Essay, Research Paper
November 21, 2000
Socrates? Method of Argument and
Theories of Knowledge
The methods of argument used by Socrates in the works of Plato
focused on true knowledge. This method, known as the Socratic method is
unconventional in that it is not a means of argument through persuasion or
opinion, it is, rather, a means of argument through question and challenge.
The method is a consideration of knowledge as being inherent to the human
soul rather than a study of how things are. In this essay I will examine how
this unique method relates and operates with the unique style of text in
Socrates? method of teaching by asking questions, searched for
definitions. In his method of argument, he would challenge anyone with a
pretense to knowledge. Socrates argued his theories of how true knowledge
is attained through joining in a discussion with another person who thought
he knew what virtue or knowledge was. Under this questioning, it became
clear that neither Socrates nor the other person knew the meaning of such
terms. This is shown in Socrates? conversation with Meno in Plato?s Meno.
M: I do not [know what virtue is]; but, Socrates, do you
really not know what virtue is? Are we to report this to the folk
back home about you?
S: Not only that, my friend, but also that , as I believe, I
have never yet met anyone else who did know. Meno 4
Socrates then would cooperate with whomever he was talking to on a new
idea where Socrates would make interrogatory suggestions that were either
accepted or rejected by his friend.
Then Agathon said, ?It turns out, Socrates, I didn?t know what I
was talking about in that speech.?
?It was a beautiful speech, anyway, Agathon,? said
Socrates. ?Now take it a little further.? Symposium 43
The attempts to find a solution always failed, but they could continue to
search for one whenever possible.
For Socrates, knowledge was not merely accepting a second hand
opinion, but personal achievement gained through continuous questioning
and evaluation. Through Socrates? questioning of himself and of others, his
arguments on the attainment of true knowledge, involved not learning the
answers but searching for them. The search was more successful when done
by two friends, perhaps one (Socrates) being more experienced than the
other, but both in love with the goal of truth, knowledge and the willingness
to subject themselves honestly to the critical test of argument alone.
Socrates? greatest strength in his method of argument was his ability to
stimulate the thinking of others to aid him in his own hypothesis of true
knowledge. He opposed cross-examination in a set pattern. This is clearly
displayed in Meno, after Socrates questioned a boy with a geometrical figure.
S: You realize, Meno, what point he has reached in his
recollection. At first he did not know what the basic line of the
eight-foot square was: even now he does not yet know, but then
he thought he knew, and answered confidently as if he did
know, and he did not think himself at a loss, but now he does
think himself at a loss, and as he does not know, neither does
he think he knows. – That is true. Meno 17
Socrates uses this statement and the testing of the boy to prove that the boy
had no prior knowledge of the processes of mathematics. He was able to
answer the questions purely because he was able to use the knowledge
already imbedded in his soul. This excerpt from Meno is not about
mathematics. It is used by Plato to show the reader that Socrates?
arguments were not issue oriented, they were method oriented. This
concept is very important when analyzing the theories and methods of
Socrates? arguments with the shape and structure of the text.
Socrates? vague style of argument works very well in the dialogues we
have read. This is due to the unique shape and structure of the text. The
text in dialogues lacks traditional structure and warrants little or no direction
and/or climax to Socrates? arguments. The style of the text allows Socrates
to command the dialogues and arguments but restricts him from making a
persuasive or definitive point. He is never established as a clear winner. As
I have stated, Socrates? method of argument is not a persuasive method. It
is a method of argument through question and challenge. Thus, the
similarities of the style of Socrates? method of argument and the style of
dialogues we have read work well together.
Socrates? method of argument also works well with his theory of
knowledge. Both, the vague style of argument and the unspecific theories
are presented in the same manner, forming a distinct relationship. Socrates?
method of argument is used to deliver his theories of knowledge. He does
this in a dialogue with a subject who claims that he has knowledge of some
matter that is proven in a proposition that defines an ethical term. There is a
series of questions from Socrates that he picks out. Then he takes a number
of other propositions that, when put together, prove the difference of the
original definition. The argument is examined next to each individual to see
if there is false argument. At this point the establishment of theory, or more
importantly, the establishment of Socrates? specific theories of the acquisition
of knowledge, is not at stake. The question is not whether Socrates, through
his method of argument, has proven his theories of knowledge, but rather,
has Socrates disproved the subject?s false conceit
Socrates? method of argument of is vague and indirect. It is not a
means of argument though persuasion, but rather a means of argument
through questioning and refute. This method works very well with the vague
and indirect shape and structure of the dialogues we have read. The method
also works very well with Socrates? theories of knowledge. As his theories
are also very vague, and are concerned more with disproving the theories of
others rather than presenting Socrates? concrete theory or definition of