How Socratic Was Socrates?


Adversarialism, eh? Alright then, to start I want to point out that philosophers have been pushing this macho schtick from the beginning. Socrates is indeed their hero; if only they could do what he does, whether it be reducing their debating partners to silence or, even better, extracting succinct concessions to their intellectual superiority: “Yes, Socrates,” “You are quite right, Socrates,” “That is indeed true, Socrates,” “I dare say, Socrates,” and so on…

Socrates was an asshole. Imagine how frustrating it must have been to try and explore ideas with this elenchic-obsessed wanker who never, ever listens. Don’t believe them when they tell you that he raised his questions in good faith! In fact, not once in all of Plato’s so-called dialogues does Socrates say something like “you’re right, I was mistaken” or “I never thought of it that way before” or “thank you, I’ve really learned something here.” One translation of the ancient Greek “dia-” is “between,” which tells us that genuine dialogue requires at least two interlocutors (since only that way can there be a between) each of whom is open to being changed by what they hear. Otherwise, you get only unidirectional monologue. “It wasn’t at all like conversation,” thought Alice, “as he never said anything to her.”

That’s from a post on adversarialism in philosophy from the new blog, Digressions, by Charles Blattberg (Université de Montréal) and Yves Couture (Université du Québec à Montréal).

Related: Defending Philosophy’s Adversarial Culture

Update: Socrates Gets Socrateased.

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Manny
Manny
4 years ago

It’s never struck me as surprising that they put Socrates to death; he was as obnoxious as they come (“ooooh look at me, I’m so smart with my luxuriant beard and my recollections and blah blah blah” … pathetic).Report

friend of socrates
friend of socrates
4 years ago

n fact, not once in all of Plato’s so-called dialogues does Socrates say something like “you’re right, I was mistaken” or “I never thought of it that way before” or “thank you, I’ve really learned something here.” …

This is too fast. Socrates does say these types of things. (I also tend to think he really means them, but that’s a different interpretive issue). At any rate, he certainly admits his own mistakes sometimes, and he also claims to have learned from his conversations.

Here’s an example from the Protagoras (360e5-361c5):

“I assure you, said I (Socrates), that in asking all these questions I have nothing else in view but my desire to learn the truth about virtue and what it is in itself. I know if we could be clear about that, it would throw the fullest light on the question over which you and I have spun such a coil of argument, I (Socrates) maintaining that virtue was not teachable and you (Protagoras) that it was. If the argument had a voice it would say, ‘What an absurd pair you are, Socrates and Protagoras. One of you (Socrates), having said at the beginning that virtue is not teachable, now is bent upon contradicting himself by trying to demonstrate that virtue is knowledge… which is the best way to prove that virtue is teachable…Protagoras on the other hand, who at the beginning supposed it to be teachable, now on the contrary seems bent on showing that it is almost anything rather than knowledge, and this would make it least likely to be teachable.’… For my part, Protagoras, when I see the subject in such utter confusion I feel the liveliest desire to clear it up…”Report

Charles Blattberg
Reply to  friend of socrates
4 years ago

Talk about begging the question! Socrates may claim that he’s asking his questions in good faith, but he surely doesn’t believe that he has anything to learn from a Sophist, i.e. he’s not listening with an open mind. Moreover, by the end of the so-called dialogue, it’s clear that Socrates doesn’t believe he ever contradicted himself.

So I persist in claiming that Socrates never really learns from his interlocutors. Sometimes, he may come away with a better grasp of why he, or they, were wrong about something, but that’s about it. You’d think, if Plato’s goal was to portray the hero of philosophy as a great listener, he’d show him repeatedly learning something about a philosophical idea from those he talks with. But no, there’s not even one example of this (and yes, not even in the Parmenides – if you read it closely).Report

David Morrow
David Morrow
4 years ago

Today’s Existential Comics is relevant (and funny): http://existentialcomics.com/comic/177Report

TrollLord
TrollLord
Reply to  David Morrow
4 years ago

Socrates rejected true belief as knowledge in the Theaetetus… sillyheadReport

DocFE
DocFE
Reply to  TrollLord
4 years ago

No wonder Trump won. If these comments here and above and below are indicative of the latest era of philosophers, we are doomed.Report

Nicholas D. Smith
Nicholas D. Smith
4 years ago

Scary–Socrates manages to refute people’s claims without even listening to those claims. He can also use premises to which he elicits responses that he never even needs to notice. Talk about super powers–Socrates X-man! Then someone agrees that we should put people to death for being annoying when we act like we know stuff we don’t know. Looks like Socrates continues to be right about lots of folks’ presumptions of wisdom when they so badly lack it! Ugh!Report

Charles Blattberg
4 years ago

Of course Socrates listens for weaknesses in peoples’ arguments. But does he really listen, i.e. with an open mind? No he does not.

Not that anyone should condone his execution! Report

TrollLord
TrollLord
Reply to  Charles Blattberg
4 years ago

So your point is that Socrates already thinks he knows his partners in conversation’s positions, and is only questioning them to draw out their underlying presuppositions or (generally absurd) logical conclusions?
How dare he.
Look Socrates isn’t perfect, but he’s a pretty damn good role model. His entire aim in conversation is to get to the truth, to the extent that he literally died for it. And I’d imagine for him the truth is more important than whether or not adversarialism in argument is too macho for modern day commentators.Report

Matt
4 years ago

I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s comments on Socrates:

“”Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling; what a frightful waste of time! What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing. Socrates keeps reducing the sophist to silence, – but does he have right on his side when he does this? Well, it is true that the sophist does not know what he thinks he knows; but that is no triumph for Socrates. It can’t be a case of “You see! You don’t know it!”–nor yet, triumphantly, of “So none of us knows anything!””

(I’ll admit often having sympathy with the first two lines. My favorite philosophy joke: “The Republic, condensed to three words: ‘Of Course, Socrates'”.)
Report

Nicholas D. Smith
Nicholas D. Smith
4 years ago

I find it odd that people complain that Socrates didn’t really listen, who plainly themselves haven’t read very carefully. In the Phaedrus, Socrates makes a speech and then very explicitly admits that what he said was wrong and is ashamed. In the Hippias Minor, the dialogue ends with a very clear admission of Socrates’ own “wavering.” Respondents here seem to think that Socrates would only be reasonable or a good philosopher if he was portrayed as giving in and admitting error…when talking to the likes of which interlocutors? Thrasymachus, maybe? Callicles perhaps? Why would it count as an indication of “openmindedness” if someone gives credit where none is due? Does it matter to the complainers here that most of those to whom Socrates is portrayed as speaking are pretty nasty, very confused, and (in some cases) actually dangerous people? Sheesh!Report

Charles Blattberg
4 years ago

And have you ever asked yourself why Plato never provides Socrates with an interlocutor who speaks in other than a nasty, confused, or dangerous way? He does, of course. But Socrates never seems to learn anything, even in those few cases.

Look at it this way. Imagine that, after thinking about your Phaedrus and Hippias Minor examples, I concluded that you were right. Then I would have learned something about philosophy from you, and so from our exchange here on the Daily Nous. Now what does it say that this kind of thing rarely if ever happens to Socrates?

Regarding the examples: in the Phaedrus, Socrates comes to recognize that his speech was mistaken not because of something an interlocutor says to him, but as a result of his having a mystical epiphany, for he is a lone “seer” for whom “the mind itself has a kind of divining power”; and in the Hippias Minor, while it’s true that it ends with Socrates’ declaring that “being in perplexity [I] am always changing my opinions,” it’s clear that this is not because of anything that Hippias had to say. Report

Nat
Nat
4 years ago

I’m not an expert, but I read Republic 1 as a text in which Plato raises a similar worry about Socrates. By the end of book 1, it’s clear that Socrates has become a bully who uses the dialectic to subdue his opponent. (We don’t feel too sorry for Thrasymachus, and perhaps Socrates didn’t have another choice. As Polemarchus says, “you can’t persuade us if we won’t listen”.) Socrates is then rightly rebuked by Adeimantus and Glaucon, and has a much more fruitful and collaborative discussion with them for the rest of the dialogue.Report

Charles Blattberg
Reply to  Nat
4 years ago

But is the rest of the so-called dialogue really a collaborative discussion? Doesn’t it instead recount a more or less unidirectional imparting of a preformulated ideal vision?Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Charles Blattberg
4 years ago

It’s definitely not unidirectional, even in the Republic. Off the top of my head, see:

1. the “City of PIgs” objection to Socrates’s original formulation of the Kallipolis (around 369a). This forces an expansion and reformulation of the ideal city to include warfare and thus a class of guardians, leading to the version of the ideal city we’re all familiar with.

2. At the beginning of Book V the interlocutors stage a revolt which forces Socrates to go into more depth about parts of the city he didn’t want to discuss and which he expresses his uncertainty about. I’m not sure if this counts as the kind of listening to others that you’re pushing for here, but it’s definitely not a case of Socrates’s audience passively accepting whatever he says. (P.S. There Socrates himself expresses the worry that his audience will uncritically accept what he says – that’s part of the reason he didn’t want to go forward). Report

Charles Blattberg
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

1. Though Socrates says that the original, healthy city is the “true” city (372e) he’s surely being ironic, since it’s impossibly providential and harmonious. Socrates had the next city in mind all along. And, given all the details he provides about it throughout the rest of the so-called dialogue, it’s clear that he had fully formulated it beforehand.
2. By “unidirectional” I don’t mean that Socrates’ audience must passively accept whatever he says. After all, he’s not delivering a speech. He is teaching his students, and this requires responding to their questions, objections, etc. But what he never does is learn from them. Report

Nicholas D. Smith
Nicholas D. Smith
4 years ago

Try this: read the Republic starting in Book I. Thrasymachus is characterized in extremely aggressive (even bestial) ways. It is true, what Socrates manages to do there is more akin to taming a ferocious animal than engaging in cooperative discussion. One might even think that Plato wrote it that way precisely to show why such conversations don’t go very far. But you have to give Socrates this much: he does tame the beast, who then actually remains in the company (though now listening, which is something he obviously wasn’t very good at before!). Now as for the “unidirectional” aspect of the rest, please continue to read into Book II to see what scholars call “Glaucon’s challenge,” which precisely is for Socrates to make his own defense of justice. I fail to see fault in a mode of conversation that seems to me well suited to displaying Socrates’ own view of things, which is what Glaucon and Adeimantus explicitly ask for. If someone asks me for my opinion, I expect them to be ready to listen. Even so, Socrates proceeds in such a way as to try to make sure his interlocutors follow, and also wants their agreement. That is not how I have proceeded here, but then, no one asked for my opinion here. That’s a good reason for me now to stop giving it.Report

Tarpon
Tarpon
4 years ago

In the Symposium, Socrates claims that the priestess Diotima taught him all he knows of Eros (201d) and that the mistakes Agathon makes in the second elenctic portion of the dialogue (199c-201c) were Socrates’s own mistakes in his original conversation with Diotima (201d).Report

Charles Blattberg
Reply to  Tarpon
4 years ago

Socrates never had a real conversation with the mystagogue. There was no genuine back and forth between them. She taught him “the doctrine of Diotima” (212b) – that is all. Report

Tarpon
Tarpon
4 years ago

I think your conception of “genuine back and forth” is confused or question-begging. Socrates claims that Diotima disabused him of the same misconceptions of which Socrates comes to disabuse Agathon. Indeed, Socrates even recalls certain portions of the ‘back and forth’ between himself and Diotima (e.g. 202a-202e) that came to change his mind. In browsing the dialogue, I came across a couple of other passages that strongly suggest that Socrates was influence by what can only be described as a conversation between himself and Diotima:

206b: [Socrates quoting Diotima] “But what is it precisely that they do? Can you say?” [Paragraph] “If I could,” I said, “I wouldn’t be your student, filled with admiration for your wisdom, and trying to learn these very things.”

207c: [Socrates] And so she said, “How do you think you’ll ever master the art of love, if you don’t know that?” [Paragraph] “But that is why I came to you, Diotima, as I just said. I knew I needed a teacher.”

Your rebuttal of these points relies on an awfully narrow reed, the translation of the phrase at 212b, I believe, “ἔφη μὲν Διοτίμα”. Looking at the translations I have at hand (R.E. Allen, Nehamas and Woodruff, and Howatson) no one translates this as “the doctrine of Diotima.” Variously, they translate it as “These…are the things Diotima said”, “This…was what Diotima told me”, and “these are the things that Diotima said to me”. These passages suggest a willingness on Socrates’ part genuinely to hear expertise when he encountered it, and to change his views accordingly.

And to the extent that the critique of Socratic ‘adversariliasm’ functions as a feminist critique, it seems highly relevant that Socrates’ interlocutor was, in fact, an interlocutrix.
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Charles Blattberg
Reply to  Tarpon
4 years ago

When I deliver a lecture to my students, I’m not engaging them in dialogue. This is so even though I encourage them to raise questions and make objections. Of course sometimes a genuine dialogue can break out. Never with Socrates, however, whether he plays the role of teacher or student. Report

Tarpon
Tarpon
Reply to  Charles Blattberg
4 years ago

To be sure. But are you ‘an asshole’ who never learns anything from your students? Are you your students’ ‘adversary’?

Your use the word “dialogue” is anachronistic and, given the argument you’re advancing, self-serving. Indeed, it is dubious whether Socrates or Plato would recognize your conception of a dialogue as genuinely philosophical or worthy of recording. Here’s Socrates in the Phaedrus (278a, Waterfield trans.):

“…clarity and perfection and something worth taking seriously are to be found only in words which are used for explanation and teaching, and are truly written in the soul, on the subject of right and fine and good activities; that, while he ignores all the rest, words of this kind should be attributed to him as his legitimate sons – above all the words within himself, if he has found them and they are there, but secondly the words that are at once the offspring and the brothers of these internal ones of his, and have duly grown in others’ souls.”

As he continues at 278d, the name of the person whose speeches have this form is “lover of wisdom”. No one ever etched his words into the soul of an interloctor (let alone produced something worthy of preserving for posterity) in the sort of grad school bull session you are describing.

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PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

As Socrates usually takes the sceptical line, pointing out errors rather than proposing theories, it seems inevitable that he will come across as a smart-ass. He was one, and could see the errors clearly. Who should he have learned from among his interlocutors? And how much of this criticism is Plato’s fault? He seems happy to sit back and learn when he meets someone who has something to teach, like Diotima. Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

I am wondering if Charles Blattberg will say something like “you’re right, I was mistaken” or “I never thought of it that way before” or “thank you, I’ve really learned something here” during the course of this discussion. He may, of course, be a paragon of the discursive courtesy he encourages here in other fora, but he has not provided any evidence of that here. Report