“Every society has notions of what one should believe and how one should behave in order to avoid suspicion and unpopularity. Some of these are given explicit formulation in a legal code, others are more intuitively held in a vast body of ethical and practical judgements described as ‘common sense’.”
In Consolations of Philosophy, Alain De Botton goes on to describe how this unwritten doctrine of commonly held beliefs, which the Greeks called Doxa, gets propagated and distributed without being questioned.
“We refrain from questioning the status quo […] primarily because we associate what is popular with what is right.”
“The correctness of a statement cannot be determined by whether it is held by a majority or has been believed for a long time by important people. A correct statement is one incapable of being rationally contradicted. A statement is true if it cannot be disproved.”
De Botton describes how much of Socrates work stemmed from distinguishing popular belief from infallible truths. To do this, Socrates would deconstruct a belief through a process of questioning.
But he did not stop at questioning them. Nor did he stop once he had refined a popular belief into a truth. He also laid out the process for others to follow. De Botton labels this “The Socratic Method of Thinking”.
- Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
- Imagine for a moment that, despite the confidence of the person proposing it, the statement is false.
- Search for situations or contexts where the statement would not be true.
- If an exception is found, the definition must be false or at least imprecise.
- The statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
- If one subsequently finds exceptions to the improved statements, the process should be repeated.
I think the crux of Socrates’ (and De Botton’s) thinking is that popularly held beliefs are essentially a set of culturally and sociologically proliferated assumptions. Assumptions are, by definition, accepted as truths despite a lack of proof. The lack of proof is simply overlooked because of their prevalence and pervasiveness.
The learning for me is to (a) spot assumptions in my own thinking, and the thinking of others, and (b) to interrogate those assumptions to strip away layers of inaccuracies in the search for a core truth.