Problem of the Historical Socrates
Socrates' centrality to the history of Western philosophy has been assured by Plato, who himself is one of the major figures of Western philosophy. Without the exposure given to Socrates by Plato in his dialogues it is possible that Socrates would have been only a minor figure in the history of Western philosophy, since as far as is known he left no writings or philosophical school as his legacy. The question that arises, however, is to which extent the Platonic Socrates is true to the historical Socrates. It cannot be assumed that Plato's portrayal of Socrates is historically accurate or was even intended to be. It is clear that Plato's admiration of Socrates has resulted in a merger of Socrates' philosophical views with his own. The task of the historian is to separate the historical Socrates from the "Platonic" Socrates.
As already indicated, Plato features Socrates in his philosophical dialogues; he is continually depicted as being engaged in conversation on different topics with various interlocutors. Naturally, Plato portrays Socrates as espousing many philosophical views that coincidentally are the same views known to be held by Plato himself (see, for example, Republic, 5). In the course of his dialogues, Plato also gives many biographical details about Socrates. Symposium is a good example of this, second only to Apology in biographical importance.
Plato was a follower of Socrates, although Socrates did not have students per se, and no doubt in his dialogues Plato reflects some of Socrates' own views, learnt during his association with him. Yet it is probable that Plato uses Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own views. The Socrates in Plato's dialogues, therefore, presents the historian with a problem: how to distinguish the historical Socrates from the Platonic Socrates. In addition to Plato's dialogues, there are three other sources for reconstructing the historical Socrates.
Xenophon, Athenian historian and philosopher, wrote two works (similar to Plato's dialogues) in which Socrates is the main character; Xenophon is favorably disposed to Socrates as is Plato. In these dialogues, he portrays Socrates as one concerned only with ethical issues. Because all the other sources of data on Socrates portray Socrates as being interested in issues beyond the ethical, however, most scholars agree that Xenophon was not able or not willing to explore other aspects of the philosophy of Socrates, whatever these would have been. Thus the same problem arises with Xenophon's works as with Plato's: distinguishing between the historical Socrates and the Xenophonic Socrates.
Aristophanes wrote a play entitled The Clouds in which Socrates is held up to ridicule. For example, he is portrayed as floating in the air and contemplating the sun. When asked why he floats in the air, he replies, "I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above; for the earth by its force attracts the sap of the mind to itself. It is just the same with the watercress." It is clear that Aristophanes presents a caricature of Socrates. What can be learned from this caricature is that Socrates had a reputation for impractical, esoteric speculation, which not every Athenian appreciated. So unlike Xenophanes' portrayal, Socrates' philosophical interests went beyond ethical questions.
Although he provides no biographical details on him, Aristotle makes the occasional reference to Socrates' views; unlike Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes, Aristotle does not seem to exhibit a bias either for or against Socrates, and does not use Socrates as the mouthpiece for his own views, as do Plato and Xenophon. In general, Aristotle deals judiciously with his philosophical predecessors and opponents, and since he did spend twenty-four years in the Academy (Plato's philosophical school), Aristotle would likely have had a good knowledge of what Socrates really believed since Plato himself had had a close association with Socrates. Thus, of the possible sources of historical data on Socrates, Aristotle's works are the most promising.
Likely, the biographical details about Socrates in Plato's dialogues are historically reliable, since, as a youth, Plato was a "student" or "follower" of Socrates. The historian should be aware, however, of the tendency towards the idealization of Socrates. It is not so certain that Xenophon gives an accurate account of Socrates' life; Aristophanes' depiction of Socrates, of course, is not reliable, since it is intended as satire. Reconstructing Socrates' philosophical views is another matter. Both Plato and Xenophon do not distinguish between the historical Socrates and the Socrates of their own constructions; both use him as a mouthpiece for their own views. Thus, the best approach to reconstructing Socrates' philosophical views is to rely primarily upon what Aristotle says about them, since Aristotle seems to be the most reliable of the four possible sources for a reconstruction of Socratic philosophy. What Aristotle says can then be used a criterion of determining what from Plato and Xenophon's depictions is a true reflection of the historical Socrates.
The most important reference to Socrates' philosophical beliefs is found in Metaphysics 13.4; 1078b 22-33:
But when Socrates was occupying himself with the excellences of character, and in connection with them became the first to raise the problem of universal definition (horizesthai katholou zêtountos prôtou) (for of the physicists Democritus only touched on the subject to a small extent, and defined, after a fashion, the hot and the cold; while the Pythagoreans had before this treated of a few things, whose definitions-e.g. those of opportunity, justice, or marriage-they connected with numbers; but it was natural that Socrates should be seeking the essence (ti estin), for he was seeking to syllogize, and 'what a thing is' is the starting-point of syllogisms; for there was as yet none of the dialectical power which enables people even without knowledge of the essence to speculate about contraries and inquire whether the same science deals with contraries; for two things may be fairly ascribed to Socrates—inductive arguments and universal definition, both of which are concerned with the starting-point of science):—but Socrates did not make the universals or the definitions exist apart: they, however, gave them separate existence, and this was the kind of thing they called Ideas.In this section Aristotle says that two things may be fairly ascribed to Socrates: inductive arguments and universal definition. (He also implies that Socrates was concerned with ethical issues—"the excellences of character"—see Metaphysics 1.6.; 987b 1-4). Inductive arguments or induction is a method of logical argumentation and, in Aristotle's view, roughly describes what Socrates practiced, although it is somewhat anachronistic to say that Socrates knew himself to be arguing inductively. Induction is the drawing of a general conclusion pertaining to many individual things from careful observation of what is common to the individual things; as a method, it presupposes the ability of abstraction, the seeing commonalties among things that differ in other respects. For example, imagine that you observe a newspaper burning, then a book burning and finally a paper bag burning. Although these three events also differ from one another is several respects, through abstraction, however, you are able to isolate the aspects in which all are alike: each is burning and each is made of paper. You then draw the general conclusion from your experience that paper burns; this is inductive reasoning. Such a conclusion is still open to refutation by future experience, but for the present it is accepted as a general truth.
Induction stands in contrast this with deductive reasoning, which is the reverse procedure: the reasoning from the general to the specific. Instead of reasoning from particulars by means of abstraction to a general conclusion, one reasons from the general (a major premise) to the specific; that is, one subsumes a less general category under a more general category, and understands the former as an instance of the latter (a species belonging to a genus). In deductive reasoning, one already knows the essence (ti estin) of a collection of things, what they all share in common, and this serves as the major premise in the syllogism. So you may reason: 1. Paper burns; 2. A file folder is (made of) paper; 3. Therefore, a file folder burns. To use more proper terminology, the above is an example of a categorical syllogism: the major premise states that something is true about a class, or genus (the essence or part of the essence of that class), the minor premise identifies something as a member of that class, or genus, and the conclusion is the attribution of what is true about the class, or genus, to that which is identified as belonging to that class, or genus. Thus file folders are identified as belonging to the class, or genus, of things made of paper, so that what is true of the latter is necessarily true of the former: file folders are combustible.
Now the question that arises is whether there is anything about the Platonic Socrates that resembles Aristotle's depiction of one who reasoned inductively? The impression that one receives from the Socrates of Plato's dialogues is of someone who asks many questions on the pretense of ignorance (Socratic irony). He asks questions in order to come to an understanding of something (e.g.'s, the nature of piety, knowledge, courage, temperance, justice, etc.). When he receives an answer to a question, Socrates usually commends his interlocutor (ironically), and then asks for clarification of a few points; in other words, he asks further questions that arise from the answer to the previous question. This process continues until Socrates' interlocutor either admits his ignorance of the subject, contrary to his original claim, or becomes extremely annoyed with Socrates and cuts short the dialectical process. This method of inquiry is known as the dialectical method: the asking of a series of interlocking and progressive questions.
What Aristotle describes as induction seems to be this dialectical method. Socrates' dialectical method is inductive reasoning, insofar as he begins with a question about the essence of something and tries to organize the experiential data as an answer to that question; in other words, he tries to abstract general truths from experience. His aim is to define something, to understand and state its essence (ti estin); in so doing, he answers the original question. So, for example, Socrates notices that people speak about the beautiful, and, assuming they know what they are talking about, he seeks to understand what beauty is (Symposium); from all data pertaining to beauty derived from his questioning, he attempts to determine what beauty is, what all beautiful things have in common so that they all can be called beautiful.
The stranger in Sophist explains the value of dialectic process as follows:
They [dialecticians] cross-examine a man's words, when he thinks that he is saying something and is really saying nothing, and easily convict him of inconsistencies in his opinions; these they then collect by the dialectical process, and placing them side by side, show that they contradict one another about the same things, in relation to the same things, and in the same respect. He, seeing this, is angry with himself, and grows gentle towards others, and thus is entirely delivered from great prejudices and harsh notions, in a way which is most amusing to the hearer, and produces the most lasting good effect on the person who is the subject of the operation. For as the physician considers that the body will receive no benefit from taking food until the internal obstacles have been removed, so the purifier of the soul is conscious that his patient will receive no benefit from the application of knowledge until he is refuted, and from refutation learns modesty; he must be purged of his prejudices first and made to think that he knows only what he knows, and no more. (Sophist 230b-d)Being subjected to the cross-examination of dialectic impresses upon one the extent of one's ignorance of the topic discussed; a person so subjected discovers that his views are inconsistent and even contradictory. This experience leads to intellectual modesty, which is the first step towards truly knowing.
As a dialectician (or as Aristotle puts it, an inductive reasoner), Plato has Socrates describe himself as a mid-wife:
Well, my art of midwifery is in most respects like theirs; but differs, in that I attend men and not women; and look after their souls when they are in labor, and not after their bodies: and the triumph of my art is in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth. And like the mid-wives, I am barren, and the reproach which is often made against me, that I ask questions of others and have not the wit to answer them myself, is very just-the reason is, that the god compels-me to be a midwife, but does not allow me to bring forth. And therefore I am not myself at all wise, nor have I anything to show which is the invention or birth of my own soul, but those who converse with me profit. Some of them appear dull enough at first, but afterwards, as our acquaintance ripens, if the god is gracious to them, they all make astonishing progress; and this in the opinion of others as well as in their own. It is quite dear that they never learned anything from me; the many fine discoveries to which they cling are of their own making. But to me and the god they owe their delivery. (Theaetetus 150 b-151d)What Socrates is doing when he calls himself a midwife is describing metaphorically his task as a dialectician. Professing his own ignorance (being "barren"), he seeks to help to "give birth" to wisdom in others that already exists in utero, as it were; often the possessor is unaware of even being "pregnant" with wisdom. Insofar as Socrates takes experiential data already possessed by a person and organizes it in such as way as an answer to a question—to produce an insight into the intelligibility of the data (a general truth), an intelligibility of which the person was previously unaware—he is functioning metaphorically as a midwife, helping in the process of giving birth to wisdom. The birth represents coming to understand what something is..
One of the best examples of Socrates' mid-wifery is found in Meno, where Socrates, by means of his dialectical method (the asking of a series of related questions in response to the insights into the data already possessed by the subject of the midwifery process), leads an illiterate slave-boy step by step into a demonstration of the Pythagorean theorem. The boy already possesses enough experiential data from which it is possible to construct the theorem; what he lacks is the ability to see an intelligibility in the data, which Socrates helps him to discover.
This leads to a consideration of what Aristotle means when he says that Socrates is also concerned with universal definition. In Aristotelian terms, to come to understand what a thing is to define that thing, at least in part. To define something is to isolate its essential characteristics, ignoring what Aristotle would call its accidental characteristics; the essential nature of the thing is what a thing is (ti estin), its formal cause, and this is expressed as a definition. As was said, Socrates, in his dialectical practice, is after the essence (ti estin) of something expressed as a definition; he does this by inductive reasoning or dialectical method, i.e., by finding some intelligibility in the apparent randomness of the data of experience. This is what Aristotle means when he says that Socrates is concerned with universal definition; this is also what Aristotle meant when he said that Socrates was seeking the essence of things, for the universal definition of something is statement of its essence.
In Metaphysics 1078b 22-33, Aristotle also points out that
to know the essence of a thing (ti estin) is the starting point
of syllogisms; this is because to syllogize is to classify a species
as belonging to a genus, and this presupposes that one knows the essences
(expressed as definitions) of the things about which one is syllogizing.
To know the essence of a thing, i.e., "what a thing is" (ti estin)
is what Socrates is said to be seeking as the goal of his dialectical
process. Moreover, Aristotle adds, "Inductive arguments and universal
definition...are concerned with the starting-point of science," by
which he means that science or more properly knowledge is impossible
without generalization and classification, for there is no knowledge
of the individual thing, since knowing is to classify an individual
thing as something more general. as belonging to a species or genus.
All knowledge begins from axioms, which are generalizations or universal
Aristotle comments that Socrates, unlike Plato and his followers, did not make universals exist apart from the particular manifestations of the universals: "But Socrates did not make the universals or the definitions exist apart: they, however, gave them separate existence, and this was the kind of thing they called Ideas" (see also Metaphysics 1079b; 1086b). What this means will be considered later in more detail. Suffice it to say that for Socrates the notion that essences, definitions or what Plato calls Ideas, have no separate existence from individual things known as instances of the essences.
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