Socrates (469–399 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 01, 2021, from

3. Socratic elenchus, or refutation

In cross-examining those with reputations for wisdom about human affairs and showing their lack of it, Socrates employed a special method of dialectical argument that he himself had perfected, the method of ‘elenchus’ – Greek for ‘putting to the test’ or ‘refutation’. He gives an example at his trial when he cross-examines Meletus, one of his accusers (Plato, Apology 24d–27e). The respondent states a thesis, as something he knows to be true because he is wise about the matter in question. Socrates then asks questions, eliciting clarifications, qualifications and extensions of the thesis, and seeking further opinions of the respondent on related matters. He then argues, and the respondent sees no way not to grant, that the original thesis is logically inconsistent with something affirmed in these further responses. For Socrates, it follows at once that the respondent did not know what he was talking about in stating his original thesis: true knowledge would prevent one from such self-contradiction. So the respondent suffers a personal set-back; he is refuted – revealed as incompetent. Meletus, for example, does not have consistent ideas about the gods or what would show someone not to believe in them, and he does not have consistent ideas about who corrupts the young, and how; so he does not know what he is talking about, and no one should take his word for it that Socrates disbelieves in the gods or has corrupted his young men. In many of his early dialogues Plato shows Socrates using this method to examine the opinions of persons who claim to be wise in some matter: the religious expert Euthyphro on piety (Euthyphro), the generals Laches and Nicias on courage (Laches), the Sophist Protagoras on the distinctions among the virtues and whether virtue can be taught (Protagoras), the rhapsodist Ion on what is involved in knowing poetry (Ion), the budding politician Alcibiades on justice and other political values (Alcibiades), the Sophist Hippias on which was the better man, Odysseus or Achilles (Lesser Hippias), and on the nature of moral and aesthetic beauty (Greater Hippias). They are all refuted – shown to have mutually inconsistent ideas on the subject discussed (see Plato §§4, 6, 8–9).

But Socrates is not content merely to demonstrate his interlocutor’s lack of wisdom or knowledge. That might humiliate him into inquiring further or seeking by some other means the knowledge he has been shown to lack, instead of remaining puffed up with self-conceit. That would be a good thing. But Socrates often also indicates clearly that his cross-examination justifies him and the interlocutor in rejecting as false the interlocutor’s original thesis. Logically, that is obviously wrong: if the interlocutor contradicts himself, at least one of the things he has said must be false (indeed, all of them could be), but the fact alone of self-contradiction does not show where the falsehood resides. For example, when Socrates leads Euthyphro to accept ideas that contradict his own definition of the pious as whatever pleases all the gods, Socrates concludes that that definition has been shown to be false (Euthyphro10d–11a), and asks Euthyphro to come up with another one. He does not usually seem to consider that perhaps on further thought the additional ideas would seem faulty and so merit rejection instead.

Socrates uses his elenctic method also in discussion with persons who are not puffed up with false pride, and are quite willing to admit their ignorance and to reason out the truth about these important matters. Examples are his discussions with his long-time friend Crito on whether he should escape prison and set aside the court’s death sentence (Plato, Crito), and with the young men Charmides, on self-control (Charmides), and Lysis and Menexenus, on the nature of friendship (Lysis). Socrates examines Crito’s proposal that he escape on the basis of principles that he presents to him for his approval, and he, together with Crito (however half-heartedly), rejects it when it fails to be consistent with them. And he examines the young men’s successive ideas about these virtues, rejecting some of them and refining others, by relying on their own acceptance of further ideas that he puts to them. Again, he is confident that the inconsistencies brought to light in their ideas indicate the inadequacy of their successive proposals as to the nature of the moral virtue in question.

In many of his discussions, both with young men and the allegedly wise, Socrates seeks to know what some morally valuable property is – for example, piety, courage, self-control or friendship (see §5). Rejecting the idea that one could learn this simply from attending to examples, he insisted on an articulated ‘definition’ of the item in question – some single account that would capture all at once the presumed common feature that would entitle anything to count as a legitimate instance. Such a definition, providing the essence of the thing defined, would give us a ‘model’ or ‘paradigm’ to use in judging whether or not some proposed action or person possesses the moral value so defined (Euthyphro 6d–e). Aristotle says (in Metaphysics I, 6) that Socrates was the first to interest himself in such ‘universal definitions’, and traces to his interest in them Plato’s first impetus towards a theory of Forms, or ‘separated’ universals (see Plato §10).

In none of his discussions in Plato’s early works does Socrates profess to think an adequate final result has actually been established – about the nature of friendship, or self-control, or piety, or any of the other matters he inquires about. Indeed, on the contrary, these works regularly end with professions of profound ignorance about the matter under investigation. Knowledge is never attained, and further questions always remain to be considered. But Socrates does plainly think that progress towards reaching final understanding has taken place (even if only a god, and no human being, could ever actually attain it). Not only has one discovered some things that are definitely wrong to say; one has also achieved some positive insights that are worth holding onto in seeking further systematic understanding. Given that Socrates’ method of discussion is elenctic throughout, what does he think justifies this optimism?

On balance, our evidence suggests that Socrates had worked out no elaborate theory to support him here. The ideas he was stimulated to propound in an elenctic examination which went against some initial thesis seemed to him, and usually also to the others present, so plausible, and so supportable by further considerations, that he and they felt content to reject the initial thesis. Until someone came up with arguments to neutralize their force, it seemed the thesis was doomed, as contrary to reason itself. Occasionally Socrates expresses himself in just those terms: however unpalatable the option might seem, it remains open to someone to challenge the grounds on which his conclusions rest (see Euthyphro 15c, Gorgias 461d–462a, 509a, Crito 54d). But until they do, he is satisfied to treat his and his interlocutor’s agreement as a firm basis for thought and action. Later, when Plato himself became interested in questions of philosophical methodology in his Meno, this came to seem a philosophically unsatisfactory position; Plato’s demand for justification for one’s beliefs independent of what seemed on reflection most plausible led him to epistemological and metaphysical inquiries that went well beyond the self-imposed restriction of Socratic philosophy to ethical thought in the broadest sense. But Socrates did not raise these questions. In this respect more bound by traditional views than Plato, he had great implicit confidence in his and his interlocutors’ capacity, after disciplined dialectical examination of the issues, to reach firm ground for constructing positive ideas about the virtues and about how best to lead a human life – even if these ideas never received the sort of final validation that a god, understanding fully the truth about human life, could give them.

Citing this article:
Cooper, John M.. Socratic elenchus, or refutation. Socrates (469–399 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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