The Socratic Way of Thinking
by Socrethics First version 2014 Last version 2018
Table of Contents
1. The Socratic Turn
2. Socratic Conversation
3. Socratic Method / Socratic Debate
4. Socratic Dialogue
5. Socratic Pragmatism
The Search for the Good Life
7. Socratic Skepticism / Socratic Paradox
The Socratic way of thinking originated in a social environment that – in analogy to today’s situation – was exposed to major political and religious upheavals and where the old conventions lost their liability [Hampe, 438].
Socrates raised the question of whether we can acquire genuine knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. Reputedly, Socrates was the first philosopher to make the attempt [Sebell].
Socrates is often associated with the separation of theoretical and practical philosophy. But he was a materialistic natural scientist in his youth [Taylor, 4] and it was only much later in life (around the age of forty), after having seen the shortcomings of pre-Socratic natural science, that he turned to the examination of ordinary moral and political opinions. Similarly to Buddha in the Far East, Socrates rather turned away from metaphysical speculations than from science. His approach to the question of justice, is still worthy of being called scientific [Sebell].
The fact that we still group all his predecessors together as presocratics indicates that Socrates significantly changed the character of philosophy. The Socratic approach to the study of nature as a whole and of human nature in particular was a revolution in the history of thought [Sebell].
Aristotle referred to Socratic conversations as belonging to a literary genre, which describes fictional scenes from everyday life. There are at least nine of Socrates’ associates, in addition to Plato and Xenophon, who are known having written them. Some friends of Socrates are reported to have made notes of his conversations, but the function of note-taking was not to provide a verbatim record for later publication, but to preserve authentically Socratic material for incorporation into broadly imaginative reconstructions [Taylor, 22-23].
Following a contemporary imaginative reconstruction, inspired by the Platonic Socrates:
▪ The Socratic conversation is an exchange of experiences and arguments in order to get insight. Insight, however, cannot be produced like goods or services. It has something unpredictable.
▪ In contrast to the lifestyles of contemplation and mysticism [Hampe, 434], Socratic conversations include the concerns of the community. They serve the pragmatic search for a good form of the individual and collective life [Hampe, 415].
Although there is no pre-defined framework, Socratic conversations often deal (as in the antiquity) with the so-called "big" questions:
▪ Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? What is the meaning of life?
▪ Is there anything like an "objective" truth, good and right, and if so, what is it? [Hampe, 417]
▪ Is the "objectively" true, good and right relevant for the individual and, if so, under what conditions and to what extent?
▪ How can we know ourselves? How strongly are our thoughts, feelings and behavior shaped by our biography?
Paul Gaugin Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
▪ The Socratic conversation is an interdisciplinary activity, i.e. it combines natural sciences, humanities, everyday language and art, wherever it promises a gain in insight.
▪ The Socratic conversation cares about the awareness of history.
▪ The Socratic conversation is practice-oriented. Theories are means and not “ends in themselves”. The individual life experience (internal perspective) is as important as the scientific (external) perspective.
▪ The Socratic conversation is a search for truth and not (like doctrinaire philosophy) a preaching of truth, see The Teachings of Philosophy – A Critique.
▪ The Socratic conversation strives for authenticity and empathy. The exchanged experiences are as important as the books read.
▪ The Socratic conversation strives for a simple and clear language. The detached jargon of certain representatives of academic philosophy spoils the pleasure to do philosophy.
▪ The Socratic conversation is an idealistic activity. It becomes suspicious precisely when someone is trying to make money out of it [Taylor, 7].
Socratic method, also known as method of elenchus, elenctic method, or Socratic debate, is named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates. It is a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving a discussion in which the defense of one point of view is questioned; one participant may lead another to contradict themselves in some way, thus weakening the defender's point.
The Socratic method is a method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape beliefs, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances (Socratic Method, Wikipedia).
The extent to which the Socratic method or Socratic questioning are employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, is called Maieutics (Socratic Method, Wikipedia).
Etymology: Greek maieutikós of, pertaining to midwifery, equivalent to maieú to serve as a midwife (Dictionary.com)
Socrates tells Theaetetus that his mother Phaenarete was a midwife and that he himself is an intellectual midwife. Whereas the craft of midwifery brings on labor pains or relieves them in order to help a woman deliver a child, Socrates does not watch over the body but over the soul, and helps his interlocutor give birth to an idea. He then applies the elenchus to test whether or not the intellectual offspring is a phantom or a fertile truth (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
The adventure of philosophy initially assumed for Socrates the form of a linguistic analysis of what he and others said about moral matters (…).
For Socrates language analysis is not the goal of philosophy and should not be viewed as an end in itself. For him, it was only a means, a method that allowed for the clarification for what he viewed as the essence of human existence (…). With him, language analysis has something in common with medicine, for whereas the latter aims at curing the body and preventing disease, the former, if carefully administered, heals the soul of its confusion [Navia, 48].
Socratic dialogue is a genre of prose literary works developed in Greece at the turn of the fourth century BC, preserved today in the dialogues of Plato and the Socratic works of Xenophon. Characters discuss moral and philosophical problems, illustrating a version of the Socratic method. The dialogues are either dramatic or narrative, and Socrates is often the main character (Socratic Dialogue, Wikipedia)
The Socratic writings of Xenophon and Plato’s Socratic dialogues are the only bodies of Socratic literature to have survived complete [Taylor, 27].
There are some indications in Xenophon’s writings of dependence on Plato [Taylor, 29]
All of Plato’s writings, with the exception of the Laws, the Apology (which is not a dialogue), and the Letters (whose authenticity is disputed) are Socratic dialogues [Taylor, 32]. The following features are common to most of these dialogues:
1. Socrates is predominantly characterized, not as a teacher, but as an enquirer. He disclaims wisdom, and seeks, normally in vain, elucidation of problematic questions from his interlocutors, by the method of elenchus, that is, by critically examining their beliefs.
2. Many of the dialogues are concerned with the attempt to define a virtue or other ethically significant concept (…). In all these dialogues the discussion ends in ostensible failure, with Socrates and his interlocutor(s) acknowledging that they have failed to find the answer to the central question; in some cases there are textual indications of what the correct answer is.
3. All these dialogues are concerned with ethics in the broad sense of how one should live.
4. In several of these dialogues the topic of Sophism is investigated via the portrayal of a confrontation of Socrates on the one hand and various Sophists on the other.
The relation between knowledge and goodness is central to many of the dialogues [Taylor, 12]. The search is, at least ostensibly, unsuccessful, in that each dialogue ends with the acknowledgement by Socrates and his interlocutors that they have not arrived at the account of goodness or of its parts which they were seeking [Tayor, 58].
The Platonic Socrates
Plato is Socrates’ philosophical heir (…). Plato presents the philosophic life itself as a higher kind of religious practice (as compared to the official practice at the time) and presents Socrates as the exemplar of the philosophic life [Taylor, 12], as the ideal embodiment of philosophy [Taylor, 35]. For Plato’s apologetic and philosophical purposes, historical truth was almost entirely irrelevant, for instance the main point of the dialogues in which Socrates confronts Sophists is to bring out the contrast between his genuine philosophizing and their counterfeit [Taylor, 36].
Socratic thinking in ancient India
The predecessor of a Socratic-type dialogue can be found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a key scripture to various schools of Hinduism which was composed ca.700 BC [Deussen, 389-534]. The middle part of this Upanishad consists of four conversations, in which Yajnavalkya – one of the first philosophers in recorded history and renowned for his unrivaled talent in theological debate – plays the key role not dissimilar to the role of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato” [Deussen, 444]. The dialogue between King Janaka and Yajnavalkya [Deussen, 475-481] is the prototype of later dialogues between exponents of a worldly and a spiritual mindset. Examples:
Thanissaro refers to this text as “one of the masterpieces of the Pali canon” [Thanissaro].
Diogenes Laertius reports that Pyrrho of Elis – the Greek Buddha [Beckwith] – came under their influence of the gymnosophists while travelling to India with Alexander, and on his return to Elis, imitated their habits. For more information see Indian Sources of Hellenistic ethics.
There are several key portions of this text that connect it to the Greek accounts of Alexander [Sick, 271]. But it uses sources that can be traced back as far as the Samaññaphala Sutta [Sick, 273] and the Upanishads [Hinüber 2000].
Whereas Ajasutta became a follower of Buddha, Milinda at least learned to respect his interlocutor Nagasena [Sick, 276]. Alexander did not cease feeling superior, but he finally admitted that the gymnosophists are hard to refute.
Today’s philosophical practice stands in sharp contrast to the ancient way to do philosophy. John Cottingham characterized the former as follows:
The predominant movement in today‘s English-speaking philosophical culture is toward an increasing fragmentation of the subject into a set of highly professional specialisms and quasi-scientific and highly technical sub-disciplines whose connection with a “way of life” is virtually nil – except in the minimal sense that achieving the relevant qualifications and mastering the relevant intellectual techniques is how their practitioners happen to earn their living. If anyone today were to ask whether a member of a modern philosophy department can hope to “live better” than a lawyer, say, or a member of a metallurgy department, the question would in all probability be taken to be merely about relative salary and career prospects [Cottingham, 148-149].
In ancient times, however, doing philosophy was a way of life; i.e. it was not restricted to an intellectual discipline [Hadot] [Sellars, 6, 171, 175].
According to Pierre Hadot the decline of philosophy as a way of life was caused by the rise of Christianity. Christianity positioned itself as a “philosophy” with its own regimen of spiritual exercises and spiritual goals. Christian interest in pagan philosophy was limited to its discourse [Zeyl].
Hadot showed that the key to understanding the original philosophical impulse is to be found in Socrates. What characterizes Socratic therapy above all is the importance given to living contact between human beings. Hadot's recurring theme is that philosophy in antiquity was characterized by a series of mental exercises intended to transform the perception, and therefore the being, of those who practice it; that philosophy is best pursued in real conversation and not through written texts and lectures; and that philosophy, as it is taught in universities today, is for the most part a distortion of its original, therapeutic impulse (Pierre Hadot, Wikipedia); see Philosophy as Therapy – Introduction.
When ancient philosophers like Socrates declared that acting is more important than reasoning [Sellars, 49, 52] then they meant that only practical life can decide, if the theoretical reasoning was correct [Sellars, 170]. The ancient emphasis on practice anticipates the stance of contemporary pragmatists:
Theory and practice are not separate spheres; rather, theories and distinctions are tools or maps for finding our way in the world. As John Dewey put it, there is no question of theory versus practice but rather of intelligent practice versus uninformed practice (…). Theory is an abstraction from direct experience and ultimately must return to inform experience (Pragmatism, Wikipedia).
The ancient Greek world view was life-affirmative and polytheistic and it is unclear to what extent Socrates was still a pagan believer. Although he applied his criticism rather to the social class of the priests than to religion, many of his contemporaries considered him to be an atheist [Bremmer, 12]. Similar to Buddha he turned away from metaphysical speculations and concentrated on ethics. With the ascent of the natural sciences critical-rational thinking became even more important.
The search for the good life is a sign of ideological uncertainty. It is evident that Socrates was looking for a new and reliable orientation. Socrates was a moral and political philosopher and fought against moral relativists such as the Sophists [Taylor, 66]. Consequently his search for a good life was a search for the “objectively” good, and for a way of living that represents and promotes the good.
In Socrates’ day, almost all Greek thinkers assumed or argued that the polis, the community, was the correct and only environment for human moral flourishing – that a good polis created goodness in its citizens (…). As a moral philosopher, then, Socrates was also a political philosopher [Waterfield, 29].
The Platonic (possibly not the historical) Socrates suggested that politics is an art which takes care of the soul. While legislation preserves the good of the soul, justice restores it [Sellars, 40-42].
The generic name for the craft concerned with the good of the soul is politiké, the art of life, subdivided into legislation, which promotes the good of the soul (as gymnastics promotes the good of the body), and justice, which preserves it (as medicine preserves the good of the body) [Taylor, 47].
Socrates was aware that he did not have enough ethical knowledge, in order to definitely describe the good. Consequently he characterized the good life by the endeavor (virtue) to improve ethical knowledge [Taylor, 60].
▪ The former traced their philosophical ancestry from Pyrrho of Elis, who like Socrates wrote nothing himself (…) In the works of Sextus Empiricus, who is the principal source for Pyrrhonian skepticism Socrates is almost invariably listed among the dogmatists, that is, those who maintained positive doctrines as opposed to suspending judgement.
▪ For the academics the situation was different. The Academy was Plato’s own school, which embraced skepticism under the leadership of Arcesilaus just over a century after its foundation and remained a skeptical school for over two hundred years. Arcesilaus claimed that in embracing skepticism he was remaining faithful to the spirit of both Socrates and Plato [Taylor, 81].
Arcesilaus reading of Socrates does pick out genuine features of his argumentative practice, but it is unduly selective. Socrates never draws from the negative outcome of his examinations of others the universal thesis that there is nothing which the sense or the mind can grasp as certain. On the contrary, he thinks that knowledge is identical with the good and takes the negative outcome of his enquiries as a stimulus to the further search for it. The sceptic is committed to a general pessimism about the human capacity to achieve knowledge. There is no trace of that pessimism in Plato’s portrayal of Socrates [Taylor, 82].
The phrase "I know that I know nothing" or "I know one thing: that I know nothing", sometimes called the Socratic paradox (…) is not one that Socrates himself is ever recorded as saying. The saying, though widely attributed to Plato's Socrates in both ancient and modern times, actually occurs nowhere in Plato's works in this form [Fine, 49-88] (Socratic paradox, Wikipedia).
The Socratic paradox is a clear misreading of Plato. Though Socrates frequently says that he does not know the answer to the particular question under discussion, he never says that he knows nothing whatever. What he does disavow is having any wisdom or expertise [Taylor, 42].
There is a subtle, but important distinction between the Socratic and Stoic conception of philosophy [Sellars, 167-168]:
▪ Socratic conception: According to Socrates philosophy is an activity that aspires to wisdom. It is a method and not a goal. This agrees with the etymological sense of the word philosophy which is “love for wisdom”.
Socrates (and later Wittgenstein) discovered that the process of searching the truth has a therapeutic effect.
▪ Stoic conception: According to Zeno philosophy represents wisdom. (Stoic) philosophy is the time-tested result of numerous search processes, exemplarily represented by Stoic sages.
The Platonic Socrates’ good can be characterized as follows:
1. He believes that the objective good exists.
2. He is aware that he does not know it, and possibly never will.
3. He associates the good life with the search for the good, independent of the project’s success.
For more information on the search for the good life see Philosophy as Therapy – Introduction.
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