Necessary Terminology to Understand Socratic Philosophy

Socratic philosophy, as a subject of study, is a controversial one.

A sentiment expressed in numerous Platonic dialogues is that Socrates favored dialogue over monologue, and by implication, conversation over the written word. Another possibility, congruent with the times, is that he was illiterate. Whatever the case may be, Socrates never produced a philosophical treatise of any kind. What we know of Socrates and Socratic philosophy comes from second hand sources, such as Plato, Xenophon and to a much lesser extent Aristotle.

There are those who contend that Socratic philosophy is a misnomer, and we should speak solely of Platonic philosophy. Be that as it may, the convention and conception endured, and both Socrates and Socratic philosophy remain a subject of study.

For the sake of learning Socratic philosophy, certain key terms, phrases and notions are essential to know and understand, for they represent not only recurrent motifs in the dialogues but also fundamental tenets that illustrate and exemplify Socrates’ intellectual paradigm.

The essential terminology to understand Socratic philosophy can be regarded as a condensation, by later scholars, of the core principles of Socratic philosophy. It is both necessary to comprehend in order to follow along, and serves as an apt introduction to the subject.

Dialectic: The Art of Thoughtful Conversation

Dialectic, as a philosophical approach, was popularized by Plato’s writings, but according to Aristotle it was Zeno of Elea who coined and defined “dialectic”.

Dialectic, which is defined as the art of thoughtful discussion, comes from the ancient Greek “dialektikḗ” (διαλεκτική), which itself derives from “dialegesthai” (διαλέγεσθαι), meaning to converse or to discuss.

Dialectic is a process of cooperative argumentation, characterized by the exchange of ideas through reasoned dialogue, whereby participants engage in debate to reach a deeper understanding of a particular concept or topic.

In philosophy, dialectic is a dynamic and interactive process of investigation that seeks to refine ideas and uncover deeper truths through reasoned conversation, and is considered a core element of both Socratic and Platonic philosophy.

Plato’s Socrates, for example, employed dialectic extensively in his philosophical endeavors, using it as a means to guide his interlocutors towards uncovering inconsistencies in their beliefs and recognize their own ignorance.

Dialectical discussions typically involve the presentation of opposing viewpoints. Through rigorous questioning and examination, the participants, as they clarify definitions and explore the implications of their beliefs, arrive at a more refined and comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.

Socratic Dialogue: Plato’s Literary Legacy

Socratic dialogue, a literary genre,designates a philosophical treatise written in the form of a dialogue in which the protagonist employs the Socratic method of questioning to investigate, refute and refine assertions of truth.

Socratic dialogue, in other words, is a philosophical work written in the form of a dialectic exchange between characters, often although not necessarily featuring Socrates as the protagonist, characterized by the use of open-ended questions to investigate essential philosophical concepts.

The defining characteristic of Socratic dialogues is that opposing viewpoints are presented by various characters, and the central character cross examines and evaluates their claims employing the Socratic method of questioning. The primary objective is to explore and scrutinize different viewpoints, notions and definitions, through dialogue rather than formal argumentation.

The most famous Socratic dialogues in existence are the Platonic dialogues, but these terms are not interchangeable; most Platonic dialogues are Socratic dialogues, but not all Socratic dialogues are Platonic dialogues.

Xenophon, a contemporary of Socrates and Plato, wrote several lesser known Socratic dialogues, most notable amongst which are The Apology of Socrates to the Jury and Memorabilia: a collection of Xenophon’s writings about Socrates’ life and philosophical dialogues, offering a valuable alternative perspective on the historic Socrates and Socratic philosophy.

Over the centuries, numerous writers and famous philosophers wrote Socratic dialogues, including Cicero, St. Augustine, Galileo Galilei, George Berkeley and David Hume.

Elenchus: The Socratic Method of Refutation

The Socratic method, also referred to elenchus or Socratic questioning, is first and foremost a dialectic method of refutation. The word elenchus, derived from the Greek word “ἔλεγχος” (elenkhos), literally means the art of critical examination and refutation.

The term, notion and practice of elenchus originated in ancient Greek philosophy with the tradition of rhetoric. It referred to a method of debate that involved disproving someone’s beliefs, opinions and arguments through cross-examination. Elenchus, therefore, can be understood as argumentation through cross-examination or refutation through questioning. The etymology of elenchus thus reveals the meaning and purpose of the Socratic method of questioning.

The Socratic method, or elenchus, is a dialectic method of refutation in which the central character guides the conversation throughunassuming questions, as opposed to assertionsandarguments, that ultimately lead an interlocutor to contradict himself and, in so doing, refute himself.

The Socratic method, or elenchus, has became nigh synonymous with Socrates and Socratic philosophy, for it is a predominantly featured in the Platonic dialogues. Xenophon’s Socrates, however, does not engage in this method of refutation.

In both Plato’s and Xenophon’s accounts, Socrates typically employs questioning as a means of encouraging his interlocutors to think critically, examine their beliefs and arrive at better conclusions. He often plays the role of the ignorant questioner, asking seemingly simple questions to elicit deeper thought and self-examination from those he converses with. But Xenophon’s Socrates does not always lead his interlocutors to contradict themselves in the same explicit and systematic way that Plato’s Socrates does.

Plato, in his Socratic dialogues, popularized a specific approach to elenchus. In the Platonic dialogues, Socrates engaged in a form of dialectical questioning aimed at exposing contradictions, logical inconsistencies and the inherent limitations in his interlocutors’ knowledge. This method of inquiry was characterized by open-ended questions and the search for universal truths.

In Xenophon’s account, Socrates tends to offer more straightforward moral guidance and practical wisdom to his companions, in contrast to the elaborate philosophical discussions found in Plato’s dialogues, the emphasis is on moral improvement and virtuous living rather than the rigorous examination of abstract philosophical concepts.

Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues often revolve around topics related to virtue, ethics and the best way to live a good life. Plato’s Socrates, on the other hand frequently employs the Socratic method to explore complex metaphysical, epistemological and ethical inquiries.

While both portrayals of Socrates share a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and ethical development, the differences in their approaches are noteworthy. Plato’s Socratic method, with its questioning aimed at exposure of contradictions, challenges individuals to confront the limits of their understanding, while Xenophon’s Socrates takes a more pragmatic approach. He imparts practical advice on matters of ethics and personal conduct, seeking to guide his interlocutors toward a virtuous life.

The Socratic method, or elenchus, primarily associated with and derived from the Platonic dialogues, has come to signify a refutation through questioning in which the questioner guides his interlocutor to reveal and agree with an inherent contradiction.

Taking into account the discrepancy between Plato’s and Xenophon’s depiction of Socrates’ dialogues, and Plato’s popularity throughout the centuries, the Socratic method might be more aptly termed the Platonic method of refutation.

Socratic Irony: The Wise Man Who Asks Simple Questions

Socratic irony, as exemplified by the character of Socrates in the Platonic corpus, is a rhetorical technique that entails feigning ignorance about the subject under discussion. It is an essential component, being a necessary pre-requisite, for the effective application of the Socratic method of questioning and refutation.

By feigning ignorance and asking seemingly naive questions, Socrates encourages his conversation partners to take the lead in the discussion. He elicits their opinions, beliefs and arguments, and guides them to articulate their thoughts with confidence.

As the dialogue progresses, Socrates, being anything but ignorant, skillfully asks questions that challenge the coherence and consistency of his interlocutors’ positions. He exposes weaknesses and contradictions in their arguments, causing them to withdraw from the conversation and setting the stage for Socrates’ own views and arguments to be presented.

Socratic irony, by assuming the role of a humble and curious questioner, allows Socrates to guide the discussion without expressing nor asserting his own views and opinions. When his conversation partner is refuted, it is shown to be solely on account of the inherent contradictions in their position. This process of intellectual discovery, the art of critical examination in the search for unquestionable truths, is at the heart of Socratic philosophy.

The reason why Socrates’ stance of apparent ignorance is ironic, giving rise to the term Socratic irony, is because Socrates, in Plato’s account, was declaredby the Delphic Oracleto be wisest of all.

Socratic Wisdom, “I Know Nothing”, and the Socratic Paradox, “Therefore I am Wise”

The Delphic Oracle held a revered position in ancient Greece, widely believed to possess divine knowledge and offer guidance to those who sought it.

Plato’s Apology recounts a pivotal moment in Socrates’ life, in which his close friend Chaerephon approached the Oracle at Delphi and posed a question: “Is anyone wiser than Socrates?” The Oracle, regarded as the ultimate source of wisdom, responded with a definitive declaration: “No one is wiser than Socrates”.

This response both intrigued and perplexed Socrates, for he did not consider himself wise. Being profoundly devoted to the gods, however, he accepted the Oracle’s proclamation at face value even though he did not comprehend it.

Socrates resolved to investigate the Oracle’s statement by conversing with reportedly wise individuals, seeking to comprehend the nature of wisdom. Through these dialogues Socrates discovered, to his surprise, that these allegedly wise individuals claimed knowledge beyond their expertise.

The Delphic Oracle’s proclamation led Socrates to a crucial realization, that true wisdom encompasses and necessitates the recognition of one’s ignorance, leading to his famous statement: “I am wise, for I know that I know nothing”. This assertion is known as the Socratic paradox.

It is important to note, however, that Plato’s Socrates never uttered those words and Plato himself never wrote those words. Socratic wisdom and the Socratic paradox, strictly speaking, are notions derived from the Platonic dialogues in general and The Apology in particular. Currently, numerous variants of the Socratic paradox are told and taught, none of which are a literal quote.

The precise origin, and the literal quote, for the Socratic paradox and the notion of Socratic wisdom, is the following excerpt from Plato’s Apology:

“I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.”

Socratic wisdom and the Socratic paradox, in truth, are convenient terms to discuss a noteworthy attitude and epistemological stance, attributed to and represented by Socrates throughout the Platonic dialogues.

Aporia: Logic Induced Bewilderment

Aporia, deriving from the ancient Greek term “ἀπορία” (aporia), is a fundamental concept in Socratic philosophy.

Etymologically, aporia is derived from the prefix “ἀπο” (apo), meaning without or lacking, and “ὁρία” (horia), which can be translated as way or path. Therefore, aporia can be understood as a state of being without a clear path or lacking a way forward.

In the context of Socratic philosophy, aporia refers to a state of intellectual puzzlement or confusion. It occurs when an individual, often through Socratic questioning, reaches a point where they recognize the inherent contradictions in their opinions and beliefs and, simultaneously, the overwhelming complexity of the subject matter.

Socrates, in the Platonic dialogues, intentionally guides his interlocutors toward aporia through a series of carefully crafted questions and challenges that encourages individuals to question their assumptions. When an individual experiences aporia, they are confronted with the limitations of their knowledge. This state of perplexity, in line with Socratic wisdom, leads to the recognition of one’s ignorance and, in so doing, wisdom itself.

In many of Plato’s early dialogues, the conversation ends with aporia, without arriving at a definitive or conclusive solution to the philosophical conundrum at hand, leaving the reader with unresolved questions and inviting them to engage in their own contemplation and reflection on the philosophical themes presented.

Maieutics: Thought Evoking Wisdom

The term “maieutics” comes from the ancient Greek “μαιευτική” (maieutikē), which itself is derived from “μαιεύς” (maieus), meaning midwife. In ancient Greece, a midwife was a person who who assisted women during childbirth, providing guidance and support. The midwife’s role was to facilitate birth-giving. The word maieutics, pronounced maieutikē, is the adjective form of maieus, meaning midwife, and signifies pertaining to midwifery or related to the work of a midwife.

In the context of the Platonic dialogues and Socratic philosophy, maieutics refers to the Socratic method of questioning by means of which a philosopher, like a midwife, assists individuals in bringing forth their latent knowledge and understanding.

The origin of the term maieutics can be traced to the dialogue entitled Theaetetus, whose authorship is disputed although Diogenes Laertius attributed it to Plato. Notably, the conception of Socrates as midwife for wisdom and virtue, and therefore the notion of maieutics as descriptive of Socratic philosophy, is also implied, although never explicitly called by that term, in Plato’s Symposium.

In a broader sense, it is a recurrent theme in the Platonic dialogues. Most illustrative of all, in this regard, is the dialogue entitled Meno. In The Meno, Socrates affirms that he cannot teach anyone anything they didn’t already know. As a demonstration, for what later became known as Plato’s theory of recollection, he poses a mathematical problem to a slave boy who has had no formal education in geometry. Despite this lack of education, Socrates guides the slave boy through a series of questions and prompts him to work out the solution to the problem. The boy eventually arrives at the correct answer. Socrates, satisfied with the demonstration, reaffirms that individuals have innate knowledge and are able to recollect knowledge from their soul.

Maieutics, in Socratic and Platonic philosophy, is used metaphorically to describe Socrates’ dialectic approach, where the philosopher acts as a kind of intellectual midwife, assisting others in bringing forth their latent knowledge and understanding through thoughtful questioning, in the belief that individuals possess knowledge within themselves and the philosopher’s role is solely to bring it forth.

Over time, maieutics became associated with Socrates in general and the Socratic method of questioning in particular, for it represents a convenient way to describe Socrates’ dialectic approach to epistemology – the theory of knowledge, encompassing both knowledge acquisition and validation.

Virtue: On Wisdom, Excellence and Happiness

Arete (ἀρετή) is the Greek word for virtue, central to both ancient Greek philosophy and ethics. Etymologically, “arete” is rooted in the Greek word “ar”, meaning goodness or excellence.

In Greek philosophy, particularly as articulated by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, arete is a fundamental human endeavor which encompasses wisdom, ethics and positive character development, and is essential for achieving eudaimonia – happiness.

Arete, often translated as virtue, signifies living up to one’s potential and achieving the highest standard of excellence. In modernity, arete is often translated as “virtue”, which simply means desirable qualities, and is generally associated with ethical conduct. That translation only captures and conveys a partial and regrettably distorted meaning.

Socrates often engaged in dialogues about virtue, questioning what it means to be virtuous, how one can acquire virtue, and the relationship between knowledge and virtuous action.

For Socrates, true wisdom was closely tied to virtue, as he believed that a truly wise person would inherently act virtuously. He saw wisdom as encompassing the ability to make sound judgments, including moral judgments. In other words, a truly wise person, in Socratic terms, not only possesses knowledge but also has the capacity to apply that knowledge positively.

Plato, through the character of Socrates, contended that ignorance is the root cause of wrongdoing, and that by acquiring knowledge and wisdom individuals would naturally act in virtuous ways, for they would comprehend the consequences of their actions.

In Socratic philosophy, true wisdom is inseparable from virtue, excellence and happiness.

According to both Plato and Xenophon, virtue and ethics were not only primary but defining concerns for Socrates throughout his life and in his interactions with fellow Athenians. Socrates’ interest in understanding and defining virtue, and acting in the benefit of all, were defining characteristics of his dialogues.

In both Plato’s and Xenophon’s writings, Socrates’ engagement in ethical discourse and his commitment to understanding and living a virtuous life are prominently featured. Plato’s dialogues, such as Euthyphro, Meno and The Republic, delve into questions of justice, morality and the nature of the good life. Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Apology also highlight Socrates’ ethical discussions, showcasing his role as a moral guide and teacher. These portrayals underscore the central role of ethics and virtue in Socratic philosophy and their defining influence on his philosophical method and teachings.

Socrates’ relentless pursuit of wisdom was intrinsically linked to his quest for moral excellence, emphasizing that true knowledge and virtue were intertwined in the pursuit of a good life.

Through dialogue and critical examination, he encouraged others to reflect on their beliefs and actions, fostering a deeper understanding of what it means to lead a virtuous life and ethical self-improvement.

Final Thoughts

Despite the lack of a first-hand historical account and source of information, the persona of Socrates and Socratic philosophy in general remain fundamental subjects of study in the history of philosophy.

Whether one accepts Plato’s depiction at face value, or, as investigators and scientists do, one seeks independent sources and confirmation, there is sufficient information to warrant a distinction and, at the very least, a discussion.

Aristotle, for his part, affirmed that Plato’s early dialogues were representative of Socrates’ concerns whereas his later works are Plato’s own thoughts, theories and perspectives being put forth through the character of Socrates.

The Socratic method of questioning and refutation has become nigh synonymous with Socrates himself, and so famous in its own right that it not only spawned a literary genre within philosophy but also permeated pedagogy, psychoanalysis and even the judicial system itself.

Socratic wisdom and the concept of maieutics, counter-intuitive though they may seem at first glance, continue to fascinate those interested in philosophy of the self, epistemology and the philosophy of science.

Wisdom encompassing virtue and being instrumental in achieving happiness is a hallmark of Socratic, Platonic and Aristotlean philosophy, and representative of the intellectual character of ancient Greek culture. In today’s world, after two and a half millennia of knowledge acquisition and technological advancements, it remains a compelling and influential perspective on human existence.

This perspective, the primacy of knowledge and wisdom, gave rise to what became known as the cardinal virtues, which, in turn, endures to this day in the branch of moral philosophy known as virtue ethics.

Whether it be directly, or through his influence on Plato and Plato’s influence on philosophy, Socrates’ importance in the history of philosophy, and the need to understand his character, concerns, beliefs and approach, can hardly be disputed.

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