INTRODUCTION TO PHILOSOPHY
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
—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.
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.
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.
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.
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
—Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)
8. Socrates was the true originator of dialectic, which
remained the soul of all later great edifices of Hellenic philosophy...
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]....
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.
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 method...as the method of clarifying
—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
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....
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.
18. The irony of Socrates...is 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.
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.