One, Two, Be

Review: Dustin Sebell, ‘The Socratic Turn’

'The Death of Socrates' by Jacques-Louis David


Dustin Sebell’s The Socratic Turn seeks to rescue political philosophy from the ignominy it suffers, both in political science departments and in society generally. Can political philosophy (also known by its more respectable title, political theory) ever meet the scientific criteria for truth? Or is it more like literary criticism—subjective and full of vagaries?

As good citizens of modernity, we are skeptical that answers to the questions of political philosophy (like, "How should we live?" or "What is justice?") are possible. And so the study of politics today takes place largely under the mantle of political science, an increasingly descriptive field of study that avoids the ought at all costs. Political theory departments rest uneasily in this field, viewed by more critical eyes as relics whose discussions of justice are as serious as whatever symposia might be hosted by a department devoted to the study of witches.

Sebell’s book examines political science’s claims to be a science. He then examines the nature of modern science and undermines its claims to certainty (even its claims to be a science, in the fullest sense of the word). Finally, he describes a method by which political philosophy and its questions about justice could be pursued scientifically.

Sebell’s argument takes the form of a close reading of the story of Socrates’ early life as given in Plato’s Phaedo. We read of how Socrates abandoned the life of a natural scientist and turned to philosophy. Those who are familiar with Greek philosophy will recall the more famous account of how Socrates became philosophic in Plato’s Apology. The 70-year-old Socrates has been arrested, accused of impiety and of corrupting the young. At his trial, Socrates tells the jury that he became a philosopher because he heard a prophecy from the Delphic oracle that said he was the wisest of men, and he felt compelled, by his knowledge of his own ignorance, to refute that claim. He resolves that he will never stop philosophizing. And for that, Athens sentences him to death.

In the Phaedo, we see Socrates on the last day of his life, calmly awaiting the delivery of the hemlock. He is with some young friends who are far less sanguine about his impending death than he is. They want him to try and escape his fate and flee, but he refuses. They then begin a dialogue about the immortality of the soul.

At one point in the conversation, Socrates pauses to silently reflect—and then tells us how he became who he is. Young Socrates, we hear, desired a wisdom called "inquiry concerning nature," that is, "the causes" of everything, how "they come to be and how they decay." Young Socrates and the other natural scientists were searching for an ultimate cause (technically a "final cause"), an end that made all actions in nature necessary. As Sebell points out, "the basic premise of science," is that "nothing can come to be without a cause."

Because scientists believed that cause was material, material concerns (the good of the body) had precedence over immaterial concerns. Things like justice have no parts, and do not manifest in the world by necessity (i.e., injustice happens without consequences, but a dropped rock always falls). Material things are real, immaterial things are not. Fights about justice are silly and meaningless.

By this understanding, Young Socrates would consider the old Socrates—sitting in jail, choosing to die for an immaterial thing like justice—a fool. Except Young Socrates eventually changed his mind. To show us why, Socrates lists five things that he once believed he knew, such as: how a man grows, how much taller one man is than another, how much greater 10 is than 8—and how much greater two is than half of two.

Mature Socrates says he does not know the answers to these questions at all. We are now back to another Socratic claim from the Apology: all he knows is that he knows nothing. With Sebell’s help, we can examine this apparently ironic statement more closely. We examine Socrates’ last example, concerning the nature of Two. What is it to be Two? First, we break it down to its parts. Two is two ones. But this is circular logic, saying only that Two is Two of something. So we isolate a part, one. But that doesn’t tell us anything about Two, because Two is not one. Breaking Two down to its most essential parts doesn’t tell us much about Two itself.

Well, Young Socrates reasoned, then perhaps Two is a motion, that it is the adding up of ones, the holding-together of ones, that describes the essence of Two. But Two can also come from splitting one in half. How can something be a putting-together and a splitting-apart? It violates the second important scientific principle, the theory of non-contradiction.

Young Socrates realized he could talk about the material causes of Two (breaking it down into its essential parts) and the efficient causes of Two (the thing that happened before it to make it a Two). But those things did not tell him enough about the nature of Two itself.

Socrates came to believe, as Sebell says, that "beings generally, and therefore human beings, too, cannot be adequately understood by recourse to [material and efficient] causes." Socrates didn’t turn away from science because he gave up on certainty. He turned to philosophy because he wanted a more complete understanding of beings and human beings than materialistic science offered.

Socrates realized that his search for final causes would not be satisfied with science. And so he turned to "teleological philosophy"—essentially, identifying the mind (as opposed to the material world) as the cause of thing—a pure philosophy, unmoored by material beings.

But dealing with final causes in the abstract also has its limits. It leads either to theology (of which, Socrates says, he cannot prove or disprove absolutely) or to causes that come to be ex nihilo, something that violates the scientific principle that nothing comes from nothing. To pursue questions about the noble and the good, we cannot rely strictly on the below (the study of material objects) or the above (things wholly beyond the physical realm). We have to start in between, with human beings, that is, with politics.

That is how we get the Socrates we recognize from the dialogues, engaging in dialectic with all sorts of people about their ordinary opinions. He treats opinions as hypotheses, which he tests out like a scientist: "the principle of noncontradiction," Sebell says, "is the criterion of the strength, the sufficiency of a hypothesis or speech," in the Socratic dialogues.

Therefore, ""to return to the classics is not necessarily to relinquish the mantle of science," and "the separation of (political) science from (political) philosophy is an error."

Yet, despite the rigor of his method, Socrates asserts that all he knows is that he knows nothing.

Sebell argues that modern natural science, as we know it, has limits to which it is blind. Still, an increased awareness of such things could establish it on firmer footing. In order to really be a science, he suggests, political science must be more like political philosophy—and know what it doesn’t know, which is much more than it thinks.

This is a dense book, ambitious and pugnacious, while also being quite careful. On the one hand, it’s an academic discussion. But it also points us to core questions of our human being, reminding us that even the most certain-seeming things in the world around us demand deeper questioning than many will ever come to realize is necessary.