So-krates, corrupted by the youth?

Earlier this week David wrote about science dads and their dadsplaining: “Science Guys ask us to question everything and everyone but them. Or, more precisely, they are but mere men (almost always men) delivering a message that they see as self-evident,” he writes. Science Guys often don’t have a lot of respect for philosophy, because they think, as Neil Degrasse Tyson (in)famously said in his interview with Nerdist, philosophy is too question-y and not ‘splainy enough. Philosophy “can really mess you up,” as Tyson said, because there’s “too much question-asking” and not enough, well, solutions or action, I guess. In Tyson’s view, philosophy messes you up because “you are distracted by your questions so that you cannot move forward” and be a “productive contributor” to society or knowledge. [1]

As it has been institutionalized in both the Western canon and the academy, philosophy is just another Dad dadsplaining. As many philosophers will argue, philosophy, unlike the other namby-pamby humanities disciplines, is a lot like science; we’re not stuck with our heads in “the text,” we really know things about the world! (I really like this takedown of that view of philosophy.)  But in the same way science dads betray the practice of science, philosophical dadsplaining betrays the practice of philosophy. Read in a certain way, Plato’s portrayal of Socrates shows us that philosophy is the opposite of dads: it’s about corrupting the youth (which is what Socrates is charged of in the Apology) and getting distracted so you can’t move forward, or so you take the oblique path. [2]

In the Apology (here, apology means defense), Socrates defends himself against several accusations, which include corrupting the youth. How might Socrates corrupt the youth? Well, he asks a lot of questions. And he never really arrives at many firm answers. The early Platonic dialogues, which portray Socrates in conversation with one or more other men (or, in the case of the Meno, boys), never manage to find a sufficient, conclusive answer for the question(s) they investigate. For example, Euthyphro never really tells us what piety is, though we know some things it isn’t. It’s telling, perhaps, that Socrates employs just this form (called elenchus), in addressing the specific accusation that he corrupts the youth; he leads Meletus through a series of questions about “improving the youth.” Read in this way, Socrates corrupts the youth because he messes them up with too many questions and not enough answers.

Philosophy, as Socrates practices it, also prevents him from moving forward…literally. In Plato’s Symposuim, Socrates and Aristodemus (the narrator’s friend) are on their way to a party when “Socrates, becoming absorbed in his own thoughts by the way, fell behind him as they went; and when my friend began to wait for him he bade him go on ahead” (174d). Socrates stopped in his tracks so he could work through an idea that struck him as he and Aristodemus were walking to Agathon’s party. And he staid there until he was finished thinking. Practicing philosophy prevented Socrates from moving forward, from reaching his destination, from joining others in their sociality.

Philosophy can really mess you up and prevent you from being a “productive contributor” to society…and that’s what’s great about it. It makes you stop and think, which can prevent you from following the paths and/or scripts (of thinking, of behaving) that best serve, say, the neoliberal university, capitalism, white supremacy, and so on. I mean, who wants to contribute to those things? If those are the paths we’re supposed to follow forward, stalled and oblique trajectories seem like much better options.

Let me give one brief example of how getting “messed up” in questions that don’t move obviously forward is absolutely urgent and necessary. So, Tyson and his interviewers think philosophy messes us up because it devolves into a quibble about the definitions of words. Yeah, sure, some academic philosophy is like that. And most of the time that sort of philosophical work is very boring to non-specialists (and, uh, to specialists too…) But when we’re discussing, say, the use of the singular “they,” this isn’t just some quibble over language; it’s about a tool trans* and genderqueer people need to prevent violence of all sorts–linguistic, legal, psychological, and physical. Pronouns can be a matter of life and death, of violence and justice. (Jules Hamara gave a superb paper on this at the DePaul Philosophy Graduate Conference this past February.) So in debating whether and how “they,” a traditionally singular word, can be plural, we might be quibbling about words, but those words really, really matter.

Now, this quibble about words doesn’t necessarily move us forward in the ways that the academy wants–it’s not going to bring in huge grants or donations, for example. It might even be seen as a waste of resources–who needs such humanistic inquiry when STEM will save us because jobs! But this so-called waste or deviation from the profitable, ‘productive’ path forward, this might be what it means to corrupt the youth these days. Corrupting the youth might mean something like failing to produce profitable, exploitable workers/human capital. It might mean helping students develop other ways of knowing, as David advocates for at the end of his Science Dads piece.

In the end what I’m arguing is that philosophy can, at its best (which it often isn’t, but that’s another matter), mess us up and keep us from moving forward. That is, it can interrupt the instrumentalization of knowledge for violent institutions. It can, to use Sara Ahmed’s term, be a practice of “willfulness”–of standing in the way, of being a problem (as Du Bois would put it). Perhaps the only solutions to a society as messed up as ours will be found in apparently messed up ideas or paths that don’t seem to move directly forward. And philosophy might be just the thing to help mess us up and stop us in our tracks.

Robin is on Twitter as @doctaj.

[1] I know Tyson has backed down from and qualified his statements in this interview. But I want to take the strongest, most overstated form of these claims and argue that yeah, philosophy is precisely those things, and that’s why it matters.

[2] Socrates and his dadsplainer student Plato certainly had their flaws. I’m not endorsing Socratic and/or Platonic thought as a whole. I’m only using these two moments in Plato’s description of Socrates as examples or ideals of what philosophy can be, but actually often isn’t, especially in Plato.