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.