Socratic problem

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The Socratic problem refers to the difficult or impossible nature of determining what information from antiquity accurately reflects the views and attributes of the historical Socrates.[1] Although Socrates—who was the main character in most of Plato's dialogues—was a genuine historical figure, it is widely understood that in later dialogues Plato used the character of Socrates to give voice to views that were his own. Besides Plato, three other important sources exist for the study of Socrates: Aristophanes, Aristotle and Xenophon. Since no extensive writings of Socrates himself survive to the modern era, his actual views must be discerned from the sometimes contradictory reports of these four sources.

Socrates and Plato[edit]

Socrates—who is often credited with turning Western philosophy in a more ethical/political direction and who was put to death by the democracy of Athens in May 399 BC—was Plato's mentor. Plato—like some of his contemporaries—wrote dialogues about his teacher. Much of what we know about Socrates comes from the writings of Plato; however, it is widely believed that very few if any of Plato's dialogues can be verbatim accounts of conversations or unmediated representations of Socrates' thought. Many of the dialogues seem to use Socrates as a device for Plato's thought, and inconsistencies occasionally crop up between Plato and the other accounts of Socrates; for instance, Plato has Socrates denying that he would ever accept money for teaching, while Xenophon's Symposium clearly has Socrates stating that he is paid by students to teach wisdom and this is what he does for a living. On the assumption that there is an evolution of philosophical thought in Plato's dialogues from his early years to his middle and later years,[2] the most common modern view is that Plato's dialogues contain a development of thought from closer to that of Socrates' to a doctrine more distinctly Plato's own.[3] However, the question of exactly what aspects of Plato's dialogues are representative of Socrates and what are not, is far from agreed upon. Although the view that Plato's dialogues are developmental in their doctrines (with regard to the historical Socrates or not) is standard, the view is not without objectors who propose a unitarian view or other alternative interpretations of the chronology of the corpus.[4][5] One notable example is Charles Kahn who argued that Plato had created his works not in a gradual way, but as a unified philosophical vision, whereby he uses Socratic Dialogues, a non-historical genre, to flesh out his views. [6] The time that Plato began to write his works and the date of composition of his last work are not known and what adds to the complexity is that even the ancient sources do not know the order of the works or the dialogues. [7]

Scholarly analysis[edit]

Karl Popper treats the Socratic problem in his first book of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and Søren Kierkegaard tackles the problem in his dissertation On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates (1841).

The German classical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher made an attempt to solve the "Socratic problem". Schleiermacher maintains that the two dialogues Apology and Crito are purely Socratic, which is to say, rather accurate historical portrayals of the real man, Socrates, and hence history—and not Platonic philosophy at all. All of the other dialogues that Schleiermacher accepted as genuine he considered to be integrally bound together and consistent in their Platonism. Their consistency is related to the three phases of Plato's development:

  1. Foundation works, culminating in Parmenides;
  2. Transitional works, culminating in two so-called families of dialogues, the first consisting of Sophist, Statesman and Symposium, and the second of Phaedo and Philebus; and finally
  3. Constructive works: Republic, Timaeus and Laws.

Schleiermacher's views as to the chronology of Plato's work are rather controversial. In Schleiermacher's view, the character of Socrates evolves over time into the "Stranger" in Plato's work and fulfills a critical function in Plato's development as he appears in the first family above as the "Eleatic Stranger" in Sophist and Statesman, and the "Manitenean Stranger" in the Symposium. The "Athenian Stranger" is the main character of Plato's Laws. Further, the Sophist–Statesman–Philosopher family makes particularly good sense in this order, as Schleiermacher also maintains that the two dialogues, Symposium and Phaedo, show Socrates as the quintessential philosopher in life (guided by Diotima) and into death, the realm of otherness. Thus the triad announced both in the Sophist and in the Statesman is completed though the Philosopher, being divided dialectically into a "Stranger" portion and a "Socrates" portion, isn't called "The Philosopher"—this philosophical crux is left to the reader to determine. Schleiermacher thus takes the position that the real Socratic problem is understanding the dialectic between the figures of the "Stranger" and "Socrates".


  1. ^ Prior, W. J., "The Socratic Problem" in Benson, H. H. (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 25–35.
  2. ^ Krämer (1990) ascribes this view to Eduard Zeller (Hans Joachim Krämer, Plato and the Foundations of Metaphysics, SUNY Press, 1990, pp. 93–4).
  3. ^ Penner, T. "Socrates and the early dialogues" in Kraut, R. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 121. See also Irwin, T. H., "The Platonic Corpus" in Fine, G. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Plato (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 77–85.
  4. ^ Rowe, C. "Interpreting Plato" in Benson, H. H. (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 13–24.
  5. ^ Smith, Nicholas; Brickhouse, Thomas (2002). The Trial and Execution of Socrates : Sources and Controversies. New York: Oxford University press. p. 24. ISBN 9780195119800. 
  6. ^ Kahn, Charles H. (2000). Plato and the Socratic Dialogue : The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 0521648300. 
  7. ^ Fine, Gail (2011). The Oxford handbook of Plato. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 76,77. ISBN 0199769192. 

Further reading[edit]