Is the Socratic method essentially negative? No. Socrates was sentenced to death for evaluating how ignorant or wise people were by spotting contradictions in their speech. When applied appropriately, the Socratic method fulfills its goal, which has a positive effect, and does so in a practical manner. Thus, the Socratic method cannot be labeled as essentially negative.
In the first section, there will be a summary of the passages from Plato’s Apology that are relevant to this essay. In the second section, we will explain the ethical implications of Socrates’ motivation to practice the Socratic method, which led to his death.. In the third section, we will lay out Socrates’ counterarguments to his accusers, and we will explore the potential weaknesses of those counterarguments. And in the fourth section, I will explain what should be considered as an appropriate application of the Socratic method as well as debunking three ways in which it could be considered essentially negative.
According to Plato’s writings in the Apology, after the Oracle of Delphi stated that no one was wiser than Socrates, the philosopher embarked on a journey where he attempted to find a person wiser than himself. Whenever he encountered someone regarded as being wise, Socrates would cross-examine their ideas to the point where he could demonstrate that, in reality, they knew nothing. This process of rigorous interrogation is now known as the Socratic method. The philosopher found that everyone eventually claimed to possess knowledge that was beyond their reach. Socrates believed that when neither he nor his interlocutor had knowledge over a subject, his mere acceptance of their state of ignorance made him slightly wiser than his pretentious counterparts. In other words, there was wisdom in not deceiving oneself or others.
This soon became a pattern with politicians, poets, craftsmen, and virtually anyone who locked dialectical horns with the philosopher. The rising number of people that Socrates encountered seemed proportionate to the growing collective animus towards him, which eventually spilled over into legal action against the philosopher. Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon were the three main accusers mentioned in the Apology. After being indicted by Meletus, Socrates was sentenced to death for allegedly researching things beyond human nature, making the weaker arguments stronger, and teaching his techniques to the city’s youth who replicated the philosopher’s skeptical behavior.
Socrates also stated that “a divine and daimonic thing” comes to him and ultimately affects his decision making. In ancient Greek mythology, daimons were gods or children of gods. The philosopher describes the feeling as a voice in his head that only stops him from undergoing certain activities; it never urges him towards anything.
Socrates believed that he needed to live in accordance with the gods’ wishes. And since the oracle of Delphi, who was said to have had a spiritual connection with the gods, claimed Socrates was the wisest, the philosopher thought that it would only be right to spend his life proving or disproving this message. Therefore, he was convinced that it was essentially positive to practice the Socratic method because it was his god’s given mission to question those who believed to be wise.
It is important to note that Socrates’ mission can be accurately described as the candid search for truth since he was attempting to confirm or deny the soundness of the Oracle’s claim. In other words, the Socratic method’s original purpose was to reveal facts.
Meletus accused the philosopher of several things, which included: charging a fee for his teachings, corrupting the youth, and neglecting the gods. In the Apology, Socrates laid out why he believed the claims were baseless and nonsensical. Starting with the monetary accusation, the philosopher used the following counterargument:
1: If Socrates profited from what he did, he would have been financially successful.
2: Socrates was poor.
C: Socrates did not profit.
This is in reference to the Sophists, who charged large sums of money in exchange for their teachings, usually to very wealthy members of society. One could argue that Socrates could have been a terrible negotiator, or that he never mustered up savings from what he earned. But, to the naked eye, it was clear the philosopher did not profit as much as Sophists did, and effectively arguing that financial success existed elsewhere would have required more evidence than what Meletus had to offer.
Then, not only does Meletus admit to believing that Socrates corrupts the youth, but that he does so intentionally. The philosopher offered two counterarguments, one challenged his alleged intention to corrupt the youth, and another addressed the possibility of him doing so unintentionally. The former was as follows:
1: Corrupted people do bad things to those around them.
2: Socrates does not want bad things to be done to him.
C: Socrates does not want corrupted people around him.
This is a false dichotomy. Socrates assumes that either one is wholly good or utterly evil. The philosopher fails to point out why it would be impossible for people to be agathokakological. Someone could have malicious intent with those farthest away from him yet care and tend to those closest to him. Regardless, since Socrates believed that it would be futile for him to purposefully corrupt those around him, he claimed that if he had corrupted the youth, it would have been unintentionally. To refute this residual attribution, the philosopher offered the following argument:
1: If Socrates’ influence had previously corrupted the young, they would have come forward to accuse him since they had grown older.
2: No one came forward to accuse Socrates of corrupting them.
C: Socrates had not corrupted anyone.
This argument is likely to be unsound as well, despite the presence of volunteering witnesses in the philosopher’s favor. Socrates never proved that growing up automatically emancipated people from corruption, nor did he eliminate the possibility of people being corrupt towards others to benefit themselves. This is important because a corrupted individual is not necessarily led to self-sabotage under ordinary definitions of the word corruption, leaving no reason for former “students” to be mad at Socrates.
Lastly, Meletus accused Socrates of not acknowledging any gods at all. Crucial to the philosopher’s defense was that Meletus admitted to believing Socrates corrupted the youth “by teaching them not to acknowledge the gods the city acknowledges, but new daimonic activities instead.” After that disclosure, the philosopher formulated the following counterargument:
1: One who acknowledges an activity must also acknowledge its agent (e.g., the existence of both music & musicians).
2: Socrates acknowledges daimonic activities.
3: Daimons are the sons of gods.
C: Socrates acknowledges daimons, which means he acknowledges gods.
This argument makes perfect sense. Meletus was shamelessly contradicting himself. It was as if he was simultaneously accusing Socrates of both painting a wall and not acknowledging the existence of paint. Alas, despite Socrates flawlessly defending himself, the importance of the Socratic method’s religious implications has subsided as people have adopted different religions or none at all.
When Socrates applied his method, he did not strive to create knowledge claims about the topic at hand, whichever that may be, he only examined people to show them that they were not as wise as they claimed to be. The only brand of assertions that he made after applying the Socratic method were those regarding the degree of ignorance or wisdom exhibited by the questionee, which in turn provided a degree of credibility or lack thereof in his or her claims about a specific subject. In other words, the Socratic method was a tool used exclusively for appraisal.
Screwdrivers should not be considered essentially negative because they have been used to destroy clothing because it is not their intended use. In the same fashion, the Socratic method should not be labeled as essentially negative on the basis of it potentially creating false knowledge claims because the Socratic method was not originally conceived as a method of creating knowledge claims in the first place.
Also, contrary to popular belief, there is no absolutism to Socrates’ claim about knowledge. By him saying: “that what I don’t know, I don’t think I know.” the philosopher is not asserting that possessing knowledge is impossible or that he does not know anything at all. Quite the contrary, in the Apology, there are several accounts of Socrates explicitly saying that either he or others hold knowledge. In 29b he claims to know that disobeying someone better than oneself is “bad and shameful,” and in 22d he admits to knowing less than craftsmen when it comes to their work. It is only when speaking of subjects where neither holds expertise that Socrates labels his counterparts as unwise if they pretend to possess knowledge.
The original purpose or goal of the Socratic method is to evaluate someone’s knowledge over a subject and to determine whether or not they are aware of how much knowledge they lack or possess. This means that reaching the correct conclusion, regardless of if it implies validation or not, is what should be considered an appropriate result of its application. On the other hand, reaching an erroneous conclusion, regardless of if it implies confirmation or denial of the questionee’s possession of knowledge, is what should be considered an inappropriate outcome of the Socratic method’s use. I believe there are three possibilities where the appropriate use of the Socratic method could be considered essentially negative:
A. If it fails to accomplish its goal, even when applied appropriately.
B. If it accomplishes its goal, but the goal itself is a negative outcome.
C. If it is an impractical way of accomplishing its goal, despite its success in doing so.
In all three possibilities, the “goal” refers to what was expressed earlier. The following are what I believe to be valid and sound arguments that debunk all three possibilities, eliminating every way the Socratic method could be labeled as essentially negative, which would clearly lead us to the conclusion that the Socratic method is not essentially negative:
A.- Debunking that it fails to accomplish its goal, even when applied appropriately.
1: The Socratic method involves rigorous questioning.
2: Questioning gauges a person’s knowledge over a subject.
C: The Socratic method gauges a person’s knowledge over a subject.
B.- Debunking that the goal itself is a negative outcome.
1: The Socratic method’s goal is to appraise the validity of knowledge claims.
2: Appraisal increases certainty.
3: Certainty has a positive effect on rational discourse.
C: The Socratic method’s goal has a positive effect on rational discourse.
C.- Debunking that it is an impractical way of accomplishing its goal, despite its success in doing so.
1: If there are multiple ways to achieve the same result, the number of resources used is indirectly related to the level of practicality or convenience.
2: The Socratic method requires very few resources. It solely requires two people and a channel to communicate.
C: The Socratic method is not impractical.
Unless there is something I have failed to address, for the Socratic method to be considered essentially negative an argument I just presented would have to be invalid or unsound with no obvious replacement. If we can agree that the three arguments presented are both valid and sound, we can effectively state that the Socratic method is not essentially negative.
Socrates was sentenced to death after practicing the Socratic method, which, as we have found, is not essentially negative because every route to argue that its appropriate use could be essentially negative has been defeated.
Socrates is not just one of the most influential philosophers in history, but also one of the most impactful humans to have ever walked the face of the Earth. His conversations sparked a chain of intellectual inspirations that has survived for thousands of years. The Socratic method is as important now as it ever has been.
His legacy must be preserved, which is why understanding exactly what he intended with the Socratic method is so important, especially when judging if it is positive or negative, useful or outdated as ideas for new applications continue to arise even after over two millennia.