previous
next

III. Knowledge and Opinion

For Socrates, then, what is fundamental to true education is not tradition but criticism. Tradition itself invites criticism, because it represents certain things as worth while but is unable to give any account of their value. Thus the aim of education is to give an account of things, to find out the reason why, and thus put knowledge in the place of opinion. Opinion is all that we get from tradition, all that we get from politicians and Sophists, all that the public, “the great Sophist”, is concerned with. For all these what is current is correct. But what is current is a shifting and uncertain thing, it is not “tied down by the chain of the cause” (the reason why), and so may leave us in the lurch just when we are surest of it. Opinion may be right but only by accident, and without criticism, without the discovery of reasons, we cannot say whether it is right or wrong. We cannot even say whether we understand a received opinion in the same sense as does its promulgator, or whether, when we apply a tradition to a new case, we are not misinterpreting it. The only test is popular clamour, and that is the least steadfast thing of all.

Thus opinions and traditions change, and change without reason, and yet we continue to follow them. If we want to know what we are doing and thus have real guidance in our lives, we must get a grasp of sound principles; and such principles will be upheld for their own sake, and not because they have been handed on to us. Indeed, for the reasons given, they cannot be handed on but must be arrived at by a man's own thinking. Such thinking may, however, be stimulated by opinions and particularly by questions. Thus we find Socrates, in the Theaetetus, claiming the power of bringing men's thoughts to birth by means of this process of questioning, and this is the process of education as far as the educator is concerned. But the really important process is that which goes on in the mind of the pupil, and that is thinking or learning. If the aim of education is to be fulfilled, the Sophistic method of instruction must be avoided, and the dialectic method, in which the pupil is led to form his own hypotheses and test them, adopted. Instruction, by discouraging the critical exercise


  ― 208 ―
of the pupil's intelligence, prevents the real acquisition of knowledge.

This theory is worked out in connection with the doctrine of reminiscence as expounded in the Meno and the Phaedo. Under the stimulus of objects of opinion we recall those criteria or standards which alone give the former their meaning, and with which we were directly acquainted in a previous state. Divesting this view of its mythical character, we may say that the question is of finding certain self-explanatory principles, in the light of which we can estimate the transient objects of ordinary life, and thus have settled and organised knowledge. The systematic character of a man's thinking is the test of his progress from opinion to knowledge, as the orderly character of his actions is the test of his progress towards goodness.

Now this implies the ascription, in the Socratic theory, of a certain relative value to opinions and traditions. They may stimulate our search for what is of settled value and thus for an organised way of life. But in themselves they are inadequate, they cannot in the proper sense of the word be learned, because they have not been taken up into a self-explanatory system. The first point that Socrates always makes in his criticism of opinions and traditions is their mutually contradictory character. They imply a diversity of principle which is necessarily bad, weak and miserable; the only strong and happy life is the single-minded pursuit of the good. Here we have one of the weak points of the Socratic position, since it implies that all men should function alike. But this does not invalidate the characterisation of education as the finding of a way of life, as contrasted with the mere acquisition of a number of arts or accomplishments. As tradition may have a relative value, so may the development of a particular aptitude, but it must be made a part of an organised way of life.

We can see from this that Plato's scheme of secondary education owed something to the fundamental conceptions of Socrates. It is also of interest to notice that Socrates, in his criticism of the Sophistic training in accomplishments, was cutting at the root of the modern psychological theory of abilities. Abilities, taken by themselves instead of as part of the general activity of the individual, are falsified and misdirected. The determination of a “vocation” on the basis of a classification of aptitudes may rightly be called an external method of procedure, since the classification can be arrived at only by reference to the occupations that are offered. Thus our modern Sophists, as G. K. Chesterton points out, try to discover what job a man is fit for, instead of asking what way of life is fitting for the man; they “temper the shorn lamb to the wind”. Similarly, the eugenists desire to breed men for special characteristics, which they consider would be an improvement on existing characteristics, without giving any critical consideration to the notion of improvement or of goodness. “What's Wrong with the World”, as Chesterton puts it in his book with that title, “is that we do not ask what is right”. We proceed on the basis of notions of improvement, efficiency and fitness, we advocate special tasks, without inquiring what work is really worth doing.

What Socrates stood for, then, against the advocates of “up-to-date”


  ― 209 ―
methods of efficiency and specialisation, was coordination or integration of activities. Guidance, he admitted, is possible and desirable, but it must take place in a common and continuous life, and not by any isolated “test” of capacities, and it must aim at the greatest possible coordination of activities, and not at the isolation and development of some special activity. It is for this reason that the teacher, who has lived and worked with the pupil, is the best judge of what he can do. But to be a judge he requires above all to inquire into what is best, to ask the reason why, and not take it for granted that existing demands (opinions) must be satisfied; and in pursuance of this policy he will also encourage the pupil to ask the reason why. In this way real guidance and a really coordinated life are possible. And, if we discount the Socratic over-emphasis on ethics, we can still derive from his theories a recognition of the necessity of considering every way of life in its full social and political context. The Socratic view thus finds an interesting modern parallel in the slogan of Lenin, “Every cook a politician!”

It is true that in the ideal state portrayed in the Republic real political understanding is supposed to be confined to the ruling caste. This is due to the way in which Socrates divided knowledge from opinion, to his contention that the former is concerned with special objects, the forms or standards, instead of simply involving a more critical treatment of the same objects. But this can largely be corrected by means of his own theory of logical coordination. The method Socrates adopts, however, is to allow a certain relative value to opinion and consequently to a life which, though not itself inspired by understanding, obeys the dictates of understanding. In fact, preliminary education precisely takes the form of learning to go about things in the right way, and only after that can we enter on a course of higher education and get to know what makes such actions right.

previous
next