chapter  2
10 Pages

SOCRATES: A METHOD OF DOUBT

It is widely agreed that Socrates represents a new departure in philosophy. But there is no real agreement as to the nature of this new departure. Aristophanes in the Clouds even doubts whether Socrates does differ from his predecessors. At least he represents Socrates as interested largely in physical questions, in the manner of the Presocratics. It may be significant here that Socrates in Plato’s Apology complains about misrepresentation by a comic poet (18c). Certainly Aristophanes seems deeply misguided. To Dover, indeed, this portrayal of Socrates is so hard to understand, that he is driven to compare Aristophanes to those people who do not understand or care about the difference between Bach and Rachmaninov (Dover, 1968:71). Plato in the Phaedo suggests that Socrates was the first philosopher to seek teleological explanations (96ff.). This claim too is rather surprising. It is true that none of the Presocratics (except arguably Anaxagoras) had displayed an interest in teleological questions. But Plato’s comments still seem to relate more closely to his own theory of Forms, than to the historical Socrates. Aristotle’s view is that Socrates’ contributions to philosophy lay in his interest in definitions and in inductive argument (Metaphysics 1078b27). About this, we might say that Socrates does have these concerns, and is the first to do so; but these concerns do not seem central to his practice of philosophy. Cicero says that Socrates brought philosophy down from the sky (Tusculan Disputations 5.4.10). He tells us something important in this passage-but only that with Socrates we find the first sustained treatment of ethical questions.