratic gadfly spark galvanizing public inquiry, rather than adopting the self-satisfied posture of the smug professor or the cranky social-media creep? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Joel Alden Schlosser. This conversation focuses on Schlosser’s book What Would Socrates Do? Self-Examination, Civic Engagement, and the Politics of Philosophy. Schlosser teaches political theory at Bryn Mawr College, and previously held the Julian Steward Chair in the Social Sciences at Deep Springs College. He is currently finishing a book on politics and ecology, Herodotus in the Anthropocene.
ANDY FITCH: In terms of your subtitle’s emphasis upon Socratic self-examination, civic engagement, and philosophical politics, could we first address Socrates as a public figure? Could you introduce your book’s challenge to historical accounts pitting the individual “Socratic citizen” in opposition to the unthinking (ultimately murderous) Athenian “masses”? Could you begin to outline for a contemporary audience, concerned, let’s say, with proactively progressive political messaging, how Socrates’ modes of public engagement might address the perennial democratic bind that “one cannot have a conversation with…an assembly of thousands,” and yet “only in an intimate conversation can one receive the kind of correction that makes a difference for one’s beliefs”? Could you sketch how What Would Socrates Do? tacks between such rhetorical polarities in part by attuning less to any particular argumentative claims made by Socrates, than to more abstracted representations of Socratic practice — as made manifest through formal, discursive, epistemically provocative, semiotically savvy, adroitly performative gestures? And here borrowing Pierre Bourdieu’s conception of the habitus, could you describe how Socratic practice taps, refines, tests (perhaps strengthens, perhaps subverts) prevailing Athenian social conventions: as, for instance, Socratic exchanges with women, metics, and slaves broaden possibilities for public conversation beyond the exclusionary parameters of contemporaneous Athenian citizenship; as Socratic reconfigurations of parrhesiastic frank speech broaden the base of public accountability, while simultaneously redirecting calls for accountability to more acutely personal, private, philosophical spaces; as Socratic appropriations of the sunousia’s paternalistic/normalizing/patronizing erotic networks open up new prospects for exploratory dialogic collaboration? Does that scaffolding of opening inquiries provide enough context for you to start fleshing out how engaged citizens, philosophers of politics, philosophically infused political agents, then and now, might seek to expand upon Socrates’ legacy as exemplary democrat — with exemplary democrats of course never certain if/when they might need to undermine (or overcome, depending on one’s perspective) the smug, self-satisfied democratic habitus in which they happen to find themselves?
JOEL SCHLOSSER: The book begins with an anecdote about my own experience discussing Socrates with a class of undergraduates at Duke University. We read what is probably the best-known text about Socrates, Plato’s Apology of Socrates, which invents a speech Socrates delivers to a jury of his fellow Athenians to defend himself against charges that he did not believe in the gods of the city, was inventing new gods, and was corrupting youth. This classroom experience took place 10 years ago and, at least at that historical moment, it seemed easy, indeed practically instinctive, to identify with Socrates against the unthinking masses whom he was trying to persuade of his own innocence. That is, Socrates became the quintessential dissenter, what we’d now call a “disrupter,” whose innovation is overlooked by those unable to think beyond their conventional assumptions. Duke undergraduates who prided themselves on their “outrageous ambition” found a natural antecedent in Socrates — an ancient figure who thought “outside the box” and shrugged off convention.
Our reading of Socrates as a lonely dissenter followed a broader trend in political theory, one that seemed to have reached a peak moment around this same time with Dana Villa’s Socratic Citizenship. Against arguments like Michael Walzer’s that society needs “connected critics” who can help to elicit the immanent if ignored truths of a society (think of Barack Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech), Villa took Socrates as an exemplar of dissident citizenship — a citizenship committed above all to agonistic challenge of regnant truths, and thus to stirring a complacent and docile citizenry toward greater wakefulness. For Villa, this tradition of citizenship began with Socrates and then continued through figures such as John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Nietzsche. Socratic Citizenship sought to advance a civic model that incites all citizens to interrogate the unquestioned bases of collective identification.
The trouble with this model of the Socratic citizen who opposes murderous Athenian masses is that it begins by refusing rather than engaging contemporary culture. Socrates’ own practice of philosophy both requires and involves others. Taking Socrates’ practice as a guide, you cannot do philosophy sitting alone in a room, nor can you think constructively without beginning from the culture that you inhabit. When you read about Socrates, you read about his conversations with others, conversations that often take their direction not from Socrates’ particular theories or interests (although those do enter into it), but from the questions of those who approach him. These interlocutors speak from what Villa discards as mass delusion. Yet to describe Socrates as a quintessential dissenter ignores how this dissent does not so much refuse as engage, how it is much less solitary than associational.
Then to translate this practice of philosophy to the present, it might be useful to draw on a distinction Hannah Arendt makes when discussing civil disobedience. She contrasts acts of conscience (which are singular and private) with voicing your opinion (in public) to persuade others. In the first case, Arendt says, the dissident acts for his own benefit alone. He does not wish to be sullied by complicity in something he regards as wrong. But in the second case, the dissident acts in the name and for the sake of a group. Arendt’s dissident defies the governing consensus (be it law or convention) not to make an exception for herself, but rather to organize minorities against the majority. Arendt did not develop the possible connection to Socrates here, but I would argue that his practice of philosophy exhibits the associational and organizational characteristics of this second model of dissidence. When Socrates criticizes the conventional opinions of Athens, he does so not to advocate personal withdrawal, but rather to advance social and political transformation. It’s tempting to see this as a kind of “consciousness raising” but I would put a finer point on it: consciousness raising suggests bringing neglected topics to public attention, whereas Socrates’ philosophical practice elicits participation in an ongoing activity of inquiry without a particular end. It thus brings others into habits of self-examination and reflective conversation with wide-ranging effects — effects not merely relevant for citizenship or politics, but for the whole of life.
Here the “perennial democratic bind” of having to address “an assembly of thousands” only appears an intractable bind when you overlook the associational space between individual conversation and mass rhetoric. This is an elision practiced by demagogues and rhetoricians because it makes their arts feel necessary. Yet Socrates’ practice of philosophy inhabits precisely the forgotten space between these two discourses: it proceeds through intimate personal conversations, yet keeps the boundaries of these conversations porous; it adopts simple language that enters the political community’s bloodstream; it picks up existing modes of engagement and infuses these with reflection and skepticism. In this way philosophical practice revitalizes the space between all of us, revivifying the flesh of the political community.
So one of this book’s gambles was that I could extract Socrates’ practice of philosophy from the various doctrines that generations of interpreters have attributed to him. I took as my starting point that “philosophy” was not a set of beliefs or arguments, but rather an activity. Here reconstructing Socrates’ philosophy as a practice (in Bourdieu’s sense) had two dimensions of significance. First, this account again emphasized the ongoing, processual nature of philosophical activity. Because this philosophical practice began from and worked with the particular perspectives of those participating in it, it could not exhaust itself: there was always another person who saw things from a different angle — and the cogency of any given account depended on those who constructed it, which meant that philosophy would always need elaboration and further articulation when brought to different contexts. Second, reconstructing Socrates’ philosophy as a practice illuminated its historical and contextual specificity.
As an activity, Socrates’ philosophical practice bore a resemblance to other activities around it — it was not sui generis, but rather a descendant and relative to practices of the ancient Athens where Socrates was born and resided. During research for the book, I was thrilled to discover how Socrates described his philosophical conversations with the language of sunousia, which was a term typically used to name rather exclusive aristocratic gatherings. These were the Mar-a-Lagos of ancient Athens, but Socrates was appropriating the name for his impromptu discussions with women, slaves, foreigners, and anyone else who might show up to the Athenian agora. Socrates also appropriated more democratic terms such as parrhesia, the free or fearless speech that democrats used to speak truth to power against elites. His philosophical practice was a kind of bricolage of dominant social and political practices. This made Socratic practice both intelligible (as founding a “free school” is intelligible within the context of highly disciplined and normalized regular schools) as well as subversive (another connotation picked up by “free school”).
In a sense, then, Socrates’ practice of philosophy brought a new level of reflexivity (of self-awareness and self-scrutiny) to Bourdieu’s conception of habitus. If habitus consists of “what we take for granted,” as one of my anthropology colleagues put it to me, Socrates’ practice of philosophy involves articulating these unconscious assumptions and evaluating their consistency. This does not entail overturning, so much as upturning to peer beneath, like you might lift a sea rock to watch the crabs scurrying beneath. Inquiry does puncture the inflated certainty of knowingness, that excess of confidence about what you think you know, but this doesn’t necessarily lead to corruption, or to instability — although that was arguably part of the Athenian jury’s reaction.
In terms of reflexive inquiry, I wonder if we now could pivot slightly away from Socratic practice as an exemplary political engagement amid some set of prevailing historical conditions, and move towards Socrates’ status as literary figure, particularly amid the circumstantial intricacies of the Platonic dialogues. For as soon as we start shifting from an emphasis upon Socrates’ (second-hand, of course) “exact words,” to an emphasis upon his situated practice, I sense the implicit (yet, perhaps for this reason, all the more persuasively powerful) formalizing, allegorizing, fictionalizing aspects of narrative textuality structuring even our most basic conceptions. And here I find your focus on Socratic atopia, your corresponding attention to “the level of appearance,” particularly compelling. Socrates’ strange behavior in any number of scenes helps to demonstrate, you suggest, the ultimate “undecidability” of his teachings. Socratic strangeness crystallizes, in your account, through his elective affinity to the midwife: a surprising, suspicion-raising, status-lowering, system-flouting avowal, especially for any self-respecting citizen of his time. And Socrates raises the stakes of this atopic identification by attributing his midwifery inclinations not only to an inheritance from his mother, but to a bestowal from a god. What Would Socrates Do? posits that, before we even can address prospects for irony within Plato’s dialogues, we must grapple with such emblematic Socratic strangeness. So could we place this atopic aspect of Socratic philosophical practice amid a broader consideration of Platonic textual practice, particularly in terms of how Plato’s polyphonic narratives likewise coax forth and situate themselves amid overlapping vectors of writerly/readerly maieusis — always requiring that the reader project him/herself into a given dialogue’s multiperspectival discursive scene (with Plato here midwife to the dialogical reading subject, even as this reader midwifes Plato’s pluralized text)? Does Socratic/Platonic midwifery prove so strange, for instance, in part because its conspicuous fictions confirm the tacit truth that any prescriptive philosophical text (ironic or not, dialectical or not) demands that each reader first project an author function, and only then absorb its authoritative philosophy (with, say, the question “What would Socrates do?” among the most playfully projective of all)? And then more broadly, what false leads might encountering Socratic atopia, like encountering Socratic aporia, free us from? How might a “failure” to understand the atopic Socrates help to short-circuit, say, an ongoing practice of literary/philosophical/political disavowal, in which we consume accounts of supposed exemplary ethical behavior without changing our own lives or societies? Or how might an embrace of textual atopia (rather than attempts to interpret, understand, institutionalize the lessons of an enigmatic author) help to midwife and nurture our own capacities for philosophical practice, rather than to contain them?
I love these questions! I learned to read Socrates from Plato, after all. Plato’s dialogues lead almost all of us to this questionable and irritating figure, a figure who has led such an extraordinary life in the history of thought since he roamed the Athenian agora 2500 years ago. So I think you’re right to say that Plato’s stories elicit a certain kind of reader, and that this reader forms primarily in relationship to Socrates. Jill Frank’s new book Poetic Justice: Rereading Plato’s Republic develops a theory of reading Plato along these lines — namely that Plato’s “conspicuous fictions,” as you put it, deny the authority that readers seek to grant to Socrates, and instead position readers to come to their own judgments. In the context of democratic Athens, then, Plato’s writings (and perhaps especially the Republic), functioned as a political paideia, educating citizens not through didactic instruction (what Paolo Freire, in a different context, calls the “banking model” of education), but rather through provocation and elicitation of more nuanced, careful judgment.
Atopia is crucial to understanding Socrates insofar as you can understand him at all. At its most literal, atopia means placelessness, being a-topos: as if you were homeless, lacking an address or phone number or social-security number. In more philosophical language, you could say that Socrates is unintelligible. He doesn’t make sense to his fellow Athenians, most of whom he repels. Today’s readers miss many of these reasons for repulsion, because they receive Socrates as a “great figure” in the history of philosophy. He wasn’t. You’d have to ignore his strangeness to think of him as “great” by any measure. He was unsettling, disturbing, disruptive — which could be good or bad, depending on where you stood in Athenian society.
One of my teachers, Diskin Clay, titled his book on Plato Platonic Questions: Dialogues with the Silent Philosopher. The more I read Plato, the more questions I have. In this way I think Plato imitated, to virtuous effect, his teacher Socrates. Plato’s dialogues bring more questions to term, and the “silent philosopher” never speaks directly to answer your questions. This means that the dialogues refuse certain forms of interpretation, while chastening the interpreter’s desire to arrive at some authoritative reading. Like Socrates, the dialogues are slippery even while they sting — torpedo-fishes of literature.
The danger lies not just in missing the atopic Socrates, but in believing that you have captured him, understood him. That is, you may recognize Socrates’ strangeness (as have sympathetic interpreters like Gregory Vlastos or Alexander Nehamas), but still go too far toward pinning Socrates down, believing you have comprehended him. To my mind, any settled interpretation risks robbing Socrates of his atopic strangeness. By doing so, it disavows the unanswerability of the questions Socrates poses, as well as the radical disruption that attempting to answer these questions entails. Reading Plato’s Republic as, say, an argument that “to grasp the meaning of justice and the nature of the good life, we must rise above the prejudices and routines of everyday life” (which is how Michael Sandel glosses the dialogue in his best-selling Justice) ignores the interpretive work that this text demands of us, and the personal formation that such work involves. Your word “consume” captures the way Plato’s dialogues often get treated: they’re not allowed to shape the reader at all, because their value is non-specific and easily replaceable, like all commodities. There’s very little to encourage what Joshua Landy calls “formative reading,” the reading and rereading that puts us in deeper dialogue with the text and its strangeness — a reading that’s even stranger and more difficult in the case of a “silent philosopher” like Plato.
Embracing textual atopia (and not foreclosing it with a definitive interpretation) could re-open the essential questions of so much philosophy — and thus the ruptural quality that these questions possess. To take what feels to me like the most basic of the questions that arise when reading Plato: the task to which Socrates calls you (to live the examined life) proves extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, if you really think about it. How do you live an examined life? I return to something Jonathan Lear wrote about Socrates, in his book Love, Happiness, and the Remainder of Life:
Socrates’ fundamental question — how shall I live? — looks so innocent but is in fact traumatic…. Socrates is a traumatizing seducer; he is guilty of the repetitive introjection into life of a message that life cannot contain.
To translate this out of Lear’s psychoanalytic register, I might say that the continuous interruption of life with a basic inquiry (to examine how you should live) calls into question how you have lived up until this point — indeed, it calls into question the meaning of “life” in its entirety. If my life hitherto comes into question, then who am I? What have I been doing? How can I live while at the same time radically questioning what a life even is, what living is? Traumatizing indeed! How do you go on from there?
Well if we first presume that one can’t go it alone, if we next continue to trace how a dialogic erotics ultimately might redirect desire towards the pursuit of constructive intersubjective engagement, could we then return to the generative tension your book detects in the fact that Socratic philosophy never can be precisely located within some specific utterance, and yet always emerges as concretely embodied within a given conversation, an instructive situation, an implied set of relations? Could you also sketch the concern What Would Socrates Do? raises regarding impassioned responses to Socratic practice threatening to eclipse Athenians’ erotic ties to the state? Within that context, might we conceive of, say, the Symposium’s Alcibiades as showing one extreme of how the coy, alluring Socrates (like the ever-enigmatic text) sometimes might enslave a lover (or reader) desperately trying to grasp, understand, explain him? Likewise, could we conceive of the Meno’s Anytus as offering something of an opposite example in which the discomfited (or just indifferent, preoccupied, obtuse) interlocutor turns his/her back, with fraught existential implications for the beloved or for the text? And along such a continuum framing representative extremes of affectively charged responses to Socrates’ provocative presence, could you make the case for your ideal, well-adjusted lover (“erotically motivated, preferring dialogue to debate, attracted not to Socrates but to the objects of their inquiry, to questions held in common”)? Could you describe how this ideal lover might model an appropriate protocol for the ideal reader, the ideal democratic citizen? Here for example does Diotima’s ladder of love, on which we ascend from erotic engagement with the single body, to engagement with the beauty of all bodies (and then with souls, with laws, with knowledge) present a useful illustration for how an embodied Socratic practice (how self-examination, civic engagement, political philosophy) might fuse its most private, most erotic, most philosophical, most public projects?
You’re touching on the core of Socrates’ practice of philosophy as I understand it — as an ongoing activity, and not a set of beliefs, arguments, or doctrines. Yes, Socrates does appear to propound beliefs in Plato’s dialogues (and he’s downright dogmatic in Aristophanes’ and Xenophon’s depictions), but I maintain that these assertions arise within the context of particular conversations, as ideas that Socrates and his interlocutors entertain for the purposes of inquiry. Inquiry, and seeking truth, does not have an endpoint, both because of the perspectival nature of truth that I mentioned earlier, and because of the limits of knowledge. Since all Socratic claims to knowledge depend upon a specific conversation arriving at a given claim, the particulars of those conversations (the interlocutors, place, motivations, etcetera) all limit whatever authority those claims purport to possess.
My thinking about Socrates in fact began with the relationship between him and Alcibiades. My undergraduate thesis at Carleton College focused on what I called the education of the ambitious. What does a society do with those who want power, whose deepest desire is, like Alcibiades’, for glory? When Socrates gets charged with corrupting the youth, Alcibiades provides an implicit object of corruption. Aristophanes’ satire of Socrates, Clouds, presents a young man addicted to horseracing, a man many interpreters see as a veiled Alcibiades. In most accounts of Plato’s treatment of the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades, interpreters take Plato to suggest that Alcibiades misses the point, that Alcibiades confuses the erotics of philosophy with the erotics of power. Alcibiades wants to possess Socrates and all of his ostensible knowledge. According to this reading, Alcibiades fails to understand that philosophy has no object to possess, that it only allows the quest for (and thus an eternal postponement of) erotic satisfaction — which may in fact be all you can do with eros anyway.
But in What Would Socrates Do? I try to flip this reading, to see the relationship from another perspective. What if Alcibiades’ failings are not his fault, but Socrates’? Socrates does seem, after all, to promise knowledge or wisdom. Despite his ugliness, Socrates attracts people to him. Socrates fails to anticipate the impassioned responses he garners, which means that sometimes he draws into his orbit disciples rather than fellow philosophers. Disciples seek to imitate Socrates, rather than taking up the practice of philosophy for themselves. Those like Alcibiades under the sway of powerful desire even try to conquer Socrates, to dominate and possess him, thinking that this will give them also possession of whatever imbues Socrates with his poignant allure.
Although I don’t say it outright in What Would Socrates Do?, I now would suggest that Plato’s Symposium anticipates precisely this problem of impassioned imitation, and seems to warn readers against it. This dialogue gets relayed by one disciple, Aristodemus, to another, Apollodorus, who in turn recounts the story to the reader. And as I point out in the book, these two figures present different versions: they too are infatuated with Socrates but, unlike Alcibiades, they seek to possess Socrates’ words — not his body. You might say they’ve moved a step closer to practicing philosophy, but they still think of it in rather infantile terms. Plato leaves it to readers to grasp what the practice of philosophy would involve beyond these problematic examples.
There’s also another interpretive danger to glorifying Socrates. Doing so neglects all of the negative affect Socrates generates. Anytus offers a prime example for how that negative affect plays out. Anytus cannot stand Socrates’ questioning of what he holds dear. The implicit criticisms contained in Socrates’ questions infuriate Anytus. His reaction is not all that different from the refusals to listen to the other side that happen in politics today. Philosophy raises questions about ideas and principles you not only regard as true, but upon which you have built what you call a life. Subjecting these beliefs to scrutiny puts at risk not just your political commitments, but your entire identity. I tend to think that the Athenians executed Socrates not because of his apparent sympathies with oligarchic revolutionaries, but rather because they could not tolerate the deeply personal implications of his questions. Philosophy is annoying. When you are sensitive after a sustained trauma, like the Athenians following the oligarchic coups, it becomes more appealing to eliminate such irritations, rather than keep swatting them away.
So how do you become a “well-adjusted lover”? Reading Plato’s dialogues as an undergraduate, I fell foolishly in love with Socrates. I wanted to understand whatever truth or knowledge he possessed. I sought to imitate him. But as I read and reread, as well as wrote and revised, I came to see that I had been missing the point — that the point was not possession but rather activity, not knowledge but inquiry. The more I considered Socrates, the more I also realized that philosophical practice cannot be undertaken alone, that Socrates is always in conversation with others when philosophizing, and that this dialogic form is as integral as any particular mode of argument, such as the celebrated Socratic elenchus. It takes time to develop this appreciation for what Socrates models (rather than teaches), which is perhaps why Socrates maintains in Plato’s Apology that, given another day of argument, he could have convinced the jury to acquit him.
And then in terms of the “ideal well-adjusted lover,” I would resist the language of the “ideal,” both because this suggests some point of arrival, and because this suggests something not practical, perhaps not ever realizable. Just because the practice of philosophy fails to get off the ground with characters such as Anytus and Alcibiades doesn’t make it an ideal. First of all, Socrates still pursues his philosophical practice with both of these men, and still attempts, with the resistant or misguided members of the Apology’s jury, to bring them around to the benefits of collective inquiry. And second, the dialogues offer abundant examples of the practice of philosophy working — far more examples of this than of its failure to work.
That said, I do think Diotima’s ladder of love presents a useful model. It’s the closest thing Socrates offers to a depiction of his own philosophical initiation. And Diotima’s description also reminds you that desire stands at the base of philosophical activity. People give me strange looks when I talk about Socrates as an erotic figure, because now eros seems only to refer to the flesh (or sometimes to the life force that Freud opposed to the death drive). But eros for Socrates was an antecedent to Nietzsche’s will to power, a way of naming the source of all vitality in human life. Diotima’s ladder of love, at least as I understand it, describes how reflecting on our desire can lead to more fulfilling experiences of desire, to experiences that seek not satiation but creation — the giving birth that philosophical inquiry ultimately occasions. (Note here that Socrates describes himself as barren in Plato’s Theaetetus, and calls his philosophical activity a form of midwifery. I don’t think this is ironic, so much as another facet of the practice of philosophy. Sometimes you play the midwife; sometimes you’re the one giving birth.)
You can see how this understanding of philosophical practice does fuse the private and the public, by bringing desire into public activities undertaken with others. You feel the pangs of an idea, and you seek out a Socratic midwife. She helps bring your thought into the world. Upon seeing this new insight, you realize both its inadequacy and its usefulness. It does not yet match the richness of the world itself, yet it serves as goad to further inquiry. Self-examination leads to a form of civic engagement — although not civic engagement of a conventional variety since, rather than physically performing community service, you’re engaging others in civic space. The resulting associational vibrancy invigorates political life.
Along these lines of fusing/infusing the private and the public with an associational vibrancy, your reference to Roslyn Weiss’s depiction of Socratic philosophy as “shockingly unprofessional” prompted questions for me regarding the rhetorical procedures and parameters not only of Plato’s day, but of our own. In terms of contemporary efforts to initiate and perhaps institutionalize compelling intersubjective pursuits, I found it instructive that What Would Socrates Do? doesn’t dwell much on possibilities within the academy. I would though love to hear of where, within professional philosophical contexts, you do find the most generative space to keep questioning in an active, embodied, experimental, collectively galvanizing sense — as aptly summarized in your depiction of a philosophical practice. And then pushing beyond conventional academic confines, how/where does (or could) a more inclusive conception of Socratic practice best address what you describe as “the particular challenges faced by liberal democracies today: the persistence of inequalities and disproportions of power that threaten equalities of influence; the lack of accountability among elected (and nonelected) officials; and deficits of attention and energy among citizens and noncitizens”? Or even amid, say, the admirable establishment of impromptu Socrates Cafés and nontraditional Clementine Courses (or alternately: amid the more disembodied, more often corrosive 21st-century forums prevalent on social-media platforms), what suggestions do you have for how present-day Socratic projects might most incisively push their participants and broader cultures, and yet sustain themselves amid perhaps the starkest pedagogical challenge your book poses — the fact that Socratic practice, in any era, enlivens and improves us only at the inevitable expense of provoking (for some participants) pains of perplexity and threats of hostile retribution?
First, looking back at What Would Socrates Do?, I wish I had said more about teaching. “The academy” conjures lecture halls and blue-book examinations, but I think there’s enormous room to grow the Socratic aspect of higher education. For all of those colleges and universities with residential aspects, there are already plentiful spaces for philosophical conversations. Key here, I think, would be decentering the authority of professors and administrators, so that people can meet on the most equal footing possible. During my four years teaching at Deep Springs College, I experienced embodied, experimental, and collectively galvanizing inquiry on walks through the high desert beneath the panorama of the Sierra Nevada Mountains — as well as circling the hanging carcass of a cow we were in the process of slaughtering. Deep Springs offered extraordinary opportunities for these inquiries, but this doesn’t mean less exotic climes do not. Here I think the key is affirming the constructive leisure that the practice of philosophy requires — and this is not something that can easily stay within the bounds of a classroom hour or a curriculum slot.
So I begin the book with the image of the classroom at Duke, but then leave this behind and venture toward alternative spaces, like Chris Phillips’ Socrates Cafés and Earl Shorris’ Clemente Courses. These are terrific models, and since completing the book I’ve even had the opportunity to participate in a Socrates Café run by Chris that involved Bryn Mawr and Haverford students from one of my classes, as well as community members from greater Philadelphia. We held the conversation in a Barnes & Noble cafe. “Invited participants” (students, friends I told about the event, locals in Chris’s network) sat around three sides of a square of tables. Chris stood at the open end, playing Socrates. He kicked off the discussion with a question about freedom (which was the topic of my course), but then it surged forward of its own volition. I noticed other people in the cafe leaning towards the conversation, piqued by the gravid topics under discussion. Soon folks began to join. A wizened man told his story about being an alcoholic. A middle-aged woman with plastic bags around her cafe table spoke about the freedom promised and delivered by her Christian faith. It was a beautiful moment of feeling Socratic energy pulsing out and through the boundaries of belonging and invitation. I think this was Chris’s vision for the Socrates Cafés, and it’s a vision that’s not easy to realize, given the segregation of so many of our public spaces. But I felt that quickening which I imagine Socrates and his interlocutors often experienced when taking up some weighty topic in the agora. There was risk and surprise and the excitement of not knowing where the conversation would next turn.
I wish that I had such experiences more in professional contexts. Whenever I play the role of professor, I have the sense that the game is up — there’s deference to my so-called expertise, and an implicit hierarchy follows. I work to undermine this authority as much as possible, practicing radical listening and trying to elicit the opinions of others. But if there’s any place where authority is reasserted and reconstituted, it’s professional gatherings. Lowly graduate students, ambitious junior faculty, tenured radicals (who aren’t that radical at all), and distinguished professors: the verticality of these ranks too often prevents genuinely philosophical conversation from ever materializing. I’m still trying to figure out how to break down these structures or transgress them in disruptive yet constructive Socratic fashion. Which isn’t to say it’s impossible!
And then, more broadly, can the practice of philosophy help address the particular challenges faced by liberal democracies today? I think these challenges require more democracy, but also better democracy — a more robust democratic culture, where citizens assert and protect their own power, their capacity to act, without being beholden to or enthralled by leaders. I see philosophical practice as having the potential to enliven democratic association from many directions: promoting more reciprocal and cooperative relationships; encouraging reflection and critical inquiry; and establishing robust appreciation for freedom of speech and for public places where diverse constituencies can practice this speech.
The present moments feels ripe for Socrates. The surge of reactionary movements around the world threatens democratic culture by closing down free speech, fostering a culture of fear and distrust, and calling into question any claims to truth and justice. From the other side, conflict and danger spur a countermovement to claim righteousness, to silence disagreement, and to refuse to engage the limitations of one’s own position. The practice of philosophy challenges prejudice and unjustified animosity. It also challenges the logic of safe spaces and trigger warnings. Not only is Socrates’ philosophical practice “shockingly unprofessional,” it’s also unpopular — and bound to be so, as long as it’s pursued in the strange, disruptive way that I think Socrates models.
Yet I would insist that the time is ripe for Socrates precisely because there’s a hunger for alternatives to ideological polemic and withdrawn self-protection. The practice of philosophy offers the best way to gain confidence about why you stand where you stand. It’s the best way, as far as I can tell, to become the thoughtful, self-critical people we want to be. Such a pursuit does have a cost, and does put us at odds with received versions of ourselves and of the world’s pieties. This is what I call the dissonance of philosophy. But if this is what integrity requires, then I don’t think I’m alone in wanting a life of dissonance. As Socrates puts it in Plato’s Gorgias, I’d rather be out of tune with everyone around me than in contradiction with myself. I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I had acted out of unreflective inclination — even if I had done so in pursuit of an admirable end.
But as you point out, affirming such a philosophical practice makes solidarity much more difficult. I don’t think it means you need a kind of Hegelian absolute knowledge of all your normative commitments (I don’t think this is possible). But it does demand deep democracy at odds with the norm of once-in-a-while citizenship. If you would rather Netflix and chill than join a Socrates Café, you’re not alone, but this also means resigning yourself to living an unexamined life — not to mention allowing the rampant creep of powerful systems to shape and determine your choices, habits, and behaviors. That’s not the world I want to live in, which is why I keep Socrates always in mind. As Frantz Fanon puts it at the end of Black Skin, White Masks: Make me a man who always questions. This is my mantra for a Socratic practice of philosophy.