- As described in Plato's dialogues, Socrates comes off as an intellectual bully.
- Socrates' confrontational style continues to guide philosophical dialogue.
- There are better models for dialogue such as adversarial collaboration.
I am not in favor of canceling anyone, let alone Socrates, the patron saint of Western philosophy, a seeker of truth who spent his time pondering the good life and how to attain it. He was a martyr to the cause of free speech and honest inquiry.
And yet, it may be worth examining arguments in favor of canceling Socrates.
I confess to having a negative emotional reaction to Socrates, as he is portrayed by Plato. Socrates comes off as a bully—an intellectual bully—delighting in showing people that they don’t know what they are talking about. He got people to say things that he could tear apart. A prime example is his skewering of Euthyphro over the definition of piety (Plato, translation by Tredennick and Tarrant, 2003).
That’s an ugly framework for dialog. And I have seen it continue to infect philosophical debate into the present. Attend a philosophy conference and the format is for someone to put forward an interesting and challenging assertion, followed by a discussant who tries to show that the first speaker is confused and ignorant on almost every major claim, followed by a rejoinder in which the first speaker shows how the discussant is hopelessly mistaken.
It's a “take-no-prisoner” type of discussion, and not particularly productive. It can be enjoyable, I do not deny. The skewering provides a sense of triumph and superiority (as long as there isn't any effective counter-riposte). However, it can leave emotional damage without adding much illumination to the topic at hand.
So, my motivation for considering whether to cancel Socrates is that he has led Western philosophy down a negative and antagonistic path.
I think there’s a better way: the concept of an adversarial collaboration described by Kahneman (2022), who has explored and popularized it since 2001. (Latham, Erez, and Locke first described it in 1988.) Kahneman disliked the combative stance that is too often found in scientific disputes:
Controversy is a terrible way to advance science. It’s normally conducted as a contest, where the aim is to embarrass….The feature that makes most critiques intellectually useless is a focus on the weakest argument of the adversary. It is common for critics to include a summary caricature of the target position, refute the weakest argument in that caricature, and declare the total destruction of the adversary’s position….Doing angry science is a demeaning experience.
In contrast, adversarial collaboration involves getting the adversaries to work together, not to change their minds, but to expand their thinking by designing experiments or examining phenomena together.
Adversarial collaboration is consistent with other approaches to reduce polarization (e.g., those of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), braverangels.org, and Heterodox Academy). See also the book No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Kohn, 1992).
And, of course, there is the inspiration of Carl Rogers, who demonstrated how to listen to troubled patients and reflect what they were saying without suggesting any criticism or contempt—the opposite of the stance pioneered by Socrates.
As I stated at the beginning, I am not in favor of canceling anyone. I wanted to use this cancelation exercise to encourage readers to re-examine their own stance and their reliance on combative debate tactics. I think adversarial collaboration is a better recipe for productive dialogue based on mutual appreciation of views and differences than the Socratic approach of demolishing and disqualifying an opponent—an approach that seems consistent with the very practice of canceling people in today’s culture.
Johnson, P. (2011). Socrates: A Man for the Times. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Kahneman, D. (2022). Adversarial collaboration. Edge Lecture https://www.edge.org/adversarial-collaboration-daniel-kahneman
Latham, G.P., Erez M., & Locke, E.A. (1988). Resolving scientific dispute by the joint design of crucial experiments by the antagonists: Application to the Erez-Latham dispute regarding participation in goal setting. Journal of Applied Psychology, 73, 753–772.
Kohn, A. (1992, 2nd edition). No Contest: The Case Against Competition. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
Plato (1954/2003 translation). The Last Days of Socrates: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo. London: Penguin Books.