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Understanding Socrates' Philosophy and the Socratic Method

Abhay Burande Mar 9, 2020
Socrates never wrote anything and still influenced the world of philosophy. He coined the very existence of Philosophy, which in turn has carved several complex learnings and studies over the centuries. This post talks about the Socratic Method which was influenced by Socratic philosophy.

An Alternative Thought

There are opinions regarding the existence of the Father of Western Philosophy, Socrates. Mankind knows about this legend from the numerous dialogues that Plato wrote. The question is whether these dialogues represented the true thoughts of Socrates, or did they reflect the thoughts of Plato, or was Socrates himself a fantastic piece of Plato's imagination?
Socrates is remembered as a Greek philosopher. He was born in 469/470 BC and died in 399 BC. He is regarded as a puzzling personality as although he did not write any information, he completely and permanently altered the method of understanding and thinking philosophy. He laid the basis of Western philosophy.
Considering the standard of fifth-century Athens, his appearance, demeanor, personality, methods and views were exotic. It is said that he had large, bulging, crab-like eyes, a flat and upturned nose and large, fleshly, ass-like lips. He grew long hair and roamed, without having a wash, barefooted.
He looked arrogant and his boastful, conceited movements caused the enemy soldiers to maintain a safe distance. Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes are the source of information regarding him.
He had three sons named Lamprocles, Menexenus and Sophroniscus. It was declared that he was corrupting the young men in Athens and hence punished to death by consuming poisonous hemlock.
After Socrates' self execution, as was decided by the jury, Plato resolved to immortalize his master's work. He attempted and wrote several dialogues which appeared as if Socrates was featured as a wise, learned man who was there to answer and solve the various questions asked by the masses.
But, later it happened that these dialogues of Plato supported his personal thoughts, opinions, and conclusions. One of the most important contributions made by Socrates was the Socratic Method. In the following sections of this article, we shall study the same in detail.

Socratic Method

This is also called the Method of Elenchus or Socratic Debate. The word, Elenchus means 'to put to test'. It is the method that helps to understand a person's motifs and thoughts with regards to the statements made by him. This is precisely done by further questioning and cross-questioning sprees.
Socrates imbibed the method of putting questions, and upon getting the primary answer, more questions were asked, with the aim of getting secondary answers, and then evaluating the differences between the primary and the secondary answers. This method helps to guess the true intent of the person.
This method however, is grossly misunderstood, and hence, the least applied. However, various law schools and philosophy discourse apply the Socratic Method. Socrates's main aim was to imbibe the virtue of rationality in the minds of the masses so that they would not be blind followers, and would have for them an opinion of their own.
The questions on which Socrates framed the questions to ask his respondents were usually from the domains of virtue, justice, courage, aesthetics and beauty, and so on.
One interesting point to note here is that, while he framed and interrogated the respondents, Socrates never claimed to have knowledge about the subjects. Rather, he would say that he had absolutely no knowledge of the matters on which the questions were asked. This is usually referred to as Socratic Irony.
He asked the questions in a childlike manner. The crux is, just as ignorant students ask basic questions to their learned teachers, in order to comprehend better, so did Socrates in the same manner ask questions to delve deep into the subject.
Now the paramount question is, What has made this complex method a piece of genius for the mankind to remember forever?
Well the answer is simple. Vlastos and Graham opined that this method efficiently brought out the shades a human mind and morale exhibit. This is the reason why the method continues to bask in the light of importance. And hence is the answer.
The method rejects the adherence of common and popular unanimous traditional belief system and practices. It calls for rationality which comes from one's own mind.
The steps involved in the practice of this method could be divided in the following:
  • Bringing out the preexisting notions and concepts.
  • Clarification of those notions and concepts.
  • Hypotheses Evaluation
  • Decision regarding the acceptance or rejection of the hypotheses.
Needless to say, this method is the most beneficial when there is an ongoing confusion regarding an age-old practice or belief. It certainly laid down the basis of inquiry-based learning system.
Elenchos is said to be the prime technique of the Socratic method. This was executed as follows:
  • An interlocutor makes a statement.
  • Socrates may consider it as wrong and aim to cancel it.
  • Socrates makes other statements.
  • The interlocutor accedes that these statements are contradictory to his statement.
  • Socrates asserts that the interlocutor's statement is false and its opposite is true.
  • One assessment can cause a more refined assessment of the concept under debate.
  • A series of elenchai may take place and culminate in a state of puzzlement.
The Socratic method is to search for the assumptions that shape one's sentiment. These assumptions are pondered over and their consistency with other beliefs is checked. A series of logical questions are asked with the objective of assisting a person to discover the individual opinions regarding some topic.

Socrates' Philosophy

Socrates asserted that an individual must know himself in order to be wise. A life that has not been examined is not worth living. And to examine life, questioning was more than necessary.
His philosophy can be learned through the writings of Plato. Socrates spoke that he was like a midwife. Socrates' mother was a midwife, and so, to bring out a new aspect of life from the old, came naturally to him.
Another important philosophy of Socrates is that, no man commits the wrong intentionally. It is usually his inability to recognize the right thing to do.
On similar lines, Socrates believed that no one does any bad thing on purpose. It is either his inability to differentiate between the right and the wrong. Their conception of good is flawed.
However, he attended the souls of men when they were in trouble. His art won when he could profoundly assess whether the thoughts that arose in the minds of the youth were false icons or true and noble.
He had the opinion that just like midwives he was also barren. He was blamed that he asked questions for which he himself had no answer. He replied that he was not astute or had nothing to demonstrate that was the invention of his soul.
However, those who would converse with him would necessarily gain something. Socrates also said that the youth belonging to the richer class accosted him of their own sweet will. They tried to ape him by examining others. There were many such rich youth who assumed that they knew some facts, but in fact knew very less or nothing.
It so happened that the people examined by such rich youth rather than being angry with themselves showered their wrath on Socrates. So, he was titled as the "villainous misleader of the youth." These people could not tell precisely how he was wrong. Only as they were large in number, they could affect loud slander.
At the end of the day, the dilemma that still persists is the variations in the projection and understanding of this ancient Greek philosopher who was succeeded by an array of intellectuals, for whom he had himself paved a noble path.
The dilemma is, the various interpretations of Socrates, based on history and our own unique way of contemplation and understanding. This dilemma is known as the Socratic Problem.