Rules for Socratic dialectic

From the Gorgias of Plato it is possible to extrapolate a set of rules for Socratic dialectic as it is used in the Gorgias and in the dialogues generally…A compendium of rules derivable from the Gorgias follows:

  • The answers must be short. When Socrates asks Gorgias a question, he answers with a long speech; Socrates requests that he keeps his answers short (448e)
  • Both participants must desire to understand what the argument is about; in this way they advance the argument (453b).
  • Both parties in the dialogue must understand that the one who asks the questions is speaking on behalf of the audience, many of whom are too shy to speak. In short, the questioner is interested not only for his own sake but also for that of people in general (455d).
  • Both speakers must have good will and must be consistent. If both parties are not alike in this respect, the conversation must be ended. If the answerer gets caught in a contradiction — an aporia (the Greek word means “a place of no exit”) — he must not become angry. To be caught in a contradiction is not a disgrace, if one’s answers were sincere; in fact, it is a blessing, for now he knows that what he thought was in error. And surely, Socrates says, no person wants to be in error (457d).
  • Each interlocutor aims at getting the other to be a witness to what the interlocutor has said: what the other is to be a witness to is the truth of what has been said, for such agreement means that the arguments square with reality. If such an agreement is not reached, nothing will have been accomplished (472b, 474a, and 475).
  • When such agreement is achieved, we have friendship. Truth has the power to unite human beings in friendship, but error and falsehooods do not (473a).
  • The dialogue must be between two people only. The practitioner of dialectic must speak with only one person at a time (474b).
  • Contradiction guarantees what is said is not true; if there is a choice between what is contradictory and what is not contradictory, what is  not contradictory, however absurd, must be true (480e).
  • There are three prerequisites of intellectual character for engaging in dialogue (487a): (1) knowledge: each participant must know something and recognize knowledge when he sees it; that is, he must recognize when words square with reality; (2) good will: that is, each participant must have his opponent’s welfare at heart; he must be arguing for truth, not victory; (3) that each must speak freely; that is, each must say what is on his mind and not hedge or equivocate or hold back (487a).
  • Each participant must be aware that repetition does not invalidate truth. No matter how familiar a truth may be to a participant, no matter how trite a truism may sound, he must acknowledge its truth and not turn away out of boredom, looking for something different out of a desire for novelty (490e).
  • Sincerity is essential in each interlocutor: each must say what he believes or the implied contract in the dialectical conversation is broken (495a).
  • Engaging in the dialogue is the greatest good in and for life, for this is to engage in philosophy (500c).
  • All people should compete in the pursuit of truth through this dialectic, for only from sincere, prolonged competition will truth emerge. And truth is a common good for humankind (505e).
  • If an argument is true, one must see what follows from it. In other words, the dialogue must go on, no matter where it leads (508b).

From “Appendix B” of Plato: Gorgias, translated by James A. Arieti and Roger M. Burns, Focus Publishing, 2007.

I think it is worth the effort to meditate slowly over this list and ask why each of these injunctions are important.

By the way, my absolutely favorite translations of Greek texts are those done by Focus Philosophical Library. Arieti and Burns’ translation of the Gorgias is an exemplary edition with a nice critical apparatus. Highly recommended. I just reread Joe Sach’s volume by Focus called Socrates and the Sophists and was delighted in its profundity, particularly Sachs’ introduction to the volume.


26 thoughts on “Rules for Socratic dialectic

  1. I don’t quite understand the first rule, “the answers must be short”. When Gorgias was asked a question, he equivocated without answering “yes” or “no”, which is why Socrates requested short answers. But not all questions have short answers, e.g., those that start with “what is”, “why” and “how”. By demanding short answers, the questioner can turn the conversation into an interrogation rather than a dialogue.

    • Great question! I’ll take a stab at it. The rule for brevity is really a rule against “long speeches” (makrologia). Since answers must be responses to questions and must submit themselves to questions, they can’t be (1) filibusters that preclude follow up speeches, or (2) speeches long enough to lose sight of the question that engendered them. There must be pauses in the dialogue to allow the questions that arise in the other interlocutor to be given voice. In dialectic, doubts/questions/qualms are just as important as opinions/answers/beliefs, so the answers shouldn’t be of such a form as to preclude questioning.

      Your concern that this rule could make questioning like an interrogation is a legitimate concern, although it seems that engaging in real dialectic is to open oneself up to something like interrogation, e.g. to be forced to give (frank) answers to questions one would usually like to avoid. Dialectic is not comfortable and Socrates/Plato likens it to receiving a (painful) cure to a fatal disease (unexamined false beliefs about important matters).

      Does that make sense to you? Perhaps I missed something in the concerns you raise.

      (By the way, Socrates’ praise for the yes/no responses of Gorgias in the dialogue is ironic, I think.)

      • In the dialogues, Socrates’ speeches are almost always longer than his interlocutors. Has he really given them voice? He asks questions, but they don’t. I suppose it is because they don’t know how or what to question. This skill is what makes Socrates a great dialectician.

        My concern with the short answer rule is that some questions are designed to illuminate, but others to obscure the issue to the “advantage” of the questioner, as the technique employed by lawyers. How can we distinguish the two?

  2. Nemo,

    One of the presuppositions of dialectic is that there is least one other participant other than the questioner and answerer and that is the logos/argument itself. Philosophy is between friends (philia is one of its etymological roots) and involves (at least) two persons with a common interest in something else. Once the opinion of either of them is voiced, *it* (the opinion) is interrogated by the other two — one of the partners usually champions the argument and the other questions it, although this division of labor is liable to change. Even when the two agree on some point, either is welcome (even encouraged) to reopen the argument to reconsider what has been agreed upon. The independent objectivity of the argument helps prevent the attack/defend dynamic that we usually find in heated exchanges. It is an important feature of dialectic and should be included as one of its rules, I think.

    Remember also that “goodwill” is also one of the stated requirements. Doesn’t that at least distinguish the two situations (lawyer vs. friend)?

    • From the fact that the logos is objective, it doesn’t follow that the participants are also objective in their approaches though. Nor doe the requirement for “good will” necessarily mean that people are able to act with “good will” — how can they if they don’t know what “good” is?

      • Oh, you’re right — no set of rules is going to be able to compensate for a lack of good will, intelligence, etc. The rules as stated have a lot more diagnostic than prescriptive value. Bernard Lonergan said that “genuine objectivity is the fruit of an authentic subjectivity.” But one develops authentic subjectivity by striving, by practicing, by engaging in activities that embody the value one is trying to embody in oneself. Dialectic is just such a practice. No prescription can compensate for avoiding performance. If we can’t agree on what the good is, then that is all the more reason to “submit oneself nobly to the argument as to a doctor.” (Gorgias, 475d7)

      • That brings us back to my previous question. I do have an honest question, btw, which is what drew my attention to your post. 🙂
        How do we distinguish between a question that is “leading the witness”, so to speak, and one that is genuinely intended for inquiry? In other words, is there any “best practice” in dialectics?

  3. Hmmm, I don’t know if there is an infallible criterion. I know that a lot of my students accuse Socrates of “leading the witness” and his behavior does sometimes seem a little “witness-leading.” Your question is akin to how you determine someone is trustworthy. Again, there is no infallible criterion before the fact. The best criterion is a long, intimate acquaintance, but that takes something akin to “trust” to develop. A less reliable (but still good) criterion is when your dialogue partner has some skin in the game and will demonstrably risk exposing his/herself to criticism. I never fully trust anyone unwilling to examine the grounds of his/her own opinion and who is not willing to be critical of the sources of their belief. My disappointing answer is that there is an element of practical judgment not reducible to explicit criteria.

    What do you think, as a first stab at answering your own question?

    • The difference between Socrates and me is obvious: he knows the answer to his question but I don’t. 🙂 I think that’s why he often appears to be leading the witness, but knowing the answer is not the same as disguising it as a question.

      I tend to think that everyone has some skin in the game, including Socrates himself. For instance, the immortality of the soul is not just a matter of intellectual curiosity for him, it is literally a matter of life and death. He staked his whole life on it, exposed himself to accusations, and was eventually sentenced to death.

      Perhaps it’s not surprising that he was so good at examining the false opinions of others, he must have put himself through the grinding mill many, many times. Obviously, if he is going to live and die for a belief, he’d better make sure it’s as solid and sound in every way possible.

      My question is how we can follow his method of examination.

  4. Nemo: Oh, I see — you are interested in how to *conduct* a Socratic dialogue! First, let me quibble with one point: it is not clear at all that Socrates knows the answers to the question he asks. I am sure he is being ironic when he treats the unwise as wise, but I think he is deadly serious when he treats himself as ignorant and unwise. In fact the trick to being a faithful Socratic is not to engage in Socratic dialogue when you know the answer. Be at least a little doubtful in what you think you know. There is a fake kind of Socratic dialogue that *is* like an interrogation, that questions other from the smug height of superior knowledge. That is NOT Socratic method. One must be willing to be vulnerable to be a Socratic questioner, since real dialogue is always co-inquiry into a matter of common concern. One has to be willing to allow the argument to teach you something as well. Otherwise, you are the teacher and not a suitable dialogue partner.

    • Socrates may indeed be ignorant, but still there is no one wiser than he. I can’t recall where he actually learns something from his interlocutor. Can you provide a few examples?

      The other reason I think he knows the answer to his question is his (or Plato’s) theory of recollection. The only way he learns from the argument is to be reminded of what he already knows. Otherwise, how can he know whether or not the answer is true?

      • Well, I don’t think he learns much from his interlocutors in the sense that he converts from opinion A to opinion B because someone who holds opinion B convinces him. But there is no doubt to me that his thinking develops as a result of being pressed by his interlocutor. You actually gave a good example: the idea of learning as recollection is an idea proposed in response to Meno’s “debater’s argument” that we can’t search for anything we don’t already know, since if we don’t what it is, we couldn’t search for it, and if we already know what it is, we wouldn’t need to search. Socrates takes the challenge seriously, even if for Meno it was just a way to evade questioning. Socrates has to discover an understanding of learning that doesn’t run afoul of Meno’s critique. Socrates seems to profit from the encounter, even if he fails at “teaching” Meno anything.

        One thing to remember is that dialectic is not for the production of true opinions. Dialectic aims at something beyond mere opinion. To conceive of true learning as a quest for mere opinion, however true, is to be stuck in Meno’s conception of learning as “acquiring truths,” a conception that makes true learning impossible. We can acquire opinions, but we can only be open to truth. My notion is that we approach dialectical thinking when we aim beyond our defective opinions, toward the immanent criterion that makes us aware of the defect in the first place. We must work among the cracks in our best formulations, for in the words of Leonard Cohen, “that is how the light gets in.”

      • Socrates does seem to profit from his encounters, but the same can’t be said of his interlocutors, which reminds me of the so-called Matthew effect, “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

        The question remains, though: How does he do that?

        Socrates’ knowledge is superior to his interlocutors. At the very least, he can discern whether or not a proposition is true, which the others cannot without his help. I think that’s why his dialogues sometimes resemble interrogations. If his interlocutors are honest and teachable, they would admit their mistakes and abandon their false opinions. IOW, they would be converted from opinion A to B. But this never seems to happen to Socrates. How then does he benefit from his dialogues with others if then cannot give/teach him anything?

        Just for the sake of clarity, what do you think is the difference between “true opinion” and “truth”?

  5. Nemo, thanks for your questions.

    First of all, I think many of Socrates’ interlocutors do profit from their encounter with Socrates. The sophists such as Meno of course almost never do, but think Glaucon, Adeimantus, Polemarchus, Phaedrus, Cebes…I could go on.

    To understand how Socrates does it, I think we need to understand his aim, which is to think through our opinions toward that which grounds knowledge and which reveals opinion to be defective.

    Maybe look at some of my earlier posts on the nature of opinion:

    See also my post on defective reading:

    • I’m not sure how much Socrates’ interlocutors profited from his dialogues. To use his analogy of music, perhaps Socrates is like a snake charmer, as long as he is playing the music, the snakes are docile and compliant, but as soon as he stops and leaves, they return to their old selves again. A relevant point is made in the apocryphal Clitophon: it’s well and good that Socrates exposes their ignorance and lack of virtue, but now that they realize their defect, what can they do about it? Socrates leave them in the lurch.

      Can dialectic help people think through opinions and attain true knowledge, without the help of someone already possessing that knowledge?

      It seems to me, as this point, that the answer is No. Socrates’ interlocutors cannot realize their defects without his help, nor can Socrates’ see his own defects when engaging in those dialogues. He may be able to articulate and refine what he already knows in response to challenges (as is the case in Meno), but the exercise does’t change the relation or distance between his opinion and true knowledge.

      • Whew, I can barely keep up with your questions!

        I mentioned the idea in an earlier comment to you in a previous post that knowledge is a power of assumed openness to relevant understanding…or something to that effect. Let’s differentiate between “openness as an event” and “openness as an achievement.” Cleitophon “gets it” when he is with Socrates and “loses it” when he separated. This is a common enough occurrence in the classroom as well. A math teacher can review the way to solve a problem, the student “gets it” in the moment and then “loses it” when she tries to do her homework that night. There is an event of openness that does not instantly and automatically become openness as an achievement. One must spend a lot of time doing problems, getting them wrong, figuring out what one did wrong, etc. in order to achieve mastery in mathematics. Over time “getting it” (i.e. the relevant understanding) is open and available any time one encounters the same type of problem, in other words, one has achieved mastery. That habitually maintained openness to achieved understanding and ability to recognize where the understanding applies is knowledge.

      • Whew, I can barely keep up with your questions!

        That’s what you (should) get for giving reading assignments. Did you expect anything else? 🙂

        Following your math analogy, there are two things the students need to learn, the thought process and the solutions. Socrates’ interlocutors are also missing two things: the dialectic method to detect their defects, and the way to remedy it. Clitophon complains that Socrates doesn’t provide the latter, whereas I’m more concerned with the former, viz. “how to think like Socrates”.

      • Ha ha! You’re right, of course. Feel free to ask away!

        OK, let’s work with your dichotomy: “thought process” and “solutions.” Knowing knows by understanding why its thought process leads to the right result, and why other thought processes do not. Opinion doesn’t really care how it gets the solution, although it does care that its
        solution seems right. If opinion stumbles upon the right answer, it is satisfied. But this satisfaction of opinion *will not* satisfy knowledge, which also requires to know *why* it is right. Joe Sachs gives an apt definition of opinion as ” the residue that remains when thinking has stopped.” Does that help?

        My follow up question, which gets to that performative/self-examination aspect of dialectic: Pick any opinion you hold dear on any subject, and ask yourself whether *you* (you — not a person in general) are satisfied with merely getting the solution right or with knowing why. If there is a part of you that wants to know why, even if you are confident in your answer, then follow that why. When that why is satisfied without being evaded, you know.

      • I suppose the ability to ask questions also comes with some knowledge/opinion and understanding. If the students ask no questions all, either they understand nothing and therefore don’t know what to ask, or they have reached a opinion but still cannot think for themselves. In that regard, Socrates was not a good teacher, because his interlocutors had no questions at the end of their dialogues.

        Speaking of dichotomy, I was reading Descartes’ Meditations with Objections and Replies, in which Descartes carry out dialogues with those who objects to his propositions. He argues that mind is distinct from the body whereas the other side argues the opposite. Both sides know why and how they reach their conclusions, but they can’t see eye to eye, and it became a stalemate.

      • I *think* the only knowledge you need to question well is the ability to discern when opinion is not yet knowledge. This is why I keep harping on the importance of grasping the defect in opinion. If you see my post from yesterday, I cited the only instances of which I know in which Socrates claimed knowledge of anything. Check that out.

        Re Descartes: we can only be certain of abstractions and since Descartes would not allow himself to hold on to uncertainties, his manufactured realities could only contain the certainty of the abstract. Body for him is “extended substance” and reduces to pure geometry. How much more abstract can you get then that? So Descartes, by refusing to consider the defective as worthy of thought (with one significant exception, which I will write about later in my blog), he ended up denying himself the only adequate entry into knowledge of the real.

      • It seems that we’ve been “harping on” the same thing from different angles. I still don’t know how Socrates detect the defects in his own thinking, how he thinks thing through.

        Looking forward to your post on Descartes. I have to admit I’m more in tune with his way of thinking than his opponents.

      • Well, to admit you don’t understand is already to be aware of a defect in your understanding. How did you recognize that you don’t understand? By what light? Assume Socrates recognizes it the same way. Now, try, if you can, to grasp *how* it is you don’t know. It takes time to ease into this — the insight probably won’t hit you at once. The relevant insight is that, in some strange way, this unknowing is more disclosive of the knowledge you lack then the opinion itself. What would satisfy it this sense of lack? What fails to satisfy it? Those questions will guide your groping, help tune it to a direction of search. Happy hunting!

  6. And, yes, I think that philosophy is by its nature a social concern. That the “lone wolf” aspiring philosopher will find it nearly impossible to spot his own blind-spots and biases. I would like to reconceive the “philo-” in the word “philosophy” as referring to the community of “philoi” (friends) who are in common pursuit of “sophia” (wisdom). That doesn’t mean we can’t carry forward in our solitary thought what we learned through our encounters with others, but I am suggesting that solitary thought alone is not sufficient. We need correction/reinforcement/enchantment from without:

    But release me from my bands
    With the help of your good hands.
    Gentle breath of yours my sails
    Must fill, or else my project fails,
    Which was to please. Now I want
    Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
    And my ending is despair,
    Unless I be relieved by prayer,
    Which pierces so that it assaults
    Mercy itself and frees all faults. — Shakespeare, The Tempest

  7. Keep in Homeschooling one zero one – This text Is Packed with Good
    Advice! It is a by no means ending sport, that may keep
    the youngsters engrossed for hours .
    To show a result it isn’t ok just to strive some numbers and conclude the general outcome holds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s