form of the elenchos restated, framed by some fencing with Gonzalez
F. Gonzalez: “Socrates’ interlocutors, and we ourselves, frequently converse about courage, friendship, temperance, and virtue in general.” Yes, we converse all-too-much about these things, but not with attention and care for their form, by which I mean not only what unifies the supposed instances and answers the question ti esti, but just as importantly the fact that these things – courage and the rest – have their own aboutness. The latter observation is not a typical part of everyday discourse, but is virtually Socrates’ signature, to the point that his “What is x” question simply cannot be understood except as driving toward the second question “About what?”. What is a virtue? Something that we not only speak about but which contains its own aboutness – and we cannot say about what. We find, that is, once we acknowledge the aboutness of a virtue, that we must and cannot say what it is about. The second object, which is the ethical object, is radically missing – this is is at once the essential reflective idea of Plato’s Socrates and the engine of his method. It is what he shows and what he puts to work in a place a time and a conversation. That this second level of aboutness 1) can be recovered from a reflection on ordinary language, and yet 2) that it is genuinely aporetic, up to nontrivial discoveries about the form of any possible self-reference, are the joint explanation for what Gonzalez offers as a “paradox”: “Socrates is not satisfied with whatever intuitive awareness of the virtues is involved in our everyday experience (i.e. in our ability to recognize examples of virtue and even in our practice of virtue), and yet, by his own admission, his method fails in each dialogue to provide any higher form of knowledge.”
Actually, the parenthetical asserts too much. It does not treat the consequences of our ignorance of the Good with anything like Socratic gravity. Gonzelez must be leaning too heavily, as nearly all interpreters do, on the presumption of irony in Socratic ignorance, at the expense of taking seriously the negative import of Socrates’ elenctic work. If such abilities – to recognize and practice virtue – were evident, then, even in the absence of a concept, conflict about good and bad would cease, at least in those instances. (Would it give way to the fantasy we never tire of restaging of a conflict between good and evil?) Since this state of affairs seems to be neither extant nor forthcoming, let us strip away such reassuring but contradictory retractions of our ignorance of the Good, to face Socratic not-knowing without the proviso that everyday know-how – which means in practice, navigating established relations of power – will remain unshaken. For the voiding of the authority of the given is indeed the positive work of the elenchos, whose absence is typically regretted in the very place we are prevented from seeing it by conflations of everyday coping with ethical competence. The former, if it is a form of knowledge at all, is knowledge of how to get ourselves fed, paid, out of jail, in a job, tenured, respected, envied, desired by those one desires, ignored by the NSA, etc. etc. none of which require or evidence ethical knowledge in a Socratic sense.
“Negative” elenchos can mean simply saying what there is not in the sense of ruling out some hypotheses, in which case the information is as significant as the hypotheses rejected were compelling, but it can also mean more than this: saying truly that there is not something we thought there to be. If I say, “That’s not the right answer”, and leave it at that, you’re usually justified in asking me to say what the right answer is – though I may not know, and it would be wrong of you to to think in that event that you’ve gained no information. (We have come far enough in thinking about information to recognize that it is only in ruling out alternatives, that is, neither in full positivity nor full negativity, that there is meaning. It is in this context, by the way, and not in terms of a theory (inadequate) of predication that the famed reference of “Theaetetus flies” to “Theaetetus sits” should be received.) But if I say, “There is no greatest prime number” or “There is no justification for this war”, or “God does not exist”, in each case I say something of unusual significance, with respect to which to reply, “But tell me what there is” would be to miss the point.