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Dialogues of Plato | Main Ideas


Socratic Method

The Socratic method is a maieutic process, or a process of "midwifery." Socrates referred to it as such in the Theaetetus (150b–c) because the process of question and answer puts the person in dialogue into intellectual labor, resulting in the "birth" of ideas. This process occurs with the help of his partner, the "midwife."

Midwifery most often consists of elenchus, which is cross-examination for the purpose of refutation. It has a negative aspect to it, its first phase, but if successful, it leads to a second phase of discussion, psychagogia. It roots out false opinions to clear the ground for truth—it is important, consequently, for the participants to engage in sincere discourse, so that false and true opinions can be expressed and discerned. Socrates begins with a preliminary question, the answer to which is examined and found wanting, either in completeness or truth. By virtue of elenchus the individual is thrown into a state of confusion, or aporia. This confusion is brought on when the individual becomes aware that he was holding conflicting opinions but has no reference to sort out which ideas should remain and which should be jettisoned. The individual is "led" out of this confusion by psychagogia, or "soul leading," and on to knowledge. Readers see this process at work in the Meno, and interestingly enough, on an uneducated servant boy. Others of Socrates's interlocutors become frustrated and angry with him, leaving the conversation before "soul leading" can take place.

Socrates as a Literary Character

In describing the Socratic method, Plato develops Socrates as a literary character as well as a philosopher. The Socrates that emerges is both a deeply spiritual man, concerned not only with his own fate but with that of the Athenian people, as well as a playful and ironic conversationalist who is not above taunting his interlocutor. These characteristics are on full display, for example, in the Meno, when Plato uses a substitute for the Sophist Gorgias to give Socrates the opportunity to demonstrate the traits of a true philosopher. He then dances circles around Meno, who struggles to maintain even the thread of the discussion, let alone define something as abstract as virtue.

This style is demonstrated at its most dangerous when he argues for his life in the Apology. His first example of a man supposed to be wise but later determined to know nothing is a politician. Not all of his 501 jurors would have fit that description, but many of them would, so the comparison is insulting. Later, his suggested "penalties" are in fact ironic dares to the jury that has just found him guilty of blasphemy and corrupting the city's youth and that will now probably sentence him to death. And we see it at its most serious when he acknowledges that life is a sickness and welcomes death by asking for a sacrifice. Is this a sign of severe depression, nihilism, realism, or playfulness in the face of disaster? It is a testament to the complexity of the character Plato has developed that centuries of scholars have not been able to satisfactorily answer such questions.

The Nature of Knowledge

For Socrates, knowledge is inextricably connected with virtue. So to know the good is to do the good. Moreover, for Socrates, knowledge is not constituted by tradition, custom, or habit. Instead, it is the result of careful, rational examination of one's beliefs. This examination is carried out under what is now called the Socratic method.

Socrates's concern is with the nature of ethical terms. He asks questions such as "What is justice?" "What is courage?" "What is friendship?" and "What is virtue?" These "What is X?" questions do not find a metaphysical grounding in those dialogues devoted specifically to Socrates's thought, even if the criteria for a good answer to a "What is X?" question suggest one. However, they suggest to later philosophers a philosophic and rhetorical method rooted in the syllogism, a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is drawn based on two given premises.

It is Plato who provides a metaphysical framework within which Socrates's questions can be asked. This framework is also interwoven with his epistemology (theory of knowledge). Plato thinks knowledge is possible only when one turns away from the senses and the empirical world to contemplate the forms. Given the nature of the forms, and the nature of the soul, knowledge is innate. The soul is immortal and has encountered the forms. At birth, the soul begins forgetting as it is thrust into the disorienting vessel of the body. Only reason can reunite the soul with its source of knowledge. Plato calls this process recollection.

Plato's Metaphysical Forms

Plato thinks there are two realms of reality. The realm of being, reality, or the intelligible, is the realm of the forms. Form is the absolute nature of any particular thing. So, while there may be many dogs, and many types of dog, there is only one Form of Dog. The forms are eternal, immutable, immaterial, and divine. They make possible everything that is.

The realm of becoming, appearance, or the visible, is the realm of the empirical world. It is the realm of change, flux, opinion, and imagination. Whereas the intelligible realm is grasped with the intellect, the visible realm is grasped with sensation. Moreover, since the visible realm, or realm of becoming, is continuously in flux, its sensible particulars can never be objects of knowledge, only opinion. The forms alone are the proper objects of knowledge.

Rational Inquiry through Socratic Dialectic

Reason is essential to Socrates's assumptions about the nature of knowledge of how to live, his method of investigation, and Plato's theory of forms. Socrates is confident that answers to questions about how to live—ethical questions—can be answered by examining one's own beliefs. Hence, the answers are within each of us, and can be uncovered by reason.

He eschews relying on traditional beliefs, since these generally come without any understanding about how and why they are the right beliefs. In addition, he rejects the idea that one can properly be said to know what the good life is if one cannot explain the essential components of that goodness, e.g., courage, friendship, temperance, and justice. One may be able to do the right thing, but if one cannot exactingly and consistently account for what that right thing is, and why it is right, then one cannot be properly said to know.

Reason also drives Socrates's method forward. Each time he asks for a definition of an ethical term, he wants the general account, not the particular, or an example. The former is the domain of reason, the latter sensation. For example, it is only through reason that one can move from individual instances of piety to talk about the general concept.

Plato's theory of forms demands rationality as the mode of apprehension. This is because the forms are immaterial, abstract entities. As such, they cannot be grasped with the senses. Reason is the only power suited to do so.

The One and the Many

Plato distinguishes between the One and the many by dividing reality into two realms: the realm of Being and the realm of Becoming. The realm of Being is the intelligible realm, where what is—Reality as such—is grasped through reason. The realm of Becoming is the sensible realm, where multiple things exist—individual dogs and cats, tables and chairs, and so forth. These multiple things are grasped by sensation.

According to Plato, Reality is the realm of the forms, the single what-it-is of any particular thing. So, there is a Form of Cat that is what-it-is-to-be-a-cat for any individual cat. The same goes for everything that we experience. All individual things are instances of a form. When Socrates asks for the definition of an ethical concept, Plato's answer is the form of that concept. This is the One that makes possible the many. In short, the forms explain what there is.


Plato contends that all learning is recollecting. This idea is put forward with great vigor in the Meno, where Socrates leads Meno's servant boy through a series of mathematical questions designed to uncover any false beliefs the boy has, and then to show that, as he begins to use his reason correctly, he begins to arrive at the correct answers.

Prior to the servant boy sequence, Socrates tells Meno a story he heard from religious experts. They hold that the soul is immortal. Prior to birth, it has encountered the forms. When it is born, it forgets what it knows because the body distorts and distracts from pure contemplation of what the soul knew before birth. Through rationality, the soul can become reacquainted with what it already knew.

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