The Socratic Way of Thinking
B.Contestabile First version 2014 Last version 2020
Table of Contents
1. The Socratic Turn
2. Socratic Conversation
3. Socratic Method / Socratic Debate
4. Socratic Dialogue
5. Socratic Skepticism / Socratic Paradox
6. The Search for the Good Life
The search for the ultimate cause
The Socratic way of thinking originated in a social environment that was exposed to major political and religious upheavals and where the old conventions lost their liability [Hampe, 438]. Critical-rational thinking threatened to destroy the Pagan beliefs. But could it also replace them? In Plato's dialogue Phaedo Socrates says that in his youth he was passionately interested in the natural sciences and wanted to know the cause of everything. Reductive materialists tried to answer the question where the universe comes from. Socrates participated in this search but then realized that pre-Socratic science was far from giving an answer [Taylor, 4]. Furthermore science couldn’t develop a convincing teleology, i.e. it couldn’t explain the order in the universe. Disappointed in both reductive and teleological naturalism, Socrates stepped on the writings of Anaxagoras, a Ionian natural philosopher who was accused of impiety because he denied the divinity of the sun.
The turning away from established philosophers
The Ionian natural philosophers were known to be in search of the ultimate reasons and an ordering principle of the universe. Anaxagoras was probably the first Greek philosopher, who introduced the concept of Nous (Cosmic Mind) as a structuring power. Socrates was inspired by this idea, but finally departed from natural philosophy, because Anaxagoras had not been able to answer the decisive question: We owe our insights into the nature of the physical world to reason. But what is the nature of reason? This is the starting point of the Socratic revolution vis-à-vis the natural philosophers. The natural philosophers asked about the nature of the physical world, but Socrates asked about the nature of our thinking (Anaxagoras, Wikipedia). The division into theoretical philosophy and practical philosophy, however, – which is often associated with the Socratic turn – has its origin in Aristotle's categories.
A new way to do philosophy
After having turned away from Anaxagoras, Socrates started his own search for causes and developed new methods of gaining insight. These methods later proved to be applicable not only in the humanities but also in the natural sciences.
Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of universal definitions and inductive arguments, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method [Taylor, 32]. Socrates’ approach to the question of justice, is still worthy of being called scientific. 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].
For a hypothetical Indian influence on the Socratic turn see Indian Sources of Hellenistic ethics.
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 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 a search for truth and not (like doctrinaire philosophy) a preaching of truth, see The Teachings of Philosophy – A Critique (German).
- 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 strives for authenticity and empathy. The individual life experience (internal perspective) is as important as the scientific (external) perspective. 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- All these dialogues are concerned with ethics in the broad sense of how one should live.
- 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].
The historical Socrates is still an object of research; see the Socratic Problem.
- 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”.
- Stoic conception: According to Zeno philosophy represents wisdom. (Stoic) philosophy is the time-tested result of numerous search processes, exemplarily represented by Stoic sages.
Many philosophical practitioners use Socrates as a paradigm for philosophizing, or indeed for what philosophical practice is all about. Socrates demands that our views pass the test of critical examination. He tells us that we need to clarify the concepts we are using, expose our hidden assumptions, and give convincing reasons that support our views [Lahav]. Socrates had an influence on ancient Skepticism, because he criticized (among others) the social class of the priests:
Socrates raised the challenge that it might be truly bad (for one’s life, for the state of one’s soul) to base one’s actions on unexamined beliefs. For all one knows, these beliefs could be false, and without investigation, one does not even try to break free (Skepticism, Stanford).
His dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” has to be interpreted as “a life which is manipulated by false beliefs, is not worth living”.
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 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].
According to Plato Socrates 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.
He engaged in countless discussions about the meaning of these terms in practical life, hoping to better understand the good. And while his motivation was basically the one of a researcher, his results increasingly provoked the social and political establishment.
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 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 [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 Platonic Socrates can be characterized as follows:
- He believes that the objective good exists.
- He is aware that he does not know it, and possibly never will.
- He associates the good life with the search for the good, independent of the project’s success.
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].
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);
The Socrates appearing in Socratic dialogues is not only a tireless inquirer (similar to the way he appears in Plato’s early dialogues) or an example of ethical behavior (as in Xenophon’s Socratic works), but also a healer, capable of healing souls (…). Several of the “Socratic speeches” make reference to therapeia either directly or indirectly, associating Socrates with the ability to help himself and his associates take care of themselves [Suvak].
There are various aspects in Socrates’ philosophy – understood as a way of living – that can be therapeutically helpful:
- The psychological effect of working together on a project that deals with some of the most important questions:
- The step-by-step insights during the process of acquiring ethical knowledge. The small insights, which, over time, become part of a larger picture and form a clearer vision. The satisfaction of having a better orientation and the increasing conviction to do the right thing. This is particularly important for people who suffer from a loss of meaning in their life [Van Hooft, 22].
- Finally Socrates’ search for ethical knowledge has a contemplative and spiritual (but not necessarily religious) dimension. Can ethical laws be discovered like physical laws? Will reason heal the world?
Plato describes Socrates as a deeply religious person [Grube & Cooper], but the question is, if Plato does not describe himself. The ancient Greek world view was polytheistic and it is unclear, to what extent the historical 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]. Perhaps the truth lies in the middle. Socrates did not believe in God(s), but perceived philosophy as a substitute for religion.
For more information about philosophical therapy see Philosophy as Therapy – Introduction.
1. Bremmer, J. N. (2006), Atheism in Antiquity, In M. Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 11-26, Cambridge University Press, UK
2. Cottingham John (2013), Philosophy and Self-Improvement, in Philosophy as a Way of Life, Essays in Honor of Pierre Hadot, pp.148-166, Wiley Blackwell, UK
3. Fine Gail (2008), "Does Socrates Claim to Know that He Knows Nothing?", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy vol. 35
4. Grube G.M.A., John M. Cooper (2002), Plato: Five Dialogues, Hackett Publishing Company, Indiana, USA
5. Hadot Pierre (1995), Philosophy as a way of life, Oxford, Blackwell
7. Lahav Lan (2006), Philosophical Practice as Contemplative Philosophy, Society for Philosophy in Practice, UK
8. Navia Louis, E. (1999), The Adventure of Philosophy, Praeger, London
9. Sebell Dustin (2016), The Socratic Turn, University of Pennsylvania Press
10. Sellars John (2009), The Art of Living, The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, Bristol Classical, London
11. Suvak Vladislav (2014, Socrates Therapeia, Filozofia 69(10):824-834, Slovakia
12. Taylor C.C.W.(1998), Socrates, Oxford University Press
13. Waterfield Robin (2009), The Historical Socrates, History Today, January