Socratic Unknowing

One interpretation of Socrates’ claim that he knew nothing is that his wisdom is not to pursue a goal of fixed knowledge but to follow beckoning signs of an ever-elusive knowledge, to follow a direction without arriving at a final resting place, the presumed goal ever receding, thus making the target vastly uncertain, a path where questions outlast answers, and leave a Socrates or his pupil half empty-handed, in ignorance.

He does not have knowledge – he does not possess it the way we possess keys that had been lost and then found.  The search for directional signs does not yield terminal answers.

Searching for truth in ignorance is like Eros always pulling, now and then subsiding, never finished.  A Socratic search for truth models serenity and restlessness – serenity in the conviction that one is on the right path, that one has read the signs correctly – and restless, because reading one sign moves one ahead to discover yet another, worlds without end.   Truth glimmers on the horizon, out of reach; it is not a key that my flashlight can light up.  Well past middle age, I find myself as alert now to Socratic-religious beckonings as I was at 20, alert both to reassuring signs and to ignorance, both serene and restless.  Love and insight, awe and ignorance, shouldn’t diminish with age.


15 comments on “Socratic Unknowing

  1. Steve says:

    I’ve been away for awhile, without internet, and have just caught up with your two most recent posts. You always have a way, Ed, of getting to the heart of things, certainly of all things Thoreau. Your reflections here remind me of Keats’ famous “negative capability,” which he defined as the capacity to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I don’t know if Thoreau ever had an opportunity to read that line, but it comports well, I think, with his (and your) Socratic openness. And by the way, there’s nothing negative about it.

    • dmfant says:

      never been sure, phenomenologically speaking, to take this idea(l) of Keats’, maybe it’s his version of a koan?

    • efmooney says:

      Hi, Steve and Dirk — I’m in Iceland now (talk about being ‘away’). But the “negative” in negative capability is a misnomer. I’d guess that “positive” had been taken over by the ‘positive sciences’ and obviously if you wanted to run from THAT, you’d have to fly under the banner of “the negative” — think of Hegel’s “power of the negative” as what questions common sense and the banal everyday. Negativity would then be close to seeing the irony in things, or the capacity to hold negative and positive together. But Keats’ takes a short cut and calls this a negative capability. All this off the top. Tomorrow it’s not Keats but trolls, elves, lava dust, Bork, and Soren.
      Thanks for keeping the blog alive, guys.

      • Steve says:

        From yesterday’s NY Daily News: “Icelandic officials helped rescue a group of U.S. travelers who had set up a table and chairs on an ice floe in Fjallsárlón glacial lagoon where they planned to eat dinner. A strong gust of wind suddenly caused the ice to break free from shore and sent the tourists drifting into the lagoon.”

        Nothing commonsensical or banal about that! Must have been a conference of Hegelians.

      • dmfant says:

        I think that if it has any meaning that is of use/relevance it will be about being able to bear the anxiety that comes with not-knowing how as one learns a new craft and or extends one’s work/research into new unexplored territories, bringing up the kinds of expertise that come into the realm of something like having a feel for something and what gets/elevates work beyond a kind of mere cutting and pasting of existing works/themes.

  2. Steve says:

    The meaning of the phrase is perhaps not as obvious as I make it sound. To my prosy mind, it simply means that life and the world are riddles that we can never honestly solve, and that if we’re unable to affirm that “negative” fact and even celebrate it, we’ll be pretty miserable – or else forced to seek security in some ideological corner, with our face turned toward the two divergent walls, one called The Truth, the other called The Lie.

    My association of the phrase with Thoreau stems from such sentiments as the following, expressed to his friend Harrison Blake in 1856: “I am grateful for what I am & have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite. …O how I laugh when I think of my vague and indefinite riches.” That’s one of the things I admire most about Thoreau: his sanguine faith in the Undefined and the Wide Open.

    I’m not sure that my juxtaposition here really works, and your suggestion that Keats’ ideal might be a kind of koan is definitely intriguing. I’ll have to meditate on it!

    • dmfant says:

      see I don’t think that Keat’s was generally/broadly pointing to human limits or other aspects of contingency but rather trying to prescribe a certain practice/capacity/state of not-grasping but I’m not sure that this is an actual human way of making one’s way about.
      There may be some Kierkegaardian angle here via flashes/glances that Ed and others who know better, my old prof Ed Casey wrote an interesting book on The World at a Glance.

      • dmfant says:

        ugh, sorry for the gappy writing typing thru migraines is hit or miss, hope that you can fill in the blanks.

      • Steve says:

        Yes, you may be right. Keats associated the “capacity” with great writers, Shakespeare especially. The context of the line has a slapdash quality about it that I for one find barely intelligible. Is he saying that Coleridge, unlike Shakespeare, was incapable of negative capability? Here’s the relevant paragraph (excerpt 2) if you’d like to take a run at it. AFTER your migraine passes, of course. Hope you feel better soon.

        Ed, have you any opinions about negative capability as it might pertain to Socratic unknowing? Or have I wandered off into the weeds again?

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