Elenchus and Socrates

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Mark Abby
PHL 414 Plato
February 20, 2012

The phrase “Socratic method” gets tossed around quite a bit during the course of a liberal arts education. One way of describing this method is teaching by means of asking. The thought is that by asking questions, a teacher may trigger some thought in the student’s mind which comes about more organically and effectively than by the means of traditional lecture. Employing the Socratic method allows a teacher to guide a student’s train of thought toward a particular goal, and use of the method requires on the part of the teacher both a keen understanding of psychology and a clear idea as to where the line of questioning is intended to lead. The latter part of that statement becomes problematic as we examine the use of the Socratic method by Socrates himself. The problem is two-fold. Speaking to the first point, Socrates is not very much of a teacher. By that I mean that he is either unwilling or unable to lead his students (for sake of clarity I will refer to the various interlocutors in the dialogues as being “students” of Socrates, in so much as that is the way in which Plato seems to have framed the discussions) toward any specific lesson or definition. Socrates himself makes a point to admit his inability to serve as an instructor. In fact, he makes the claim that his only real knowledge is his ability to recognize his own lack of knowledge. The second problem with this model of Socrates as an instructor is that the Socratic method should lead the student out of ignorance. Socrates seems to do just the opposite in every dialogue, resulting in the interlocutor becoming more confused and self-contradicting the longer he engages Socrates in debate. As a result, the dialogues do not seem to be a legitimate attempt to provide us with an answer to the central question at the heart of each. Rather, they exist only to show us what is “wrong” and never what is “right”. It is not that we are merely catching a part of some random conversation when we read these dialogues; they were written as such by Plato with a specific purpose. That being the case, then what exactly is the point of any of them? What is it that Socrates hopes to accomplish? If we can say that Socrates is not engaged in the Socratic method as we know it, and Plato did have some specific intent when writing the dialogues, then there must be some reason for Socrates’ arguments. It is my belief that Socrates is not meant to be viewed as a teacher-figure, but is in fact more of a seeker of wisdom. Socrates does not lead the interlocutors toward a preconceived notion of an ideal because he does not know what that ideal is. Socrates is just as confused as everyone else is; the difference is that he is aware of the potential contradictions and logical problems of putting too much faith into a statement. Socrates’ use of the elenchus is the most important feature of the dialogues, and it is Plato’s intent to show the importance of the elenchus in philosophical discussion more so than it is to provide any sort of “answers” regarding the true ideals discussed in the dialogues.

The Greek word elenchus can be translated a number of different ways, but the most commonly used English equivalents would be examination, or refutation. The elenchus is a give-and-take discussion, with Socrates typically asking an interlocutor for his opinion or definition of a certain matter, and then asking the interlocutor to agree or disagree with statements based upon that original idea. The elenchus can be generally viewed as conforming to the following process. The elenchus begins with the interlocutor asserting a thesis, which Socrates considers to be false. Socrates then leads the interlocutor into further premises based upon the initial thesis, which Socrates then argues contradict the initial thesis. Socrates finishes the dialogue with the claim that he has shown the interlocutor’s thesis to be false. Most of the dialogues contain...
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