In 399 B.C.E., a jury of 501 Athenians voted to execute Socrates because of the discussions he held. Socrates used to spend his days quizzing the men of Athens about morality, especially when he could find a man who supposedly embodied one of the virtues. Classical scholars call his method elenchos, which is Greek for “testing,” “cross-examination” or “refutation.”
Socrates did not do the refuting directly. He would ask a series of questions that led his discussion partners to contradict themselves. In the typical pattern of discussion, Socrates asked for an account of a certain virtue, such as courage. In the dialogue called Laches, Socrates is in the company of two Athenian generals, Laches and Nicias, during a lull in the Peloponnesian War. All three of them saw action in the war, so we can expect each of them to have first-hand knowledge of courage, or even to exemplify it themselves. Laches proposes that courage is endurance of the soul (192c). In the case of courage in war, endurance would entail staying at one’s post (i.e., enduring) despite the dangers.
At this point in a dialogue, Socrates would solicit agreement on a number of other propositions, sometimes including agreement on specific instances of the virtue. Then he would show his discussion partner that the new propositions, considered together, contradict the initial definition. In the case of Laches’ definition of courage, Socrates first solicits agreement that courage is fine and beneficial, then asks whether foolish endurance isn’t harmful and injurious. When Laches agrees, he can see that these points together contradict the idea that courage is endurance. As is typical for these dialogues, the destruction of the initial definition leads to a new proposal. In the Laches, the next proposal is that courage is wise endurance (192d).
Readers of the dialogue can see that the method of contradiction allows participants to refine their views through a process of successive approximation. It’s not clear, incidentally, that Socrates saw things that way. He was going after definitive truths, so he tended to see approximations as failures. In the Laches, Socrates immediately challenges the idea that wise endurance is courage, and when he and Laches reject the new definition, they are stumped in coming up with a new proposal to replace it.
Nicias jumps into the discussion to offer his own definition, which also seems promising and worthy of refinement, but Socrates performs the same destructive procedures that he used against Laches’ ideas. The investigation ends with a common agreement that the three of them have not discovered what courage is (199e).
Socrates and Plato
The author of these dialogues was Plato. He and other young men used to hang around Socrates to watch him confound the eminent men of Athens (Apology 23c). In the earliest dialogues, clearly written after Socrates’ death, Plato laid out Socrates’ ideas and methods while trying to defend him against the charges that led to his execution. One of the charges was that Socrates corrupted the youth — such as Plato himself. The ending of the Laches is a rebuttal to this charge. All parties have come to agree that Socrates knows the most about courage and is its best exemplar among them, so two of the onlookers ask Socrates to instruct their own sons in order to develop their moral character.
Later on, Plato wrote dialogues that began to depart from Socrates’ original methods and ideas. Plato, for example, used other methods of inquiry besides the elenchos. What’s more, he believed that there was a “really real” world of eternal, changeless Forms that lies behind the fluctuating (and illusory) way the world appears to us. Socrates believed in forms also — universal qualities such as courage that can show up in many particular things — but he did not, as Aristotle later testified, make them “exist apart” from the things (Metaphysics 1078b).
The points of difference between Socrates and Plato that interest me here are: (1) the range of their discussions and (2) their views of how knowledge relates to virtue. Whereas Plato discussed ethics, political organization, mathematics, biology, language, and philosophical method, Socrates seems to have stuck to an exclusive focus on ethics. Socrates also believed, unlike Plato, that knowledge was sufficient for virtue, i.e., that people do bad things out of ignorance and that “no one willingly makes his way toward bad things or toward things he believes are bad (Protagoras 358c).” Plato developed a theory of his own that recognized that people have many motivations besides the pursuit of the good — motivations, in fact, that can lead us to choose things that we know are bad (Republic 441c–444e).
Knowledge is not only sufficient for virtue, according to Socrates. It’s necessary for virtue. This is quite a demanding requirement, because the knowledge Socrates has in mind is not just about what’s good or bad in a given situation. He’s demanding that we know what virtue is. Where Plato’s discussions could be abstract and contemplative, Socrates’ views made his own discussions urgent and personal. If someone was reputed to possess some virtue, Socrates would seek him out and demand an explicit account of the virtue. Inevitably, Socrates’ method of contradiction revealed that Socrates’ discussion partner didn’t know what the virtue was. Considering that Socrates identified virtue so closely with knowledge, he took his partner’s lack of knowledge to be a demonstration that he lacked the virtue.
As a result, Socrates wasn’t just cutting people down to size when they claimed to know things that they didn’t. That would have been humiliating enough, but in so doing, Socrates also cast doubt on the moral character of people who were reputed to be some of Athens’ most honorable men. To compound the humiliation, the elenctic method tripped people up on the basis of their own professed beliefs. This must have been what Socrates’ accusers were really driving at when they claimed that he corrupted the youth: the young men who followed Socrates around were delighted to hear conversations that undermined the moral authority of the city’s leaders.
Me, you and the way we think
Socrates’ method was more than an attempt to find out what was true. For that kind of inquiry, one could entertain hypotheses and abstractions as Plato did in his later dialogues. As we’ve seen, Socrates’ own discussions were also about the people who were having the discussions. As Gregory Vlastos put it, “elenchus has a double objective: to discover how every human being ought to live and to test that single human being who is doing the answering — to find out if he is living as he ought to live.”
To carry out his method, Socrates repeatedly laid down a special ground rule: “Say what you believe.” This requirement ruled out hypothetical reasoning — the practice of assuming something for the sake of argument. Protagoras proposes to do just this, and Socrates overrules him.
PROTAGORAS: If you want to, let justice be pious and let piety be just — for us.
SOCRATES: That’s not good enough for me. I have no use for this “if you want to” and “if it seems that way to you”; what I need to have cross-examined is me and you. (331c)
When Socrates cross-examines “me and you,” he is concerned about our beliefs — the kind of things that have to be attached to a person — not just about propositions, which people might or might not believe, or might not even be aware of. As a result, the contradictions that Socrates discovered were contradictions in people’s minds, not just in some abstract “proposition-space.”
The starting point is the beliefs that we already have. If we get into a discussion with Socrates, the novelty lies not in these ideas themselves but in the experience of examining them all at the same time. It’s as if, up to that point, our ideas had existed in separate chambers within our mind, and Socrates opens the doors between the rooms. When they’re brought together, the significance of each idea is subject to change. Once we consider the ideas in conjunction, we can see what follows from subsets of them or from all of them conjointly. In short, these ideas can begin to take on new roles in our thinking because they have begun to interact.
If we discover that these ideas are inconsistent with one another, we are at Socrates’ point of “refutation.” At that point, we may reject some of the beliefs, or “suspend” belief — or just walk away shaken and confused, the response that most people seem to have had when they encountered Socrates. Because the process relies on the statements of our own beliefs, a challenge to their consistency is more than a demonstration about propositions; it’s a revelation that our minds don’t have the integrity that we thought they did.
The whole procedure raises a multitude of questions. First, the elenchos shows that our beliefs are inconsistent, but how do we choose which ones to reject? Socrates’ discussion partners invariably reject their initial definition, not the ideas that come up to refute it. Later philosophers have offered various ways to justify this turn in the conversations, but Socrates didn’t try to justify it. A second question may throw light on the first: Do we really start with the beliefs that Socrates draws out of us? Maybe we start out with practical concepts instead — a capacity, for example, to judge whether an action is brave — with no guarantee that we can formulate a good definition on the spot. Then the elenchos might demonstrate that our improvised definition fails to capture how our actual concept helps us distinguish what’s brave from what’s not. The improvised character of the definition would explain why we’d be so willing to reject it under cross-examination. In that case, the elenchos would amount to an attempt to elucidate the concepts we started with. Then we’d have to ask: Does a procedure like this stand a chance of getting us toward the truth? And even if the method investigates only our concepts — and not the truth about the world — how can we even be sure that any of our concepts conforms to a consistent set of criteria? Mightn’t we just discover that our concepts have built-in contradictions?
These questions are all worth asking, even outside the context of a discussion of Socrates. They are questions that we could ask, in some form, about the soundness of many methods of inquiry, including scientific inquiry. There’s no record, however, of Socrates’ ever asking them. His questions were about how to live. Socrates had a strikingly simple method of cross-examination for pursuing these questions, but he didn’t submit his own method to cross-examination.
Whatever Socrates revealed about how to live, he inadvertently showed us a few things about how we think. For one thing, even if our beliefs form some kind of connected whole, most of them never come into “direct contact” with each other, if only because we never consider more than a few ideas at a time. For another, critical thinking demands that we consider previously unconnected thoughts in relation to one another. Once our ideas have entered mutual relations, they can take on new roles, as when they become premises in an argument. If the conclusion of an argument contradicts another belief we’re examining, we’ll be motivated to revise some of the beliefs we started with. Or at least we’ll be thrown into doubt. In sum, the elenctic method shows how our ideas are full of potentials that only get expressed when the ideas interact — and how, once they do interact, the driving force for change is contradiction. Socrates’ ways of dialogue thus reveal, and mesh with, crucial features of the dialectic of thought.
 On the differences between the views of Socrates and the views that Plato developed on his own, see “Socrates contra Socrates in Plato” and “The evidence of Aristotle and Xenophon” in Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Cornell University Press, 1991).
 For a fuller discussion of Socrates’ views on this matter, see Terence Irwin, Plato’s Moral Theory: The Early and Middle Dialogues (Oxford University Press, USA, 1979), 77–86.
 Gregory Vlastos, “The Socratic elenchus: method is all,” in Socratic Studies, Myles Burnyeat, ed. (Cambridge University Press: 1994), 10. Emphasis in original.
 Translation based on Joe Sachs, Socrates and The Sophists: Plato’s Protagoras, Euthydemus, Hippias Major and Cratylus, 1st ed. (Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Co., 2010) 61–62. For clarity, I’ve inserted a dash before “for us.”