Friday, January 21, 2011

Reasoning: Vlastos' Socratic Studies #1

As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I recently finished reading Gregory Vlastos' Socratic Studies. I will review the work essay-by-essay, because each one brings up a different part about Socratic methodology (as represented by Plato) that I want to address separately.
Socratic Studies
The first chapter of is entitled "The Socratic Elechus: Method is All." This utilized the most strictly analytic philosophical approach of any of the essays [1]. He begins by refuting the definition of "Dialectic" given "by Rolland Hall in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy" (Vlastos 2). Vlastos explains that elenchus is not the process of eliciting a hypothesis and the cross-examining the person who provided it until there is a contradiction. Rather, "Socratic elenchus is a search for moral truth by question-and-answer adversary argument in which a thesis is debated only if asserted as the answerer's own belief and is regarded as refuted only if its negation is deduced from his own beliefs" (Vlastos 4).

Vlastos believes that there is a great difference between this elenchus and the elenchus of the later versions of Socrates in Plato's works. Like many others before him, Vlastos hypothesizes that this first Socrates is the true historical Socrates that Plato represents, and then Plato in the middle dialogues breaks away to use Socrates to spout Platonic philosophy [2]. As such, Vlastos approaches his project as discovering Socrates' true method of argument.There are two constraints put on any of the interlocutors with which Socrates speaks: a) "to refrain from speechifying" (Vlastos 7) and b) that the answerer must say what he or she believes.

This second constraint is the important one. The reason is that this eliminates the hypothetical premise (Vlastos provides examples on page 8 of Socrates' objections to hypothetical premises), which is something that estranges elenchus from modern methodology.

Vlastos concludes that an internally consistant belief set would contain entirely true beliefs, according to the premise behind Socrates' elentic method. I find the conclusion of the argument to be both reasonable and interesting, although I feel that it probably has no bearing on the actual method of the true Socrates.

  1. It was also the first of the essays that I read and the one of which I have the least recollection. As such, my summery might be less than clear. If it is, let me know in comments and I will try to revise it. I also welcome suggestions by anyone who has read the work.
  2. I disagree with this general viewpoint of the evolution of the dialogues. In my series of blogposts entitled "On Dates in the Platonic Corpus," I have discussed this at length (although there is more to come). I do not, however, deal significantly with the claim about why I do not believe this is the historical Socrates. This argument I must save for another blogpost.

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