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Socrates 1.2 – Madness in Your Method

A dash of madness in your method?


Socrates was put to death for philosophizing. Of course, his style might have had something to do with it, too. In our reading of The Apology, we’ll encounter something of the flavor of the man. Here, I’ll introduce some ideas about Socrates’ role in shaping a conception of philosophy, which through his life takes a distinctive turn and receives a permanent coloring.

The word ‘elenchus‘ derives from the Greek for ‘refutation’.

Socrates carried out his philosophical mission by means of open-ended discussion or dialogue, modeling a practice involving others not by happenstance, but essentially: for Socrates, philosophy implies community, critical scrutiny and equality. Anyone might contribute key insights, and no one has the power to secure her or his favoured outcome because it’s favored: reasons are required. Socrates’ practice, called elenchus in the Greek, is perhaps best described as the dialogue-driven process of interrogating beliefs, teasing out and testing their implications. When he exposed unresolved confusions, he accepted his ignorance, and cautioned others.

The idea of “an inner voice” calling us “back” to ideals might be considered a nice metaphor. But there is evidence in Plato’s writings that Socrates believed each of us to be in possession of knowledge, hidden even from ourselves — knowledge rooted in a state before our birth, and which we might “recollect” with the aid of philosophy.

The exposure of unresolved confusions might be thought of as part of a critical and analytic aspect of philosophy — it calls for clarification and consistency, and it questions the answers: it tests, and exposes what it falsifies. And thus it opens our ears to a voice within ourselves that “calls us back” to first questions. (I don’t mean “first” in a chronological sense, as in “the questions of children.”) Some such questions arise as we aim at a deeper understanding of the world — they are the questions that arise when we press the common answers we take for granted. For instance, when philosophical thinking uncovers inconsistencies in my world view, I face questions like,

  • What makes right right?
  • Is
  • Can I trust “science”? What should I believe when scientists disagree?
  • Does a god exist? A good one? If so, why is there suffering that seems unjustified?
  • Is using brutal or lethal force ethically justified? If so, by whom and when?
  • What is it that I call “myself”? Does saying, “It’s my soul,” answer, or raise, more questions?
  • If I’m composed of material particles the behavior of which is governed by physics (not on my will?), can “I” have real “free will”? Is it possible to say in detail in what sense “I” wiggle my finger? What exactly is the “I” in that story?

Other “first questions” arise when we undertake to find our way, to ask ourselves where we’re headed and why. For instance, how I respond to inconsistencies in my world view uncovered by philosophical thinking says a lot about what kind of person I am. I have to take a stand on questions like,

  • Is it important that I resolve inconsistencies in my thought and behavior?
  • Can I live a truly good life if some degree of consistency isn’t important to me?
  • What standards of rigor and evidence should I accept pertaining to my beliefs about science, god, and myself? Why?
  • How much courage, honesty, and overall dedication should I expect from myself?
  • Can I live a truly good life even if these are not important to me?

This kind — or quality, or style — of engagement faces us with questions about what is true, what is beautiful, and what is good. Pursuing these deepens our understanding of the world; and in turn, that growth at times focuses questions for us about what we believe, what we value generally, and what kind of persons we want to be, specifically. Grappling with questions that seem more objective — pertaining to matters out beyond me — can also lead inward to self-reflection, appreciation, and evaluation.

In the text, Alcibiades, Socrates argues that the sign-post of wisdom points inward to self-understanding:

  1. We ought to desire to be the best we can be; and rather than leave it to chance, we should undertake to bring this about through “care of the soul.”
  2. Self-knowledge is required for care of the soul.        
  3. Thus, we have a rational motive to pursue self-knowledge.

Heidegger wrote, “To be human is to be concerned for who one is.” Perhaps this phrase brings into focus what’s distinctively human. Are fish, flies, frogs, sheep, pigs, or dogs concerned about what they are? How about whales or other primates?

In the desire to live well, there is an essential if only intimated concern for “the Good,” motivating self-knowledge. In effect, self-knowledge begins with an implicit acknowledgement of and desire for the Good. The influential recent philosopher Martin Heidegger credits Socrates with articulating the insight that to be human is essentially to be concerned for who one is. For both of these philosophers, true philosophy addresses the whole person. Intellect is an essential aspect; but it exists as an aspect of the whole person, whose concern toward life is more than narrowly intellectual, and involves other values, goals, and ideals.

Socrates in Alcibiades goes on to suggest that we encounter our own souls through engagement with others, in something like the way we can see a reflection of ourselves in another’s pupil.

[I]f the soul… is to know herself, she must surely look at a soul, and especially at… wisdom, and… the seat of knowledge and thought… [T]his part of her resembles God, and whoever looks at this, and comes to know all that is divine, will gain thereby the best knowledge of himself.

There is a part of us which we can see best with the help of others, and in this part we reflect more properly the Highest Things.

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