Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.07.05

Gary Alan Scott (ed.), Does Socrates Have a Method? Rethinking the Elenchus in Plato's Dialogues and Beyond.   University Park, PA:  Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.  Pp. xiii, 327.  ISBN 0-271-02173-X.  $45.00.  

Contributors: H.W. Ausland, H.H. Benson, T.C. Brickhouse and N.D. Smith, M. Carpenter and R.M. Polansky, J.M. Carvalho, L.P. Gerson, F.J. Gonzalez, J.H. Lesher, M.L. McPherran, G.A. Press, F. Renaud, T.W. Schmid, G.A. Scott, P.C. Smith, H. Tarrant, J.B. Waugh, C.M. Young

Reviewed by Robin Waterfield (
Word count: 1860 words

This is a valuable tome -- a collection of essays from both old lags and young scholars, with widely differing approaches to ancient philosophy, on an important topic in Socratic studies. You can play with the book's title to bring out different emphases, each relevant to a few of the articles in the book: Does Socrates have a method? -- i.e. is the so-called Socratic method peculiar to Socrates? Does Socrates have a method? -- or maybe more than one, and maybe the 'standard elenchus' is not as central to his work as Vlastos and others have made out or assumed. Does Socrates have a method? -- or does he simply react to the context and the characters of his interlocutors? And if he does have a method, for which 'elenchus' is the best description, how best should we describe it?

None of the essays has been published before (and about half stem from a 1997 conference), though those by Lesher, McPherran and Schmid have appeared in some form or other. The book is divided into four sections: 'Historical Origins of Socratic Method', 'Reexamining Vlastos's Analysis of "the Elenchus"', and 'Socratic Argumentation and Interrogation in Specific Dialogues', which has two parts, one devoted to various dialogues and one devoted entirely to Charmides. Each section consists of three essays, and a final response to the three essays. I'm not at all clear why the title of the book includes 'and beyond', since all the papers are sharply focused on one or more of the early dialogues of Plato, except for two which discuss precursors to the elenchus ('behind' rather than 'beyond').

Lesher kicks off with a revised version of a well-known paper of his from OSAP 2 (1984). After an examination of the several meanings of the Greek word elenchos in pre-Platonic contexts, he turns to Parmenides fr. 7 and the troublesome poludêrin elenchon, with the expectation that it is more likely, this early in the fifth century, to mean 'test' or 'testing' than 'challenge' or 'proof' (actually, I don't think it means 'proof' at all: I think Lesher misconstrues the uses of the term in Gorgias B11.29, 34). A good analysis of the form of Parmenides' argument leads Lesher to translate or paraphrase the troublesome words as 'controversial but forceful testing', involving an exhaustive 'serial review' of the available options. Methodologically, Plato followed Parmenides, and so the elenchus remains a method of testing, not just refutation.

Ausland looks in detail at occurrences of the word in forensic contexts. He finds so many similarities between both the form and the purpose of Socratic argument and those of forensic writers that he is led to question how 'specialized' Socratic argumentation is. Maybe the elenchus is just another 'literary application of a relatively unspecialized principle, or even specialized technique properly at home in a nonphilosophical discipline'. And much the same goes for inductive argumentation (epagoge) as for the elenchus: it too has a respectable pre-Platonic, non-philosophical history.

If these first two papers leave us wondering how much Socratic argumentation is peculiarly Socratic, the third, by Tarrant, displays (what we already knew) how rarely the word 'elenchus' or its cognates occur in the early Platonic dialogues, except when Socrates is dealing with those who may be called his professional rivals; the term elenchos, Tarrant maintains, should be restricted to those Socratic arguments where his purpose is refutation. A more accurate, and more Platonic term, for what Socrates does in the early dialogues is exetasis. Neither elenchus nor examination, however, can do more than test for personal knowledge, so the claim in Gorgias that the elenchus can test the validity of propositions is, according to Tarrant, a Platonic rather than Socratic claim.

The fourth paper, by Young, is a light criticism of the first three. I can't see that any of the first three authors' substantial conclusions is affected by anything Young says. One of the most valuable outcomes of the volume can already be stated: scholars will never again be able unthinkingly to use the term 'elenchus' as a mere synonym for 'Socratic argumentation'. It looks more like a specialized term, and it describes a type of argument that is by no means entirely Socratic or even philosophical.

The Carpenter/Polansky paper which opens the second section of the book argues that refutation is widespread in the Socratic dialogues (not confined to his treatment of proposed definitions and not confined to proving a thesis false), and that the elenchus is not the only means used by Socrates for refutation. The method (perhaps this is too professional a term) chosen by Socrates for refutation in any given context depends chiefly on the character of his interlocutor or opponent. Contrary to Vlastos (whose 1983 OSAP paper at some point or another forms the background to most of the articles in this volume), they find that Socrates does reflect upon what he is doing methodologically but that these reflections are not generalized, but restricted to particular contexts; and they conclude that it would be a mistake to look for a single kind of elenchus in the Socratic dialogues.

The next paper, by Benson, is pleasantly refreshing, but somewhat prefatory, since he contents himself with pointing out how central to Socrates' quest for knowledge (elenctic or otherwise) are two difficulties: how one might recognize an expert when one is not an expert oneself (cf. Charmides), and how one might come to know what one does not know (cf. Meno). He argues that these are more pertinent issues than Vlastos's and others' worries about how the elenchus is supposed to yield truth when it can only test for consistency, not only because he assumes that his own 1995 OSAP paper has successfully 'dissolved' this problem for ever, but also because Plato himself has Socrates address these issues, but not the Vlastosian problem. More controversially, Benson actually seems to define an elenchus as an argument in which Socrates demands that the interlocutor states his firmly held beliefs, but he needs to consider the several cases where Socrates waives this demand and the normal Greek use of the term where no such constraint is involved.

McPherran examines Socrates' elenctic interpretation of the Delphic oracle at Apology 20c-23c, not just with a view to unpacking and illuminating this particular text, but also to address the general issue of how Socrates expects to derive 'moral and action-guiding tenets' from the mere exposure of contradictions. This remains a critical issue for those of us who do not believe that the problem has been dissolved by Benson, and it is good to have McPherran tackling it with more vigour than he did in his book (The Religion of Socrates, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996). As regards this general issue, McPherran concludes, tentatively, that in many cases disproof of one proposition will count as proof of its contradictory, especially where that alternative proposition has already survived other (internal or external) elenctic examinations. This is not a startling conclusion, but it is useful to have it confirmed by close examination of what may be a key text.

In their comments on this section of the book, Brickhouse and Smith point out the contradictions among the writers of the three previous papers, especially that according to Benson the elenchus cannot reveal truth whereas for McPherran it can. They offer their own alternative, a version of their justly famous and seminal account in OSAP 9 (1991), in which they showed that Socratic arguments do not easily respond to the kind of tidy schematization often hoped for by other scholars. If this is right, scholars are often chasing red herrings (if that is what one does to red herrings): Socrates has and uses many different forms of argument, and it is a mistake to focus on just one, as if it were his unique contribution to philosophy. Against this background, they criticize Benson for insisting on the 'doxastic constraint' as definitional of elenchus and McPherran for picking on an argument that is in some ways atypical of Socratic reasoning. They leave the slighter Carpenter/Polansky paper largely untouched.

I pass even more rapidly over the remaining papers, because they are more particular and detailed, and therefore less accessible to general review. Gonzales uses Clitophon to argue that the elenchus essentially has a protreptic function, but that it does not point to anything beyond itself, since philosophy is not a means to the good but is itself the good. Renaud pays attention to the dramatic aspects of the elenchus in Lysis to conclude that it usefully serves to humble Socrates' interlocutors. Its logical and its ethical functions are inseparable. P.C. Smith argues that Philebus (along with other, perhaps all, dialogues) is not about what it seems to be about -- the ingredients of the good life, say -- but about how to defend one's own position against sophistic assault. In his comments on these three papers, Gerson inveighs (as he has in print before) against misguided attempts to claim that the dialogues do not really mean or claim what they appear to mean or claim. His remarks, both general and aimed at particular papers, seem to me to be sound.

The final section of the book contains papers on Charmides. Schmid argues that it is the nature of Socratic dialectic to engage an interlocutor at a personal level, that this is chiefly how the elenchus, which he describes as a psychotherapeutic technique, has constructive moral results for an individual, and that all this is illustrated in Charmides by those aspects of the dialogue which relate to the interlocutors' characters. Press next suggests that Socrates' argument with Critias is shaped by considerations such as Critias' character and the historical events in which he was involved rather than by purely logical or philosophical considerations and that this goes for all such encounters in the dialogues. Carvalho concludes that Socrates never expected to discover universal truths as a result of his arguments but only to provide ammunition for further elenctic enquiries, with a view to checking first the consistency of his own moral beliefs, and hence enhancing his happiness, and then secondarily to affect the moral character of his particular interlocutor. Finally, Waugh clearly states the case for a non-developmental, literary (character-focused and non-mouthpiece) reading of the dialogues and couples this with a brief survey of the differences between what the ancients understood by 'philosophy' and what we tend to mean nowadays. She approves of the 'psychotherapeutic' bias of all three papers in this section of the book but worries that this therapy must have signally failed in the cases of Charmides and Critias, the notoriously savage oligarchs. In her view, they lack self-knowledge because they lack knowledge of the soul, and she reads Charmides as primarily concerned to indicate the importance of such knowledge.

I enjoyed this book, while finding plenty to disagree with in many of the papers. Since the writers come from different directions, any scholar will also find plenty to disagree with -- but of course such disagreement helps to test one's own cherished opinions and attitudes. And so this volume dedicated to the Socratic elenchus will act elenctically on its readers.

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