On Capability

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A reflection on Plato’s Ion

Previously I have examined the requirement to engage in genuine self-examination and debate on the path of inquiry, but I have failed to address the reality that all people do not start at the same point when commencing their intellectual journey. Circumstances beyond our control limit our ability to engage in rational and philosophical investigations, and as such this begs the question: what is our responsibility with regards to ourselves and others in the conduct of contemplation? To understand this, we should examine the factors that limit or enhance our ability to improve ourselves – and also that small part of self-determination that we have to strengthen the progress for ourselves and others.

The first issue which will limit our ability as an individual, and possibly the most definite in its impact, is the innate talent of differing people. Each individual, due to the uncertain and mixed results of human conception, is gifted with mental capacity widely varying – both in overall quality and also within the different aspects of the intellect (retention, lateral thinking, pattern solving, linguistics, etc.). If a person is born with faulty intellectual facilities, their ability to progress will be stymied in direct proportion to their debility – although no-one is incapable of making progress. However, despite being of considerable individual mental capacity, a person may still be stymied by other external factors.

The next issue which can suppress an individual’s ability to learn and develop is the societal circumstances which influence them throughout their lives. This is the impact of systemic prejudice, the socio-economic status of an individual’s family, how peaceable the culture a person has been born into, the policies of education adopted within a society or the accessibility of external viewpoints and texts which help challenge and round our own opinions and beliefs. If a person lacks access to education or the resources to self-educate as they grow older, their intellectual prospects are similarly reduced regardless of their innate talent – although these two factors alone do not account for the full sum of ability.

The third factor which determines intellectual growth is something entirely beyond genetic or social engineering – the impact of chance. Being fortunate enough to encounter a mentor at a young age, to have a good teacher while moving through education, to be surrounded with friends who are willing to engage in intellectual discourse – all these things have a massive impact on our development. Although it can be argued that this is partly influenced by the societal circumstances listed above, to say that there is no luck involved in the process of growth is to ignore reality. But all of the above three factors are mostly passive – what aspect is left to the activity of the individual?

Faced with the factors above there is only one final aspect which will contribute to a person’s development, or lack thereof: conscious effort. Despite all the advantage in the world – talent, a privileged upbringing and good luck – if an individual lacks the self-motivation to undergo the mentally exhausting and rigorous self-critique to intellectually grow they will fail. It is not uncommon to see those in power lapse into the same well-worn positions, clinging to the same sacred idols as a person forced into the mind-numbing orthodoxy which acts both as warm blanket and fetter to those oppressed under the crushing weight of poverty, discrimination, poor mental faculties and misfortune. With this in mind, we must ask ourselves, if only a small aspect of our ability is due to personal agency, how can this aptitude be best employed?

Firstly, I believe that we have a responsibility to ourselves, in that we can never allow our circumstances – whether for good or ill – to let us to drift into the smug comfort of certainty. We must continually question the orthodoxy within ourselves and our societies, overturning the potential bonds which prevent us from reaching our potential capacity – regardless of how limited that may be.

Secondly, I suggest that we have a responsibility to broaden the opportunities and reduce the impact of societal impediments to the intellectual growth of all fellow inquirers. I am not yet sure enough in my own understanding of ethics, or whether a coherent theory of ethics is even possible, to postulate an exhortation to increasing equality – but I think an adequate stop-gap can be made through the appeal to self-interest.  Intellectual discovery is never a solitary act. Whether you are listening to a challenging lecture, reading a stimulating book or engaging in vigorous debate, someone else is involved in the process – a teacher, author or interlocutor. If you value your own development, you should strive to ensure your society produces the best possible companions, able to challenge you with heterodox beliefs that are intelligently presented and open to discussion.

Original text

Plato’s Ion


Franz Matsch, The Triumph of Achilles, 1892


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