Are all philosophers subject to a variation of the Socrates problem?



Obviously, the specific problem of knowing who Socrates was and what he taught is wholly unique to the man. However, reading books and articles about philosophers and philosophy, I'm struck by the occasions when later commentators disagree about what particular thinkers actually taught. Obviously, for living philosophers, it's possible to simply ask them. But even the best of us seem destined to die and leave nothing but memories and the corpus of texts (and other recordings) that we bother to archive and which are preserved.

The problem is that few thoughts are complete and unambiguous. Those that are seem trivial. Over time, the context in which thinking is done becomes diffused and obscured by new context. Even fundamental tools of thought, such as language and basic assumptions change over time. It seems like a great difficulty in understanding a thinker from a different era is to put oneself in their mode of thinking, which may be impossible.

Is this an intractable problem or is it possible some innovation in communication can solve it?

(For those who are unaware, please read Early Attempts to Solve the Socratic Problem.)

Jon Ericson

Posted 2011-07-06T23:42:25.987

Reputation: 6 843

5+1 - Rather interesting this one. Even for philosophers that are still with us, Putnam springs to mind, it can be very tricky to pin down exactly where they are with their own 'self-reflection'. I picture Socrates in this way in fact; always ready to change his mind. I'm interested to see how this one will be answered. – boehj – 2011-07-07T01:35:04.343



I'd suggest you take a look at Gadamer's "Truth and Method".


Despite my better judgment, I'm going to try to flesh out this answer a bit.

First: as the original question points out, the "Socrates problem" is not really relevant to the actual question at hand. The "Socrates problem", in the sense of "the problem of the historical Socrates" is quite unusual in that we possess no texts attributed to Socrates, but rather, three distinct reports of him (coming from Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon), each of whom had their own polemical purposes. This problem does not apply to the vast majority of philosophers we're interested in, who left texts.

So, the question then becomes one of the interpretation of texts: how do we know when we have interpreted a text "correctly"? Further, what would "correctly" mean in this case: the recovery of authorial intent? The branch of philosophy [*] that these questions belong to is termed 'hermeneutics', and there exists a vast literature on the subject. If one were interested in a historical view, Schleiermacher would be the place to start, but I wouldn't recommend that, for the following reason:

There exists a seminal text in hermeneutics, which stands as the sine qua non for all later work in the field: Truth and Method, by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Attempting to discuss hermeneutics without reference to Gadamer would be like trying to discuss physics without recourse to Newton-- you'd spend half of your time reinventing his vocabulary, even if you wanted to disagree with him.

In short, if questions of interpretation interest you at all, there's not much point in going any further before you have grappled with this text.

Fortunately, it is available in English translation, ubiquitous at libraries, cheap in paperback, and easy to read.

Thus, in my opinion, there is only one answer to your question: take a look at Gadamer's "Truth and Method". When there is a major philosophical text that deals directly with the fundamental problematic underlying your question, there's no other responsible answer than a simple referral to the text in question. And, naturally, if for some reason one is unable to take the time to read the primary text, there are easily available secondary and tertiary resources which are easily found with the knowledge of the author and title of the primary work.

[*] and/or philology, but that's a discussion for another day.

Michael Dorfman

Posted 2011-07-06T23:42:25.987

Reputation: 22 863

5Anything in particular you want to highlight? – davidlowryduda – 2011-07-11T16:02:22.517

3Out of curiosity, is Gadamer subject to the Socrates problem? Why or why not? (To be a bit more clear, I concur with mixedmath's question.) – Jon Ericson – 2011-07-11T20:21:47.137

1Sure. The issue here is one of hermeneutics; how we interpret texts, and what it would mean for our interpretation to be correct. In other words, we are speaking of questions of truth, and questions of method.

Gadamer's work is the canonical text on these matters, and outlines in a thorough manner the various issues relating to interpretation that will give the OP the tools to begin to answer his question. – Michael Dorfman – 2011-07-12T09:57:09.423

May I suggest moving the content of the comment into the answer? And maybe expand on the ideas a bit? I think you are getting at the heart of the question. Does the book suggest that an author may be able to communicate across great cultural divides or does proper interpretation require a certain amount of "getting in the author's shoes"? – Jon Ericson – 2011-07-12T23:22:24.813

1I'm a bit hesitant to add more to the answer, because I think the answer is sufficient. The original question is asking a pretty basic philosophical question (regarding hermeneutics and interpretation) and I think the appropriate response is a pointer to the fundamental philosophical text dealing with those questions. I'm not sure there's really much more to add; it's certainly not my place to try to summarize Gadamer for one who hasn't read him; I'd hate to think that the purpose of this StackExchange is to help people avoid reading the classic works... – Michael Dorfman – 2011-07-13T10:34:42.510

If I'd started reading every classic work recommended to me here, I'd have no time for anything else. I already have a stack of books that either I'm reading or ready to read, so tossing another one in because some random person on the internet tells to isn't likely to happen. You've given me no reason to even think about reading the book you suggest. Your answer does not answer and would be better as a comment. Meanwhile, your comments include some pretty helpful hints to obtaining an answer. I'm afraid I have to downvote this answer as it stands. – Jon Ericson – 2011-07-13T21:13:20.490


Feel free to downvote as you like. If the original question interests you, you're not going to find a better resource than then Gadamer, and I can't think of a more helpful response. Philosophy is hard work, and finding the right texts makes the job a lot easier. If you want to learn more about Truth and Method in an one-page, predigest form, a wikipedia search turns up this:

– Michael Dorfman – 2011-07-14T14:10:11.893

Great answer -- thank you for unpacking a bit, Michael. – Joseph Weissman – 2011-07-16T02:22:07.503

I'm sorry I missed this updated answer earlier. (My July vacation probably explains it.) Thank you for expanding on this answer. I've put Gadamer on my reading list. +1 (I still am baffled, however, by the idea that giving a taste of a book or philosopher could discourage one from reading primary sources. Surely, unless the author is indigestible, a preview will encourage further study.) – Jon Ericson – 2012-02-06T20:03:29.243


Let's disentangle a few things. The first is Plato's dialogical mode of philosophical exposition, the other is a general problem of historical relativism and the role of criticism-translation in "accessing" the "truth" about an author.

Just in passing let's note that Socrates may well have been a literary invention on the part of Plato; there is certainly little enough evidence of him outside the dialogues -- a few humorous dramas by Plato's contemporaries treating the subject of his enlightening but perhaps "super-literary" work with a bit of ironic humor of their own. At any rate the Socratic problem may not really be as important as the larger and more general question about the accessibility of the truth of the work.

The problem of expression cannot be reduced to interpretation, the search for an origin or fundamental truth; an author may not be the end-all be-all of meaning. There may also be other categories: Deleuze and Guattari suggest there may also be another modality, which they term "free indirect discourse" (examined closely A Thousand Plateaus.) So in both cases we may be chasing a ghost in terms of locating a final truth or meaning to a philosophy or theory or even just an expression; after all, a thing is defined by what it can do, and the truth is that we don't know the limit of a what a concept, a feeling, a perception can do. We are always unlocking new interconnections, unfolding new layers and details and abstractions; the valid interpretation of a philosophers' expressions is particularly problematic in this light, as we are perhaps always seeing them "again for the first time," returning again and again but seeing new senses or depths.

This doesn't mean we are incapable of seeking after the truth of thinkers and their works and theories, on the contrary -- we have to recognize we cannot exhaust the depths of these concepts and expressions, that we don't know what they're capable of. Hence some caution is suggested in taking all this seriously, as I sort of hinted in my own question relating to Socrates (which I really loved your answer to, by the way.)

Joseph Weissman

Posted 2011-07-06T23:42:25.987

Reputation: 8 327

I'm very glad you got one answer you liked out of that question. It was interesting to answer too and it would be good if more people took a swing at it. – Jon Ericson – 2011-07-07T16:46:40.060

1I think I agree that, "The problem of expression cannot be reduced to interpretation." But if we want to understand what an author really meant, don't we have to begin with interpretation? (Or rather begin the process of observing, questioning, and interpreting the text as we find it.) If we don't have a mental model of what a thinker might have thought, are we really dealing with them? (I'm asking different ways because I'm not really sure I understand how you perceive past philosophers participate in current philosophical thinking.) – Jon Ericson – 2011-07-07T16:53:40.660


If you are a causal determinist and you believe that the mind is wholly the product of physical processes, theoretically it should someday be possible to completely access other people's minds and—hooking them up to ours—experience the world exactly as they do. For people who died prior to the invention of this technology, we can only theorize as to what actually was going through their minds. After the invention of this technology, however, finding out what a person was thinking would be as simple as loading up a computer chip.

Honestly though, it is not likely we will need to go that far. It is likely we will integrate our minds with computers (thus making memory easily accessible) long before we develop the technology that bridges the gap between seeing billions of neurons fire and actually having phenomenological experience ("qualia", so to speak).

That's just my prediction, anyway.


Posted 2011-07-06T23:42:25.987

Reputation: 69

1That sounds like wildly optimistic speculation if you ask me. Speaking as a systems engineer, I shudder to think what the backward compatibility problems would be like on such a system. I'd also like to meet the guy who is willing to publish not only his thoughts on philosophy, but his thoughts on what he had for breakfast that morning. Worse would be the "reader" of such thoughts. Have you ever tried reading Ulysses by James Joyce? – Jon Ericson – 2011-07-11T23:37:23.433

It's only optimistic if you don't believe in the first two premises (Causality + physicalism). If you do, it's a sound deduction. Unfortunately, I haven't read much of James Joyce ("Araby" is the only one I can recall offhand). To what do you refer in the book? Maybe I can look it up. :) – anonymous – 2011-07-12T04:36:04.590

1Parts of Ulysses are written in stream-of-consciousnesses style. Here's a sample: "frseeeeeeeefronnnng train somewhere whistling the strength those engines have in them like big giants and the water rolling all over and out of them all sides like the end of Loves old sweeeetsonnnng the poor men that have to be out all the night from their wives and families in those roasting engines stifling it was today Im glad I burned the half of those old Freemans and Photo Bits leaving things like that lying about hes getting very careless and threw the rest of them up in the W C 111 ..." – Jon Ericson – 2011-07-12T17:28:07.990

Point is: a complete record of our thoughts would be very difficult to understand and an incomplete record would not solve the problem. I'd say that even given the premises, there are still difficulties that may be unsolvable. – Jon Ericson – 2011-07-12T17:31:29.017

@Jon Ericson - Actually all that is needed here is an interface between our brain and the computer. The first primative versions already exist allowing paralyzed people to manipulate a mouse and there is some ability to intrepret basic emotions. – Chad – 2011-07-12T18:04:01.890

@Jon Ericson - Chad is correct. But even without his examples the argument is logically valid. Your argument seems to be about poor engineering or weak human comprehension, as if that matters in a priori reasoning, so I'm confused about that. Here's mine:

  1. The way things are is causally determined.
  2. Physical processes are subject to this causal law.
  3. The mind is the product of physical processes.
  4. Therefore, the mind is subject to causal law (and thereby determinable).
  5. < – anonymous – 2011-07-12T23:37:41.577

In other words, with enough knowledge/understanding, what goes on in people's minds can be determined; it is not outside the scope of human investigation. So as long as humans exist, and as long as we continue to expand our knowledge about the universe, someday in the future we will inevitably acquire the appropriate understanding so as to make this a reality. – anonymous – 2011-07-12T23:40:07.957

I wonder if some or all of your comments deserve to be built into the answer itself. – Jon Ericson – 2011-07-12T23:43:52.550

@Jon Ericson - Perhaps you are right. We all make judgment calls regarding the line to draw between explaining too much (wasting readers time by going over what they already know and even potentially confusing them more) and explaining too little (and then having to explain more in depth later). I figured most people would be able to infer the reasoning I offered in the comments above from the initial answer. I apologize if this was not the case. – anonymous – 2011-07-13T22:51:57.800

@anonymous -1 Whether or not minds are computational structures is better answered by researchers in artificial intelligence and neuroscience. Conclusions that follow from a priori arguments only hold if the assumptions hold. As a simple counterexample, there is no way to know if there really is a simple isomorphism between physical states and mental states, as your argument seems to require. For all we know, a mental state could be the product of many differing patterns in brain chemistry; or, even worse, a given pattern in the brain may induce more than one state in the mind. – None – 2012-02-16T22:37:55.320

@bwkaplan I'm not sure how being a researcher in AI and neuroscience is relevant to the argument (although I am one). If physicalism and determinism are true (as stated), and assuming humanity keeps progressing forward (we don't nuke ourselves to death), it's very reasonable to assume that one day we will understand the brain. No one said it is going to be easy; just theoretically possible. – stoicfury – 2012-03-30T18:27:12.057

@stoicfury Being a researcher in neuroscience would lead you to reject the hypothesis of determinism on account that the brain is one of the most complex systems in science. I reject the implication we can determine what is going on in a person's mind by monitoring their brains on account of this complexity. – None – 2012-03-30T19:04:26.097

@bwkaplan Increased complexity is not correlated with impossibility. But regardless, you're wrong — we already have good indications of what people are thinking and how they are feeling by examining their brains using fMRI's and other imaging techniques. It's not perfect, and we don't know everything, but science keeps inching forward and there's no reason to think it won't continue this way. Your refusal to accept this logical reasoning on the grounds of complexity vexes me greatly, esp. because it appears you have a penchant for math...

– stoicfury – 2012-03-30T19:45:14.610

What makes you think that complexity necessarily prohibits investigation or invariably inhibits discovery? – stoicfury – 2012-03-30T19:47:32.080

@stoicfury Sufficient complexity in a physical system makes an exact solution unknowable. Take for example an n-body system in celestial mechanics. A system with two bodies in gravitational attraction have an exact solution, and hence it's reasonable to say their motion is deterministic; however, add one more body in that same gravity field and the system is chaotic. Even if we assume the system is deterministic (a questionable extension) there's no way for us to predict its future motion exactly. Hence it is no longer a deterministic system. – None – 2012-03-30T21:17:07.600

Let me say that I do not question whether we will make progress. That is tantamount to denying the obvious. I merely deny that our knowledge of mental states can be known in their totality i.e. Being John Malkovich. This is what the answer demands that I believe and this is where we disagree. – None – 2012-03-30T21:21:06.520