May 12th, 2012 Socratic Problem
The Socratic problem results from the inability to determine what, in the writings of Plato, is an accurate portrayal of Socrates' thought and what is the thought of Plato with Socrates as a literary device. Socrates, often credited with founding western philosophy and who was put to death by the democracy of Athens in May, 399 BC, was Plato's teacher and mentor; Plato, like some of his contemporaries, wrote dialogues about his departed teacher.
Most of what we know about Socrates comes from the writings of Plato; however, it is widely believed that only some of Plato's dialogues are verbatim accounts of conversations or unmediated representations of Socrates' thought. Many of the dialogues seem to use Socrates as a device for Plato's thought, and inconsistencies occasionally crop up between Plato and the other accounts of Socrates; for instance, Plato has Socrates constantly denying that he would ever accept money for teaching, while Xenophon's Symposium clearly has Socrates stating that he is paid by students to teach wisdom and this is what he does for a living. Given the apparent evolution of thought in Plato's dialogues from his early years to his middle and later years, it is often believed that the dialogues began to represent less of Socrates and more of Plato as time went on. However, the question of exactly what aspects of Plato's dialogues are representative of Socrates and what are not is far from agreed upon.
Karl Popper treats the Socratic problem in his first book of The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).
The German classical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher made an attempt to solve the "Socratic problem". Schleiermacher maintains that the two dialogues Apology and Crito are purely Socratic, which is to say, rather accurate historical portrayals of the real man, Socrates, and hence history ï¿½ and not Platonic philosophy at all. All of the other dialogues that Schleiermacher accepted as genuine, he considered to be integrally bound together and consistent in their Platonism. Their consistency is related to the three phases of Plato's development:
- Foundation works, culminating in Parmenides;
- Transitional works, culminating in two so-called families of dialogues, the first consisting of Sophist, Statesman and Symposium, and the second of Phaedo and Philebus; and finally
- Constructive works: Republic, Timaeus and Laws.
Schleiermacher's views as to the chronology of Plato's work are rather controversial. In Schleiermacher's view, the character of Socrates evolves over time into the "Stranger" in Plato's work, and fulfills a critical function in Plato's development as he appears in the first family above as the "Eleatic Stranger" in Sophist and Statesman, and the "Manitenean Stranger" in the Symposium. The "Athenian Stranger" is the main character of Plato's Laws. Further, the Sophist-Statesman-Philosopher family makes particularly good sense in this order, as Schleiermacher also maintains that the two dialogues, Symposium and Phaedo show Socrates as the quintessential philosopher in life (guided by Diotima) and into death, the realm of otherness. Thus the triad announced both in the Sophist and in the Statesman is completed, though the Philosopher, being divided dialectically into a "Stranger" portion and a "Socrates" portion, isn't called "The Philosopher" this philosophical crux is left to the reader to figure out. Schleiermacher thus takes the position that the real Socratic problem is understanding the dialectic between the figures of the "Stranger" and "Socrates."
Popper, Karl (2002) The Open Society and Its Enemies. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415290630
Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1973) Introductions to the Dialogues of Plato. Ayer Co. Publishers. ISBN 978-0405048685.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich (1996) Ueber die Philosophie Platons. Philos. Bibliotek. Band 486, Meiner Verlag. ISBN 978-3787314621.