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?

  • 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 May 5 at 15:13
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    You 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 May 5 at 16:35
  • @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 May 5 at 19:12
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    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 May 6 at 11:34

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.

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All that Socrates appears to be doing here is to expose the inconsistent position of his interlocutor. He is using elenchus.

The interlocutor claims that the gods know everything and also claims that the gods disagree about what is true. But on the unstated asssumption that those who know all that is true cannot disagree about what is true, it cannot be both that the gods know everything and that they disagree about what is true.

You are perfectly right that the interlocutor could just as well concede that the gods do not disagree as that the gods know everything. The point is only that the interlocutor holds an inconsistent position. How he resolves it is not Socrates' business.

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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'.

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  • 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 Jun 11 at 19:55
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    @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 Jun 11 at 20:36

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?

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

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    This 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 Jun 11 at 9:08
  • @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 Jun 11 at 10:36
  • 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 Jun 11 at 12:26
  • "it's not Socrates who's the first one to be a prick." -- really? That's his excuse for being a prick? – Yuri Alexandrovich Jun 11 at 17:05
  • 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 Jun 11 at 17:33

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