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Monday, July 15, 2019

On The Socratic Way of Philosophizing

Statue of Socrates
In his Introduction to Plato: Complete Works (Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson), John M. Cooper writes:

"Socrates was a totally new kind of Greek philosopher. He denied that he had discovered some new wisdom, indeed that he possessed any wisdom at all, and he refused to hand anything down to anyone as his personal ‘truth’, his claim to fame. All that he knew, humbly, was how to reason and reflect, how to improve himself and (if they would follow him in behaving the same way) help others to improve themselves, by doing his best to make his own moral, practical opinions, and his life itself, rest on appropriately tested and examined reasons—not on social authority or the say-so of esteemed poets (or philosophers) or custom or any other kind of intellectual laziness. At the same time, he made this self-improvement and the search for truth in which it consisted a common, joint effort, undertaken in discussion together with similarly committed other per- sons—even if it sometimes took on a rather combative aspect. The truth, if achieved, would be a truth attained by and for all who would take the trouble to think through on their own the steps leading to it: it could never be a personal ‘revelation’ for which any individual could claim special credit."

In the following paragraph, Cooper talks about Plato’s way of writing the dialogues:

"In writing Socratic dialogues and, eventually, dialogues of other types, Plato was following Socrates in rejecting the earlier idea of the philosopher as wise man who hands down the truth to other mortals for their grateful acceptance and resulting fame for himself. It is important to realize that whatever is stated in his works is stated by one or another of his characters, not directly by Plato the author; in his writings he is not presenting his ‘truth’ and himself as its possessor, and he is not seeking glory for having it. If there is new wisdom and ultimate truth in his works, this is not served up on a plate. Plato does not formulate his own special ‘truth’ for his readers, for them to learn and accept. You must work hard even to find out what the author of a Platonic dialogue is saying to the reader— it is in the writing as a whole that the author speaks, not in the words of any single speaker—and the dialogue form demands that you think for yourself in deciding what, if anything, in it or suggested by it is really the truth. So you have to read and think about what each speaker says to the others (and also, sometimes, what he does not say), notice what may need further defense than is actually given it, and attend to the author’s manner in presenting each character, and the separate speeches, for indications of points on which the author thinks some further thought is required. And, beyond that, you must think for yourself, reasoning on the basis of the text, to see whether or not there really are adequate grounds in support of what it may appear to you the text as a whole is saying. In all this, Plato is being faithful to Socrates’ example: the truth must be arrived at by each of us for ourselves, in a cooperative search, and Plato is only inviting others to do their own intellectual work, in cooperation with him, in thinking through the issues that he is addressing."

I think this is a good way of looking at Socrates and the Platonic dialogues.

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