An Apology for the Gadfly by S.N. Nordby

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Tuesday 1 May 2018













In my experience, academia is divided into two camps: those who seem to have been bred and groomed to be scholars, and those who ended up in the academy despite themselves. I fall into the latter category, and while I was always enamoured with learning, I certainly lacked any ambition to be an arbiter of knowledge, especially of the religious variety. I suppose it is unsurprising then, that I was never in favour of—and even had antipathy to—attending divinity school. Perhaps this is why I found myself getting a PhD in philosophy prior to pursuing analytic and exegetical theology.

However, my path to philosophy was not very direct either. Like many in the academy, my interests were mottled, and when my husband and I began to discuss graduate school, I first thought of pursuing degrees in either psychology or literature. My husband’s grasp of reasoning and ability to see through complicated knots of thought had impressed upon me the value of philosophy over the first few years of our marriage, sufficiently so that I ended up deciding that whatever I did next, I wanted the skills of philosophy first. (I had not taken a single class in philosophy while an undergraduate majoring in psychology and biblical studies.) It was at this juncture that my husband kindly set aside his plans to apply to PhD programs and instead chose to apply to master’s degree programs so that we could enjoy the experience of studying philosophy together before embarking on the next chapter of our lives.

A year after the completion of my PhD in philosophy and a year into a New Testament degree (that, in hindsight, was inevitable given that biblical studies was my first love), the unique interdisciplinary setting at the University of St Andrews and, more specifically, the Logos Institute, has given me ample opportunity to reflect on both the virtues and shortcomings of philosophical training—a training I found so invaluable that I set aside all other aspirations to obtain it. While I will not exhaust philosophy’s scope and contributions to the academy in the brief reflections that follow, I hope to at least highlight one key aspect of what philosophy can accomplish in interdisciplinary endeavours. Philosophy is both rightfully censured and straw-manned using the gadfly imagery that goes back to its very roots. For better or worse, I have decided that the metaphor captures what philosophy, at its best, has to offer other disciplines—including those residing in divinity schools.

Socrates famously described himself as a gadfly in The Apology, sent to the Athenian elites—pejoratively described as a dull horse—by God himself. Alternatively, the Greek μύωψ could be rendered ‘goad’ or ‘spur’, as though God himself is the horseman using Socrates as the spur to direct the Athenians in the proper direction.[1] In any case, the idea is that Socrates, with typical wit, is aware that he is a nuisance. At the same time, Socrates never represents himself as having all the answers. Frequently his God-given calling seems simply to point out that those of influence do not have answers either.

Socrates is somewhat unfashionable in analytic philosophy, at least compared to Aristotle and Plato. Nevertheless, he is my favourite of the ancients for what he represents: intellectual humility and profound intellectual courage.[2] My former supervisor, Linda Zagzebski, has written extensively on the intellectual virtues. Describing intellectual humility, she writes, ‘if humility is the virtue whereby a person is disposed to make an accurate appraisal of her own competence, intellectual humility could reasonably be interpreted as a mean between the tendency to grandiosity and the tendency to a diminished sense of her own ability’.[3] Philosopher James Montmarquet provides a helpful definition of intellectual courage, described as ‘the willingness to conceive and examine alternatives to popularly held beliefs, perseverance in the face of opposition from others (until one is convinced one is mistaken), and the determination required to see such a project through to completion’.[4]

Philosophy, when done correctly, can embody these virtues in the academy, and more specifically, among the disciplines in divinity schools. Philosophy is excessively self-critical, with a commitment to precision and clarity that can suck the life out of any party. This, I contend, is an asset when trying to achieve certain intellectual goals: It can identify areas of obscurity, render ideas more accessible to broader audiences, and it can locate false-yet-fashionable views that might hold sway over even the brightest people. Moreover, it can clear away agendas and rhetorical devices that might shroud both the strength and weaknesses of arguments. While the mechanical nature of analytic philosophy certainly removes important intellectual content that might be necessary for some academic endeavours, let us not forget that it can also clear away prejudices and faddish accoutrements to ideas, as well as strip arguments down to their barest forms.

Why does this kind of intellectual undressing have value? Certainly not, in my view, because it gets to the ‘ultimate truth’ of matters, or because philosophers have some kind of inherent intellectual authority. Rather, it is because, when done with parity, it can keep disciplines from becoming insular and reduce the number of echo chambers in academia. If arguments, theories, and ideas are stripped of all that is superfluous to logical form and content, perhaps some good work will get through that would otherwise be blocked because it does not have the right window dressing: because the author does not have the right gender or background, or because the school of thought is not in vogue, etc. Conversely, perhaps we will avoid lauding bad ideas that sometimes sneak in because they are close neighbours to other good ideas, or because everyone is just plain excited about the particular catchword or person who is affiliated with it. It is not that philosophers are innocent of all these intellectual mistakes. (They are absolutely not!) Rather, it is that philosophy, as a discipline, pays special attention to the skills that are uniquely efficacious against these specific vices.

This is because a philosopher, when also a gadfly, does not care about who says what but what is said.[5] To be a gadfly, one must have the courage to confront ideas regardless of their origin or status in the social machinery surrounding academia. Most of my peers tend to be in agreement that a more equitable assessment of ideas, less encumbered by prestige or social bias, would benefit the academy. Unfortunately this service of philosophers is often undermined when philosophers lack that second quality of a gadfly, humility. When philosophy confronts power with arrogance or imperialism, it fails to recognize its own limitations and becomes guilty of the very intellectual oversights that it seeks to correct. When it becomes overconfident, philosophy can attempt to answer questions and treat subjects for which it lacks the resources. When it is not characterized by love and charity, it can wilfully misunderstand good intellectual work or meaningful information simply because it is offered in a different intellectual dialect than it prefers.

For me at least, the philosophical gadfly calls to mind an important figure in biblical studies, the prophet.[6] While I by no means wish to conflate these very different vocations, a comparison of the two sheds light on what might indeed be a sacred calling for religious believers who wish to aid their faith through their craft. Like the gadfly, prophets often challenged those in power. Their criticisms were unpopular. However, they provided and to this day represent an essential service to God’s people: They identified the emperors with no clothes, the ritual without substance, and the hypocrisies of the elite. If my philosophical training can aid me in similar ways as I embark in work in biblical studies, the detour in my education will have been well worth it.


Stephanie Nicole Nordby is Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Lee University. Nordby received a Ph.D. in philosophy under the supervision of Linda Zagzebski at the University of Oklahoma. Her dissertation focused on divine predication and attributes, biblical genres and philosophy of language, and classical theism and the Hebrew Scriptures. In addition to her interest in analytic and exegetical theology, Nordby is interested in metaphysics, animal ethics, and virtue ethics. She is also working on a Ph.D. in theology at the Logos Institute, working under supervisors Oliver Crisp and Christoph Schwoebel. Her dissertation project is a book on the philosophical and systematic implications of the early high Christology movement.


[1] Marshall, Laura A. ‘Gadfly or Spur? The Meaning of ΜΎΩΨ in Plato’s Apology of Socrates’. The Journal of Hellenic Studies 137 (2017): 163–74. doi:10.1017/S007542691700012X.

[2] Philosophers in the know debate whether the presence of irony in the texts undermines any pretense of humility in the Socratic dialogues. This seems especially to be the case when it comes to Socrates’ claim to lack knowledge (see, for example, Gregory Vlastos’ Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Cambridge UP, 1991). However, even if Socrates is more confident of his epistemic status than he lets on, this is still compatible with the virtue of epistemic humility or modesty on at least some accounts (see Vlastos’ ‘Socrates’ Disavowal of Knowledge’ in The Philosophical Quarterly 35, no. 138 (1985)). Melissa Lane, however, forcefully argues for a sincerer Socrates in ‘Reconsidering Socratic Irony’ (in Morrison, Donald R., The Cambridge Companion to Socrates, Cambridge UP, 2010). In any case, there is a long history of interpreting Socrates as intellectually humble, evidenced by this Ben Franklin quote: ‘Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates’ (Autobiography, 1789).

[3] Zagzebski, Linda T. Virtues of the Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. See pg. 220ff.

[4] See pg. 23 of Montmarquet, James A. Epistemic Virtue and Doxastic Responsibility. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1993.  Quoted in Zagzebski, Linda T. Virtues of the Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. (See pg. 13.)

[5] This is not to say that who says what never has bearing upon what is said….so to speak.

[6] My friends in biblical studies will likely at this point want to remind me that the prophet Jeremiah uses the gadfly metaphor for his deployment of wicked Babylon as a means of judgment on Egypt (Jer. 46.20). Indeed, many would be forgiven for thinking we philosophers are Babylon come again!

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