Socratic problem

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The Socratic problem (or Socratic question)[1] is the term for the situation in the history of scholarship with respect to the existing materia pertaining to the individual known as Socrates which scholars rely upon as the only extant sources for knowing anything at all about this individual, but when compared, show contradictions and do not agree. It is apparent to scholarship that this problem is now deemed a task seeming impossible to clarify and thus perhaps now classified as unsolvable.[2][3]

Socrates was the main character in most of Plato's dialogues and was a genuine historical figure. It is widely understood that in later dialogues Plato used the character Socrates to give voice to views that were his own. Besides Plato, three other important sources exist for the study of Socrates: Aristophanes, Aristotle, and Xenophon. Since no extensive writings of Socrates himself survive to the modern era, his actual views must be discerned from the sometimes contradictory reports of these four sources.

The sources

The main sources for the historical Socrates are the Sokratikoi logoi, or Socratic dialogues, which are reports of conversations apparently involving Socrates.[4] Most information is found in the works of Plato and Xenophon.[5][6]

There are also four sources extant in fragmentary states: Aeschines, Antisthenes, Euclid of Megara, and Phaedo of Elis.[7]

In addition, there are two fragments by Timon of Phlius,[8] who wrote in order to lampoon philosophy.[9][10]

There is also Aristophanes's play the Clouds, which humorously attacks Socrates.[11]


There are four works of Xenophon that deal with Socrates, they are Apology of Socrates to the Jurors (which apparently reports the defence given by Socrates in court[12][13]), Memorabilia (which is a defence of Socrates and so-called Socratic dialogues[12]), Oeconomicus (which concerns Socrates' encounter with Ischomachus and Critobulus[13]) and Symposium (which recounts an evening at a dinner party to which Socrates was an attendee.[14][15][16]


Socrates — who is often credited with turning Western philosophy in a more ethical/political direction and who was put to death by the democracy of Athens in May 399 BC — was Plato's mentor. Plato, like some of his contemporaries, wrote dialogues about his teacher. Much of what is known about Socrates comes from Plato's writings; however, it is widely believed that very few, if any, of Plato's dialogues can be verbatim accounts of conversations between them 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 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 that this is what he does for a living.

Stylometric analysis of the Plato' corpus has led to the formation of a consensually agreed chronology classifying dialogues as falling approximately into three groups, Early, Middle and Late.[17] On the assumption that there is an evolution of philosophical thought in Plato's dialogues from his early years to his middle and later years,[18] the most common modern view is that Plato's dialogues contain a development of thought from closer to that of Socrates' to a doctrine more distinctly Plato's own.[19] However, the question of exactly what aspects of Plato's dialogues are representative of Socrates and what are not, is far from agreed upon. Although the view that Plato's dialogues are developmental in their doctrines (with regard to the historical Socrates or not) is standard, the view is not without objectors who propose a unitarian view or other alternative interpretations of the chronology of the corpus.[20][21] One notable example is Charles Kahn who argued that Plato had created his works not in a gradual way, but as a unified philosophical vision, whereby he uses Socratic Dialogues, a non-historical genre, to flesh out his views.[22] The time that Plato began to write his works and the date of composition of his last work are not known and what adds to the complexity is that even the ancient sources do not know the order of the works or the dialogues.[23]


Two relevant works pertain to periods in Socrates' life, of which Aeschines could not have had any personal first-hand experiential knowledge. However, substantial amounts are extant of his works Alcibiades and Aspasia.[24]


Antisthenes was a pupil of Socrates, and was known to accompany him.[25]

Issues relating to the sources

Ages of sources relative to Socrates

Aristophanes (c. 450 to 386 BC) was alive during the early years of Socrates. One source shows Plato and Xenophon were about 45 years younger than Socrates,[26] other sources show Plato as something in the range of 42 to 43 years younger, while Xenophon is thought to be 40 years younger.[27][28][29][30]

Issues resulting from translation

Apart from the existing identified issue of conflictual elements present in accounts and writings, there is the additional inherent concern of the veracity of transfer of meaning by translation from Greek to modern language, whether that be English or any other.[31]

History of the problem

Efforts have been made by writers for centuries to address the problem. According to one scholar (Patzer) the number of works with any significance in this issue, prior to the nineteenth century, are few indeed.[32] G.E. Lessing caused a flurry of interest in the problem in 1768.[33] A methodology for analysis was posited, by study of Platonic sources, in 1820 with Socher. A break of scholarly impasse in respect to understanding, resulted from Campbell making a stylometric analysis in 1867.[33]

An essay written by Schleiermacher in 1815, published 1818 (English translation 1833) is considered the most significant and influential toward developing an understanding of the problem.[34][35]

Early in the 21st century, most of the scholars concerned have settled to agreement instead of argument about the nature of the significance of ancient textual sources in relation to this problem.[36]

Manuscript tradition

A fragment of Plato's Republic (588b-589b) was found in Codex VI, of the Nag Hammadi discoveries of 1945.[37][38]

Editio princeps


The Latin language corpus was by Ficinus during 1484, the first of a Greek language text was Aldus in 1513.[39][40]


His entire works in the Greek language were by Grogan in 1516.[41]

The Memorobilia, appeared in the Florence Junta in 1516.[42][43]

The first Apology, was by Johan Reuchlin in 1520.[44]

Scholarly analysis

Karl Popper, who considered himself to be a disciple of Socrates, wrote about the Socratic problem in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies,[45]

Søren Kierkegaard addressed the Socratic problem in Theses II, III and VII of his On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates.[46][47]

The German classical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher addressed the "Socratic problem" in his essay The worth of Socrates as a philosopher.[48] Schleiermacher maintained that the two dialogues Apology and Crito are purely Socratic. They were, therefore, accurate historical portrayals of the real man, and hence history 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:

  1. Foundation works, culminating in Parmenides;
  2. 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
  3. Constructive works: Republic, Timaeus and Laws.

Schleiermacher's views on 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 "Mantitenean 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 determine. Schleiermacher thus takes the position that the real Socratic problem is understanding the dialectic between the figures of the "Stranger" and "Socrates".

Suggested solutions

Four suggested solutions elucidated by Nails, and given early in the history of the problem, and still relevant currently are:[49]

(1) Socrates is the individual whose qualities exhibited in Plato' writings are corroborated by Aristophanes and Xenophon.

(2) Socrates is he that claims to possess no wisdom but still participates in exercises with the aim of gaining understanding.

(3) Socrates is the Socrates who appears in Plato's earliest dialogues.

(4) The real Socrates is the one who turns from a pre-Socratic interest in nature, to ethics instead.


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Further reading