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According to Socrates, it is the man who does not know himself who cannot accurately judge his own capabilities and his own unique path to the greatest good based on accurate use of his strengths and knowledge of his weaknesses. Socrates takes this another step by suggesting that knowledge of oneself will instruct from within regarding those things which are good (moral and ethical) and those things which are not. He suggests this by claiming that things that are good will make us feel happy inside while things that are bad will be immediately recognizable to the man who knows himself because these actions will cause internal degradation and spiritual deterioration that will be immediately apparent. Socrates offers his own history as an example of coming to know oneself and of finding true wisdom and knowledge. As he recaps within his defense speech in Plato’s Apology, after being told by the oracle that he was the wisest man alive, Socrates insists he did not allow this distinction to go to his head. Instead, he went to the streets and began questioning those individuals he had always considered wiser than himself (Xenophon, 1990).
In each case, he found that even among those who possessed a little wisdom tended to take that knowledge to the outer extremes and assume they knew everything there was worth knowing, without any further examination. “At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom” (Apology: 947). From his account, it becomes possible to deduce that Socrates’ definition of wisdom entails not only knowledge, but also the knowledge of what one does not know. “I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing” (Apology: 947).
Descartes, who was both a mathematician and a philosopher, presented his ideas regarding how to combine mathematical concepts to the human thought process in his book, Discourse on Method. His goal in doing this was to find a means of attaining perfect certainty of philosophical concepts. To begin with, he bases knowledge not on what is thought to be known, but instead insists that one must call into question everything one thinks one knows that have been learned through the senses of the body. As it is presented, Descartes gives four main rules of logic that must be addressed. The first of these is that one can only accept as true those things that are clearly and distinctly known to be true. Things can be clearly and distinctly known to be true by breaking down the problem under investigation into as many parts as are considered necessary to fully solve the issue.
The third rule is that the logical process must proceed step by step from the simplest and easiest portion of the problem to clearly and distinctly know and progress in order of difficulty to the more complex. Finally, in order to be sure nothing has been omitted, Descartes instructs that one should always take an open view to the problem so other possibilities or seemingly unrelated issues might be considered. Reading through these steps, the linkage of thought to mathematical methods of analysis can be clearly traced. Although his most famous statement, I think therefore I am, rests to a large degree upon the sense that he is still thinking, the very fact that this sense still exists is proof for Descartes that there must be something in existence to realize the sense and therefore he, as a thinking entity, must exist. This simple-sounding statement is the result of a discourse in which Descartes calls into question all of the assumptions he’s come to know as a result of the philosophical thought of his day. “I had long before remarked that … it is sometimes necessary to adopt, as if above doubt, opinions which we discern to be highly uncertain” (Descartes, 2001). Through this questioning process, he demonstrates how thought, not observation is really the right foundation for knowledge and established what is today known as the Cartesian method.
In these summaries, it can be seen that these two philosophers, although usually placed on opposite extremes from each other by today’s standards, actually shared many common beliefs. Both Socrates and Descartes felt that the only way to find true knowledge was not by a search through the external physical forces of nature, but was instead through a systematic, clearly defined internal search through one’s own inner being. They accomplished this internal search, and suggested others do so as well, through a process of questioning that served to call doubt onto all things.
This was done not with the intention of confusing things, but instead to be sure one was starting on their path to knowledge standing on a ‘clear and distinct’ platform that took into consideration all the available possibilities. Each philosopher placed importance on exploring the possibilities, or variables, and keeping an open mind rather than relying on assumed knowledge that hadn’t been fully investigated. For each, this insistence caused problems. The Socratic method of endless questioning for clear definitions and taking in increasingly complex scenarios and possibilities had a tendency to render all conversation essentially meaningless. The Cartesian method of doubt, despite disavowing any information brought to the mind by the senses only, nevertheless had to fall back on information brought by the senses to reach any form of meaningful conclusion.
Although there are several similarities between Socrates’ and Descartes’ approaches, these two methods are more often contrasted than they are compared. This is perhaps because Descartes himself rejected the methods of the old school, which had been founded upon the methods of Socrates. This was because, even though Socrates’ belief was that one needed to look within oneself to find true knowledge, the method by which one found out what was inside was reached by examining what was outside. He relied upon the senses and external examples as a means of exploring the inner being. Further, the senses were given the final say in determining what was right and true, not the mind.
This is starkly contrasted against Descartes’ assertion that the only way of knowing whether something is true and right is through the logical processes of mindful thinking and intelligent doubt. In addition, the way in which each man approached his questioning seems to move in opposite directions. Socrates, in attempting to question all that was assumed knowledge, tended to expand his sphere of inquiry to very complex degrees, eventually ending a conversation quite far away from where he started while not truly coming to any conclusions regarding the original question. Thus, he worked from the inside out along what he demonstrated was one of many spokes. Descartes took his original question and attempted to work his way in, breaking the question into smaller, reasonable sections that could then be followed to their basic truth. While Descartes attempted to base all his knowledge on logic, he was obliged to acknowledge the senses. While Socrates attempted to base all his knowledge on the senses, he relied upon logic to lead the way to true and right feeling.
Descartes, R. Discourse on Method. Vol. XXXIV, Part 1. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. Web.