Is there an issue with the Socratic method arguing against points?



So, I've noticed something, looking at the classic example:

Do the gods know everything?


Do some gods disagree with others?


So gods disagree about what is true?

I suppose they must.

So gods can be wrong?

I suppose so.

Therefore the gods don't know everything.

There are some presuppositions here. The Socratic method shows contradictions between the arguments made, but it doesn't determine which arguments must be false. There's just this assumption that because there is a contraction, the gods don't know everything and that the gods do disagree with each other. By rights, couldn't this exact dialogue be used but the conclusion at the end is "Therefor the gods must not disagree with each other" (and the gods may or may not know everything)?

So far as I can understand, all arguments except for the one in question need to be unquestioningly true for an actual conclusion to come out of this. Is this issue ever addressed or dealt with?


Posted 2020-05-05T10:09:54.523

Reputation: 121

If you mean do the premises of an argument NEED TO BE TRUE for the conclusion to be true the answer is NO. All premises don't have to be true to come out with a true conclusion. If all the premises are indeed true then the conclusion necessarily follows & also must be true. The contradiction of a conclusion means the original point of the argument was false (eventhough people believed it to be true). Proving one of the premises false means the conclusion can also be questioned. So you said arguments "need to be unquestionably true" are called SOUND ARGUMENTS. Some arguments are not sound – Logikal – 2020-05-05T15:13:20.907

1You are absolutely right, the argument only shows that the premises are contradictory, and the only conclusion we can establish is that one of premises is wrong. Presumably Socrates here thinks that some premises are more certain than others, which is why he rejects a specific one of them. – Eliran – 2020-05-05T16:35:06.640

@Logikal I think you're missing the point of my question. I'm asking about how Socrates can conclude that the premise 'the gods know everything' is wrong by the contradiction rather than rather than concluding any of of the other premises are wrong (e.g. the gods do know everything but they don't disagree on anything). You may want to reread my post and Eliran's comment. – Nicholas – 2020-05-05T19:12:11.593


The last sentence is not Socrates's conclusion. Indeed, according to Xenophon, "Socrates believed that the gods know everything — word, deed, and silent thought alike". The point of the method is often to question uncritical assumptions, and expose the tissue of fallacy in common stereotypes, not necessarily to reach definite conclusions. And when conclusions are reached in Plato's dialogues it is usually via long threads of arguments and rebuttals, where assumptions are kept track of and discharged, not via short snippets like this one.

– Conifold – 2020-05-06T11:34:28.377



Not in this example. It is an example of faulty logic by exposing the contradictions not the assertion. It has nothing to do with Socrates personal beliefs. That example is devoid of context. At that time things like weather and plate tectonics were described as the gods getting rowdy in one way or another. It shows the flaws inherent to the dogma of myth. It doesn't seek to prove or disprove the premise.

Old Benjamin

Posted 2020-05-05T10:09:54.523

Reputation: 29


Gilbert Ryle noted ‘the rule-governed concatenation of questions, answerable by 'yes' or 'no,' which are intended to drive the answerer into self-contradiction’. He held that this ‘is what should be meant by 'the Socratic Method.' (Gilbert Ryle, Plato's Progress (Cambridge, 1966: 119.)

There are good reasons to think that Socrates uses a variety of methods of argument, so that there is no such thing strictly as ‘the Socratic Method’. I will return to this point.

I assume the quoted passage in the text box is from Euthyphro, 7d – 8a. However, that passage is not quite as you render it. The claim under review – a definition of piety - is that what is agreeable to the gods is pious and right, and what is disagreeable to the gods is impious and wrong (7a). The argument goes that disagreements among human beings are most likely over ethical questions rather than questions of magnitude, number, &., which can be easily settled. It is a fair inference, therefore, that if the gods disagree it is over the same questions. It is accepted that the gods do disagree (7e – 8a). And since they disagree, what is regarded as pious and right by one god is regarded as impious and wrong by another. In that case the same action is both pious and right as agreeable to one god and impious and wrong as disagreeable to another. The definition of piety has in the process of argument yielded a contradiction.

Three points:

  1. You are perfectly right that the effectiveness and cogency of this method of argument are situationally and personally specific. Contradiction will not follow, or a different contradiction will follow, depending on the answers the interlocutor gives. Socrates has no control over this. Euthyphro might not have accepted that the gods disagree over anything. In that case, the argument would have had a different outcome.

  2. The general assumption behind Socrates’ use of this method of argument - ‘the rule-governed concatenation of questions, answerable by 'yes' or 'no’ - is that people do not know what they think they know. (This assumption is evidenced in Apology, 21e – 22e.) If Euthyphro had really known the nature of piety, he would not have run into the contradiction that hits him at the end of the argument.

  3. The argument you quote is an example of eristic concluding in elenchus (refutation). This by no means covers and includes the range of argumentative method deployed by Socrates, who sometimes (a) uses dialectic to chart a progression of hypotheses ‘until you come to something acceptable’ (Phaedo, 101d) and (b) uses elenchus to positive effect as in the case of the slave body in the Meno, 80e – 86c, whom Socrates questions maioutically (like a midwife) to draw from him the solution to a mathematical problem, with the implication that the boy must have acquired the requisite knowledge in a pre-natal state; anamnesis (recollection) is evidently at work since Socrates’ questions have not conveyed any knowledge. (This is not to accept Socrates’ account of things; I merely indicate a method of argument.)


G. Ryle, Plato's Progress, Cambridge: CUP, 1966.

Plato: Complete Works, ed. J.M. Cooper & D.S. Hutchinson, Indianopolis: Hackett, 1997.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2020-05-05T10:09:54.523

Reputation: 34 276


The Socratic method isn't meant to convince people of specific points, the way that modern (Aristotelian-based) logic is. The Socratic method is meant to bring people to understands internal contradictions in their own beliefs, so that they can make their own beliefs more philosophically consistent. In this sense, Socrates was more like a psychologist than a logician, pulling out the various unspoken assumptions that lie behind someone's claim, and then juxtaposing them to show contradiction and inconsistencies.

For example, in the exchange laid out above Socrates would expect the other person to chew over the dialog for a while and then come back with a new claim: e.g., "Ok, Maybe I was wrong, and gods only know everything about their particular domains, but not everything outside that." and then the discussion would have gone off on another line of inquiry, that would expose new unspoken assumptions and inconsistencies. The process might repeat again and again, until the other person develops a new, more robust philosophical perspective.

Socrates was an idealist, so to his mind philosophical thought always converges on the limit point of 'The Good'. His expectation from this method is that every person who undertakes it, starting from whatever understanding they have, will slowly come to appreciate that common standpoint that is the ideal of 'The Good'. He himself has presumptively travelled farther along that path — a presumption that made him quite unpopular with certain of the political elite — and thus understands more than those he typically speaks with. But his method was never to teach people 'The Good' in any direct sense. He taught how to rationalize the thinking process, so that one's worldview becomes more sophisticated and philosophically sound, on the assertion that this would pull everyone up towards that common 'Good'.

Ted Wrigley

Posted 2020-05-05T10:09:54.523

Reputation: 9 139

This is only one part IMHO. He also uses the method to constructively help people reach correct conclusions they could not have reached themselves. – Philip Klöcking – 2020-06-11T19:55:12.883

1@PhilipKlöcking: Yes, I agree. I was just trying to point out that he wasn't making a classic 'argument' where he was trying to push someone towards as particular conclusion. – Ted Wrigley – 2020-06-11T20:36:35.427


The Socratic method was never about discovering the truth. That's why the apparent futile ugliness the method. That's why Socrates himself looks like an evil clown, who couldn't care less about the truth, the topic they discuss, or anything whatsoever -- except, of course, for making his opponent look like a fool in the most humiliating way.

That's why the ridiculous claim that he himself knows nothing. Socrates won't give you the satisfaction of losing to the wisest man in Greece in an epic battle of intellects, oh no. He will make you look like you have lost to a self-proclaimed ignoramus by default -- a no show after shooting your both feet and falling face-first into manure would be less...


How much hatred for humanity itself one must hold to deny your own intellectual prowess while using it to humiliate everyone naive enough to debate you in good faith? to punish people whose only crime was that of curiosity? Who would spend his life perfecting a method to prove that we are too stupid to realize just how stupid we are? </just being sarcastic, lol>

Anyway, it's not you... Socrates' public relations issue was real.

Yuri Alexandrovich

Posted 2020-05-05T10:09:54.523

Reputation: 423

3This reads like a rant rather than an answer proper, and not even a good one at that, since it is based on partial, insufficient knowledge and opinion. There is a reason for the Socratic Method being taught in contemporary pedagogy courses. There are two types of Socratic dialogues: The ones showing people who think they know everything that they indeed know substantially less than they think and the ones showing people how much they already know without them consciously knowing. Both make them realise the extent of their own knowledge by asking them questions. – Philip Klöcking – 2020-06-11T09:08:20.947

@Phillip, if Socrates wanted to correct his opponent, the easiest and fastest way to do so would be to point out the right answer, and explain the reason behind. His "irony" -- him pretending he knew nothing -- was rather disrespectful of his opponent, don't you think so? – Yuri Alexandrovich – 2020-06-11T10:36:22.603

It is not about "opponents" and the point is that when he points out flaws, it's with persons who do not consider him to be their equal, so it would be futile to just tell them the problem since they do not respect him. By asking, he is able to trigger their longing for showing their alleged superiority. If anything, the Socratic method is very successful because things people realise themselves (even if guided) stick to their minds more persistently. Really, if you read the dialogues carefully, it's not Socrates who's the first one to be a prick. – Philip Klöcking – 2020-06-11T12:26:44.410

"it's not Socrates who's the first one to be a prick." -- really? That's his excuse for being a prick? – Yuri Alexandrovich – 2020-06-11T17:05:30.937

Socrates developed "being a prick" into a formal method of inquiry (which to this day bears his name). Given that, "I wasn't the one who started it" might sound a bit insincere, no? – Yuri Alexandrovich – 2020-06-11T17:33:54.783

Besides, “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.” ― also Socrates – Yuri Alexandrovich – 2020-06-11T17:35:01.493

I actually do not even think that he ever is a prick, but rather that you completely misread the whole thing and feel offended yourself for some reason entirely alien to me. There is nothing offensive or derogatory in his method. It is a useful and successfully applied method which greatly helps the cognitive development of children. There are dialogues where he simply helps people and others where he corrects people who wouldn't want to hear anything about them being wrong, so that helping them to gain that insight themselves is the only way. And the tone of the answer is inappropriate. – Philip Klöcking – 2020-06-11T19:52:25.873

Oh, I'm so sorry for misreading you! Let me try again -- here is what you have said, the exact quote: "Really, if you read the dialogues carefully, it's not Socrates who's the first one to be a prick." – Yuri Alexandrovich – 2020-06-11T20:42:01.957

"it's not Socrates who's the first one to be a prick." -- really? That's his excuse for being a prick? – Yuri Alexandrovich – 2020-06-11T20:42:19.817

Socrates developed "being a prick" into a formal method of inquiry (which to this day bears his name). Given that, "I wasn't the one who started it" might sound a bit insincere, no? Besides, “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.” ― also Socrates – Yuri Alexandrovich – 2020-06-11T20:44:52.367

I know what has been written. And in hindsight, it wasn't the best choice of words and probably rather a rhetoric means to make you at least consider reading the rest of the comments. Since all you do is picking the things which suit your (IMHO entirely baseless) position and choosing to ignore the rest, there is no point in engaging with you any further. – Philip Klöcking – 2020-06-11T20:48:19.560

Euth. One of the two must be true. Soc. Then we must ask again, what is piety? I am certain you know its nature, otherwise you would never, on behalf of a serf, have charged your aged father with murder. You would not have run such a risk of doing wrong in the sight of the gods! Speak out then, my dear Euthyphro, and do not hide your knowledge. Euth. Another time, Socrates; Since all you do is picking the things which suit your position and choosing to ignore the rest, there is no point in engaging with you any further. – Yuri Alexandrovich – 2020-06-11T21:11:52.650

Welcome to the Socratic method, @PhilipKlöcking – Yuri Alexandrovich – 2020-06-11T21:12:20.267