Socratic problem

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In historical scholarship, the Socratic problem (also called Socratic question)[1] concerns attempts at reconstructing a historical and philosophical image of Socrates based on the variable, and sometimes contradictory, nature of the existing sources on his life. Scholars rely upon extant sources, such as those of contemporaries like Aristophanes or disciples of Socrates like Plato and Xenophon, for knowing anything about Socrates. However, these sources contain contradictory details of his life, words, and beliefs when taken together. This complicates the attempts at reconstructing the beliefs and philosophical views held by the historical Socrates. It has become apparent to scholarship that this problem is seemingly impossible to clarify and thus perhaps now classified as unsolvable.[2][3]

Socrates was the main character in most of Plato's dialogues and was a genuine historical figure. It is widely understood that in later dialogues, Plato used the character 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 writings of Socrates himself survive to the modern era, his actual views must be discerned from the sometimes contradictory reports of these four sources. The main sources for the historical Socrates are the Sokratikoi logoi, or Socratic dialogues, which are reports of conversations apparently involving Socrates.[4] Most information is found in the works of Plato and Xenophon.[5][6]

There are also four sources extant in fragmentary states: Aeschines of Sphettus, Antisthenes, Euclid of Megara, and Phaedo of Elis.[7] In addition, there are two satirical commentaries on Socrates. One is Aristophanes's play The Clouds, which humorously attacks Socrates.[8] The other is two fragments from the Silloi by the Pyrrhonist philosopher Timon of Phlius,[9] satirizing dogmatic philosophers.


There are four works of Xenophon that deal with Socrates. They are Apology of Socrates to the Jurors (which apparently reports the defence given by Socrates in court),[10][11] Memorabilia (which is a defence of Socrates and so-called Socratic dialogues),[10] Oeconomicus (which concerns Socrates' encounter with Ischomachus and Critobulus),[11] and Symposium (which recounts an evening at a dinner party to which Socrates was an attendee).[12][13][14]


Socrates—who is often credited with turning Western philosophy in a more ethical and 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 is known about Socrates comes from Plato's writings; however, it is widely believed that very few, if any, of Plato's dialogues can be verbatim accounts of conversations between them 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 students pay him to teach wisdom and that this is what he does for a living.

Stylometric analysis of the Plato corpus has led to the formation of a consensually agreed chronology classifying dialogues as falling approximately into three groups, Early, Middle and Late.[15] 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,[16] 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.[17] 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.[18][19] 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.[20] 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.[21]



Two relevant works pertain to periods in Socrates' life, of which Aeschines could not have had any personal first-hand experiential knowledge. However, substantial amounts are extant of his works Alcibiades and Aspasia.[22]


Antisthenes was a pupil of Socrates, and was known to accompany him.[23]

Issues relating to the sources[edit]

Aristophanes (c. 450–386 BCE) was alive during the early years of Socrates. One source shows Plato and Xenophon were about 45 years younger than Socrates,[24] other sources show Plato as something in the range of 42–43 years younger, while Xenophon is thought to be 40 years younger.[25][26][27][28]

Issues resulting from translation[edit]

Apart from the existing identified issue of conflicting elements present in accounts and writings, there is the additional inherent concern of the veracity of transfer of meaning by translation from classic Greek to contemporary language, whether that be Greek, English or any other.[29]

History of the problem[edit]

Efforts have been made by writers for centuries to address the problem. According to one scholar (Patzer) the number of works with any significance in this issue, prior to the nineteenth century, are few indeed.[30] G.E. Lessing caused a flurry of interest in the problem in 1768.[31] A methodology for analysis was posited, by study of Platonic sources, in 1820 with Socher. A break of scholarly impasse in respect to understanding, resulted from Campbell making a stylometric analysis in 1867.[31]

An essay written by Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1815 ("The Worth of Socrates as a Philosopher"), published 1818 (English translation 1833) is considered the most significant and influential toward developing an understanding of the problem.[32][33]

Throughout the 20th century, two strains of interpretation arose: the literary contextualists, who tended to interpret Socratic dialogues based on literary criticism, and the analysts, who focus much more heavily on the actual arguments contained within the different texts.[34]

Early in the 21st century, most of the scholars concerned have settled to agreement instead of argument about the nature of the significance of ancient textual sources in relation to this problem.[35]

Manuscript tradition[edit]

A fragment of Plato's Republic (588b-589b) was found in Codex VI, of the Nag Hammadi discoveries of 1945.[36][37]

Plato primary edition[edit]

The Latin language corpus was by Ficinus during 1484, the first of a Greek language text was Aldus in 1513.[38][39]

Xenophon primary edition[edit]

The Memorabilia appeared in the Florence Junta in 1516.[40][41]

The first Apology was by Johan Reuchlin in 1520.[42]

Scholarly analysis[edit]

Karl Popper, who considered himself to be a disciple of Socrates, wrote about the Socratic problem in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies.[43]

Søren Kierkegaard addressed the Socratic problem in Theses II, III and VII of his On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates.[44][45]

The German classical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher addressed the "Socratic problem" in his essay "The Worth of Socrates as a Philosopher".[46] Schleiermacher maintained that the two dialogues Apology and Crito are purely Socratic. They were, therefore, accurate historical portrayals of the real man, 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 on 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 as the "Mantitenean 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".

Suggested solutions[edit]

Four suggested solutions elucidated by Nails, and given early in the history of the problem, and still relevant currently, are:[47]

  1. Socrates is the individual whose qualities exhibited in Plato’s writings are corroborated by Aristophanes and Xenophon.
  2. Socrates is he who claims “to possess no wisdom” but still participates in exercises with the aim of gaining understanding.
  3. Socrates is the [individual named] Socrates who appears in Plato’s earliest dialogues.
  4. The real Socrates is the one who turns from a pre-Socratic interest in nature to ethics, instead.


  1. ^ A Rubel, M Vickers, Fear and Loathing in Ancient Athens: Religion and Politics During the Peloponnesian War, Routledge, 2014, p. 147.
  2. ^ Prior, W. J., "The Socratic Problem" in Benson, H. H. (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 25–35.
  3. ^ Louis-André Dorion (2010). "The Rise and Fall of the Socratic Problem". The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge University Press. pp. 1–23 (The Cambridge Companion to Socrates). doi:10.1017/CCOL9780521833424.001. hdl:10795/1977. ISBN 9780511780257. Online Publication Date: March 2011 , Print Publication Year: 2010. Retrieved 2015-05-07.
  4. ^ J Ambury. Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Retrieved 2015-04-19]
  5. ^ May, H. (2000). On Socrates. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. p. 20.
  6. ^ catalogue of Harvard University Press – Xenophon Volume IV [Retrieved 2015-3-26]
  7. ^ CH Kahn – Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form (p. 1) Cambridge University Press, 4 Jun 1998 (reprint) ISBN 0521648300 [Retrieved 2015-04-19]
  8. ^ Aristophanes, W.C. Green - commentary on The Clouds (p.6) Catena classicorum Rivingtons, 1868 [Retrieved 2015-04-20]
  9. ^ Bett, R. (11 May 2009). A Companion to Socrates. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 299–30. ISBN 978-1405192606. Retrieved 2015-04-17. (a translation of one fragment reads "But from them the sculptor, blatherer on the lawful, turned away. Spellbinder of the Greeks, who made them precise in language. Sneerer trained by rhetoricians, sub-Attic ironist." Cf. source for a discussion of this quote.
  10. ^ a b M Dillon; L Garland (18 June 2010). Ancient Greece: Social and Historical Documents from Archaic Times to the Death of Alexander. Routledge. ISBN 9781136991370. Retrieved 20 April 2015. (connection to Oxyrynchus was found in here p.33)
  11. ^ a b Xenophon (translated by A. Patch), RC Bartlett (2006). The Shorter Socratic Writings: "Apology of Socrates to the Jury," "Oeconomicus," and "Symposium". Agora Editions. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801472985. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  12. ^ M MacLaren - Xenophon. Banquet; Apologie de Socrate by Francois Ollier The American Journal of Philology Vol. 85, No. 2 (Apr., 1964), pp. 212-214 (Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press in JSTOR) [Retrieved 2015-04-20]
  13. ^ Louis-André Dorion; S Ahbel-Rappe; R Kamtekar (11 May 2009). A Companion to Socrates. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781405192606. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  14. ^ E Buzzetti - Xenophon the Socratic Prince: The Argument of the Anabasis of Cyrus (p.7) Palgrave Macmillan, 21 May 2014 ISBN 1137325925 [Retrieved 2015-04-17]
  15. ^ M Cormack (15 October 2006). Plato's Stepping Stones: Degrees of Moral Virtue. A&C Black. p. 8. ISBN 9781847144416. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  16. ^ Krämer (1990) ascribes this view to Eduard Zeller (Hans Joachim Krämer, Plato and the Foundations of Metaphysics, SUNY Press, 1990, pp. 93–4).
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ Rowe, C. "Interpreting Plato" in Benson, H. H. (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 13–24.
  19. ^ Smith, Nicholas; Brickhouse, Thomas (2002). The Trial and Execution of Socrates : Sources and Controversies. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 24. ISBN 9780195119800.
  20. ^ Kahn, Charles H. (2000). Plato and the Socratic Dialogue : The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0521648301.
  21. ^ Fine, Gail (2011). The Oxford handbook of Plato. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 76–77. ISBN 978-0199769193.
  22. ^ C.H. Kahn - Aeschines on Socratic Eros in PA. Vander Waerdt - The Socratic Movement Cornell University Press, 1 Jan 1994 ISBN 0801499038 [Retrieved 2015-04-20]
  23. ^ J Piering - Antisthenes Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy[Retrieved 2015-04-20]
  24. ^ Nails, D. (Spring 2014). "Socrates". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. section 2:1, paragraph 2. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  25. ^ Meinwald, C.C. "Plato". The Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  26. ^ Kraut, R. "Socrates". The Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  27. ^ Tuplin, C.J. "Xenophon". The Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  28. ^ Ehrenberg, V. (22 May 2014). From Solon to Socrates: Greek history and civilization during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Routledge. p. 373. ISBN 978-1136783944. Retrieved 24 March 2015 – via Google Books.
  29. ^ Bartlett, R.C., ed. (2006). The Shorter Socratic Writings: "Apology of Socrates to the Jury", "Oeconomicus", and "Symposium". Agora Editions. Cornell University Press. pp. 6–7. ISBN 0801472989. Retrieved 17 April 2015 – via Google Books.
  30. ^ J Bussanich, ND Smith - The Bloomsbury Companion to Socrates (please see - Note 14 & 16) A&C Black, 3 Jan 2013 ISBN 1441112847 [Retrieved 2015-04-17]
  31. ^ a b D Nails (31 July 1995). Agora, Academy, and the Conduct of Philosophy (p.23). Springer Science & Business Media, 31 Jul 1995. ISBN 9780792335436. Retrieved 17 April 2015.
  32. ^ Louis-André Dorion (2011). The Cambridge Companion to Socrates. Cambridge University Press. p. 2. ISBN 9780521833424. Retrieved 2015-04-16.
  33. ^ M Trapp - Introduction: Questions of Socrates [Retrieved 3 May 2015] (p.xvi)
  34. ^ Nails, Debra (February 8, 2018). "Socrates". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved May 23, 2018.
  35. ^ G Klosko, Henry L. & Grace Doherty (2011). History of Political Theory: An Introduction: Volume I: Ancient and Medieval. Oxford University Press. p. 40. ISBN 978-0199695423. Retrieved 16 April 2015.
  36. ^ SJ Patterson, Hans-Gebhard Bethge, JM. Robinson - The Fifth Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age (p.1) Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 15 Jun 2010 ISBN 0567178269 [Retrieved 2015-04-20] (primary source for Nag Hammadi was this)
  37. ^ GW Bromiley - The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (p.474) Wm. B. Eerdmans 1986 Publishing ISBN 0802837859 [Retrieved 2015-04-20]
  38. ^ Boter, G.J. (1989). The Textual Tradition of Plato's Republic. Brill. ISBN 9004087877. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  39. ^ Dibdin, T. Frognall (1804). [no title cited]. W. Dwyer. p. 5. (located Ficinus using this source, which though provides suggestions of the wrong years for publication - p. 5)
  40. ^ Boyle, M. O'Rourke (1998). Senses of Touch: Human Dignity and Deformity from Michelangelo to Calvin. Brill. footnote 170, p. 33. ISBN 9004111751. Retrieved 20 April 2015 – via Google Books.
  41. ^ Marsh, David. "Xenophon" (PDF). Catalogus Translationum et Commentariorum. 7: 82. Retrieved 25 August 2015. (editio princeps using Brown, V. "Catalogus Translationum" (PDF). Cicero translated Oeconomicus)
  42. ^ Schmoll, E.A. (1990). "The manuscript tradition of Xenophon's Apologia Socratis". Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies. 31 (1). Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  43. ^ Malachi Haim Hacohen – Karl Popper – The Formative Years, 1902–1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna (p. 424) Cambridge University Press, 4 Mar 2002 ISBN 0521890551 [reference Retrieved 2015-04-20, material added at a prior date]
  44. ^ RL Perkins - The Concept of Irony (p.210) Mercer University Press, 2001 ISBN 0865547424 Volume 2 of International Kierkegaard commentary [Retrieved 2015-04-20] (mentions Thesis VII)
  45. ^ Søren Kierkegaard (translated by HH Hong & EH Hong) - Kierkegaard's Writings, II: The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates/Notes of Schelling's Berlin Lectures (p.6) Princeton University Press, 21 Apr 2013, ISBN 1400846927 [Retrieved 2015-04-20] (shows details of Theses II, III & VII)
  46. ^ The Philological museum, Volume 2 (edited by J.C. Hare) Printed by J. Smith for Deightons, 1833 [Retrieved 2015-05-03] (sourced firstly at L-A Dorion in D.R. Morrison - The Cambridge Companion to Socrates)
  47. ^ Nails, Debra (Spring 2014). "Early attempts to solve the Socratic problem". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Supplement to ‘Socrates’. Stanford University. Retrieved 7 May 2015.

Further reading[edit]

  • Popper, Karl (2002). The Open Society and Its Enemies. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-29063-0.
  • Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1973). Introductions to the Dialogues of Plato. Ayer Co. Publishers. ISBN 978-0-405-04868-5.
  • Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1996). Ueber die Philosophie Platons. Philos. Bibliotek. Band 486, Meiner Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7873-1462-1.