Philosophy Anti-Philosophy History of Philosophy Socrates

Socrates: What’s Wrong with his Philosophizing?

I find it difficult now to recapture my sense of let-down when I first came across him.  His whole message was that the important thing in life is rational thought – being logical – and that it automatically leads to ethical behaviour.  He even thought that it transports the philosopher to heaven.

It is an enormity of rationalistic narrow-mindedness and limitation. It has only to do with the rationalistic thought element of human consciousness.  It neglects what else is in man and in his life.

He said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.   His idea of examining life was to question his students to reveal logical inconsistencies in how they defined terms like ‘courage’, justice’, ‘virtue’, or ‘duty’.  That was his idea of examining life, getting people to make their terms logically.consistent, see here.  He saw it as a self-revelation. 

It wasn’t, for one thing, to muse on what one actually did, on how one cleverly justified it to oneself by finding respectable reasons.

As told by Plato, he was sitting on a block of limestone in the empty market-place below the Acropolis in the early morning. The whole market-place was made of blocks of limestone quarried from surrounding slopes. People had gathered round in their sandals, and he was drawing them out to say how they defined terms like ‘courage’, justice’, ‘virtue’, or ‘duty’, and asked them one by one to come up with their examples of each.  Some of these examples from each student were contradictory to each other, so he then had to boil them down to what he actually did mean by Courage or Virtue or Duty

For example, one of them (as described  here), was brave enough to put himself forward, and said he thought courage meant ‘endurance of the soul’ (which seems to have meant ‘choosing to endure pain rather than give in’).

Then Socrates asked him, ‘Do you agree that courage is a fine thing’? ‘Yes’, the speaker replied.

Socrates: ‘Do you think ignorant endurance is a fine thing?’ ‘No’, the speaker replied.

So, says Socrates, you don’t actually think that courage is any kind of endurance of the soul, and the speaker agreed.

That’s an overly simple example of Socrates’ method, but the better ones I came across seemed to process two definitions at the same time. I hope to come across a single one that is more testing and put it in instead.  

Here is another example, not quite so simple but not fully set out: In Plato’s Dialogue, Euthyphro, Socrates asks ‘What is Piety?’ and continues: ‘Is an action right because a god approves of it, or does the god approve of it because it is right, in which case we too can make a judgment on whether an action is right or not?’ (from here).

This negative method of drawing out the speaker to reveal a contradiction to his own initial hypothesis, was called Elenchus, and later as Socratic Method (from here).  Socrates termed himself a ‘midwife’ in drawing a negative truth out of the speaker.  By eliminating hypotheses that were contradictory, one gradually narrowed down to what one did mean (from here).

According to this site ( which quotes philosophers Frede and Vlastos, and W. K. C. Guthrie from his book The Greek Philosophers) the Elenchus was merely a negative method for disproving a thesis and one was still left in puzzlement (aporia) as to what may actually be positively true (from here also).

In another of Plato’s Dialogues, The Apology of Socrates, Socrates says that his questioning helps individuals achieve self-knowledge, i.e. understand their own beliefs and statements (from here).  This seems a rationalistic view of  the self and self-knowledge, as being to do with logic and with the cognitive rightness or wrongness of what one thinks. 

So, again, in trying to re-capture my sense of let-down when I first came across Socrates, I think it was firstly because his Socratic Method seemed a matter of quizzing by a  schoolmasterly Bertrand-Russell character with a simplistic rationalistic idea of man.  It was a fostering of ‘clear thinking’, of arguing straight and consistently, of winkling out how one defines terms — which is all important enough but does not deserve the lofty title Philosophy or Wisdom.  Sorting out one’s contradictory thoughts on important concepts is an improvement and a liberation, and makes one a less infuriating person to have to listen to. But, but, but…

To me, this kind of logical intelligence is simply a basic element of thinking and talking.  Philosophy, I thought, should be about the darkness and mystery in the heart of man, his feelings, memories, musings, longings, dreams, nostalgias, imaginations, motivations, hatreds and loves, longings for a life of living and of adventure; his subtlety, complexity, concealment, falsity, tragedy and comedy, his ironies, deceptions and self-deceptions, which is what human beings are made of and get up to.  Wisdom for me comes from the seeing of a bit of life, the living of a bit of life, of the low life, of one’s experience of people and of oneself, of danger, of risk, of mortal danger, of things crashing about one’s head, strengthening one’s character and temperament and truthfulness with oneself.  Where in Socrates or in later philosophy are the implicit, paradoxical, ironically playful subtleties and immoralities of language, intentional or otherwise, ill-understood by the speaker himself or herself?  Self-knowledge, finding out about oneself, is much more than sorting out what one means by ‘justice’ or ‘courage’.

The Socratic Method of questioning is today used in classroom and in law school to expose underlying issues in the subject-matter of debate and in what the speaker says (from here)

Something else that Socrates explicitly did to solve a problem, was to break it down into a series of his Socratic questions. According to here, this approach is used today in Scientific Method, in which hypothesis is the first stage.

Guthrie in his The Greek Philosophers wrote that Socrates, unlike the Sophists (who were very sceptical) did believe that real knowledge was possible to reach, but that one first had to recognize one’s ignorance, which was all the Elenchus did.  Socrates insisted he himself knew nothing, that he was ignorant, that he was just a midwife. This insistence on his own ignorance is called Socratic Irony. (It sounds to me like false modesty.)  Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who claimed knowledge; that it allowed him to discover his own errors. There was a Delphic pronouncement that no man was wiser than Socrates, (from here).

Socratic Method is cut down to size somewhat by Bertrand Russell saying that it arrives at a purely linguistic discovery of what one means by words like ‘just’ and ‘unjust’(in Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Chapter ‘Socrates’. Allen and Unwin. 1946. pp 112-3).  It doesn’t arrive at a discovery in ethics, which presumably later philosophers did do.

To change the subject now to Socrates’ ‘Moral Intellectualism’: He had the purely intellectual attitude to morality in that he believed that no man acts deliberately in a cause he knows to be wrong.   Wrong action was based on faulty knowledge. 

He believed that if we do work out by Reason what it is ethically right for us to do, then we just naturally go ahead and do it! (from here).  ‘No man sins wittingly, and therefore only knowledge is needed to make all men perfectly virtuous’ (from Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy. Chapter ‘Socrates’. Allen and Unwin. 1946. p111).  This means that if a man knows the facts of a situation, he will work out by simple Reason what is the ethically right thing to do and  just naturally go ahead and do it (from here). “Ignorance is the only evil”, Socrates is quoted as saying. 

That’s really terrible stuff from Socrates.  He hadn’t got to the first base of wisdom — that we are salty old sinners who tend to follow our self-interest (if this is in any way involved) and then conjure up respectable  reasons for what we have done.  This latter is called ‘rationalizing’ — the finding of reasons. Socrates blithely omitted it; it wasn’t part of his knowledge of himself or of the world.  But it’s the most basic truth of all: it has always made man’s world as it is and not Paradise.  Christianity does at least recognize this weakness of human nature which is at the root of the comedy of Man, although Christianity’s sequential story of how Sin started with Adam taking the apple, and ended with God giving some of us Faith in Jesus, has a pottiness all its own.

Socrates was a rationalist who valued true knowledge, and also a humanist in that he had a high opinion of humanity.  True knowledge was so  important that he couldn’t have given the good word ‘courage’ to any action based on faulty knowledge; it could only be given to ‘wise endurance of the soul’.  Does this means that the Persian infantry in its Greek campaigns, or Hitler’s infantry in modern times, didn’t showed courage because they were acting in a cause that was wrong?  No, think I, of course they showed courage in that they faced up to wounds or death.  But Socrates would presumably have said No, because they weren’t acting wisely, with true knowledge of the facts of the situation.  This also means that you only allow the label ‘courage’ to go to people whose views you agree with.

To change the subject back again to the negativity of Socratic Method;  did Socrates (as is sometimes stated) in fact positively suggest a new thesis, that “Courage is wise endurance of the soul”.  

Not having Greek, I don’t know whether the ancient dramatists noticed the tragi-comedy of man, while the philosophers with their grinning rationalistic optimism didn’t.


A few general comments on Socrates to finish with:

Subsequent philosophers have said that he focused on human beings, ‘opening up new realms of self-knowledge….exposing….error, superstition, and dogmatic nonsense.’  Pre-Socratic philosophers, they say, had focussed on materialistic and cosmic matters (from here and here).

“His willingness to call everything into question and his determination to accept nothing less than an adequate account of the nature of things make him the first clear exponent of critical philosophy” (from here).  [Did this make him different from the pre-Socratics?]

Socrates used the same logical tricks developed by the Sophists, but in the pursuit of truth rather than just to win an argument as they did (from here).  

To get back to Socrates’ Elenchus, here is another overarching view that I found intriguing (from here); although on re-reading it now, I don’t fully understand what I have written!  It firstly accepts Socrates’ or Plato’s rather mystical idea that the Ideal Forms of concepts such as ‘cat’ or ‘tree’ actually exist in some kind of heaven.  It then goes on to say that people who participate in instances of Socratic Method/Elenchus get a perception of the Form of the Good.  Popper describes the Method as “the art of intellectual intuition, of visualising the divine originals, the Forms or Ideas, of unveiling the Great Mystery behind the …. everyday world of appearances.”  Pierre Hadot too seems to say (again from here) that Plato thought each Socratic question was a spiritual exercise, an exercise in Pure Thought, subject to the demands of the pure Logos, turning the soul away from the sensible world and converting itself towards the Good . Does the following remark refer to the same thing? — that Socrates thought that the chief goodness consisted in the caring of the soul concerned with moral truth and moral understanding (this remark edited from here).

This is heady stuff — to imagine that this newly invented entity Thought has the ability to lift the philosopher into the world of eternal perfection in heaven.  I vaguely feel that this influenced Paul who founded Christianity, which I will look at when I write a post on Paul.

Finally, Socrates said  that the State is a parent to us, its children.  Therefore it is wrong to disobey it.  Also, that  living in a State constitutes an agreement to obey it, (from here, from Plato’s Crito: The Individual and the State.).  I know he lived 2500 years ago but this seems a naivety to go with his rationalistic ones.  I think even the benighted Hebrews thought that it is the Lord above who is our Father and whom we should obey.

Socrates was modest in his logicking, compared to what was to come in later philosophers. Except for his ‘Moral Intellectualism’ and his view that the State is a parent to us, he didn’t say anything positive, no grand theories; he just drew people out.

[The Socratic Problem is that no-one is sure how much of what Plato put into Socrates’ mouth was in fact Plato’s own philosophizing (from here). I’ll follow convention and leave what I’ve written above to Socrates, and ascribe everything else in Plato’s Dialogues to Plato, in another post on this blogsite.]


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