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Thread: The Socratic method

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    The Socratic method

    Anyone who's read some Plato, particularly The Republic, or studied Ancient Greece will know about Socrates's method of constantly questioning everyone on the meaning of certain words. For example, in one instance in The Republic, Socrates is asking a group of men what the word "justice" means, and every one who offers up a definition is eventually and sometimes in the very next page forced to contradict himself because Socrates keeps continuously asking questions until he ends up completely refuting his previous definition. One Socrates's belief was that words like "honor," "justice," and "righteousness," among others, are completely abstract and without meaning, and when we use our logic to challenge their empty definitions, they don't stand the test. Socrates believed that these definitions are not exact, and there are real, undeniable definitions for such words which, when tested, would always prove true, and when we do find these real definitions for such words, we should live by them.

    However, thousands of years later, the world is still very much the same as it was back then, with the extremely vague definition for these words being exactly the same as they've always been. So my question is, when we know that these concepts are abstract and don't stand the test of repeated questioning, why do we still live by it? Is it healthy just to abide by our hypocrisies, simply because we have nothing else?
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    how do i analyse a book?

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    From my memory of the Republic, Socrates also assumes a lot of things to be true that are highly questionable, e.g. the innate superiority of men to women, without ever applying his famous method.

    You yourself are falling into an assumption that might be open to question - that it's necessary and even possible to arrive at absolute and universally applicable definitions for these words, as if they and the concepts they define are prior (a priori Kant or Leibniz might have said) to our experience. The question of whether this is really the case is one of the big ones in philosophy. The fact that we can't arrive at infallible definitions of them might simply suggest that they're not. Plato's Republic was tried, I believe, and failed. Wherever theory's allowed to come first, contingent reality usualy finds a way of tripping it up, from communism to privatisation.

    Even if they are, it's not necessarily hopeless (not on those grounds, anyway). Without necessarily wanting to advise that you simply skip to the end of philosophy, you might find it useful to read some Richard Rorty. His discussion of post structuralism as it relates to humanism and democracy shows words in a language functioning like people in society - as part of a context that perpetually defines and redefines them. Ultimately, it's an argument against theory as a governing method and for perpetual rethinks and renegotiations.

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    Quote Originally Posted by superunknown
    However, thousands of years later, the world is still very much the same as it was back then, with the extremely vague definition for these words being exactly the same as they've always been. So my question is, when we know that these concepts are abstract and don't stand the test of repeated questioning, why do we still live by it? Is it healthy just to abide by our hypocrisies, simply because we have nothing else?
    Hello, superunknown, welcome to the forum.
    Firstly to answer any queries regarding the Socratic method, many of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, believed any truth seemed attainable by logic and reasoning. How did logic and reasoning appear in utilization? Particularly by forming an hypothesis, critiquing it with questions and faults, forming another hypothesis, critiquing it with more questions and faults, and so on, ad infinitum; thus formed the Socratic method, in a way, an early, rough form the scientific method.
    The definitions of honor, justice, and righteousness no one will quite agree on, I postulate. Nowadays, the definitions, whether people agree with them or not, seem established through a process of 'majority rules,' though, as the quote proceeds, 'justice is blind,' and many individuals, I think, mostly assume justice and honor, as blp quoted from Kant, as a priori - a truth requiring no proof, but something commonly known without analysis or syllogisms. No one can tell me, however, that no one, at one time or another, questions the validity and justice of common-day law, interpersonal treatment, etc.
    Unfortunately, I feel unsure whether I can delve further into this subject without involving some comparisons of historical politics and contemporary politics, but would love to continue any discussion not involving politics.

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    Quote Originally Posted by superunknown
    However, thousands of years later, the world is still very much the same as it was back then, with the extremely vague definition for these words being exactly the same as they've always been. So my question is, when we know that these concepts are abstract and don't stand the test of repeated questioning, why do we still live by it? Is it healthy just to abide by our hypocrisies, simply because we have nothing else?
    I think I understand the intention of your question. However, in order to give any kind of satisfying answer I must ask you that, of "honour", "justice", and "righteousness", which concept do you pose the question to first of all? Since although they were all derived from similar methods, they arrived with very different effects. They must really be looked at separtely first if we want a well-supported and reasonable answer.

    However, I do disagree with the comment that all of these concepts are exactly the same as they were back then; I have studied and read more recent theories/writings about, or concerning, them and viewing them in arguably different ways. The most obvious examples are the development of the legal systems of Europe and England concerning "justice", and the New Testament, a doctrine concerning all three concepts I think, etc. Reviewing these doctrines in detail and relating them to each concept would make a great debate, I feel. If you would like to discuss about one concept first, I would love to continue contributing to this thread. Good question.
    Last edited by Regit; 05-20-2006 at 09:57 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Regit
    I think I understand the intention of your question. However, in order to give any kind of satisfying answer I must ask you that, of "honour", "justice", and "righteousness", which concept do you pose the question to first of all? Since although they were all derived from similar methods, they arrived with very different effects. They must really be looked at separtely first if we want a well-supported and reasonable answer.

    However, I do disagree with the comment that all of these concepts are exactly the same as they were back then; I have studied and read more recent theories/writings about, or concerning, them and viewing them in arguably different ways. The most obvious examples are the development of the legal systems of Europe and England concerning "justice", and the New Testament, a doctrine concerning all three concepts I think, etc. Reviewing these doctrines in detail and relating them to each concept would make a great debate, I feel. If you would like to discuss about one concept first, I would love to continue contributing to this thread. Good question.
    I'm not at all convinced that what you're asking is necessary here, Regit. The original question seems to me to be fundamentally a general one of epistemology - philosophy that inquires into the nature of human knowledge - how do we know what we know?
    Last edited by blp; 05-20-2006 at 10:18 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by superunknown
    However, thousands of years later, the world is still very much the same as it was back then, with the extremely vague definition for these words being exactly the same as they've always been. So my question is, when we know that these concepts are abstract and don't stand the test of repeated questioning, why do we still live by it? Is it healthy just to abide by our hypocrisies, simply because we have nothing else?
    What do you mean by "the same"? What definitions are "extremely vague", and why do you think they are vague? What concepts are abstract? Why does something being abstract make it unable to "stand the test of repeated questioning?"

    Do you have particular thoughts regarding those matters?

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    Quote Originally Posted by superunknown
    we know that these concepts are abstract and don't stand the test of repeated questioning
    Do we indeed know that those concepts are purely abstractions? Have we perhaps not subjected them to enough "repeated questioning" and therefore proceeded to draw a conclusion that is as yet unproven? Could we not assume that "honor" and "justice" are objectively real ideas since we seem to recognize them in some of our observations of reality?

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    Quote Originally Posted by superunknown
    However, thousands of years later, the world is still very much the same as it was back then, with the extremely vague definition for these words being exactly the same as they've always been. So my question is, when we know that these concepts are abstract and don't stand the test of repeated questioning, why do we still live by it? Is it healthy just to abide by our hypocrisies, simply because we have nothing else?
    I don't know what you mean here. How are they vague today, when, for example, 'justice' is defined, redefined and applied everyday. We live by 'it' because this abstract notion turned into a social contract. Do you think its vague for some people?

    Quote Originally Posted by Regit
    I think I understand the intention of your question. However, in order to give any kind of satisfying answer I must ask you that, of "honour", "justice", and "righteousness", which concept do you pose the question to first of all? Since although they were all derived from similar methods, they arrived with very different effects. They must really be looked at separtely first if we want a well-supported and reasonable answer.

    However, I do disagree with the comment that all of these concepts are exactly the same as they were back then; I have studied and read more recent theories/writings about, or concerning, them and viewing them in arguably different ways. The most obvious examples are the development of the legal systems of Europe and England concerning "justice", and the New Testament, a doctrine concerning all three concepts I think, etc. Reviewing these doctrines in detail and relating them to each concept would make a great debate, I feel. If you would like to discuss about one concept first, I would love to continue contributing to this thread. Good question.
    I agree with Regit here, indicating to look at them separately. To be sure, I have less problem understanding 'justice', how that was derived from a societal need and turned into a social contract, than I do other 'abstractions', as you call them here. 'Honour', 'loyalty' and similar human constructs may or may not be part of some social contract, depends on the culture adopting it, or not. They do show up in history in various forms; if you were disloyal, your head was cut off, if you were dishonourable, you were expected to put a sword though your belly, walk off the end of a plank. I think your point is, "how solid are some of these notions", because they do not seem to hold up very well in an individualist society. I wonder if the society supported, or lets say, purported them, they would indeed stand the test of 'repeated questioning'. I am thinking of practical applications here, if I pledged allegiance to a King (a contract) for 10 shillings a year, and changed my mind, understanding it would then be treason, its very real. Looking back at ape man, hardly able to put two noises together for Socrates, there existed social constructs. If he wanted to go hunting food with his brothers, he best not club his brother, he best be loyal to his tribe and he best be honourable, else, he might not eat. I guess these abstracted words are needed in a society. I do not need to be loyal if I am the only Yeti on Everest, or do I?

    I wonder if we could replicate Socrates Q&A session and what the result would be today, or did he simply argue the brains out of people till he won?

    Interesting to think, thanks.
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    Quote Originally Posted by jackyyyy
    I don't know what you mean here. How are they vague today, when, for example, 'justice' is defined, redefined and applied everyday. We live by 'it' because this abstract notion turned into a social contract. Do you think its vague for some people?

    I agree with Regit here, indicating to look at them separately. To be sure, I have less problem understanding 'justice', how that was derived from a societal need and turned into a social contract, than I do other 'abstractions', as you call them here. 'Honour', 'loyalty' and similar human constructs may or may not be part of some social contract, depends on the culture adopting it, or not. They do show up in history in various forms; if you were disloyal, your head was cut off, if you were dishonourable, you were expected to put a sword though your belly, walk off the end of a plank. I think your point is, "how solid are some of these notions", because they do not seem to hold up very well in an individualist society. I wonder if the society supported, or lets say, purported them, they would indeed stand the test of 'repeated questioning'. I am thinking of practical applications here, if I pledged allegiance to a King (a contract) for 10 shillings a year, and changed my mind, understanding it would then be treason, its very real. Looking back at ape man, hardly able to put two noises together for Socrates, there existed social constructs. If he wanted to go hunting food with his brothers, he best not club his brother, he best be loyal to his tribe and he best be honourable, else, he might not eat. I guess these abstracted words are needed in a society. I do not need to be loyal if I am the only Yeti on Everest, or do I?

    I wonder if we could replicate Socrates Q&A session and what the result would be today, or did he simply argue the brains out of people till he won?

    Interesting to think, thanks.
    Jackyyy, my point about this being an epistemological question is that the question is not about the specifics of what any of these concepts are, it's about if and how we can be sure we know what any of them are. Socrates and Plato settled on the idea that there were ideal versions or 'forms' of these things from which all our ideas about them came. It's a pretty unsatisfactory solution, which is why philosophy itself didn't settle on it, but it is quite difficult to think about them any other way either. You throw the word 'construct' around pretty liberally, but that's a big statement that needs a lot of substantiation, especially given that it's not the way most of us act or think from day to day. Actually, if we say, for instance, that something isn't 'fair', I think most of us do have a sense that an objective standard of rightness, somewhere, somehow, has been breached - a kind of ideal. Opinions will vary, of course, and our opponent in the argument will no doubt explain that, no, it is fair, also alluding to the invisible objective standard.

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    Quote Originally Posted by blp
    Jackyyy, my point about this being an epistemological question is that the question is not about the specifics of what any of these concepts are, it's about if and how we can be sure we know what any of them are. Socrates and Plato settled on the idea that there were ideal versions or 'forms' of these things from which all our ideas about them came. It's a pretty unsatisfactory solution, which is why philosophy itself didn't settle on it, but it is quite difficult to think about them any other way either. You throw the word 'construct' around pretty liberally, but that's a big statement that needs a lot of substantiation, especially given that it's not the way most of us act or think from day to day. Actually, if we say, for instance, that something isn't 'fair', I think most of us do have a sense that an objective standard of rightness, somewhere, somehow, has been breached - a kind of ideal. Opinions will vary, of course, and our opponent in the argument will no doubt explain that, no, it is fair, also alluding to the invisible objective standard.
    My post was for the most part addressing 'hypocrisies' from superunknown. I can agree with Socrates /Plato in that there are 'ideal' forms, and for practical reasons. I can also see how attaining and accepting of an ideal 'should be acceptable' to a philosopher, seems fair minded of Socrates /Plato. Epistemology questions itself. I think in these cases, we need to take a stance with which to derive an ideal. Personally, I can rationalize evolution being a root, which I brought forward in my post. That 'fairness' being breached, is another word to join 'loyalty' and 'honour', and if the opponent does not adhere to the same ideal, then yes, its in conflict. I wonder if there is a hierarchy here; Fair, Loyal, Honour, Justice. They have different values and different consequences, apparently different levels of importance. I would not assert their absoluteness because they cannot be black and white, they are foggy at the edges. So, our morals and laws try to push those edges in on a continual basis.
    Quote Originally Posted by blp
    Ultimately, it's an argument against theory as a governing method and for perpetual rethinks and renegotiations.
    I looked back at this, and agree with it - a moving idea, a perpetually evolving concept as large as humanity. I don't know why an ideal is 'an unsatisfactory solution'. Socrates /Plato tried to create an ideal that fit, and today our societies do the same. A philosopher, rather like a politician, might have a different view to argue, and his view would be only that. A purer form is maybe what was bothering Socrates - Greek God or Darwinism, and he settled for an ideal.
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    The reason the ideal forms explanation is unsatisfactory is that you have to wonder not only what the hell they are, but worse, where they are and how they got there. This is why, I believe, early Christian philosophers were so happy to go along with Socrates, though I could be wrong, not having got to them yet. Kant said, 'But the deus ex machina is the greatest absurdity one could hit upon in the determination of the origin and validity of our knowledge. It has - besides its deceptive circle in the conclusion concerning our cognitions - also this additional disadvantage: it encourages all sorts of wild notions and every pious and speculative brainstorm.'

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    To put it the most simply, especially regarding justice, I find that most politics, historical and contemporary, still find themselves caught on whether 'right makes might' or 'might makes right.'

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    Quote Originally Posted by blp
    The reason the ideal forms explanation is unsatisfactory is that you have to wonder not only what the hell they are, but worse, where they are and how they got there. This is why, I believe, early Christian philosophers were so happy to go along with Socrates, though I could be wrong, not having got to them yet. Kant said, 'But the deus ex machina is the greatest absurdity one could hit upon in the determination of the origin and validity of our knowledge. It has - besides its deceptive circle in the conclusion concerning our cognitions - also this additional disadvantage: it encourages all sorts of wild notions and every pious and speculative brainstorm.'
    If something is introduced, such as Greek Gods or Talking Fish, and that society is quite happy about that, that can then become and constitute their ideal. Yes, a philosopher will challenge that, which is what Socrates did, and he then tried to replace it with a new ideal. I should say, 'include with it', because he was under enormous political pressure. I agree with Kant, and I would not think 'fairness' came out of the sky. Equally for Kant, might be the validity of claims by archeologists and historians. I have not seen any alien spaceships yet, though I never discount them. Possibly in centuries to come, the notion /ideal of fairness will evaporate just like Greek God pranking. Some people think it already has. These words exist today, humans use them, and fish don't.
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    Quote Originally Posted by mono
    To put it the most simply, especially regarding justice, I find that most politics, historical and contemporary, still find themselves caught on whether 'right makes might' or 'might makes right.'
    You're right, politics and philosophy often go out on dates together.
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