Editor's note: After blind peer review, this paper was selected for reading at the University of Dayton's 10th annual Philosophy Colloquium, held Feb. 27-28, 1981.

There is a common, but false conception of Socrates' practice of dialectical examination. This conception depicts him as a relentless critic, a "despotic logician" (Nietzsche) guided by a moral purpose. Socrates is said to aim not at truth but at refutation — at proving, step by step, and often with a display of malicious irony, that the interlocutor's thought is inconsistent, that he "doesn't know what he is talking about.' Richard Robinson says that the rationale of such destructive, embarrasing refutation is twofold. First, Plato thought it would cause moral improvement, by engendering humility in those whose conceit of knowledge was taken away. To the objection that logic-chopping is hardly a suitable tool for moral improvement, since it at best improves agility of mind, not character, Plato's specific response is supposed to be that the elenchos cannot work unless the interlocutor himself agrees to each step in the examiner's argument, so that he cannot deny he has been refuted; his more general response, the complex thesis that virtue is knowledge and that the man who thinks he knows what virtue is, but does not, cannot begin to learn what it is and improve until his false opinion is removed. The elenchos, then, shames the man, exposes his soul by taking away the conceit of knowledge with which he had covered himself and thereby relieves him, in the words of the Eleatic Stranger, of "great and overbearing opinions about himself" (Sophist 230C). The second, related rationale is that the elenchos teaches by showing the interlocutor, albeit negatively, what it would be to truly know something — it would be to didonai logon, to give an account that not even Socrates could refute — and thus the elenchos induces the conceptual distinction between doxa and the idea of real knowledge, episteme, knowledge that is " tied down" by true reasoning and " stays put" (Meno 98A).



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.