On Philosophy

September 30, 2007

The Method Of Socrates

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

In my previous two posts I have discussed methods of answering the question “what is justice?” embodied in the proposals of Thrasymachus and Glaucon. Which brings me to the third (technically fourth, if we count the opening appeal to authority) method for answering the question, the method that Socrates uses to produce his answer, and the one that Plato endorses. The methods of Thrasymachus and Glaucon, while not identical to each other, share a number of similarities, including some dependence on empirical reasoning. The method of Socrates is, however, completely different from those that have come before it, Socrates’ approach would, in theory, allow us to uncover what justice is with almost no knowledge of the world in general.

Socrates begins his investigating by considering justice as it appears in an ideal city. Although he recognizes that we are after an understanding of justice on the personal level, in order to decide whether it is good or bad for us, he proposes that “there is a justice of one man, we say, and, I suppose, also of an entire city … Is not the city larger than the man? … Then, perhaps, there would be more justice in the larger object and more easy to apprehend.” (368e) He goes on to construct an ideal city, one that is best suited to our needs (and desires), in great detail. When this is done he then returns, as promised, to look for justice where it appears in this city. He states, “I think our city, if it has been rightly founded, is good in the full sense of the word. … Clearly then it will be wise, brave, sober, and just.” (427e) And given this he goes on to identify wisdom, courage, and sobriety with various aspects of the city. Since the city seems exhausted by these virtues he concludes that justice must be a kind of structural feature, that which leads each virtue to be expressed properly and in harmony with the others. This then is the account of justice at the level of the city that is provided by the method of Socrates. And this account is extended to describe justice at the level of individuals by arguing that each person is divided in much the way the city is, and thus that the just person is one who displays an inner harmony with each aspect of their soul playing its proper role.

Upon a critical examination this method seems questionable, at best. Major leaps in reasoning are made without any justification and none of the other participants in the dialogue call Socrates on them, in fact there is remarkably little disagreement in this entire section of the Republic, as compared to book I. Specifically there are four major questions the method raises: 1) Why assume that justice will be found in the best city? If we don’t know what justice is at the beginning of our investigation then it is quite possible that it is not a virtue but a vice, and thus will be absent in the best city. Now we might suppose that the fact that justice is a virtue has been established in the previous discussion, and that justifies the assumption. But this doesn’t solve the problem for three reasons. First it was established only in discussion with Thrasymachus, which shows only that Thrasymachus’ beliefs commit him to thinking justice is a virtue. Secondly if we suppose that justice is a virtue to answer the question “what is justice?” we are begging the question because we have already made an assumption about what justice is. And thirdly, and most significantly, Socrates himself says “For if I don’t know what the just is, I shall hardly know whether it is a virtue…” (354c) 2) Why would considering an ideal city make us better able to recognize justice in it? Granted if justice had a size then perhaps we could enlarge it by considering a larger example, but it is hard to see how justice will become more or less apparent no matter what we investigate. 3) Why should we conclude that the city is wise, brave, sober, and just if we agree that it is good? Certainly these are traditional virtues, but surely Socrates can’t be appealing to a kind of “common sense” knowledge about what goodness implies, because again it would be to beg the question to an extent. 4) What justifies the identification of wisdom, courage, and sobriety with the parts of the city that Socrates claims they are to be identified with? Certainly the other people present don’t disagree with Socrates’ claims about them, but each the nature of those virtues seems as much open to debate as the nature of justice, so there is no good reason to treat our intuitions about them as correct.

To really understand Socrates’ method and how it is supposed to lead us to the correct understanding of justice we must answer those questions. To do that we must take a quick look at Plato’s epistemology. The foundation of Plato’s theory of knowledge is that the best and truest knowledge involves grasping the unchanging forms, which we can have direct intellectual access to. To grasp the forms we must turn our mind way from “the world of becoming”, in Plato’s terms, in which it is hard to see the forms. Instead we must consider idealizations, and from them abstract even further, until we are dealing with the ideas themselves and can proceed in our thinking on the basis of them alone. As Plato explains it through an analogy with geometry: “they further make use of the visible forms and talk about them, though they are not thinking of them but of those things of which they are a likeness, pursuing their inquiry for the sake of the square as such and the diagonal as such, and not for the sake of the image of it which they draw.” (510c) With this in mind we can answer the four questions raised earlier, and thus provide a logical underpinning for the method of Socrates. Question 1) we can now answer by denying that the virtue of justice was being presupposed at all. The ideal city being envisioned is like the drawings of the geometer, it is to lift our mind above the world and to the idea of the ideal city and thus to the idea of justice. And so if justice was not in fact in the ideal city we would be immediately aware of that fact, and could then proceed to construct the worst possible city in order to find it. Question 2) then has already been answered, we become better judges about justice because our intellect is raised above the world of becoming and into the world of forms where justice actually is. Questions 3) and 4) can be answered in a similar way, it is supposed that by dealing with the ideal city the forms are made apparent to us. Thus we can rely on our judgments about what virtues are present in the good city and what they correspond to in it because our judgments are now motivated by the forms themselves.

But while this does provide a solid foundation for the method, a rationale for why it works, it isn’t a very acceptable one to modern minds. The existence of a world of forms that provides the objects of knowledge and direct intellectual access to it seems questionable to most. So before we evaluate the methods let us see if we can separate the method of Socrates from Plato’s epistemology, in order to put it on a more even footing with that of Thrasymachus and Glaucon. A task I will take up next time.


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