The Socratic Method


Philosophy, somehow, is not my cup of tea. I’m OK reading about it, and can even get into accounts of zany theological slugfests or mind-bending paradoxes. But none of my favorite writers are what you’d call philosophers, with the possible exception of Montaigne, and several of my all-time least favorite writers are: Derrida, Foucault, Hegel…and definitely Plato, working through his sock-puppet Socrates.

Maybe the biggest problem I have with philosophers is that they’ll say something obviously untrue (that writing comes before speech, or that we always cheer for the winner when reading about history) and go on to build an argument on it. As any mathematician will tell you, once you’ve made an invalid statement, you can use it to prove anything. But of course there’s nobody there to say, “Hey wait a minute, how exactly do you justify what you just said?”

What makes Socrates worse is that there is somebody there to call him on his whoppers,and they never ever do it. He’ll say, “Thus we have proved that only good men can have friends,” and instead of pulling him up short, his partners in dialogue play the role of infomercial hosts, saying the equivalent of “Tell me more!” Or comedy straight-men, saying whatever needs to be said to set up Socrates’ punch line. I end up not only feeling that Socrates is wrong, but that he is ever so pleased with himself, having put his friends in their place; he exudes the candor and humility of Ted Cruz.

Most things I have read about Socrates, though, range in tone from admiring to orgasmically admiring. So it was refreshing to read the following in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Having conceded that S was admirably calm in the face of death, he goes on:


He has however some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge. There is something smug and unctuous about him which reminds one of a bad type of cleric….Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins.

What he said.

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