Plato was man in Ancient Athens who studied under the famous Socrates. That is factual information that has survived the passing of time, just like much of Plato’s writing has.
What does this have to do with learning about dialectical writing? Well, plenty. There is a rich historical perspective and philosophical past for dialectical writing. This kind of thinking can be found in a variety of cultures and traditions around the world, from the religious teachings of Buddhism and Confucianism, or from figures such as Socrates, Aquinas, Hume, Mill, MacIntyre, and Wittgenstein. But there is a solitary figure that stands as the true prophet of the dialectical movement, and one of its true artisans. That man is Socrates, an Athenian statesman and social critic. He was a classic practitioner of the dialectic style (using reasoned arguments in discussion) and there was a vast depth and logic to his method. He faced death due to his dedication to using reason and logic in dialogue.
Plato is famous for writing in dialogue style – having characters argue a topic through speaking – and Socrates is one of his favourite characters to utilize. In The Euthyphro the character of Socrates uses a process of questioning where the opposition must assert a claim to absolute knowledge and then must state, clarify, and defend his beliefs.
In Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates finds himself in the realm of King Archon being prosecuted by his own son (Euthyphro), and accused of being impious. The conversation started out amiably, with Euthyphro expressing disapproval of Socrates’ accusers and offering sympathy. Socrates, in turn, states that only someone who solidly understands piety would prosecute his own father. He praises Euthyphro on his wisdom, in terms of piety. But then Socrates lures his son into a dialectical styled self-examination. He asks Euthyphro to explain what makes pious actions….pious. He wants a definition of piety that is universally true.
Euthyphro accepts the challenge his father sets for him, attempting a few logical, reasoned explanations of piety. But in the end he cannot provide a definition of piety that he can coherently defend. At the end of the discourse, Euthyphro excuses himself and flees from King Archon’s residence.
The reader is left wondering if Euthyphro has realized the limits of his self-knowledge, and his own ignorance on the nature of piety. The goal of Socrates in this dialogue, however, is clear: to show men like Euthyphro the limits of their understanding of human existence. And he does so by utilizing and affirming the dialectical method: using reasoned arguments to clarify and defend a position.
At its core, Socratic philosophy is a method of questioning (elenchus) for the sake of mutual enlightenment. The benefits are intended for the questioner, who accepts the never-ending, life-long quest for the truth about human existence, and also for the respondent, who needs to achieve the basic self-understanding that comes in the acknowledgement of fundamental ignorance. In Plato’s dialogue, the Apology, Socrates defends his practice of elenchus against the accusation of impiety. In a way that perplexes and infuriates the jury, Socrates turns the tables on his accusers, arguing that their own unwillingness to subject their ethical beliefs and principals to scrutiny is a symptom of psychic disorder and civic impiety. He suggests that since the men of Athens resent having their core ethical and religious beliefs subjected to dialectical testing and resist having their own moral confusion and incoherence revealed, it exposes their presumption that they, like the gods, securely possess the truth. According to Socrates, it is only the gods – and not mortals – who may rightly claim to absolute knowledge and do not need to self-examine. For Athenians to refuse to allow their social and religious convictions to be tested dialectically is equivalent to saying they are equal with the gods. And for a mortal to think that he/she is equal to the gods … is impious pride. Thus, Socrates gets the better of his accusers, defending the philosophical art of dissecting souls to reveal ignorance as a divine service. Gods desire that mortals know themselves as mortals, rather than think of themselves as gods.
Socrates leads his son Euthyphro into confusion about his own convictions and actions, not in order to humiliate him, but to hold a mirror up to his psyche and help him to see himself as he truly as: as one who will never absolutely possess knowledge of the virtues, no matter how much he desires this knowledge. His method might seem cruel or even unhealthy, especially to the person going through the process of ‘unknowing’. But, to Socrates, this painful process of self-examination is vital and necessary. It is preparing people for a life-long quest of thinking about what – if we could only see through the illusions of social prestige and power – would matter most to us: the health of our inner selves as passionate, rational agents.
In order to serve his city-state (polis), Socrates believed in dialectical philosophy. Like medicine is vital to the health of the body, he saw critical thinking as vital to the mind or “inner-body.” He saw a need for balance, where a person’s beliefs and actions fit in properly with the cosmos. Socratic piety requires self-knowledge, which has both negative and positive aspects. The negative aspect is the confession of one’s ignorance, while the positive aspect is the pursuit of wisdom and the methodical testing of one’s ethical convictions in an effort to determine whether one’s fundamental values and commitments can be defended.
Of course, the Socratic art of dialectic is paradoxical. Socrates, at his Athenian trial, combined the humility and steadfastness that his philosophical perspective demanded. And though he lacked certain knowledge, his determination to live right was too consistent to accept that the beliefs that compose the core of one’s being have no truth or falsity independent of culture or personal taste. At the heart of his views is the conviction that psychic health is valuable – so valuable that a person might need to give their life in defence of it. And, as you may already know, Socrates did sacrifice his own life in order to defend his beliefs and reform the moral attitudes of Athens. Yet he did not have the self-evident knowledge of the nature of human excellence (arete) that he could use to prove that Athens suffered from moral blindness. Moral intuition formed the basis of his belief that the Athenian preoccupation with external honour and material wealth corrupts the human psyche. And moral intuition is crucial to Socratic moral thinking. Socrates simply lacked the data he needed to test his fundamental principles of how to live well.
Unlike modern foundationalists such as Descartes and Locke, who believe people can attain absolute knowledge based upon absolutely certain foundations, Socrates acknowledged that neither our moral intuitions nor our general ethical principles will ever be self-evident or infallible. His inquiry was based on an articulation of fundamental principals that make sense of our particular moral beliefs. And neither our moral responses nor our philosophical articulations of fundamental principles are so certain that they are immune to any future refutation. Yet, despite this lack of certainty, Socrates still defended the wisdom of sacrificing his life for his fundamental beliefs. According to Henry Teloh, “When Socrates states that he is justified in claiming to know something, he admits that his claim is open to revision. Truth is the aim, but justified belief - belief which satisfies a dialectic test – is the means, and our grasp of truth is dependent upon our best dialectical effort at any time” (Socratic Education in Plato’s Early Dialogues, 2).
So in order to understand Socrates’ defence of philosophy, one must grasp how it makes sense both to deny possessing certainty and also to insist on the fundamental importance of self-knowledge. The Socratic test for self-knowledge is provided by the method of elenchus. Socrates’ charge against his jurors is that they won’t submit to examination of their moral beliefs, not just that they wouldn’t survive this examination. They should be ashamed of putting honour and success before the health of their souls, and it is his humility that forces him to tell them so. He condemns the Athenians who make up his jury because he is convinced that their values reflect a proud unwillingness to open up their lives to self-examination. What matters to Socrates is the truth. Being human means that things we take to be true might actually be false, and vice versa. Refusal to seek the truth is equivalent to self-deception because, as humans, we should care about true goodness. In other words, Socratic philosophy seeks a form of wisdom appropriate to the human condition. Philosophical conversation is therapeutic, offering a cure against two opposing mental diseases: thinking that one has attained final knowledge, or thinking that it is best not to try to gain final knowledge. According to Socrates, the quest for self-knowledge should be humble, passionate, and relentless.
It is not surprising that the tradition of dialectical philosophy started by Socrates does not fully accept the ethical and methodological principles of Socrates himself. His pupil Plato, for example, presented a critique of Socratic education in the Republic, while Aristotle scrutinized Plato’s own work. In the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas’ method of the disputed question in his work the Summa Theologiae transformed Socratic dialect into a formal method of opposing points of view – with the goal of achieving the best rational solution of disputes among philosophical and religious authorities. From the twentieth century philosopher Wittgenstein, an informal, conversational method of philosophical dialectic arose which challenged modern philosophical theories and called philosophy back to proper dependence on the plurality of forms of life.
One of the key points of dialectical tradition is the shared commitment of practitioners to pursue the best argument and to view one’s own philosophical heritage with a sense of critical respect. In this guide, we hope to foster this spirit of dual respect and criticism. Good dialectical papers seek to be fair and open-minded, but are also committed to honest criticism. Respecting someone’s work does not mean you must agree with everything they say. A student can respect a teacher, yet disagree with some of their beliefs and opinions. In writing this guide we realize that we do not possess certain, absolute knowledge about human life. Since we can all gain from seeing the world from diverse perspectives, we embrace (not challenge) dialectical challenges. We also believe that people should have the freedom to think for themselves, as long as they avoid dogmatism and self-centeredness. And finally, we believe that dialectical thinking is both important and hard because human existence does not have superficial or easy solutions.
Dialectic thinking opens people up to seeing their own ignorance. But it can also allow people to develop deep self-understanding. Since students live in a world where suspicion of authority and power is common, dialectical inquiry will help them develop needed skills. Critical thinking fits in quite well with an age that has questioned concepts such as autonomous reason and absolute knowledge. (Of course, the Socratic tradition does oppose some post-modern views, such as the idea that rational discourse is merely an assertion of power, or that a quest for self-understanding is inherently futile). Dialectical thinking seeks a middle ground that rejects the idea (formed during the Enlightenment) that absolute knowledge is unattainable, but does not agree that human rationality is relative to context, is driven by motives of self-assertion, and is filled with ambiguous self-condemning discourse.
Our idea of what it means to engage in dialectic thinking is well summarized by R. E. Allen:
“To construe philosophy as dialectic is to view it primarily as an activity, not a product, as a discovering of truth rather than a set of truths discovered. The dialectician is unlikely to be a man with an official doctrine, oral or otherwise. The whole spirit of Plato’s teaching, insofar as his writing reflects them man who wrote, lies not in the promulgation of doctrine, not in expounding, as Aristotle and others have sought to expound, a necessary system demonstratively deduced from self-evident truths, but in leading men to see things for themselves. The aim, if you will, is education not instruction.” (Dialogues of Plato, vol. 1, 23)
We hope the readers of this guide take rational thinking seriously. The quality of an individual’s life, as well as a community’s, depends on the depth and quality of self-understanding. But, like Socrates, we do not believe that genuine wisdom is ever taught. While the road to wisdom is better walked in the company of others than alone, no one can walk it for us.
(For a defence of dialectic against crucial objections, see Appendix One).