Dumber Than Socrates

Polus. And is that not a great power?
Socrates. Polus has already said the reverse.

If you’ve ever taken a course that touched on the Platonic dialogues — intro philosophy, intro classics, even some rhetoric courses still — you’ve probably heard them described as a genre. (If you haven’t, well, now you’ve heard them described that way.)


Bust of Socrates. By Sphinx, CC-BY-SA 2.5.

A genre is in fact exactly what they are: a way of telling a story. Folks with swords and magic overcome monsters and armies? That’s a fantasy story. A clever rogue hoodwinks everyone and gets away scot-free? That’s a caper story. Some jerk shows up all the other thinkers (or folks who think they’re thinkers) just by asking a bunch of questions? That’s a Platonic dialogue, and the jerk’s name is usually Socrates.

Dialogues, as their prefix implies, consist of two roles, two “sides” to a stream of logos, of words. (We see the same pattern in discourse and dialectic.) (Edit: I’m wrong! dia here means through, not two. Thanks, LapsedPacifist.) In the Platonic dialogues, usually there are several speakers, but just two roles: Socrates and Socrates’ foils. Socrates’ role is to ask questions, draw his foils out, highlight the inconsistencies in their thinking and lead them to verbalize the answers to the questions they needed his help to ask. Socrates is the Smart Guy, and the foils are the Dumb Guys. (It’s classical Greek philosophy. They’re all guys.)

The Socratic method can be a great mode of intellectual exploration when people avoid using it as a weapon. Unfortunately, our role models here are not that great, because Socrates was in fact kind of a jerk, and ultimately he got himself executed for trolling the polis too hard. Indeed, one of the failure modes of the Socratic method is when the questioner uses their role more to show off how great they are (which Socrates did model) than to open new perspectives in the minds of those in the responder role. When this happens, it teaches people to be cautious of open-ended questions, to wonder where the trap is; in groups, no one wants to be the first to open their mouth and say something stupid. If you answer, you’re automatically a Dumb Guy.

It’s worth looking more closely at the Dumb Guys, though, because they aren’t homogeneous. Broadly, they fall into two classes: hubristic dumb guys and epistemically humble dumb guys. Hubristic dumb guys think they know all the answers, and by definition don’t, because nobody does. Epistemically humble dumb guys know they don’t know most of the answers, and don’t mind, apart from the whole not-knowing part, and would like to know more.

You’d think that for your self-image it would be better to be Socrates, but I honestly kinda like being the second kind of dumb guy.

If nothing else, it gets the conversation moving. I see it as giving other people the chance to be the smart guy, or at least smarter than that fuckup — sometimes that’s the kick in the ass people need to break the bystander effect and express their opinion. They’re not sure whether their take on a situation is any smarter than Socrates’, and Socrates is being all cagey keeping his cards to his chest, but at least they look smart compared to that rube.

Applying this strategy to social media has been interesting. Nothing on Twitter brings out the randos who don’t read replies faster than an open-ended question. “What if?” questions, in particular, get a lot of what I’ve come to think of as “short-circuit” responses: point out the most obvious obstacle to the question as constructed and move on. Usually the obstacle in question is one I’ve already thought of and decided to ask anyway, so this doesn’t bother me apart from wishing there were a way to signpost that within the 140-character limit. (Maybe 10k characters will fix this problem, if Twitter lives that long.) The distribution of responses has given me a lot to think about with regard to the distribution of problem-solving strategies; “X is unlikely/really hard/&c” is something I hear a lot in what-iffing, and while I don’t particularly find it discouraging (it’s a really useful attitude to have when you’re on the clock), I can understand how other people might.

However, the distribution has other points on it, like randos who reframe dumb questions in less-dumb ways. Here’s one recent example:

Which, reductio, makes the interesting point that Apple has (even if it probably won’t exercise) the option to defect in an extremely high-stakes Prisoner’s Dilemma — and maybe even get away with it. Software being what it is, and considering that they have exactly one shot to get any firmware replacement they’re ordered to write correct, it’s also a trembling-hand Prisoner’s Dilemma. So, a dumb question and a less-dumb follow-on question lead to a useful lens for considering the structure of the Apple-vs-DoJ problem — and, perhaps, for finding less nuclear solutions by exploring the tree of that signaling game. Score one for good-faith inquiry.

Not, mind, that I think short-circuit responders are responding in bad faith. I think they’re not interested in that avenue of inquiry, which is entirely their right — it’s their attention to expend. I will, however, continue asking dumb questions, in every situation looking for the point of view that gives me +80 IQ points. If I have to lower myself a bit to do it, I don’t mind; you find all kinds of useful things when you look under stuff.

About Meredith L. Patterson

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3 Responses to Dumber Than Socrates

  1. LapsedPacifist says:

    A very insightful article. I appreciate and admire someone skillfully levering a crowbar in the gap between the ideal Socrates (who, what with knowing only that he knows nothing and with his dialogues ending with aporia, ought to encourage this sort of highly intelligent stupidity) and the “my guru can beat up your guru” Socrates whose chief pleasure is strutting his cleverness.

    Honestly, Plato was downright restrained compared to Xenophon. His apologia is cringeworthy.

    One minor quibble for my own overpedantic peace of mind: Despite sounding like it ought to, ‘dialogue’ has nothing to do with the root word meaning ‘two.’ It actually comes from ‘dia’ meaning ‘through.’ It’s the same root as in diarrhea (through-flow).


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