Will the Real Socrates Please Stand Up

In the Plato course I am taking this semester, we have been reading secondary material, each of which proposing various methods for discerning the historic Socrates from the body of literature available to us. And in each case the author (Vlastos, Kahn, Irwin and now Brickhouse and Smith), paints for the reader an attractively plausible picture of Socrates drawn skillfully from a range of materials which they frame as being generally trustworthy.

The problem with these accounts is that each of them seems to express an overly optimistic estimation of their ability to accomplish the task, an optimism most frequently expressed through a willingness to admit various textual sources as representing a core of reliable historical information from which to build a theory of the historic Socrates and upon which they can coalesce other, more questionable materials based on how well they correlate with this core of certain texts.

But is this any way to prosecute such an investigation, to admit various materials merely upon the assumption of psychological plausibility? Certainly not, for what will end up occuring is that these core texts will almost certainly define any further search and so dictate precisely what one will find, without any of the rigorous scrutiny that other sources will be subjected to. I would like to propose an alternate method, one based on a more skeptical outlook on the endeavor.

The first step is to admit that there is no core textual source upon which we can readily rely upon. There are a variety of reasons scholars have looked to Plato, and particularly Plato’s early dialogues, as being this core, but unless we are willing to subject these texts to the same level scrutiny and verification as other sources, then we have accomplished nothing but confirmed Plato’s idealization (and perhaps even fictionalization) of Socrates, and we have no reason for assuming that it is any more accurate than any other besides the fact that his writings are the most extensive we have on Socrates, and this isn’t a reason for trusting it. We cannot go into this investigation expecting to accomplish anything, and conversely, we must be willing, upon the completion of our examination, to come away with the conclusion that we really know nothing about the historic Socrates. Only then can we proceed to be convinced by the facts of anything regarding the person of Socrates.

Next, we have to proceed with a more rigorous method of investigation. This means that our primary core of information needs to come, not from one particular text or selection of texts, but rather from a set of facts. The highest order of facts are those which have independent verification from multiple contemporary sources. This will serve as the core to verify any further investigation, for either the inclusion or exclusion of supplementary material.

Next in the hierarchy of trustworthiness would be critical statements from supporters and/or positive statements from critics. This needs to be done contextually however, since clearly not everything that was seen as being a criticism or compliment then would be seen so today. In addition to this, we have to be cautious that these facts are independent, since a critic could merely be citing some incidental fact which they received by a positively biased source, and equal caution should be applied to incidental criticisms in the accounts of supporters.

The final source of information would be the uncorroborated, and uncritical, testimony of both supporters and critics. These sources should only be accepted with strong reservations and only as supplemental information to what has already been verified, preferably from our primary sources. I considered trying to work out a distinction between who might be more trustworthy between supporters and critics, but while I am inclined to see supporters as being slightly more helpful in determining historical information, I don’t believe the difference is sufficient to separate the two in our epistemological hierarchy.

Essentially, the problem I see here is that this issue of who Socrates was is not sufficiently being treated as a historical problem, and not a philosophical problem. Because of this, not all of the source material is being subjected to the same level of scrutiny, with a subtle bias being directed towards materials that favor or interest the philosophic mind. And even though the results of the historical investigation may have ramifications for the philosophical understanding of Plato and his dialogues, it is not a philosophical question and should not be treated as such.

Too much credence is given to Plato and his description of Socrates, and there are too many questions about the dates for his dialogues, his purpose for writing them, and just how much liberty he took with the historical person of Socrates. Clearly, even as early as the Apology, if that be considered one of the early dialogues (if not the earliest), Plato had already transformed Socrates from a man into his idealization of what a philosopher is to be. Thus, the beatification of Saint Socrates, patron saint of philosophy began early, and spawned a whole industry of hagiography centered upon the various projected ideals which nearly all of western philosophy found in him. Giving Plato, the leading evangelist for the glorification of Socrates, an uncritical and influencial voice in the investigative process will only hamper efforts to discern the Socrates behind the personification of philosophical ideals.

On Science: Conclusion

What have we then, from Kant’s description, but the philosophical underpinnings of Newtonian physics with its universal conception of space and time. The difficulty, one that perhaps was hidden from Kant’s view due to the relative success of Newtonian physics in explaining the world as we perceive it locally, is that there really is no justification for supposing that these organizing principles are any less affected by our perspective than the sense objects they organize. It took the brilliance of Einstein to finally dispel this powerful notion and allow us to see that even our understanding of these concepts is shaped by the subjective conditions of our observations.1 However, this is far from license for the abandonment of Kant’s analysis, since, like Newtonian physics, there is a high degree of intersubjectivity, especially as biological and cultural similarities narrow our consideration of the subject. Nevertheless, as long as it is kept in mind what frame of reference is understood in our observation, science remains safe thanks in large part to the intellectual work of Kant, who, along with many of the Enlightenment period thinkers, gave much to securing both science and human understanding from the twin pitfalls of presumption and skepticism.

1Relativity, sect.3


  1. Ariew, Roger, Eric Watkins, ed. Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.

  2. “Relativity: The Special and General Theory.” Wikisource, The Free Library. 3 Jul 2009, 20:06 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2 Dec 2009 <http://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Relativity:_The_Special_and_General_Theory&oldid=1170205>.

On Science: Kant

Amazingly, it was precisely in the despair of Hume’s assessment that Immanuel Kant found the inspiration for his own formulation of how our perceptions of the world function, and so how it is that science operates.1 Seemingly drawing inspiration from both the rationalists like Descartes and the empiricism of Hume, Kant proposed the radical idea that we cannot understand our perceptions without first understanding that they are neither external to us, that is purely sensations, nor exclusively internal, or a priori, but are rather a synthesis of the two. For without the contribution of internal rules, or principles of organization, we would not be capable of forming a coherent picture of our sense data, and truly would be rendered in the almost impossible situation outlined by Hume of merely cataloging our sensations.2 But without experience to provide these intuitive principles specific instantiations, there would be nothing to point to as an example of their exercise, and it is only in the objects of our experience that we can understand these intuitions, for how can we observe the a priori concepts that order our senses if there are no senses to order.3

And thus it is demonstrated to us that it is not the actuality that is the object of our scientific inquiries, but rather our experience, that synthesis of a posteriori sensation and a priori concepts.4 It is the discovery of these intuitive principles that constitute the discoveries of science, the universally held principles that objectively run through all of our experiences. Simultaneously, we understand the subjective nature of our observations is due to these experiences being built around our senses, which are peculiar to the individual.5 This means that the objective truths of science are necessarily understood to be one and the same as the intersubjectively held principles of cognition.6 Thus Kant resolves the difficulties brought up by Hume by demonstrating that while are observations in science may be empirical, that the object of analysis is the a priori concept shaping our sensations into the perceptions being observed. There is no need to discover a principle of causation in the sensation, since it lies not in the subjective senses, but in the universal principles governing those senses.7 We allow for Hume’s observation that it is impossible to bridge the gap between our perceptions and any underlying reality while still preserving a role for science in the analysis of these perceptions that is something more meaningful, indeed objectively meaningful, than mere habituation.

1Prolegomena, p.580-581

2Prolegomena, p.589

3Critique, p.653-654

4Prolegomena, p.597-598

5Prolegomena, p.598-599

6Prolegomena, p.599

7Prolegomena, p.605

On Science: Hume

The disagreement reflected in the previous two thinkers is rooted in their source of facts. For while Descartes was a rationalist, and so sought his precepts within the innate beliefs of the mind,1 Hobbes was a committed empiricist and attributed all ideas to the quite mechanical effects of various perceptions on the mind.2 It is into this latter camp that we discover our third Enlightenment thinker, David Hume. In agreement with his fellow empiricist, Hume asserted that not only are there only particulars, but that our concepts of these are the products of mechanical manipulations produced by perception on the brain.3 Based on this model of cognition, Hume derives a number of consequences, that we have a fundamental distinction between perceptions that are derived from the senses and those that are arrived at through memory and imagination, themselves the residual effects of sense perceptions.4 The second consequence is that if we are to arrive at a clarity of ideas in which to discern what it is we know and do not know, then we must turn to those perceptions that are grounded in the senses, as these are the most clear and perspicuous, and that all of our ideas should be evaluated in the light of these sense perceptions.5

And having grounded the inquirer in these sensory perceptions, Hume directs our attention to what it is we perceive in them. It is here that the consequences of his strict empiricism begin to come to bear. For he asks where it is in our perceptions that we observe anything like causal relations obtaining between matters of facts. He notes that we do not know cause from reason, for unless we observe a phenomena, we can do nothing but formulate fanciful predictions6 And yet, what is it we observe but merely the concatenate of perceptions in space and time. One ball moves towards another ball; at one point they are next to each other, and the next is marked by motion on the part of both balls away from each other accompanied by a sharp clack. This occurs repeatedly, but in none of our observations do we see anything that tells us that it will occur with the next observation, and it is this limitation that undermines our ability to predict the subsequent events of our observations, and so understand causal relations. Such a concept, then, is neither reasoned nor observed, but is rather a product of habit produced by the repetition of proximity in space and time for these observations that we call cause and effect.7

This would seem a devastating conclusion to arrive at in its own right, to have lost causal relations to the product of mere habit, but the consequences go much deeper. For underlying both Descartes and Hobbes account of the natural world is a residual expectation that some kind of effect is being observed in our perceptions, and that there is a real world cause to them. But without recourse to such an conceptual instrument, we are resoundingly cut off from any sort of justification for this expectation. The question then becomes, how then can we justify the scientific endeavor if the relations, as Hobbes noted,8 is fundamentally one of cause and effect.9 The various sensations can be noted, but we are at a loss for how to draw any conclusion from them. Science may perhaps proceed with its investigations, but it can never claim to offer us anything approaching justified knowledge, never mind of an indubitable sort. It will be limited to mere commentary on past observations, admitting that anything beyond this will be the product of presumption.

1Meditations, p.35

2Leviathan, p.102

3Inquiry, p.496-497

4Inquiry, p.497

5Inquiry, p.498

6Inquiry, p.501

7Inquiry, p.503

8Leviathan, p.113

9Inquiry, p.500

On Science: Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes, much like Descartes, saw science as being primarily a matter of ideas, and that once these were sorted out, that the disputes and dissensions within the sciences will dissipate once a better grasp of terminology and its applications are grasped.1 Indeed, Hobbes also shared Descartes admiration for geometry as possessing the only methodology that would lead its practitioner to the truth in its conclusions.2 Thus, he formulates the problems of science in terms of linguistic confusion, but beyond this, he parts ways with Descartes. For where Descartes saw the value of arriving at a few singular principles of absolute certainty from which the particulars of any investigation could be derived, Hobbes prescription for clearing away the confusion surrounding the scientific endeavor is to focus on particulars, and wholly dismisses generalities among the list of linguistic absurdities one can fall into should we lose track of the fact that generalities are nothing but named equivalency for a collection of individuals, and not things in themselves.3

And once the mind is fixed on terms and their proper application, it becomes a mere exercise of their logical connections to move from them to conclusions about the various consequences involved in their relationships, even as a mathematician adds and subtracts numbers, and derives from these simple relationships a variety of other more complex permutations from these basic operations. It is the collection of these logical operands that Hobbes calls reason.4 Finally, having established both the content of our investigation and the correct understanding of their manipulation, it is easily demonstrated that science is nothing more than the right application of reason on properly understood terminology and deriving from this the various conclusions contained therein.5

Thus, while the content of Hobbesian science can seem to differ significantly from Descartes, both are admirers of the precision in mathematics and share a common disillusionment with the confused nature of science up to their day. This leads both men to seek a science of infallible deduction, for which facts are themselves fairly perspicuous given one merely keeps in mind what the facts are. The weakness of such a method, however, is made abundantly clear when we compare the two gentlemen and their clear and distinct facts and discover that they share almost nothing in common, thus calling into question just how it is we can arrive at such clear and distinct facts in the first place, and then come to agreement with one another on their number and nature.

1Leviathan, p.110

2Leviathan, p.109

3Leviathan, p.108-109,113

4Leviathan, p.111

5Leviathan, p.113

On Science: Descartes

Descartes, like many other Enlightenment thinkers to follow him, was distrustful of the accepted wisdom of past generations1, and so sought to dispense with it altogether and formulate a foundation for the scientific acquisition of knowledge that was independent of what preceded it.2 In fact, it was this very uncertainty, this lack of systematic approach that allowed prejudice and pretentiousness to masquerade as truth, which provided the antithesis to Descartes own methodology. Instead, he sought to replace them with the certitude found in mathematics, and in particular geometry, whose principles preceded one from another and in such a manner as to ensure the veracity of its conclusions once brought to bear upon true precepts.3

Thus, he arrived at the conclusion that the primary duty of science was to seek only the indubitable, and once having laid its hands upon this, to build up from this foundation, precept upon precept, until such time as all truth could be demonstrated in a logical and orderly fashion. Facts about the world were not so much sought in our observations as they were discovered in our reflections on what could not be doubted, and so could be known with certainty.4 And so Descartes, one of the very first proponents of a systematic scientific method, rejected empiricism in favor of a rationalist approach to science.

It was only once the truth of the matter could be firmly established through deduction that we could then bring this knowledge to bear upon our perceptions of reality, and so organize them in accordance within the framework of our knowledge.5 He thereby escaped the difficulty of having to rely on a connection between his perceptions and any assumed reality that lay behind them. This was important for Descartes not only because these could never offer him the certainty he felt was necessary to make a break from the opinionated methods of the past, but because this uncertainty would plague everything else built upon it, and so cast the entire endeavor into doubt. Instead, by starting with what could not be doubted, he could then secure these more dubious forms of knowledge in what could be held secure, and so obtain both reason and the empirical observations that make natural science possible.6

1Discourse, p.15

2Discourse, p.16

3Discourse, p.18

4Discourse, p.18

5Meditations, p.33

6Meditations, p.48

On Science: Introduction

At first glance, it would seem an odd question to ask what is the nature and scope of science, given how pervasive and accepted its role is in our society. But it does not require much reflection before this naïve acceptance begins to be tested. Questions about the methodology used, the subject of its investigation, and even how science is possible in the face of criticisms against the idea that we can know reality. It is into this rapidly growing quagmire that the thinkers of the Enlightenment stepped in, hoping not only to clear a path through these difficulties for science, but to conclusively establish the scientific endeavor upon a firm philosophical ground. Four of the most influential thinkers of this period who wrestled with these issues were Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant; and it is these Enlightenment luminaries that we will be looking to in our own investigation of the matter.