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Socratic Method: Historical Testimony


Source: H. Spielgelberg, ed. The Socratic Enigma. Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.

1. Socrates was concerned with the virtues of character, and in regard to them he was the first to search for general definitions.... For two things may be justly credited to Socrates--inductive arguments and universal definitions, both of which are concerned with the starting point of scientific knowledge.
                                                                        Aristotle  (384-322 BCE)

2. It is evident, however, that he hunted out and pursued, with a wonderful pleasantness of style and argument, and with a most pointed and insinuating urbanity, the foolishness of ignorant men, who thought that they knew this or that--sometimes confessing his own ignorance and sometimes dissimulating his knowledge, even in those very moral questions to which he seems to have applied the whole vigor of his mind.

                                                                       Augustine  (354-430)

3. Socrates introduced a catechical method of arguing. He would ask his adversary question upon question, till he had convinced him out of his own mouth that his opinions were wrong. This way of debating drives an enemy up into a corner, seizes all the passes through which he can make an escape, and forces him to surrender at discretion.
Joseph Addison  (1672-1719)

4. This cross-examination is the Socratic elenchus.... Its pressure was certain, in an honest mind, to dissipate the false opinion of knowledge, and make the confuted respondent sensible of his own ignorance, while it at once helped and stimulated him to the mental effort by which alone that ignorance could be exchanged for knowledge. Dialectics, thus understood, is one branch of an art which is a main portion of the Art of Living--that of not believing except on sufficient evidence; its function being that of compelling a man to put his belief into precise terms and take a defensible position against all the objections that can be made to it. The other, or positive arm of Plato’s dialectics, of which he and Socrates may be regarded as the originators, is the direct search for the common feature of things that are classed together, or, in other words, for the meaning of the class-name.                              
John Stuart Mill  (1806-1873)

5. The philosophical discovery of the Concept’s function is, perhaps, to be credited to Socrates.... The Socratic Concept was still used merely in its natural “pragmatic” way, as the ideal unity whereby the human mind classifies and controls the confusing and confused multitude of particulars, and orders its experience. It was thus essentially an instrument of human cognition; but it may be doubted whether Socrates had recognized its fundamental importance for logic.

                                                                       F. C. S. Schiller  (1864-1937)

6. Dialectic is nothing new in philosophy.... In Socrates the dialectical element, in accordance with the general character of his philosophizing, has still a predominantly subjective form, namely that of irony. For one thing, Socrates pits his dialectic against the ordinary consciousness and then especially against the Sophists. Then, in his conversations he would pretend that he wished to inform himself about the matter under discussion. In this connection he would raise all kinds of questions and thus he would lead those with whom he was talking to take a view opposite to that which they had originally thought was correct.

                                                                       G. W. F. Hegel  (1770-1831)

7. A teaching method is good when it proceeds from the known to the unknown: it is still better if it is Socratic, i.e., if by questioning it elicits the same truths from the head and heart of the listener. In the first, convictions are formally demanded of the mind, in the second they are enticed from it.

                                                                       —Friedrich Schiller  (1759-1805)

8. Socrates was the true originator of dialectic, which remained the soul of all later great edifices of Hellenic philosophy...

                                                                       Friedrich Schleiermacher  (1768-1834)

9. The advantage of the Socratic method, as we know it from Plato, consists in having one’s partner as opponent admit one by one the reasons for the propositions which one intends to prove, before he has realized the implications [of his several admissions]....

                                                                       Arthur Schopenhauer  (1788-1860)

10. He bit hard into the individual man, continually forcing him and irritating him with his “universal” [concept]. He was a gadfly who provoked people by means of the individual’s passion....
                                                                     Soren Kierkegaard  (1813-1855)

11. In the powerful intellectual system of Socrates, a profound and sustained labor of thought was carried out, whereby a new stage in the purposeful framework of knowledge was reached. In the sophistic philosophy he had found the searching, doubting intellect, which existing metaphysics could not withstand. Amid the immense upheaval of all concepts, he tried to find some solid ground; it was this positive element in his great spirit, thirsting for truth, which differentiated him from the Sophists. He was the first to apply systematically the method of going back from the actual knowledge and belief of his time to the justifying ground of each proposition. That is...he employed a method which traced each theorem back to its logical foundation.... By thus examining the existing science and the existing convictions to find their justifying ground, he proved that science was not yet in existence, not in any field.
Wilhelm Dilthey  (1833-1911)

12. There is every reason to suppose that Socrates practiced and developed the [dialectic] method.... Certainly, if he practiced dialectic in the way described in the Apology, the hostility to him is easily explained: all the humbugs in Athens would combine against him.

                                                                       Bertrand Russell  (1872-1970)

13. The Socratic method is a method of perfect elucidation. In it, the beautiful and the good themselves, as they emerge in perfect clarification, are contrasted as norms with that which is merely supposed to be beautiful and good, and thus true knowledge of them is attained.... He was the first to recognize the necessity for a universal method of reasoning, and he recognized the fundamental meaning of this the method of clarifying reflections....

                                                                       Edmund Husserl  (1859-1938)

14. ...Every science, in dealing with the facts of experience, employs Methods of Classification, and is so far still making its own use of the lessons that Socrates taught.

                                                                      Josiah Royce  (1855-1916)

15. Socrates indeed exalts the exercise of reason, and particularly the logical function of the mind, above all else. The irony he parades is meant to dispose of opinions which have not undergone the test of reflection, to put them to shame, so to speak, by setting them in contradiction with themselves.... The object of a dialogue is to arrive at concepts that may be circumscribed by definitions; these concepts will become Platonic Ideas....
                                                                      Henri Bergson  (1859-1941)

16. Socrates discovered the true function of the logical concept. He was not the only man in the world to discover it.... But nowhere else do we find such a realization of the significance of the concept.

                                                                      Max Weber  (1864-1920)

17. Thus Socrates became the inventor of the concept, the discoverer of dialectical method and the importance of putting the right questions, and lastly the father of exact science.

                                                                     Hermann Keyserling  (1880-1946)

18. The irony of not of the centrifugal character. Socrates professes ignorance, and this profession seems very ironical, for it turns out that his ignorance is more enlightened, that is, more central than other men’s swelling conceit of knowledge. It does not follow that Socrates is insincere in his profession of ignorance; for though his knowledge may be as light as that of the ordinary Athenian, he sees that in comparison with true and perfect knowledge it is only darkness.

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933)

19. By his logical and critical work he forged the instrument indispensable for the progress of the mind and turned the crisis created by sophistry to the profit and salvation of reason.

                                                                      Jacques Maritain (1882-1973)