The Socratic Method as an Exercise in Dialectics

The Socratic method is actually an example of the method of dialectics. As early as the time of Zeno, a follower of Parmenides, the dialectical method has already been used through his arguments against motion. This constitutes the embracing and taking on the hypothesis or view of your opponent as if you agree with it. After which, you will try to deduce contradictory consequences of the same hypothesis to make it look absurd. You could show the contradiction or absurdity of your opponent’s argument by asking a series of insightful questions in a dialogue that would lead to this absurd or contradictory conclusion. Through this series of questions and answers, the opponent usually fails to realize that by the answers he has given, he is in the process of showing or demonstrating the contradiction in his own original argument or proposition.

In Plato’s early dialogues where Socrates was the main character, like in Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno, Crito, and others, this method has proven to be very effective in exposing the views of his opponent. Socrates gained the ire of the Sophists, or ‘the wise ones’ by showing the absurdity of their ideas through dialectics. The Sophists were known to be the first professional teachers who exacted money for their services. Socrates never asked for any monetary consideration for his lectures, teachings or dialogues. Also, they claimed that they could teach somebody to become wise. They were considered as masters of the art of rhetoric and persuasion. Moreover, they treated wisdom as a skill or techne which could be taught to anyone interested on becoming wise.

Of course, Socrates and Plato disagree with their teachings, in general; especially on their promoting the relativity of morality and their asking for a professional fee, in particular. As a result, the root of the disagreement between the two parties have emerged. Some of the notable sophists in Plato’s dialogues were Protagoras (Man is the measure of all things), Gorgias (Virtue is not one but many), and Thrasymachus (Justice or righteousness is the interest of the stronger party).

It is difficult to trace between Socrates and Plato, on which of the two should be credited with which ideas. What is certain though is that Socrates had influenced Plato in the development of his philosophical ideas. The Socratic influence is evident in the early and middle dialogues of Plato, including his opus, The Republic. It was only in his later dialogues that Plato started to develop his own philosophical ideas independent of the Socratic influence.