Obsolescence: Exiting the Market System

We have some readily accepted theories about how one good or service in the marketplace is replaced by another. The first theory is that some company providing some good or service X outcompetes another company (or companies) providing a like good or service. This victory may be owing, it is held, (i) to the improved quality of that good or service, (ii) to the cost, or (more mysteriously) (iii) to the brand. The focus of these discussions is mostly on labor, efficiency, and technology.

The second theory, proposed by Peter Thiel, holds that one company comes up with an innovation that deliberately makes the old model useless and thereby achieves, if only temporarily, monopoly status. PayPal did not outcompete other banks; rather, it invented an alternative model for peer-to-peer banking. The recent, excited talk of disruption fits this entrepreneurial picture of temporary monopolization.

What goes undiscussed and unconsidered is the question of how some products and services become obsolete not in virtue of out-competition or monopolization but because such goods have exited the market system. They become obsolete because they are unnecessary, because they are useless, because a suitable alternative is virtually free, or some combination of thereof. It is this infrequently asked question about the connection between obsolescence and the market system that piques my interest.

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‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man’ (IV): On mental discipline

As I began re-reading the early Socratic dialogues, I initially thought that the Socratic way of life would have to be supplemented by philosophical and religious traditions that have devoted considerable thought to the cultivation of mental discipline. I presumed that in these dialogues there would be no explicit talk of training one’s attention on some object or of keeping one’s attention vigilantly on that object. To some degree, I was mistaken.

As I have continued reading, what I have begun to see instead is that mental discipline is both required in order to have a philosophical conversation at all as well as cultivated, in particular ways, in and through that conversation. While I still think it is true that a fuller account of mental discipline is required and for this one would do well to look to other traditions, I now seem to be clearer about the fact that there is indeed a tacit form of mental discipline assumed most often, alluded to at times, and occasionally brought to our attention in the early dialogues themselves.

Let me explore where this tacit form of mental discipline is made explicit. I am thinking of two passages in particular: one from Euthyphro and the other from Charmides. In the first dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro have just considered a number of proposals having to do with the nature of piety (and it even seems that Socrates, noticing Euthyphro’s frustration with his lack of success in this endeavor, has started them off on a potentially fruitful inquiry), only for Euthphyro to advance again a proposal that had already been shown to be unworkable: piety is what is dear to the gods. What is brought into sharp focus is that Euthyphro is stubbornly and absentmindedly returning or coming back to a view that was already shown to be so defective as to be a non-starter. Indeed, God’s love for piety was shown to be a quality of piety, not the essence of piety. At this stage, Socrates says, ‘[W]ill you be surprised if your arguments seem to move about instead of staying put’? (15b).

Now consider his second interlocutor Critias in Charmides. While inquiring with Socrates about the nature of temperance, Charmides begins speechifying, saying that temperance is ‘minding one’s own business,’ is ‘doing the good thing,’ is ‘knowing oneself,’ as if each proposal amounted to the same thing. In this situation, it becomes impossible to fully examine any of these proposals, Socrates surmises that Critias is losing patience (and losing face before these young, attractive men), and thus Socrates tells Critias not to focus on whether he or Socrates or anyone else is being refuted. ‘Instead, give your attention to the argument itself to see what the result of its refutation will be.’ (166e), regardless of who is advancing and who defending it.

Chiefly, what occurs is that the discussions of piety and temperance move about and therefore cannot be properly investigated. To what is this owing? To lack of mental discipline. What, in these works, is brought to our attention therefore is

  • how anger, frustration, shame, the desire to impress, and other negative emotions can disable an inquiry;
  • how one’s attention can drift from the immediate question at hand to something said or thought earlier or that may come up later;
  • how, like Euthyphro, one can return to what one once knew to be the case, even and especially if that account has since been shown to yield contradictions or be implausible;
  • how, like Critias, one can move so briskly as to assume that different things are essentially the same or as to make it impossible for any one thing to be examined at sufficient length.

This marks only the beginning of what would be an interesting investigation into making the tacit forms of mental discipline displayed in the early Socratic dialogues explicit. One would therefore be more able to say with greater certainty what specific requirements there are in order for one to pursue, and to continue pursuing, wisdom.

‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man’ (III): Kinds of Socratic openness

When Socrates speaks of virtue or about virtuous living, his immediate point of reference is the ancient Greek virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom. Thus, one would be naturally inclined to ask questions about the relationship between Socratic discussion and virtuous living, about the definitions of each virtue, and about the defensibility of the ‘unity of virtue’ thesis. Well outside of this frame of reference lies a non-Greek virtue that is, I believe, exemplified in the Socratic way of life. This is the virtue of openness.

In lieu of defining the concept openness, I would like to assume that we know what it is and ask, ‘What kinds of openness does the Socrates of the early Socratic dialogues exhibit?’ Notably, there is the kind of openness to the examination of new proposals or to the re-examination of old proposals. This openness is only possible because Socrates does not profess to being wise and, as he states in Apology, knows this to be the case. Not being wise yet believing that the best human life is that which is devoted to the pursuit of wisdom, he can thereby invite anyone who professes to be wise or else who upholds strong enough convictions about some subject matter to be an answerer whose proposals will then be subjected to philosophical scrutiny.

The implication of being open to new proposals (might piety be F or courage be G?) or to the re-examination of old ones (for perhaps he and his former conversation partner had made an error in reasoning) he is open to having new conversation partners, whether these be older men claiming to be in possession of what it is he seeks or else relatively well-educated younger men willing to defend an account that they find compelling.

Thirdly, he is open to wherever it is that the inquiry goes and to whatever conclusion he and his interlocutor come to. In Crito, he tells his friend that they will examine what is the right thing to do (to follow the law or to head into exile) and will abide by whatever it is that reason discovers.

One can imagine Socrates, then, being open to various proposals, to a variety of individuals with whom he can inquire, and to following the inquiry wherever it leads and ends. There are, however, limits to his openness to starting points, individuals, and undertakings. He will not, for instance, speak with someone who does not say things in good faith. Nor with someone who speechifies, since giving a long speech prevents the careful examination of any statement and enables the speaker to make logical leaps in the argument. Nor with someone seeking only to score points, be clever, or flatter those in attendance. Nor with someone who simply loves elaborate puzzles or who engages in speculative questions that–to put it in Hume’s terms–go beyond the limits of human understanding. All these strategies pervert the pursuit of wisdom, not only by feigning to have wisdom without being ready to examine whether this is so but also by wasting Socrates’s time with mere verbal displays.

When, in Apology, Socrates seeks to examine his accuser Meletus, the man who has charged him with impiety and corruption, he is decidedly not at home for Meletus will not answer some of his questions, panders to the jury in some cases, and forestalls his search for truth. Here we are in the law court. The Apology, revealing the limits of philosophical inquiry, is meant to be a tragic work.

‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man’ (II)

‘[For Socrates,] A successful life of reason and philosophy will therefore also be a life of moral virtue at its highest. The truest philosopher will also be the most morally, socially virtuous person—precisely because only a philosopher can have achieved the reasoned, argued understanding of just why those (or rather, some philosophically improved version of them) really are part of the good condition of the soul.’

–John M. Cooper, ‘Socrates and Philosophy as a Way of Life’

The examined life is a life devoted to the search for wisdom. Uncontroversially, wisdom–whatever it turns out to be–must be a kind of knowledge governing what we believe and what is the right thing to do. It must guide us in determining what is true and in coming to right action. Whatever more can be said about it–and this more is what is very much in question–will be the subject of ongoing philosophical inquiry.

To know what wisdom is, we must examine the human values and human goods of which it is comprised. Socrates is of the view that this search for the true nature of wisdom begins with a philosophical discussion of the concepts of our human values and human goods. An examination of the concepts of friendship, justice, piety, and virtue holds the promise of telling us what each of these is and so also of acting in accordance with this knowledge. If we knew what friendship was, then, the reasoning goes, we would also be able to act on our understanding of friendship when we are engaged with our friends. In ways that may seem counterintuitive to us moderns, investigating the nature of F (where F is some human value or human good) is of a piece with living F-ly. This idea is brought out in Socrates’s discussion with Euthyphro. If Socrates knew what piety was, then he would also know how to act out of piety and thus would be able to contest the charges of impiety brought against him by Meletus in Apology.

Yet in the early Socratic dialogues, plainly Socrates and his answerer do not achieve knowledge of piety, courage, friendship, or of other human virtues. In light of this, is there anything to be said in defense of this special way of investigating the subject (the Socratic elenchus) that might shine some light on the cultivation of one’s moral and intellectual character? I think so.

In his incessant pursuit of the truth, Socrates invites us to turn on its head our very idea of ‘having’ or ‘living from’ a philosophy or even, and especially, of what we take a philosophy (or a philosophy of life) to be. Manifestly, he does not mean that a philosophy establishes for good some set of core beliefs, values, or basic principles that we can then hold fast to and live by in whatever it is that we do. Quite the contrary, Socrates urges us to constantly test and examine whatever beliefs we have, assumptions we make, or proposals we advance with a view to modifying, adjusting, revising, or–quite possibly–jettisoning them. Never so far, in Socrates’ view, has a conclusion been ‘final’ since it has been, so far, open to further inquiry and possible refutation; not so far has our base of knowledge proved to be ‘complete’ since it may be, and so often has been, shown to be implausible or contradictory. Were we to follow Socrates’ beautiful example, then, we would learn to make each statement openly, to test it exhaustively and thoroughly, and to hold onto it lightly for as long as it is reasonable to do so.

Each day we begin to inquire again; each day we submit ourselves to the question or, in the role of the questioner, put others to the question. What, on such an approach, would be deepened would not be some ‘hard doctrine,’ ‘unshakeable foundation,’ or ‘final answer’ but rather some fuller, richer, more expansive understanding of what we are about for as long as we are about it. Aware of our lack of wisdom yet ever in search of wisdom so that we can determinedly live well, we all the while cultivate openness, inquisitiveness, detachment and learn to live with views that are firmer and more robust because so tested yet also, and equally so, as tender as the night.

‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man’ (I)

I

At Apology 38a, Socrates states, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man.’ It can be ascertained from his story about his life being spent in the pursuit of wisdom that the examined life just is the search for wisdom. The argument seems to be: if one spends one’s life in the pursuit of wisdom, then that person’s life is worth living. As a matter of fact, I, Socrates, have spent my life in the pursuit of wisdom. Therefore, my life is (was) worth living (come what may).’

It is possible to render this as a sufficient claim only–that being that the pursuit of wisdom alone is sufficient for a life’s having been worth leading–and yet, at least in the highly charged dramatic context in which Socrates is speaking, the statement also seems to carry a rhetorical rider: only if one spends one’s life in the pursuit of wisdom is one’s life worth leading. And there is also an implicit normative claim: it is best to spend one’s life in this way and not in the law courts or not, for that matter, going around claiming to be wise. Even if the claim about the examined life being necessary for leading a good life and the further normative claim about the examined life being the most excellent form of life both go unstated, the implications are clear enough.

What argument, whether as demanding as this or else more moderate, could be made for the Socratic pursuit of wisdom?