Socratic Dialogue as a Way of Thinking

Published 04 Jan 2017

Truth is the consonance between the intellect and the objective reality. The search for this truth is deeply rooted in human nature such that it represents an inescapable requirement and defining requirement of the human being. Since in man’s creative restlessness beats and pulsates what is most deeply human – the search for truth.

It is no gainsaying the fact that there is no one else in the whole history of European philosophy that has changed the direction of thought so completely simply by what he was. An author seem to buttress this point when he asserts that Socrates’ thought spring directly and inevitably in a very special way from the whole character and make up of the man.

The analysis of Socratic dialogue as a way of thinking is why I considered the topic; ‘dialogue as a way of thinking: an analysis of Socratic method’ very pertinent as an effort in enriching our human culture and our existence. Noteworthy is the fact that, Socrates left no writings, for he wrote nothing. But his life and teaching made such a deep impression on his friend and disciple Plato such that Socrates was made the chief speaker in some of Plato’s writings (the Socratic dialogues).

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My goal in this work is not to probe into the doctrine of Socrates as such. But, to show how his dialogues reflect a way of thinking. In order to achieve this, we shall first X-ray the Socratic Method bearing in mind that dialogue is his method. Secondly, we shall see the features of knowledge as anamnesis evident in Plato’s dialogue – Meno. The concluding part will be an evaluation of the Socratic dialogue and its significance to our contemporary society as a way of conclusion.

The Socratic Method; an Exposé:

Socrates’ Method of teaching was dialectics, i.e., the method of seeking or acquiring knowledge through asking questions and answers. His method is also that of inductive reasoning, i.e., beginning with particular cases and ending up with universal knowledge as a conclusion. An example is his dialogue with Meno on virtue. Socrates gave no lectures to large groups of people, rather, he thought by conversing with people, asking them questions and helping them to seek the answers. He was convinced that men had knowledge within them, and that all they need was somebody to help them bring out this knowledge.

Everyman for him is pregnant with knowledge, and like a pregnant woman, he needs a ‘midwife’ to help him bring out the knowledge. Hence Socrates described himself as a midwife but in a different sense. He carried out his task (of helping people bring out the knowledge within them0 by asking people questions during dialogues and helping them to think out answers. He asked people for definitions of terms and concepts. He would for example, ask somebody to define justice, law, or man, etc. From particular instance of justice or law, etc., he would lead people to the universal idea of justice, the universal idea of law, the universal idea of man, and so on.

Contrary to the relativism and skepticism of the Sophists, Socrates was convinced that there was an objective and universal knowledge attainable by man, and his aim was to lead men to this knowledge so that in the light of it, they could live a good life. In line with this, he told Athens that his mission was to do the greatest good the to everyone of them, “to persuade everyone among you to that he must look into himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private good” (Plato 37). Socrates therefore, strongly opposed the relativism and skepticism of the Sophists.

In his dialogues, Socrates professed to be ignorant, but seeking knowledge. He declared that he knew nothing but that he was eager to know. Under his pretext, he led people to knowledge, though; he claimed that both his interlocutors and himself were seeking knowledge together. This is the Socratic irony. To elucidate more on this, a friend of Socrates is said to have once gone to the oracle of Delphy to ask who the wisest man in Greece was, and the Oracle said it was Socrates. When Socrates was told this, he could not believe it. He wanted to know what the Oracle meant by saying that he was the wisest man in Greece.

He went to all those who had a reputation for wisdom and spoke with them. In the end, he came to the conclusion that the oracle was right, that he was really wiser than all those who had a reputation for wisdom because he was at least aware of his ignorance; but these other people were ignorant even of their ignorance. A man who is aware of his ignorance is wiser than the one who remains unaware. Socrates found that he was the only one aware of his ignorance hence; he agreed with the oracle that he was the wisest man in Greece.

Knowledge as Anamnesis:

Socrates and immediately after him Plato are a decisive response against the Sophistic destruction of science and morals, a response basically referable to Parmenides’ commitment with the intellect.

Following the Pythagoreans, Plato maintains that the human soul pre-existed before its union with the body. It pre-existed in the world of forms before it came into this world to be imprisoned in the body (for the body is like a prison to the soul). While in the world of ideas, the soul was acquired with the idea of forms of things. But when in this world, it perceives the ‘shadows’ of the forms, it is reminded of what it used to know; it remembers or regains its knowledge. Hence the process of learning in this world is a process of reminiscence, a process of remembrance.

In the Meno (Plato’s dialogue), Socrates was reported to be dialoguing with Meno on the universal definition of virtue. To buttress his point on knowledge being a process of anamnesis, Socrates aided the ‘Meno boy’ to solve a sophisticated problem in geometry with the help of figures imprinted on the ground and after several questions and answers by Socrates. Socrates the, affirmed that the boy has seen those figures when in the world of forms and was able to recollect what it has previously seen through the process of dialogue.

One key tip I will be making in this essay is the familiar remark that here in the Meno we start to see something new about Socrates, a logic that taking care of the soul by the quest of philosophy may necessitate us to follow certain ways of judgment (rather than others) in order to attain the knowledge crucial to our moral well being. This change, which is only recommended in this dialogue, may mark (as many have suggested) an interesting difference between the methods of the historical Socrates (the person who lived and died in Athens) and the Platonic Socrates, the participant in the conversations written by Plato (more about this later).

It could therefore be said that human knowledge starts from the sensible realities, which are only an extrinsic stimulus in order that the intellect may awaken itself and remember that it had contemplated the ideas long ago and outside the body. To learn is to remember (innatism: the mind possesses its knowledge from the beginning, which do not proceed from sensible experience), thus, the philosophy of Socrates is the dialectics of ideas. It constitutes a Programme of studies in which one must use both intuitive thought and its dianoetic or argumentative counterpart, which formulates definitions, classifications and demonstration.

Evaluation and Conclusion (The Significance of Socratic Dialogue to ourContemporary Society):

Extolling the great importance of knowledge, Aristotle the famous philosopher began his work on metaphysics by declaring that “All men by nature desire to know”. Thus, he makes knowledge the delight of man and links it with his quest for survival. Knowing can therefore be said to be ontological to man or in the existentialist parlance, it is part of man’s existentiality since man for them, is condemned to knowing.

Our analytical appreciation of the Socratic dialogue as a way of thinking may not make impact if the essay is not brought down and made to have relevance on our contemporary society; given the dangers posed by the hedonistic, nihilistic, relativistic, agnostic and skeptical ideologies and movements in our society today. These have landed man into rootlessness, meaninglessness and absurdity. Our society needs all the sanity, security and certainty, which only a sound philosophical reflection on the Socratic dialogue as a way of thinking can afford our society and civilization.

I seem to believe that if we are to escape from contemporary intellectual shallowness, superficially vagueness and emptiness, mob reasoning and undigested postulations; If we are to inoculate ourselves from the ravaging and destructive influences of relativism, nihilism, skepticism, and if we are to liberate ourselves from the quick-stand of superstitions, religious fundamentalism, a proper pedagogy of the principles the Socratic dialogue is inevitable. This, we have articulated in this essay.

From our study of the history of Philosophy from ancient to the contemporary period, we notice that philosophers are known to be the cause and effect of so many schools of thoughts and philosophical issues. Philosophers are both effects and causes: effects of their social circumstances and the politics and institutions of their time; cause (if they are fortunate) of beliefs, which mould the politics, and institutions of later ages. This succinct statement by Russell can rightly be attributed to Socrates. He is the first of the three greatest Greek philosophers who represent the golden age of Greek philosophy.

Our preoccupation in this work has been an analytical endeavor to discover the features of the Socratic dialogue as valid and legitimate way of thinking in attaining to the knowledge or understanding of universal truth and meaning.

Perusing through the paragraphs of the five dialogues of Plato and through the lines of Plato’s other writings on Socrates; one sees the reason why it is necessary to always analyze the issue of the Socratic method of teaching, which culminates in dialogue with his interlocutors. We are convince that Socrates with his Manner of teaching (dialogue) has bequeathed to humanity and the philosophical world, a treasure of knowledge and a way of thinking that will never be neglected in any serious epistemological, metaphysical and even theological attempt to probe into truth as such.

Finally, in the areas of universal truth, the best attitude will remain open-mindedness, dialogue and honesty. In short, by a paradox of meaning, we can say that the only best way to the truth is truth itself; and that is the crucial function of the Socratic dialogue as a way of thinking.


Plato. The Symposium. Penguin Classics, paper back, 1951, pp. 36-37. See also. The Republic, Bk. X, Phaedo, 65C to 100C

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