‘Plato is not famous for answering questions but for staking his life on the chance to ask them’



From The Chronicle of Higher Education:

We are on the verge of becoming the best trained, and least educated, society since the Romans — and reducing the humanities to a type of soft science will only hasten this trend.

As the sciences rightly grow, a free society must ensure that criticism of the sciences grows apace. Effective criticism depends on distance, in this case on an unshakeable difference, between the humanities and the STEM fields. That is not to say that STEM researchers can’t or shouldn’t be experts in the humanities, but rather that the work that the humanities do should not be judged by the metrics of hard science. As Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student, suggests at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, “precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions.” Similarly, we should not expect the humanities to be driven or dominated by the objectives of science. Plato teaches us that part of the liberal arts’ enduring mission is precisely to critique these objectives.

It ought to be obvious that the study of law, justice, and the arts is one of the best preparations for governing. This goes for governing our polis and equally for governing our technologies and ourselves. If you’re interested in learning about justice, you don’t go to the chemistry laboratory. You go to philosophy class and travel to Plato’s Republic.

But if you go to the Republic in search of concrete answers about justice (as many of our students are encouraged to search for the “right” answers in their labs), you will be disappointed. Plato is not famous for answering questions but for staking his life on the chance to ask them. He seems more interested in inviting his readers to ask their own questions and to finish the dialogue themselves, as if to say that it’s more important to learn to think than to memorize others’ dogmatic principles. The question about justice that motivates the Republic is posed in a lengthy series of dialogues, and it does not give rise to a fixed doctrine. Plato seems to be suggesting that part of being just is taking the time to think seriously about justice.

“Big Brains, Small Minds”, John Kaag and David O’Hara, The Chronicle of Higher Education