Socrates’ Elenchos


In this paper I want to deconstruct Michael Frede’s account of the elenchos as demonstrated by Plato’s Socrates by identifying if some points within this account need to be revised, taken out completely, or be supplemented by additional points that I believe his account needs based not only on my own reading of the relevant texts, but also an account by Hugh Benson, which appears to me as a more adequate account overall. I will identify the parts of interest in Frede’s account as Point 1—which I have issues with—and Point 2, which I agree with. Additionally, at the end of this paper, I will add a further Point 3—reinforced by Benson’s insight—that represents what I believe is missing from Frede’s account.

I will begin with what I label Point 1, and it suggests that by using the elenchos “one tests expertise without being oneself an expert in this subject. In fact, without committing oneself to or even having any views on the subject.” My problem with this is that since the elenchos is Socrates’ method, and since this is Socratic by nature, the fact that Socrates is shown to actually have views about the things of which the wisdom of his interlocutors are being tested does not lend any weight to the assertion that one can test expertise of people who claim expertise without having any views themselves on the matter. As I stated, Socrates is certainly shown to have views of which he uses as templates in order to see if his interlocutor’s beliefs not only stack up against his own, but when they are shown that they cannot, it is because their beliefs are not consistent and lead to contradictions. Indeed, it is because Socrates has views—ones that he believes to be true due to holding up through previous testing—which makes his elenchos practice so powerful; for every time his interlocutor’s claimed to be true something that opposed his beliefs, Socrates states that it resulted in the interlocutor sounding foolish.

Textual evidence that Socrates has his own views can be found at the end of both the Laches and the Gorgias. In the Laches, the character, Nicias, recalls that he once heard Socrates have a view that Nicias thinks is relevant to the current discussion of what bravery might be[1]. This view, Nicias says, is that a good person must be coupled with a certain type of cleverness; this cleverness ultimately boiling down to being the knowledge of what is good and bad. The interesting thing about this section of the Laches is that Socrates seems to almost be playing dumb, so to speak, all the while conducting the conversation between Laches and Nicias. Therefore, it is quite clear that Socrates has a view that ends up stimulating a progression towards the conclusion of the dialogue. If Socrates would not have been shown to have this view in the Laches, then the results of their discussion on bravery would have not been so effective on revealing the interlocutors’ ignorance. Similarly, in the Gorgias, Socrates says how happy he is to have met Callicles because he meets three requirements one must have in order for Socrates to successfully determine whether his own views are correct: knowledge, good will, and frankness. For the sake of brevity, while what these three traits amount to is important in its context, I will not go into why these three traits are preferable for Socrates in this paper, but only specify that by getting a person with these three qualities to agree with what Socrates’ soul believes, then Socrates thinks what his soul believes is the very truth[2]. Therefore, the point of interest here is not what these three qualities amount to, but that Socrates’ journey with elenchos practice appears to be a search for an interlocutor he can test the truth of his own views upon[3].

Moving on to Point 2 within Frede’s account of the elenchos, in which he purports that “All one has to do is to show that the person who claims expertise or makes statements with the air of authority involves himself in contradictions concerning the very subject he claims to be an expert in or that is unable to discard a thesis which is the contradictory of a thesis he has put forth with air of expertise…Hence such dialectical arguments are not meant to establish the truth or falsehood of some thesis. All they are meant to show is that the opponent is no authority on the matters in question”, I believe this to be an accurate account of the elenchos for two reasons. For one, Benson detailed such a conclusion in his paper The Socratic Method, which I believe to be accurate based on my own interpretation of Socrates’ elenchos. In his paper he argues that the “constructivist” view (the view that opposes the view Frede, Benson, and myself champion) is a faulty account because it claims that Socrates is said to have not only refuted the initial thesis P (from here on labeled as the apparent refutand[4]) of the interlocutor, but to also have shown that not-P is true. However, Benson, much like Frede, is of the opinion that what Socrates is really doing is showing that therein lays a contradiction among the specific combination of premises (q, r, & s) and thus one or more of the premises must be discarded if the interlocutor is to have any hope in salvaging the apparent refutand[5]. Both of these accounts (Benson’s and Frede’s) are supported by evidence in the texts. For example, in the Euthyphro, Euthyphro gives a definition of what pious action is by stating that what is liked by the gods is pious and what is not like by the gods is its opposite, impious[6]. After Socrates asks whether Euthyphro agrees with a further set of premises, they land on a conclusion that some actions, on this account, are both pious and impious. To rectify this contradiction, Euthyphro would need to reject either the apparent refutand, or one of the premises later instated. Nowhere does Socrates claim to have shown the apparent refutand to be false, but rather that the conclusion drawn from this set of premises is contradictory.

Finally, I would like to further drive home something from Benson that is not present in Frede’s account; namely, the potent and critical piece of the elenchos formula—beliefs and expanded beliefs[7]. Benson illustrates quite adequately that in addition to the idea that Socrates is testing to see whether or not the interlocutor will get caught up in contradictions concerning matters he is claiming to be wise in—thereby providing inductive evidence that his own beliefs are more stable and bolted down—Socrates also makes it a necessary attribute of the interlocutor to not only believe the premises Socrates adds to the argument, but also that he realizes that he believes them[8]. Why this is a crucial piece to obtaining an accurate account of Socrates’ elenchos is because if the interlocutor did not recognize he believed the premises that often times entailed contradictions, then Socrates would be unable to show his interlocutor the deduction. This is because one of the only conditions asked of the interlocutor is that he sincerely believes the premises laid out; what’s more, Socrates needs him to also recognize the cognitive interference established by the contradiction. Once the interlocutor does recognize that he believes these additional premises, he can then (hopefully) be led to understand—by the notion of expanded belief—that if he has these beliefs, and if these beliefs lead to contradictions, then the interlocutor must now try a different combination of premises of which, too, are to be recognized beliefs held by the interlocutor if they are to be accepted as premises in the argument.

I have made, what I think to be, the necessary revisions to Frede’s account of the elenchos. Namely, I established what I believe can be kept—Point 2—and what needs to be revised—Point 1. Point 2 was able to retain its place in his account because, based on textual evidence, it aligns with what Benson and I believe to be the correct interpretation of Socrates’ method. However, Point 1 had to be revised due to the fact that it was making an error in stating that one does not need to have any views on the matter at hand while employing the method of elenchos, which I have shown to be incorrect based on textual evidence to the contrary. I then added a further Point 3 with the purpose of elaborating a more expansive realization of what Socrates’ method of inquiry consisted of—the importance of the interlocutor recognizing held beliefs. Now that the odds and ends are in order, I stand by my words that this is a better account of what Socrates’ elenchos is.

[1] Laches 194d-196c

[2] Gorgias 486e-487b

[3] Reasoning behind importance of the three traits can be found in Gorgias 487a-488a

[4] Benson’s term for the interlocutor’s initial thesis.

[5] Hugh Benson “The Socratic Method” pp. 184

[6] Euthyphro 7a-9b

[7] Benson calls expanded beliefs those that a person has in virtue of having other beliefs. For example, if I believe it is virtuous to steal, but also believe that I do not want my bike stolen, then I therefore must really believe that to steal is to not be virtuous; the latter being an expanded belief.

[8] Hugh Benson “The Socratic Method” pp. 190

A Place to Post Philosophy Papers

To whom it may concern…

Given that my tenure as a Philosophy major is coming to a close by the time late summer arrives, and realizing that I will no longer be put to the test, so to speak, with regards to exercising my understanding of the relevant texts in my classes, I thought I might enjoy extending that duty to a place such as this; I don’t know, writing for itself, by itself, may be of some benefit to me.

In any case, I think I will start this off by saying where my main interests in Philosophy have and currently reside.

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are of deep fascination to me and I have had the privilege to take a cluster of course work studying their legacies in philosophical thought. From a seminar devoted solely to the works of Socrates; these being ones delineated from the later, more obvious Platonic dialogues, which use Socrates as a mere ‘mouth-piece’, so to speak. And then to courses spanning the great Platonic corpus entire, which include all of the great works of Plato, and unto the amazing contributions of Aristotle.

So, having said that, I want to post older papers that I wrote during this time studying these thinkers, and then, as I continue independent study, write new papers on topics that range from the ancients to continental philosophers and existentialists.


Eric Stotle.