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The socratic method – examination, the birthing process, irony

This is a chapter from my book, Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“According to ‘I know nothing’, the dialogues started in order not to end”
Kostis Papagiorgis, Socrates – the lawgiver that kills himself

Socrates fresco (Efes Museum, 1st-5st cent.)
Socrates fresco (Efes Museum, 1st-5st cent.) (source: Wikimedia Commons)

There is a differentiation between the socratic method of Plato’s early dialogues and his later ones. Initially, Socrates himself refers to “examination” (“elenchus”) as the method he applies to others and to himself to approach the truth. His constant questions and answers are aimed at examining whether the claim of his “interviewee” is of any value, or is based on unreasonable opinions, bias or emotion.

This method does not necessarily lead to a positive conclusion, meaning an answer to Socrates’ original question, that’s why the early dialogues are known as aporetic or tentative[1]. As Papagiorgis observes, according to “there is only one thing I know, that I know nothing”, the dialogues appear to be doomed to reach an impasse. But in the course of them, Socrates convinces his interlocutor that he cannot defend reasonably what he thought he knew, forcing him to reject it. His original claim will be countered only through his own beliefs and their implications. At the end of the dialogue Socrates and, usually, everybody else present realize their inability to reach to a conclusion, to gain the knowledge they thought they had, and postpone the discussion for a later time. But this is not a disappointing outcome but should be viewed as a climax, as Plato manages to present it in uplifting tones. The realization of ignorance itself is a gain on its own, since the moment someone discovers his ignorance he is free to look for true knowledge with unscrupulous interest.

Socrates didn’t make hypothetical discussions. The subject of the dialogue is posed by the interlocutor, and often it proceeds from the circumstances of the gathering. In Euthyphro he starts a conversation on the concept of piety, when Euthyphro confides in him that he has accused his own father for an impious act. In Lysis the conversation begins when friends of Socrates ask him to intervene in a personal problem that arose between them and one of their friends. The interlocutor will have to speak on matters that affect him directly, saying only what he himself believes and not the opinions of others. And in everything that he says he must be consistent with what they entail. If an antithesis arises between what he believes and what ensues, he will have to give up his claim. Socrates looks for the truth in a way that is adjusted every time to his opponent, arguing according to his terms[2]. He accepts the given definition without objection, but he studies it to see if it leads to correct conclusions.

Socrates discussing philosophy with his disciples, Arabic miniature from a manuscript, Turkey 13th Century.
Socrates discussing philosophy with his disciples, Arabic miniature from a manuscript, Turkey 13th Century. (photo)

But the antithesis between two premises is not the main conclusion of the dialogues, since Socrates’ aim is not contradiction for the sake of it. The betterment of his opponent is. “…some milder tone [is] more suited to dialectic. The more dialectical way, I suppose, is not merely to answer what is true, but also to make use of those points which the questioned person acknowledges he knows”Meno,75d. It is more about an antithesis between the ideals of a person and the way he lives. The examination, then, aims at examining the opponent as a person, and the contradiction is only the tool with which this aim will be achieved. This is the essence of philosophical living, to examine one’s self and others.

In Theaetetus (a later dialogue), Plato introduces the simile of giving birth to ideas. Socrates says that as his mother Phaenarete was a midwife, so can he, while not knowing anything himself, bring ideas and knowledge out of people (“I have the same profession”). His birthing method is viewed not just as a tool for realizing one’s ignorance, but also for finding the truth that lies within us but we cannot access.

Dorion establishes that the difference between examination and birthing is that the examination shows to the wise that they are ignorant, while the birthing method shows to the ignorant that they are wise. However attractive this dictum might sound, there is no particular difference between the two methods. That’s because the realization of ignorance is nothing but a form of knowledge. Socrates himself attests to this in Apology, saying in reference to the oracle’s prophecy that perhaps he is, in fact, wise, but owning only human, limited wisdom. The other one, the real one, belongs only to the gods and is unattainable for him. Human wisdom lies in the knowing that one cannot really learn anything, or “nothing important”, or only “a few things”. This wisdom of the skeptic, who keeps wanting to learn, only to realize that the more he learns the less he knows, is infinitely more useful than the dogmatic “knowledge” of him who hastens to easy conclusions. Vlastos observes that the fact that there is no mention of the birthing method before Theaetetus proves that this simile is alien to Socrates of the early dialogues and that it is Plato’s creation. From here on, the two terms will be used alternatively, without a meaningful differentiation.

In fact, the form of dialogue is not recommended for all kinds of knowledge. Bertrand Russell believes that the knowledge of empirical science cannot be transmitted through questions and answers. Even Galileo used dialogue to promote his ideas, but he did so only to facilitate the treatment of prejudices. To impart positive conclusions in this manner, he would have to import a degree of artificiality in his text, using arguments that would mostly sound like rationalization rather than persuasion. But Socrates is not interested in final, positive conclusions. According to Vlastos again, “the goal of his investigative method could not be the terminal conclusive certainty”.

Matthew Paris (1217-1259) – Ο Πλάτων βάζει λόγια στο στόμα του Σωκράτη
Matthew Paris (1217-1259) – Is Plato putting words in Socrates’ mouth? (photo)

There is another reason Socrates chose dialogue instead of the treatise. He wouldn’t like his listeners to obtain knowledge without the effort, just because they have to accept something he said. This is a kind of meta-education; the education of oneself, and moreover, through juxtaposition with another. Philosophical thought does not lead to achievements only through the intense thought of one person, but also through conversation between two or more people. All Socrates (and Plato) has to do is plant doubt in the listener/reader, and then it’s up to him to judge and decide how to move on. If Socrates played the part of the teacher who owns knowledge and dogmatically spreads sophistries (like Xenophon’s Socrates does), he would deprive his students the great benefit born out of the search for knowledge. Reading a Platonic dialogue, or listening to Socrates, you don’t just observe, you take part in the dialogue and, necessarily, think.

So, one might very well have developed ideas and have formed opinions; he might say he knows things. But he doesn’t have the right to force them as an authority figure, but only defend his positions with reason against the judgement of an opponent. For someone to say he is “Socratic”, it does not mean the same as someone saying he is “Kantian”. The Socratic does not follow a philosophical system of thought, but a mental stance of humility; though one that is easily misunderstood for arrogance, since the Socratic is not only convinced of his own ignorance but of the others’ too.

Socratic irony

“The ironist is the opposite of the boaster who is proud of his knowledge; he is convinced, partly seriously partly ostensibly, of his ignorance and inconsequentiality”
Olof Gigon, Socrates

Arab depiction of Socrates teaching his students (photo)
Arab depiction of Socrates teaching his students (photo)

Not too rarely, Socrates resorts to humor and irony to deal with an opponent. And the more dogmatic the opponent is the more tactless Socrates becomes. It is the conceit of his interlocutor and the sureness of himself that Socrates “punishes” with his most ironic and humiliating comments, supposedly flattering him or pretending to be the ignoramus who doesn’t understand his wise words. But he does not resort to irony to deceive nor to impose his views when left with no argument. He does it against those immersed in their self-deceit, to discredit the subjective view that is presented as objective knowledge. Usually, his irony is ambiguous, so that the opponent can never be sure whether he is serious or that he is being made a fool of.

“By Zeus, I said, what a wonderful thing you said, what a great blessing has been revealed to us”294a, he says in Euthydemus, and: “don’t deny me this lesson”297b. But Euthydemus -perhaps the most foolish of all of Socrates’ interlocutors, except maybe Hippias- is beyond any effort to reason with[3], since, after all the patient and masterful efforts Socrates makes to facilitate the prevalence of reason, he replies only with sophistries, utilizing the ambiguity of words to make it seem as if he is wise. It is difficult to read these dialogues without imagining Socrates having his eyebrows raised, when for example he turns and says: “are you perhaps presenting yourself as a know-it-all in the art of speech, and thus can tell when an answer is to be given, and when not?”287c

When Socrates listens to Hippias (in Hippias Major) pompously claiming to be the wisest of all Greeks, presenting as evidence of this the fact that he has earned the most money of all the sophists, he replies: “This is, Hippias, to be truly wise and a complete man”281b, and “Bravo, bravo Hippias! You have spoken in a way that is wonderful and great and worthy of you”291e.

In Menexenus, the Socratic irony reaches its climax (see Socrates against ancestor worship), but here we will refer to Euthyphro, where, after Socrates has been made aware that his interlocutor doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he pretends to truly desire his teaching: “Go on then, my friend Euthyphro, explain to me, in order to become wise…”9a. But Euthyphro babbles, incapable of clearing his thoughts, so he tells him: “If you wanted it, Euthyphro, you would tell me much more coherently the most important of what I asked you; but, -it is obvious- you are not willing to teach me”14c. At the dialogue’s end, when it is clear that Euthyphro cannot cope and after many contradictions, Socrates suggests they restart the conversation from the beginning in order to study their subject correctly.

“Socrates: I know very well that you believe now to clearly possess what is pious and what is not. Tell it to me Euthyphro, and do not conceal what you believe.

Euthyphro: We’ll talk again Socrates; but now I’m in a hurry, it’s time for me to go.

So: Oh my friend, what are you doing? You leave me and you deny me the great hopes I had to learn from you what is pious and what impious…””15e

Socrates’ ironic behavior did not serve him well, since he insisted on using it even during his defense in court, which led to his conviction and to the capital punishment. There, after he was found guilty and had to offer an alternative punishment to the execution proposed by his accusers, he said that, as counterbalance for how he led his life, he should be rewarded with lifelong free provision of food, never mind be punished. He continued to offend the jury telling them they would rather have him beg rather than present a decent case, which he refused to do as being something beneath him. He might as well have said “it’s your loss to kill me”, claiming that the enemies of Athens would not lose time badmouthing his strong and rich city for killing her wise man.

Socrates’ teaching, in the end, is the dialectic method itself, that’s why Plato did not convert the dialogues to a treatise. It’s like he wants to warn us that everything he wrote should not be received as ready-made wisdom, but should be enriched by his readers. This is also why I chose to present the dialogues one by one in the second part of this book, since to present them outlined would not seem appropriate. The (critical) dialogue, after all, must be continued.

[1] Aporetic, from the Greek “aporia”, meaning puzzlement. Gregory Vlastos writes: “…tentative, meaning to invoke, through questions, admonitions from the interlocutor, which would be utilized as points from which Socrates could continue, using logical or inductive arguments, in deducing the negation of the interlocutor’s claim”. And Aristotle writes: “Interlocutory arguments are those that lead logically from the generally accepted opinions to a contradiction [of the interlocutor’s claim]. Tentative are those that reason on the basis of the respondent’s beliefs” (On Sophistical Refutations165b3-6).

[2] In Laches, Nicias says that courage is the knowledge of what one ought to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of, giving a very Socratic definition. However, Socrates appears to disagree, showing him that he cannot support his claim reasonably.

[3] It is common for an opponent to reply to a question of Socrates (what is courage, what is friendship, what is virtue…) with an example of the examined concept. When, for example, he asks Hippias what beauty is, Hippias replies that beauty is a beautiful woman. He mistook the question “what is beauty” with the question “what is beautiful”. Socrates strives to explain that to mention the countless examples of beauty is not the point. That the point is to find the characteristic that everything that has it can be called “beautiful” and everything that doesn’t can’t. Hippias continues, to reply that gold, then, must be beauty because everything that has gold is made beautiful because of it. What can one do when faced with such levity?

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