Plato's Socrates

Plato's Socrates

Plato's Socrates

Plato's Socrates


Socrates, as he is portrayed in Plato's early dialogues, remains one of the most controversial figures in the history of philosophy. This book concerns six of the most vexing and often discussed features of Plato's portrayal: Socrates' methodology, epistemology, psychology, ethics, politics, and religion. Brickhouse and Smith cast new light on Plato's early dialogues by providing novel analyses of many of the doctrines and practices for which Socrates is best known. Included are discussions of Socrates' moral method, his profession of ignorance, his denial of akrasia, as well as his views about the relationship between virtue and happiness, the authority of the State, and the epistemic status of his daimonion. By revealing the many interconnections among Socrates' views on a wide variety of topics, this book demonstrates both the richness and the remarkable coherence of the philosophy of Plato's Socrates.


This book consists of six inter-related essays on controversial topics in Plato's early dialogues. Each essay is intended to stand on its own, although references to arguments developed in other sections of the book are frequent. For those who wish to read the entire book, we have tried to minimize repetition.

We discuss a wide variety of questions which arise within six general subjects. These subjects are, in order, Socratic method, Socratic epistemology, Socratic psychology, Socratic ethics, Socratic politics, and Socratic religion. We do not claim that these are the only interesting subjects in Plato's early dialogues, nor do we claim to have exhausted each subject we examine; we claim only that the topics we study are interesting ones. In part, we selected these topics because they have become very controversial. We hope our book will add further fuel to the relevant controversies, and we are well aware of how unorthodox many of our conclusions are.

In chapter 1, we consider Socrates' manner of doing philosophy. Socrates says he tests or examines people, and usually may be seen to be seeking to refute them. In Plato's early dialogues he almost always succeeds in doing so. Scholars have become accustomed to referring to Socrates' way of doing philosophy as reflecting a certain method, which is called the elenchos or the elenctic method. We argue that Socrates does not regard himself as having a specific method at all. He does not do what he does--in his eyes, at least--methodically. He just asks questions, and he never suggests that he has a specific methodology by which he undertakes his examinations of others or chooses the questions he asks them. Instead, he claims only to follow the lead his interlocutor provides. We go on, however, to show how Socrates' examinations of others provide a potent and constructive way of doing philosophy. Some important scholars have denied that what Socrates does can have constructive philosophical results. We disagree, and provide a novel account of how Socrates reached positive results.

In the second chapter, we contrast Socrates' notorious profession of ignorance with his occasional claims of knowledge, and with his frequent expressions of great confidence in what he believes. We argue that insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that what Socrates actually disclaims is not knowledge of any sort, but rather knowledge of a very special sort--a sort that makes its possessor wise. Others have also argued that Socrates may have two different sorts of knowledge in mind when he disclaims knowledge in many passages and also claims knowl-

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