Socrates contra dogmatism, skepticism, and agnosticism

How, in all things, does one steer clear of dogmatism without being a skeptic or becoming an agnostic? The dogmatist is anyone who claims to know for certain, the skeptic (of the kind I have in view) being doubtful about what we can know for sure. If we are neither dogmatists nor skeptics, then aren’t we committed to being the agnostic or a Rortyian ironist, the kind of person, that is, remaining lukewarm or caring not a wit about matters of truth?

The dogmatist affirms the certitude of his statements. One way he remains dogmatic is by avoiding the questioning or testing of his beliefs. Specifically, he may unwittingly subscribe to some version of the Myth of the Given whether it be intuition in Romanticism, the sense datum in empiricist epistemology, the actualizing tendency in humanistic psychology, a miracle in Christianity, or some other. Thus immunized from doubt, the dogmatist can, when asked about his version of the given, reply, ‘It is what it is.’ Or: ‘This is just how things are. We just receive unconceptualized packets of sense data.’ Brute facts.

Another way to remain a dogmatist is to practice self-deception which would enable one to continue to overlook the facts and true beliefs that would otherwise undermine one’s position and require reconsideration of one’s views. Here, persistent, willful blindness. A third way would be to refuse to expand one’s view of the world by seeking out contrary opinions, competing positions, or eccentric understandings. Stubbornness this. In short, a commitment to brute facts, a sense of blindness, and a close-minded stubbornness would conspire to keep one a dogmatist. Other things too no doubt.

But then it may seem as if one would have to slide into the competing camp and embrace skepticism. Either everything is unknowable or else nothing is knowledgeable for certain or everything is subject to unending doubt: something like this, one would think, or one of these anyway. One would become suspicious of anyone professing to know for certain, and one may even take as one’s mandate the project of undermining others’ staunch professions. Skepticism of this sort sounds like throwing in the towel and wreaks of a certain smoldering hostility, a jiltedness, a task for the bitter crusader.

But then one might find repose in having rejected both dogmatism and skepticism, thus standing a part from the fray. Being on the sideline, however, is no way to live, and it beggars the imagination to believe that one could anyway live well as a free-floating person, taking truth to be no big thing, caring not all how things are. The agnostic person seems to have turned toward cowardice, having given up on the desire to know.

Enter Socrates who in the early Socratic dialogues is neither a dogmatist nor a skeptic nor an agnostic. He examines his answerer with the aim of knowing what view is correct or what proposal is true. He has an open mind when it comes to whatever conclusion he and his interlocutor reach. Even though dogmatists have, so far, been shown to yield false or inconsistent answers, it does not follow that he has given up on the search to discover wisdom. Being wise Socrates postulates. Furthermore, there are views that have, so far, withstood rational scrutiny and to the degree that this has been the case they are held onto, lived by, albeit with a light hand. Will they be shown false in the next examination? Possibly. If so, will we have the strength to let go of them and begin again in order to live according to reason and also more reasonably?

Let us sum up the Socratic way. First: we do not have knowledge but having knowledge is postulated as being possible. Second: we face up to our newfound ignorance. Third: we never reject a new or strange proposal until it is thoroughly, exhaustively considered. Fourth: we carry on with our lives, living according to the best accounts furnished by reason. Fifth: we let go with a light hand whatever hitherto we had held to be true yet, just this instant, has been shown to be implausible, false, or inconsistent. Sixth: we begin again and again with fresh eyes and with an even greater sense of fortitude.

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