Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, May 13, 2016

Plato’s Metaphysics: Do The Questions Stop Here?

 Every time I open Plato’s Republic, I learn something new: that is—I find another question to ask. This week was no different.

Dr. Oliver posed the following discussion question:

Socrates famously claimed to know nothing, and indicated astonishment at being declared by the Oracle at Delphi the wisest Athenian. His great passion was philosophical conversation and ceaseless questioning of everyone and everything. Is this consistent with Plato's dialogic Socrates, so affirming of Platonic metaphysics and finally so weary of life? 

I think it’s safe to say (Dr. Oliver can weigh in) that Dr. Oliver’s position is that there is inconstancy between the dialogic Socrates (know-nothing) and Platonic metaphysics. Moreover, this is a larger problem in (Plato’s) Socrates known as the “Socratic Problem,” which asks the question: who was Socrates really? For the sake of discussion, I’ll argue that the schism between the two is slight, despite the theoretical inconsistencies raised in the Socratic Problem. More accurately, I’ll argue the link between the Socratic Method and the Theory of Forms is cast from the same metaphysical foundations.

We see in many of the early dialogues that Socrates employs elenchus—a method of examination by asking questions, a way to draw out or discover the truth. What is evident, is that no one Socrates interrogates provides satisfactory (a universal) answers to his questions. Contradictions are Socrates’s trade. After a series of leading questions, the interlocutor falls into a trap, in which a counterexample is given or the answer is reduced to absurdity. To further the investigations, more questions must be asked. The takeaway is to keep searching for the truth; this is a good thing. Hence, the Socratic Method.

With this common interpretation, the Socratic Method (I don’t know, keep asking questions) seems far removed from Platonic Idealism. In the Apology (38a), which is an account of Socrates’s speech he gave at his trial, where he famously noted that the unexamined life is not worth living. The difference between Socrates’s elenchus and Platonic metaphysics seems to be a matter of questions vs. answers, respectively. But I would argue that one implicates the other.

In the Euthyphro—and this is one of the early dialogues—Socrates grills Euthyphro for a definition of piety and impiety (5d). This method of inquiry is often called the Socratic Method—a search for the truth. Socrates, as the gadfly, appears throughout the early and middle dialogues, notably in Book I of the Republic.

But buried in all this much-praised Socratic questioning is a big assumption: there are universal, satisfactory answers to Socrates’s questions. Given the Allegory of the Cave and, immediately prior to his death, Socrates’s quip to Crito in Phaedo concerning his debt to Asclepius, it appears that the ultimate answers to these questions, according to Plato, are inaccessible to mere mortals, save a few philosophers. God only knows, as the saying goes.

The question is this: is Plato’s metaphysics present in the early dialogues? Is is buried underneath the ceaseless questioning—answers which are never found to satisfy Socrates?

Thoughts, anyone?


  1. I think we still need to mind the gap. Paraphrasing Roseanne Rosannadanna, we philosophers ask a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey (where Jersey really means the cave). If there weren't undiscovered answers to seek, why would we do that? Maybe we just like the questions, and their way of blocking premature universal answers.

    My hypothesis is that Plato's metaphysics is present in all the dialogues, because Plato's Socrates is just Plato. The hypothetical "real Socrates" is necessarily a construct, drawn from taking seriously the suggestion that answers must evade even the True Philosopher and his Republican Philosopher-King.

    I like to think that, in a 3-way match between Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the loser would be Plato. Socrates and Aristotle would team up to defeat him with relentless empiricistic naturalism.

    But, as (the real) Socrates should say, I could be mistaken.

    I do hope you will all reply with your thoughts. (Remember, each comment, question for the quiz or for discussion, and relevant link to something we can read or watch or listen to earns you a base, and four bases gets you a run on the scorecard.)

    Thanks for leading off, Dean. (That's a baseball metaphor, by the way. It won't be my last... and if anyone wants to score major extra credit, of the honorary variety, take me out to a Sounds game! - especially on a "Throwback Thursday" night when the beer is cheap(er).

    1. P.S. Remember, you also get a run for posting your weekly essay. If anyone has difficulty with that, just send it on to me and I'll post it for you, 'til we solve the difficulty.