Taking Risks or Eliminating Them: On Bullies, Sophists, and Philosopher-Writers


Throughout the Platonic dialogues, Socrates takes aim at Sophists and writers.     The problem Socrates has with the Sophists is that they may sound good but, in truth, they don’t know what they are talking about.   They are masters of language, not thought.   By way of analogy, Socrates suggests that to follow a Sophist is to follow a blind man (the blind are leading the blind). In contrast, the thinker can see what is in front of him by virtue of a kind of dialectic or logic that transcends language and writing.

Like the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Serres argues that writing and rhetoric are spoken for in the Platonic dialogues.   Writing can’t speak for itself. Plato turns the Sophist into a puppet or straw man who is, from the start to finish, immolated by the bull, Socrates.   Socrates plays the analyst to the Sophist writer. He bullies him:

Socrates, the analyst, demands short speeches. He interrupts rhetoricians and rhapsodies, he barks, makes fun of them. His questions cut up the expose into brief phrases of dialogue, and dichotomy brings the proposition back to the minimal length, that of a word. (81)

Serres likens him to a “myopic bull” that refuses to be affected by writing:

The myopic bull, neck lowered on the ochre sand, throws his tons and his works, in rectilinear orbit….Bull Socrates, globular eyes, bald forehead, fawn’s muffle, ugly to the point of being scary, unseats with one blow of his head the disarticulated Sophist puppet. (83)

Serres sees Socrates’ battle as “senseless.” He suggests that the philosopher learn from rather than bully or destroy the writer.   He calls this person “philosopher-writer.” He “tries things out, he essays.”

He experiences, experiments. He tests, he assays: the two ancient chemistry, of alchemy even, that has returned to common usage…The philosopher writer experiments on language by constructing it, just as the gesture of the artisan continues, prolongs the lineage of his art, musical staff or line of meaning, and as much as it can, advances. (79)

In contrast, the “analyst (philosopher) stops, breaks theorizes” while the writer “pursues connections, fabricates, because he believes that one knows nothing of what one has not practiced professionally. Cant produces a sterile knowledge of dead things. To know language, one must make it, too.   One must test or assay it”(79).

Challenging the rationalist conception of the essay, Serres suggests a different kind of essay that may have a “nonsensical result” because it, since it assays, takes risks that expose one to the unknown:

A faithful assay or essay sometimes, often, produces a negative, opposed, nonsensical result. Objects take revenge just as language does, just as the earth does once one no longer works it. They reserve the unexpected, do not react as foreseen. Experimentation carries a risk – of the aleatory, the unknown. (79)

Serres suggests that the philosophy-writer needs to expose himself to creation rather than elevate him or herself above it.   Writing is exposure, vulnerability, and risk:

One exposes oneself when one makes, one imposes oneself when one unmakes. When one unmakes, one is never wrong, in effect. I know of no better way to always be right….Fragile, naked, precariously balanced, the writer relies only on talent that never has the solidity of method: with no school to protect him by means of dialogue and a fixed position in the group, without imitator or master, he explores alone. He can thus miss, make mistakes, or lose himself. He bears this possible error and this potential to fall like wounds on the flank of his work. The pain and courage of wandering in order to pay for newness…..He never knows who will enter the next page. Never mind the fall, he tests! If he loses he will not have done anything wrong, and if he wins he will rejoice. (80)

Instead of having Socrates battle with or bully the Sophists, he suggests that philosopher learn from the writer.   He likes the unity of the two to a comic couple that many scholars think gave birth to modern literature: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

In other words, we need to picture the relationship between the writer and philosopher in terms other than war. Comedy helps us to have this vision:

An old savage philosophy where peace cannot intervene except between a derisory Socrates seated on his ass and a beautiful, discomfited Plato perched on his mare, running after pure ideas – Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. (85)

There can be “no philosophy without this appeased pair, laughing about useless battles that have simply become rituals, through commemoration”(85).     Serres is spot on. The philosopher must learn to love writing and learn from writing in stead of warring with the writer. The philosopher must be willing to become a “philosopher-writer” who takes risks and exposes himself to failure, the aleatory, and the unknown.   That is the risk of assaying (essaying) language and reality.   One may discover things that are surprising. On the other hand, one can also fall into the darkness.

If the philosopher cannot deal with the risk posed by writing (creation), then he may become a bully and repeat a senseless battle.   Instead of doing this, the philosopher must be willing to learn from the writer.   Serres adds that the philosopher must be willing to learn from language with love and ask for its support.   Although this move seems stupid and naïve to the philosopher, Serres suggests that it is necessary if the “adventure” of knowledge is to truly begin.   It can only begin if the philosopher takes the risk and entrusts him or herself to the experience of language. It can only begin if the thinker is willing to take risks rather than eliminate them.

The interesting thing about all of this is that Kierkegaard suggests that, despite his bullying tendencies, Socrates took a risk when he made an assertion. He stated it as a hypothesis worth risking oneself over rather than something self-evident and true.   (i.e: If immortality exists…).    This would suggest a different kind of Socrates.

But, still, Socrates didn’t write; Kierkegaard did. The latter’s risks were tied more to language than to ideas. Kierkegaard, as a writer, therefore, had a harder time bullying the Sophist.  While he took risks in life, anyone who reads him will know how some of his greatest risks were discovered through writing.  He knew that wisdom also comes with taking risks, not eliminating them.  If he or she is to think (albeit not in a Socratic sense), the “philosopher-writer” should be willing to take these risks.   Although this may seem like a tragic decision to give up on an ancient battle, it is in fact a comic victory and what Serres would call a “faithful assay.”




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