In Plato's Dialogues, he often would put words into the mouths of two opposing points-of-view, while inserting a third voice, often initially presented as taking a position between the two viewpoints, to act as an arbiter to decide the merits of the two views. (I'm not a philosopher, so feel free to correct me on that, but I think I have the broad strokes correct at least.)

Since he clearly favored one of those points of view (the one which the arbiter ends up siding with, of course), and since at least some of the time it felt to me that he was exaggerating the opposing point of view, can it be said that he was resorting to using strawmen to make his point? Have other philosophers previously made this point?

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    Well, duh? (Although for a large part the opposing/arbiting voices just says "Absolutely" and "Is it surely so" and similar things, rendering much of his dialogues into "monologues", but dialogues were the fashion those days...) – Lennart Regebro Jul 20 '11 at 13:22
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    @Lennart: it does seem rather obvious to me as well, but given (a) the reverence that Plato typically receives, and (b) the disdain that the strawman fallacy receives, I suppose an unasked component of the question is how one reconciles (a) and (b) if it is given that Plato used strawmen? (Note: this is absolutely not meant as defense of the strawman argument!) – Ben Hocking Jul 20 '11 at 13:32
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    Well, the reverence Plato gets is IMO completely misguided. That said, I'm pretty sure almost all philosophers use straw men when discussing opponents standpoints. :-) – Lennart Regebro Jul 20 '11 at 18:58
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    Which dialogues and which interlocutors? Not all of them are adversarial debates; and Socrates cannot really be said to "win" them all -- indeed many end in "aporia" (where neither Socrates' nor his interlocutors' claim could be vindicated through the dialogue.) I am guessing you are thinking Thrasymachus in the Republic, e.g.? – Joseph Weissman Jul 21 '11 at 3:38
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    I have heard it previously mentioned that it is no accident that most of the time, Socrates speaks to people who have not thought through arguments and therefore, cannot defend them. I am also cognizant of the idea that just because we can identify errors in something does not mean that it is wrong. But I have no sources for either. – davidlowryduda Jul 22 '11 at 0:44

Plato's use of two persons with opposite opinions, Heraclitus and Parmenides or say the sophists and friends of his time, were for centuries taken too literately. Today we shouldn't fall in the same trap.

If we take the dialogues too literately, calling it usage of strawmen is fair. There are a few objections that are important. Interpretations by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) gave a deep insight on how Plato actually was being both ironic and serious at the same time.

Ironic in the joyful sense. Imagine that scholars for hundreds of years had poured over the dialogues, taken them literate and not understood the playful irony, even though Heraclitus was referred to with quotations like "everything flows" and Parmenides with "change is impossible", the act of figuring out why they said what they did and how the discussions the partners in the dialogue ended up with nonsense arguments themselves. We see this happening over and over: in politics with democrats and republicans, for and against climate change. How do we go about dealing with opposite opinons?

The point of having to opposed opinions and "rubbing them together" until a spark of fire emerges is part of Plato's dialectical method. This is serious stuff. His method is not ridiculing both of the claims in order to reach a higher insight, but just as much an exercise in thinking, the connection between things being said and physical circumstances that could prove them right or wrong - a method of logical reasoning to discern between truth and falsehood.


There's an important feature somewhat obscured in the answer that should be drawn out, viz., that merely because Plato disagrees with his interlocutors does not make them straw men.

While I agree that some of Plato's Socratic interlocutors are straw men, whether they are straw men or not does not hinge on whether he includes voices that disagree nor even on whether their views are absurd. I think among the interlocutors we can distinguish roughly three categories:

  1. useful idiots
  2. genuinely different views
  3. straw men

"Useful idiots" are those views that exist to help us see an obvious reply to an obvious objection. Thus, they say something we might first think when we hear an idea. And this gives Socrates the chance to explain how that does not apply to the view he is trying to articulate. This sort of dialectical method is also central to Hegel where the negative is necessary to move forward because it highlights what is wrong with the currently held view.

I do think there are some genuinely different views voiced at points during the Republic, Parmenides, and also the Laws and several of the later dialogues. There are questions raised where Socrates does not win or at least where as a reader we are not compelled to agree.

There are still some straw men of course. But I don't think Plato is our worst offender on that point. And what makes them strawmen is if they articulate views that someone genuinely holds in a way that does not do justice to that view.

So for instance in contemporary philosophy, not every objection I include in a paper is one that I really expect someone to raise. Instead, some are to dispel misunderstandings before they happen. Often the best way to avoid this is to quote, but there's really not much lying around for Plato to quote. It's not clear how much access he would have had to texts or how much beyond a cursory familiarity his school would have had with some of the sophists.

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