Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.02.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.44

Sean D. Kirkland, Ontology of Socratic Questioning in Plato's Early Dialogues. SUNY series in contemporary continental philosophy; SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy.   Albany:  State University of New York Press, 2012.  Pp. xxiv, 265.  ISBN 9781438444048.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michael Erler, Würzbug University (

This is a thought-provoking book on an old and much discussed topic. The author hopes to "cast a transfiguring light on Plato’s early Socrates" (153). He suggests that the elenctic method of Socrates does not aim at an “objective reality” (p. xviii), as most interpreters want us to believe, but at what he calls the “phenomenal being” of virtue (35). According to Kirkland, the message of Socrates in the Apology (38a; cf. 10, 184) and in the aporetic dialogues is that the greatest good for humans is not knowledge of something, but realizing the distance of that knowledge from us (36 ff.). Kirkland sees the proper human relation to the being of virtue as that of realizing the “ungraspability” (p. xxiv) of the knowledge of what virtue really is and the pain and the suffering that result from it (93 ff.).

The book has three parts. Part One comprises two chapters: ‘Setting aside the Subject-Object Framework in Reading Plato’ (3-22), and ‘On doxa as the Appearing of “What is”’(23-31). These chapters are meant to set the scene for the interpretation of some of Plato’s early dialogues. Kirkland offers a historical account of what Aristotle had to say about Socrates and his pragma. He also considers the main stream of modern interpretation (e.g. Friedländer, Vlastos) and traces it in some works which he considers seminal. Although he appreciates their importance, Kirkland nevertheless regards their approach as flawed, because they all claim – or so he argues – that the ‘What is’-question for Plato’s Socrates is not satisfied by everyday phenomena, but seeks an answer in what Plato regards as objectively real, i.e. the ideas (p. xxiii). Here Kirkland disagrees. Although Socrates’ questioning always begins with what his partner says and means, i.e. his doxa, which Kirkland wishes to translate as ‘appearance’, Socrates’ philosophy is not concerned with objective reality, but with what he calls the ‘phenomenal being of virtue’. That is to say, Kirkland calls into question the possibility of finding an objective ontology at work, as most modern interpreters think. In fact, he is convinced that the influence of the ontological approach impedes modern interpreters from taking Socrates at his word and regarding the destructive elenctic discussion of virtue itself as accomplishing the greatest good for human beings (183). He does not deny the anti-relativistic impetus of Socrates’ thinking; but he argues that the aim of Socrates’ philosophizing is not a proper relation to objective reality, but ‘phenomenal being’ (21). Kirkland therefore requires a new assessment of Socrates’ method and its aim (17).

In Part Two, Kirkland sets aside the objective reading of the aporetic dialogues. In three chapters he offers a progressive, three-step argument. In Chapter 3 (“The Excessive Truth of Socratic Discourse”) Kirkland analyses the nature of aletheia (truth) for which Socrates is striving, and suggests that this truth is to be understood as – as he calls it – “excessive” (deinos) (153). In Chapter 4 (“The Sheltering of Techne Versus the Exposure of Human Wisdom”), Kirkland argues that Socrates does not favor any ideal concept of virtue and that he does not propose any ‘craft-knowledge’ as an ideal. According to Kirkland, Socrates rather wishes to make it clear to the interlocutor that the being of virtue is unknown and that this exposure “establishes a proper relation to the phenomenal being of virtue”: the painful concern for it (p. xxiv). In chapter 5 (“The Truthful Elenctic Pathos or Painful Concern”), Kirkland argues that the pathos of painful concern is what the aporetic dialogues are about: the distress which is caused by our distance from the reality of virtue. The aporia or frustration caused by the “ungraspability of what was virtue is the proper experience of virtue as it is” (p. xxiv). In Part Three (“Socratic Virtue in the Face of Excessive Truth”), which contains Chapter Six (“The Courage of Virtue and the Distant Horizon of the Whole in Laches”), Kirkland offers an interpretation of the Laches taken as a case study, because in this dialogue the virtue of courage (andreia) is discussed, and this is needed when confronted with the painful experience of the aporia (119-51). In the Conclusion (“Aporia In the Middle Dialogues”) Kirkland discusses the function of aporia in the “middle dialogues” (153-71) and argues that even here – for instance in the Republic – Plato’s Socrates calls his partners to search for the ‘unconcealment’ of the ideas, but ‘what is’ still “seems to withhold itself from our grasp” (166) because of the “excessiveness” (his word) of the idea of the good. Extensive notes, a bibliography and an index conclude the book.

There are many things in the book with which one would easily agree. It is right to say – or so it seems to me – that there is a lot of frustration for the reader, which is reflected in the dialogues, when Socrates’ partners react with disappointment because they keep thinking they are about to catch each piece of knowledge they are after, but find that it always gets away (Euthyd. 291d). It is also right that Socrates adapts himself to the level of thinking of his dialogue-partners. In fact, he behaves according to the rules of philosophical rhetoric, which he himself develops in the Phaedrus. Small wonder that the doxa of his partners plays a decisive role in the conversations, and that Socrates deals with those opinions in the dialogues. For it is his partners’ part to answer the questions and therefore they are responsible for the direction the conversation takes, and therefore – one might argue – they are responsible for the aporia at the end of the conversation. Seen from that perspective, the aporia might even seem inevitable. But does it follow that the aporia is inevitable and virtue ungraspable in principle? There might be – and there is – a different perspective which might seem more promising and successful. And it seems to me that this is what Socrates, or Plato, the author, often signals in the dialogues. For it is not in the Apology alone – as Kirkland claims – that “Socrates’ questioning and searching way of discourse is itself thematized” (p. xxiii). There are other passages where Plato’s Socrates comments on his aporetic style of philosophical argument. And here the perspective seems to be more optimistic. Recall, for instance, what Socrates has to say in the Republic about people like me and you – i.e. the people in the dialogues – who are prisoners in the cave, see shadows on the wall, and take them for reality. According to Socrates, help is given by someone who tries to free the prisoners by turning them around by questioning them, by examining their answers, and by causing aporia (Rep. 515d). Now, of course, this process of being turned around is painful, as Socrates confesses, but it is not an end in itself. For it opens the way for the prisoners to leave the cave and to finally see the truth, the megiston mathema. Of course, the help which Socrates describes is his own philosophical pragma, which Plato illustrates in the aporetic dialogues. This kind of comment on his own pragma therefore indicates – or so it seems to me – that the aporiai in the aporetic dialogues as well are not to be seen as a dead end which is a great good in itself. Instead, aporia is a great good because it stimulates us to think further, perhaps changing our perspective, but not to give up looking for truth which can be reached. Otherwise it would not make sense to postulate, as Socrates does, that those who have seen the mathema must return back to the cave to help others. Of course, the dialogues illustrate how difficult this is. But when Socrates mentions this, as for instance to Adeimantos in the Republic – as Kirkland notes (163) –, he does so in view of the capacity of his interlocutor. But from this it does not follow that Socrates wishes to indicate that it is impossible to reach truth. After all, this goal is called megiston mathema. The very structure of the Republic itself – Book One being aporetic, with more positive discussions in the books that follow – illustrates that aporia should not be regarded as an end in itself. This is underlined by some thematic elements in the aporetic dialogues, such as the simile of opinions, which according to Socrates tend to escape like runaway slaves and cause aporia. In the Meno, Socrates explains that opinions tend to walk off like runaway slaves because of their ontological status. Opinions are not necessarily wrong, but unlike knowledge they are unstable and have to be fastened down by philosophical discussion: then opinions become stable, turn into knowledge, and gain more value. That is to say: the opinions’ running away can be stopped, aporia can be avoided by philosophical discussion – there is hope. Otherwise a paradox might occur, as the Charmides indicates. For in the aporetic Charmides it is accepted, though with much regret, that the knowledge of knowledge does not exist. It is concluded therefore that a wise man who tries to test the knowledge of other people is inconceivable as well. Now, this position taken seriously would lead to the conclusion that Plato by the time he wrote the Charmides denied the possibility of what must be regarded as the theoretical basis of Socrates' pragma, as described in the Apology and illustrated in the aporetic dialogues: it would be senseless for Socrates to do what he does, to test his partners. I doubt that this is what Plato wishes to demonstrate. Kirkland has interesting things to say about Socrates’ and his partners’ search for truth as a kind of ‘wandering’ (159). Again, I would like to add that Socrates in the Phaedo (79b, 81d-e) says that exactly this wandering can be brought to an end by the theoria of the ideas. Of course, Kirkland is right about the fact that in Plato’s early dialogues the failure of Socrates’ partners and their aporia is described as a painful experience. Again, I am not sure whether this is the only message of those dialogues. They rather signal that we should be more optimistic.

While not persuaded by his main thesis, I hasten to add that I learned a lot from reading Kirkland’s book. It is attractive to read Socrates as what Kirkland calls a proto-phenomenologist (30). Even if I doubt that this is all Plato wants to tell us, I find Kirkland’s thesis challenging and his arguments stimulating. They make the reader think anew about an important issue. And this is, I think, what Plato’s Socrates indeed stands for.

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