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.)

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    +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
    Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 1:35

3 Answers 3


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.

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    Anything in particular you want to highlight? Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 16:02
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    Out 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.) Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 20:21
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    Sure. 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. Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 9:57
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    I'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... Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 10:34
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    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: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth_and_Method Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 14:10

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.)

  • 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. Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 16:46
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    I 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.) Commented Jul 7, 2011 at 16:53

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.

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    That 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? Commented Jul 11, 2011 at 23:37
  • 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
    Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 4:36
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    Parts 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 ..." Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 17:28
  • 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. Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 17:31
  • @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
    Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 18:04

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