Thinking as a Hobby

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I'm currently listening to Socrates Cafe on audio. It's about a guy who started a number of informal philosophy clubs in bookstores and coffee shops, and his somewhat fictionalized accounts of discussions during some of those gatherings. So far it's pretty good, though I do find the tone a little patronizing and some of the accounts overstylized. Still, I think it's a worthwhile read.

One of the central points in the book is the importance of questioning. It is the author's opinions that the questions we ask say much more about us than anything else we say or think. The namesake of the book, and his philsophy groups, is of course Socrates, the ultimate questioner. I would agree that questioning is vital to intellectual growth, and I also agree with the assertion that an unexamined life isn't worth living.

But I'm reminded of the essay that this blog is named after, "Thinking as a Hobby" by William Golding, and I think Golding's three levels of thinking could easily be restated in terms of questioning.

That is, there are three types of people:

1) Those who do not question
2) Those who question
3) Those who try to answer

Thus, what Golding calls "Grade Three Thinking" includes those people who do not question the world around them. This doesn't mean that they don't ask questions, or that they are extremely trusting, simply that they take for granted basic assumptions and ideals they have been instilled with. They haven't really scrutinized their most deeply-held beliefs, for fear that it might undermine them. They are dogmatic. Or worse perhaps, completely apathetic. And as Golding points out, they are in the majority.

Those who question, the critics, are one step up. They question the fundamentals. They ask why we're here, what we're doing, where we're going. They question everything. And Socrates is their patron saint. We see a lot of this from the anti-war crowd, and much of it is useful. Critical examination is vital, the tearing down of established orthodoxy. But, it is ultimately a destructive mode of thought, not a constructive one. Once one has demonstrated that totalitarianism, communism, and democracy are all ineffective modes of governance, what is to take their place? Because we still have to function. If you demonstrate that altruism and selfishness are flawed ways to live, how do you decide how to live? Because you still have to make decisions on a daily basis. Hard, critical questioning often lays waste to flimsy ideas, and sometimes acts as a crucible to reinforce those ideas that stand up to relentless criticism. But the act of questioning itself is deconstructive.

Which leads to the third group, those that try to answer. They take questions like "What is the meaning of life?", "What is good?", "What is the best way to govern?" and so on, and try to answer them. Their role is constructive building up a framework of ideals, that in turn the questioners try to tear down. So it's always much more difficult to provide answers to fundamental questions. It takes strong, cohesive rationale to stand up to scrutiny. Unfortunately, most of the answerers have been religious, their answers finding foundation in supernaturalism. Though for governance, the Founding Fathers are a prime example of thinkers who didn't just endlessly debate questions of political philosophy. They wrote up the best answer and implemented it as a functioning government.

So while I agree with the fundamental premise that questioning is important, I don't agree with the author of Socrates Cafe (or with Socrates himself for that matter), that it is the most important thing. While the questions we ask define us, whether or not we try to answer, and how we answer defines us further still.

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