Dialogue and Dialectics: Socratic

views updated

Dialogue and Dialectics: Socratic

Socrates (c. 470399 b.c.e.) developed a method of inquiry and instruction that involved question and answer, or the "Socratic method." Although Socrates professed to be ignorant of the answers to his questions, his questioning and testing of the answers given were designed to expose the weakness of the opinions held by his interlocutors and to refine those opinions. While Socrates left no writings of his own, the Socratic method is demonstrated in the writings of several of his pupils, especially his most famous pupil, Plato (c. 428348 or 347b.c.e.). The Socratic dialogues of Plato present Socrates in conversation with known contemporaries. These early dialogues involve question and answer, but most of these arrive at no definite conclusion or firm agreement.

The Greek noun dialogos derives from the verb dialegesthai, meaning "to enter into a conversation." The term dialectic, or the art of argumentation (dialectike techne ), is derived from this verb as well, but in the case of Socratic dialectic the relevant Greek term is elegkhos (elenchus ). Elenchus means a testing, and, since those tested by Socratic questioning are often shown inadequate in their responses, it comes to mean refutation.

The Literature of Socratic Conversations

In Greek literature, dialogue, or argument, is as old as Homer and the exchange between Achilles and Agamemnon in Iliad 1; it is a salient feature of both Attic comedy and tragedy. Philosophical dialogue began with the conversations Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) knew as the Sokratikoi logoi, a form of imitation (mimesis ) that captured the conversations of Socrates. Although some of the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon (c. 431c. 352 b.c.e.) claim to record a conversation of the historical Socrates and an interlocutor (or interlocutors), all the Socratic dialogues are literary fictions based on a reality we shall never recover.

The literary presentation of philosophical conversation had antecedents in the prose comedies of the Sicilian, Epicharmus (c. 530c. 440 b.c.e.). Our first example of a Socratic conversation comes from Aristophanes's Clouds (423 b.c.e.), in which a fictional Socrates tests the intelligence and character of an older pupil. It is clear from their exchange that Socratic questioning was designed to test not only the intelligence but also the character of an interlocutor.

If, after this conversation, you try to become pregnant with other conceptions, and if, Theaetetus, you succeed, you will become great with better conceptions. And, if you are empty, you will prove less irksome to your companions and a gentler person, since in your new wisdom you will not think that you know what you do not know. These are the limits of my art.

source: Socrates in Theaetetus 210BC.

The "invention" of the dialogue form.

In antiquity there was a dispute over who was the "inventor" of the dialogue form as a vehicle for philosophy. Our knowledge of the rival claims to this honor goes back to Aristotle, who in his dialogue On Poets mentions Zeno of Elea (c. 495c. 430 b.c.e.) as the founder of what he calls dialectic and an unknown Alexamenós as the "inventor" of the mimetic dialogue. According to Diogenes Laertius, a 3rd century b.c.e. Greek writer and source of information about the Greek philosophers, an Athenian cobbler called Simon was the first to represent the conversations of Socrates in "dialectic" form. Like Xenophon, Simon was regarded as a stenographer of conversations he merely overheard.

We know something too of the Socratic dialogues of Antisthenes (c. 445c. 365 b.c.e.) and Aeschines Socraticus (4th cent. b.c.e.). Antisthenes certainly wrote before Plato. We have several citations from Aeschines' Alcibiades, which gives an example of the kind of characterization we find so brilliantly displayed in the Socratic dialogues of Plato. Xenophon's dialogues probably came after Plato's, during the long period of Xenophon's exile from Athens (a city he left in 401). These include his Apology, Symposium, Oeconomicus, the conversations of Books 2 through 4 of the Memorabilia (Memoirs of Socrates's conversations), and a brief passage from his Cyropaedia where we meet an Armenian Socrates (3.31.1014;38). Both Antisthenes and Xenophon wrote quasiphilosophical dialogues in which Socrates was not a speaker; Antisthenes's Cyrus and Xenophon's Hiero are examples.

Thus, by the time he began to write his dialogues, Plato was one of many Socratics and writers of Socratic dialogues, but it was he who transformed the dialogue into a powerful instrument of philosophical inquiry. In his works, there is a distinction between the "Socratic" dialogues, in which Socrates figures as the principal speaker, and the late dialogues, in which he is either present but mainly silent (Sophist, Statesman, and the Timaeus/Critias ) or from which he is absent (the Laws ). Symptomatic of his disappearance in the Platonic dialogues are the long unbroken speeches of a dominant character that take up most of the Timaeus/Critias and the Laws, where we encounter Timaeus, Critias, and a stranger from Athens.

Alternatives to dialogue.

To appreciate the radical character of the Platonic dialogue, it is necessary to consider the alternatives to philosophical discourse available to Plato as he began to write his first Socratic dialogues, beginning perhaps with the Apology of Socrates, written just after the execution of his "older friend" in 399 b.c.e. In the context of the democratic culture of fifthcentury Athens, alternatives included the long display speeches the sophists delivered before large audiences. Plato's Protagoras is a good example of this form of exposition given by a skilled speaker who brooks no interruption or interrogation. Another alternative was the philosophical treatise or poem. Anaxagoras (c. 500c. 428 b.c.e.), a contemporary of Socrates, reveals no evidence of dialogue in his On Nature. The rhetoric of early philosophical poetry tends to unbroken hierophantic pronouncements by a philosopher poet who claims divine authority for what he says, as in the case of Parmenides (b. c. 515 b.c.e.) and Empedocles (c. 490430b.c.e.), who actually claims that he is a god. Heraclitus (c. 540c. 480 b.c.e.) claims his logos (discourse) is an expression of the higher Logos (principle of intelligibility).

As for "dialectic," the short anonymous treatise entitled Dissoi Logoi (Arguments for and against) is contemporary with the young Plato; but here, as in Protagoras's (c. 485410 b.c.e.) more famous Antilogiai, dialectic or the art of argument serves as a primer for developing the ability to argue pro and con on any question. Some of the arguments of the Dissoi Logoi are important to the Platonic dialogues: for example, the question of whether virtue (aretē ) can be taught is addressed in Plato's Meno. This handbook is an example of the training in logic given in the Academy and recorded in the eight books of Aristotle's Topics and Sophistical Refutations. All these works exercise the young in debate. They treat rules and types of argument (known as topoi), but these arguments are disembodied and lack the characterization that is so important a feature of the Platonic dialogues.

The Socratic Dialogues of Plato

Because of their success, the originality of Plato's Socratic dialogues is easily forgotten. More than any other Socratic, Plato invested most of his Socratic dialogues in a historical context that grounds the questions they pursue in a historical reality. Likewise, his dramatic genius in characterization of Socrates and his interlocutors is sometimes overlooked. The opening of the Charmides gives a good example of Plato's early style. Socrates has just returned from Boeotia and the Athenian retreat of 425. He engages in a long conversation on the nature of prudent selfrestraint (sophrosyne ) with two young men whose courage was yet to be tried, Charmides and Critias, both of whom were to be tested as they emerged as two of the "Thirty Tyrants" in 404. Here historical context, characterization, and Plato's philosophical art of dramatic irony are all in evidence. Unlike the dialogues of the other Socratics, Plato's are polyphonic in that they often involve a large cast of characters.

It has long been thought that Plato's Apology represents what Socrates actually said in court, but it is more likely the posthumous vindication of Socrates' life. There is now a growing commitment among interpreters of Plato to understand the "literary" qualities of the Platonic dialogues in terms of Plato's philosophical intentions. And there is now less of a tendency to see Socrates (or the Eleatic Stranger of the Sophist and Statesman or the Athenian Stranger of the Laws ) as a "spokesman" for Plato or, in the case of the earlier "Socratic" dialogues, to take Plato at Socrates' word.

The case of the Republic is an example of the interpretative dangers of mistaking Socrates, who has a great deal to say about the ideal state and the ideal "state" of the individual soul, for Plato, who remains silent and anonymous in all his dialogues. The assent of Plato's brothers, Glaukon and Adeimantus, to the long series of propositions Socrates advances, are easily reversed (as the opening of book 5 of the Republic makes clear). Here and earlier, assent to the odd proposal that the women and children of the guardian class of Socrates' state should be held in common (Republic 4.423B) is called into question and the dialogue is opened suddenly to the prospect of women guardians and a philosopher king (the questions of books 57). Like Socratic questioning, the dialogues of Plato are all open ended.

The Socratic method.

The "Socratic method" is often held up as a model for education by educators, but perhaps with insufficient awareness of how complex it is. In Plato's Socratic dialogues, there is no evidence of an interlocutor being moved by Socrates to abandon a vitiated point of view in search for a view that is philosophically superior. In the case of the early series of dialogues that question four Greek virtues, there is no way out of perplexity. The Socratic elenchus or cross examination usually ends up by showing that a general claim made by an interlocutor has exceptions or conceals hidden assumptions that the interlocutor cannot accept. For this reason the examination of selfrestraint in the Charmides, virtue in the Meno, courage in the Laches, and the unity of the virtues in the Protagoras, is termed "aporetic." That is, they provide no way (poros) to a solution; yet they provide the stimulus of frustration. These early dialogues test Plato's "audience of second intent" more than they test Socrates' interlocutors. In the dialogues that lead to the Republic, in the Theaetetus (On knowledge), Sophist, and Statesmen, and, indeed, in all his dialogues, Plato seems to be offering a philosophical challenge and training to his readers to come to their own solutions to the problems he raises.

Socrates' maieutic art.

Plato clearly felt that it was impossible in oneonone conversation or in a conversation with a great variety of possible readers to inculcate philosophical understanding. The most vigorous of Socrates' opponents (Thrasymachos in the Republic, Kallikles in the Gorgias, and Zeno in the Parmenides ) refuse to agree with Socrates after a long giveandtake. The genius of the "Socratic method" is that it involves frustration, not inculcation. It prompts in the interlocutor a dissatisfaction with his settled convictions.

At the end of the Theaetetus Socrates represents himself as the son of a midwife who is himself a midwife to the mental offspring of his interlocutors. He can either help deliver a superior conception or induce a kind of modesty in the recognition of one's barrenness. This is his maieutic art (Gk. maieutikos, of midwifery). Socrates recognizes the claims to a knowledge of inspired men of the past and present. They possess a knowledge they can transmit; Socrates can only deliver knowledge already present in the individual. Thus, in the Republic he compares his method to a protreptic turning a companion to the light rather than cramming vision into his eyes. Such are Plato's descriptions of the "Socratic method."

See also Philosophy, History of ; Philosophy, Moral: Ancient ; Philosophy of Mind: Ancient and Medieval ; Platonism .


Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Edited by Michael Holquist. Translated by Caryl Emerson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Blondell, Ruby. The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Clay, Diskin. "The Origins of the Platonic Dialogue." In The Socratic Movement, edited by Paul A. Vander Waerdt. Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Friedländer, Paul. Plato: An Introduction. Translated by Hans Meyerhoff. New York: Pantheon, 1958. Translation of Platon: Seinswahrheit und Lebenswirklichkeit.

Giannantoni, Gabriele, ed. Socratis et Socraticorum Reliquiae. 4 vols. Naples: Bibliopolis, 1990.

Griswold, Charles H., Jr. Introduction to Platonic Writings/ Platonic Readings. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. Originally published 1988.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Nightingale, Andrea. Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Vlastos, Gregory. Socratic Studies, edited by Myles Burnyeat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. See "The Socratic Elenchus: Method Is All."

Diskin Clay