Socratic Dialectic

Socrates is a historical figure. He was executed by the city of Athens in 399 BCE.

Socrates did not publish his thoughts. This means that to know what he thought, Plato founded the Academy in 387 BCE. He died in 347 BCE.

Zeno founded Stoicism in about 300 BCE.

Arcesilaus refocused the Academy in about 268 BCE.
we have to rely on what others wrote about him. Plato is our primary source. He features a character named Socrates in his dialogues.

There is a question among historians about how reliable these dialogues are as a source for what Socrates thought, but we do not have to worry about this to understand the connection between Socrates and the Stoics and the Academics. What Plato and others wrote about Socrates was their only source of information.

This also helps explain how the Academics and Stoics could look back to Socrates but see different things. The picture of Socrates the Platonic dialogues paint is incomplete, and it is possible to fill the missing details in different ways. The Stoics and Academics, when they looked back to Socrates, seem to have done that.

One thing the Stoics and Academics both saw when they looked back to Socrates is the questioning in which he engaged in his love of wisdom. This was something about Socrates they could not help but notice.

In these lecture notes, I set out and comment on some passages in Plato's Apology that can begin to help us understand what the Stoics and Academics thought Socrates was doing in his questioning.



Apology 21b


"You know Chaerephon, I fancy. He was my comrade from a youth and the comrade of your democratic party, and shared in the recent exile and came back with you. And you know the kind of man he was, how impetuous in whatever he undertook. Well, once he went to Delphi and made so bold as to ask the oracle this question; and, gentlemen, don't make a disturbance at what I say; for he asked if there were anyone wiser than I. Now the Pythia replied that there was no one wiser. And about these things his brother here will bear you witness, since Chaerephon is dead. But see why I say these things; for I am going to tell you whence the prejudice against me has arisen" (Apology 20e).

Delphi was the home of the Temple of Apollo. The Pythia is the name of the priestess who serves as oracle.

"From this investigation [of what the Pythia said], many enmities have arisen against me, and such as are most harsh and grievous, so that many prejudices have resulted from them and I am called a wise man. For on each occasion those who are present think I am wise in the matters in which I refute someone else" (Apology 22e).

"I am still even now going about and searching and investigating at the god's behest anyone, whether citizen or foreigner, who I think is wise; and when he does not seem so to me, I give aid to the god and show that this man is not wise. And by reason of this occupation I have no leisure to attend to any of the affairs of the state worth mentioning, or of my own, but am in vast poverty on account of my service to the god" (Apology 23b).


For when I heard this [from the Pythia, that no one is wiser than me], I thought to myself: 'What in the world does the god mean, and what riddle is he propounding? For I am conscious that I am not wise either much or little. What then does he mean by declaring that I am the wisest? He certainly cannot be lying, for that is not possible for him.' And for a long time I was at a loss as to what he meant; then with great reluctance I proceeded to investigate him somewhat as follows. I went to one of those who had a reputation for wisdom, thinking that there, if anywhere, I should prove the utterance wrong and should show the oracle that this man is wiser than I, but you said I was wisest. So examining this man—for I need not call him by name, but it was one of the public men with regard to whom I had this kind of experience, men of Athens—and conversing with him, this man seemed to me to seem to be wise to many other people and especially to himself, but not to be so.


Plato's Apology is the second in the tetralogy (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo) of dialogues about Socrates' trail and execution. The Apology shows him at his trial in 399 BCE.

The story Socrates tells does not explain why Chaerephon and maybe some others thought Socrates was wise. (It is hard to see why Chaerephon would ask the oracle whether anyone was wiser than Socrates if Chaerephon did not already think Socrates was wise.) It explains why Socrates goes around publicly the way he does.

In what he understands as service to the god, Socrates searched for someone with wisdom. Because he thought that he himself lacked wisdom, he needed a way to determine whether others had it. His method was to question them and to use their answers as premises in an argument for a conclusion they themselves thought was contrary to something they had said. If his interlocutors were refuted in this way, it seems that Socrates could conclude that they lacked wisdom and hence were not counterexamples to the oracle’s response.

This is Socratic dialectic. Here is a little more formal description of it.

There is a questioner and a respondent. Socrates, as the questioner, asks the respondent a question. The respondent gives P as the answer. Socrates asks further questions. The respondent gives Q, R, and S as the answers. Socrates gets the respondent to admit that not-P follows from Q, R, and S. The respondent realizes that his beliefs cannot all be true and that he must give up P, one of Q, R, or S, or his belief that Q, R, and S commit him to not-P.

Here is the situation the respondent is in. His beliefs commit him to a contradiction.

                                         Q    R    S
                                        ----------
                        P                   not-P
                        --------------------
                                        ⊥

Socrates does not tell the respondent what to do. He is the questioner.

One logical possibility for the respondent is to reason as follows and come to believe that P is not true.

                                         Q    R    S
                                        ----------
                        P                   not-P
                        --------------------
                                        ⊥
                                       ---
                                      not-P

The are other logical possibilities too, but the question is what should the respondent do?

This should question is a question about what it is rational for the respondent to do.

It seems that he must do something. He cannot simply accept that he has these beliefs and that they are inconsistent, but what he does depends on his justification. He might, as in the second proof, decide to give up P because he thinks he has more justification for Q, R, and S and that they commit him to not-P.

Here too are some more questions the Stoics and Academics face.

The respondent believed P before he talks with Socrates. In questioning, Socrates gets him to see that he has beliefs that commit him to not-P. Does it follow that now the respondent does not know P?

What about the time before he talks with Socrates? Does it follow that although he believed P, he did not know P?

We can run these same questions with wisdom in the place of knowledge.

To answer these questions, it seems that we have to also answer these questions:

What is knowledge?

What is the justification for knowledge?

How is knowledge different from belief?

What is wisdom?

How is wisdom related to belief and knowledge?



Apology 21c

It was one of the public men with regard to whom I had this kind of experience, "I am called a wise man. For on each occasion those who are present think I am wise in the matters in which I confute someone else; but the fact is, gentlemen, it is likely that the god is really wise and by his oracle means this: human wisdom is of little or no value" (Apology 23a). men of Athens—and conversing with him, this man seemed to me to seem to be wise to many other people and especially to himself, but not to be so; and then I tried to show him that he thought he was wise, but was not. As a result, I became hateful to him and to many of those present; and so, as I went away, I thought to myself, I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.


Socrates thinks that his interlocutors do not have the knowledge they think they have.

He draws this conclusion because they refutes themselves in dialectic. They show themselves to have beliefs that commit them to the negation of what they first say in answer to Socrates.

This gives us a condition on knowledge. Knowledge is safe from refutation in dialectic.

Socrates thinks that his wisdom is "human wisdom."

What is this human wisdom?

In explanation, Socrates distinguishes his state of mind from the state of the man he has refuted. "[T]his man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either."

Since no one can know that he does not know anything, this presumably cannot be what Socrates means.

What, then, does he mean?



Apology 29d

[I]f in reply you should say to me: Socrates, this time we will not do as Anytus [one of Socrates' accusers] says, but we will let you go, on this condition, however, that you no longer in this investigation spend time and not to love wisdom, "For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I go about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long. Such another is not likely to come to you, gentlemen; but if you take my advice, you will spare me. But you, perhaps, might be angry, like people awakened from a nap, and might slap me, as Anytus advises, and easily kill me; then you would pass the rest of your lives in slumber, unless the god, in his care for you, should send someone else to sting you. And that I am, as I say, a kind of gift from the god, you might understand from this; for I have neglected all my own affairs and have been enduring the neglect of my concerns all these years, but I am always busy in your interest, coming to each one of you individually like a father or an elder brother and urging you to care for virtue" (Apology 30e). and if you are caught doing so again you shall die. If you should say this and let me go on this condition, I should say in reply to you that I respect and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you, and while I live and am able to continue, I shall never give up the love of wisdom or stop exhorting you and demonstrating against any one of you whom I may meet, saying in my accustomed way: Most excellent man, are you who are a citizen of Athens, the greatest of cities and the most famous for wisdom and power, not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth and for reputation and honor, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom and truth and your soul in such a manner that it is best? And if any of you argues the point, and says he does care, I shall not let him go at once, nor shall I go away, but I shall question him, examine well and test, and if I find that he does not possess virtue, but says he does, I shall rebuke him for scorning the things that are of most importance and caring more for what is of less worth. This I shall do to whomever I meet, young and old, foreigner and citizen, but most to the citizens, inasmuch as you are more nearly related to me. For know that the god commands me to do this, and I believe that no greater good ever came to pass in the city than my service to the god. For I go about doing nothing else than urging you, young and old, not to care for your bodies or your property more than for your souls such they are the best, or even so much; and I tell you that virtue does not come from money, but from virtue comes money and all other good things to man, both to the individual and to the state. If by saying these things I corrupt the youth, these things must be injurious; but if anyone asserts that I say other things than these, he says what is untrue. So I say to you, men of Athens, either do as Anytus tells you, or not, and either acquit me, or not, knowing that I shall not change my conduct even if I am to die many times over.


Socrates tells the jury that he will not give up the love of wisdom.

The object of this practice is "virtue." When someone has virtue, his soul is in "such a manner that it is best." The soul is in this state when it has "truth." Refutation in dialectic shows that someone does not have virtue.

Socrates criticizes the Athenians for not caring sufficiently about virtue.

This raises several questions.

What is this "truth"?

Why does possessing it constitute "virtue"?

Socrates says that caring for this "truth" is more important than caring for our "bodies" and "property." This must mean that having this "truth" make us happy even if we are sick and poor.

What about the world and our place in it that explains why this is true?







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