Socrates, Hegel or Both? An Enquiry


Historically, philosophy has been both the domain of the layman and the academic. In today’s world, to study philosophy involves enrolling in an academic institution – a college or university which offers degrees in philosophy or Classics will set the budding thinker on the path to the doctorate which will affirm his or her status within the field of philosophical enquiry. For some, the academic door will always the closed: the cost of higher education is a big part of this, not the mention the time involved researching and writing a full-blown doctoral thesis. For those who are affected by this, it might seem as though modern philosophy has excluded them from joining its ranks, that they have been shut out and will never attain the recognition that perhaps they deserve (or perhaps confirming that they don’t), but in fact, this is not wholly true.

If we look back at the history of philosophy, to that infamous founding father: Socrates, we will see something quite far-removed from the cloistered halls (or great glass panes) of today’s universities. Socrates isn’t too great a model to go on, he was after all executed after telling a jury (politely) by the way, I know more than you, literally calling himself a social “gadfly”,[1] but in his method we see something which philosophy could probably use more of: humanity. Socrates made his philosophical career out of being that annoying gadfly in everyone’s ear, and that meant going out into the world and talking to people. The dialogues of Plato, supposedly drawn from Socrates’ encounters with various individuals across his life, are often named after those very people, hence we have the Euthyphro, Crito, Protagoras, Phaedo and so on. Socrates may have been something of a nuisance, but his philosophy was founded on learning about the world by interacting with it, and whilst that required personal reflection and discussion with friends, it also involved being out there in the world itself. The idea that the world can be understood by trawling through books in a university library alone, and not through experience is to misunderstand the nature of philosophy.

Now let’s not get the wrong impression – books are wonderful, they are a gift, and anyone who can sit in a university library and trawl through page after page of text should make the most of it. However, it should not be thought of as the be all and end all of knowledge. We wouldn’t want to get the wrong impression and start to think that we can place individuals into rigidly defined boxes now, would we?

We have Hegel to thank, in part, for the academisation of philosophy. In 1817, the Prussian Minister of Education appointed Hegel as a Professor, the world’s first ‘professional’ philosopher to receive such an honour. The work done by Hegel’s successors in universities today – the professors and lecturers with philosophy doctorates – is very different to the philosophy of the past, and it is very different to what many people think of as ‘philosophy’. I’m not talking about the individual set of political, personal and religious values that we all have, and sometimes call ‘philosophy’, though that is perhaps the start of the journey towards becoming a philosopher. Observation of the world, understanding what knowledge is, what people are, and then asking the further questions – how can we obtain that knowledge, how can we perfect ourselves as people? That is philosophy. The truth I think, unfortunately, does not lie in the many modern attempts at racial studies and capability theory. It is all very well for Martha Nussbaum figures to sit in an ivory tower and theorise about maximising the potential of human society through liberal philosophy, but these ideas often bear little relation to real, practical human life. Theory is necessary, and all very well, but as Hegel’s 650-page epic treatises prove, sometimes it can become much of a muchness.

I for one would have loved to be able to attend Hegel’s seminal Berlin lectures, if only my German was a little better, and I had lived 200 years ago; his insight into the philosophy of history and the philosophy of mind has inspired countless other thinkers, not to mention being a strong influence on myself (though not as much as Schopenhauer, I admit; but that’s a story for another time). Nevertheless, to properly understand our own minds, we must surely understand the minds of others. That can partly be achieved through the literary dialectics that Hegel and Marx championed, but we need only consider what theories like Marxism are to realise that the written dialectic is only half the answer. Socrates’ discussions, his attempts to get inside the minds of his fellow citizens, his deconstruction of their assumptions through reasoned argument and vicious plays at devil’s advocate is something we have lost in modern philosophy, and it’s something philosophy desperately could do with rediscovering, and advocating in education.

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There is the problem of authority. Academics tend to be hasty to dismiss anyone without the initials ‘PhD’ after their name these days, and swift to ignore, sometimes loudly so, the works of those who do not move in their circles. Of course, if a theory is completely idiotic and irrational, then it should be ignored, by all means, but philosophy is not solely confined to the library and the lecture theatre – it is in our very minds. If philosophy is to remain a serious academic study, it ought to be serious about its roots. This is partly an educational issue of course – I’ve mentioned before that we all have our own personal values, and morality, but we don’t nurture this at school.[2] We don’t teach critical thinking, we don’t teach how to find common ground between competing ideas: the thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Perhaps that is partly why both society and philosophy have become so factionalised in recent years.

So by all means philosophers should keep on writing their books, consulting their friends and reading Kant with great voracity – all that is useful and a joy to undertake; if philosophy wants to seriously be a method of studying the world, however, it must, from time-to-time, leave the cosy halls of academia and enter the somewhat more jarring experience of the real world. Philosophy means being uncomfortable with ideas, and it means learning about people. Sometimes I feel as though modern philosophy has become far too comfortable with itself, and far too willing to close itself off to thinkers and ideas which do not align with that comfortable status which it has achieved at university.

[1] vid. Apology of Plato

[2] For an even more in-depth exploration of the difference between modern and classical philosophical methods and how they relate to teaching philosophy, vid. What is Ancient Philosophy?, by P. Hadot


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