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Socratic Ignorance in Plato's Early Dialogues.

Socratic Ignorance in Plato's Early Dialogues.

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Rachael Scally. Originally submitted for Philosophy at None, with lecturer Professor Politis in the category of Philosophical Studies & Theology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Rachael Scally. Originally submitted for Philosophy at None, with lecturer Professor Politis in the category of Philosophical Studies & Theology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
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: Socratic Ignorance in Plato’s Early Dialogues.
: This essay proposes an answer to the problem of Socratic ignorance inPlato’s early dialogues. Namely, how can Socrates’ position be both coherent andsincere when in one breath he professes ignorance and yet, in the next, avowsknowledge or confidently states opinions? The essay begins by addressing thequestion of Socrates’ sincerity and proceeds to examine the various ways in whichcritics have attempted to resolve this dilemma. It is argued that Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge is indeed sincere. In professing ignorance Socrates is not denying that he possesses human wisdom, which resides in the recognition that one fails to know.Rather, Socrates is disavowing the knowledge that is possessed by the gods, which isknowledge of the most valuable kind, namely divine knowledge of virtue. It iscontended that the apparent incoherence caused by Socrates’ overt knowledge claimscan be dismissed if we recognize, as Wolfsdorf argues, that these rare declarations arenecessary literary devices which express neither the true beliefs of Plato or Socrates, but rather the conventional views of the day. Yet, this solution does little to explainthose more frequent passages throughout the early dialogues wherein Socratesconfidently expresses beliefs or self-assuredly states opinions. It is argued that thecharge of incoherence produced by such passages can be dispelled if one recognizesthat Socrates is engaged in an
produced by a whether-or-not question withseemingly good reasons on either side, reasons whose strength cannot be assesseduntil after the answer to the appropriate
ti esti
question has been determined. Theessay concludes with an examination of the nature and scope of Socratic scepticism inthe early Platonic dialogues.
: Socratic ignorance,
, knowledge, scepticism, virtue.In this essay we will critically discuss the role of Socratic ignorance in Plato’s earlydialogues. Firstly, we will examine the issue of its sincerity and proceed to explore thechallenge posed to Socrates’ position by his explicit professions of knowledge. Weshall then investigate the nature of those more frequent passages wherein Socratesasserts opinions with the upmost conviction and yet also continues to avow hisignorance. We shall discuss the coherence of this stark juxtaposition between Socratic1
dogmatism and ‘zetetic self-depreciation’
(Politis, 2011, p.12)
and its connection to both
and the Socratic quest for knowledge. We will conclude with an assessmentof the nature and extent of Socratic scepticism.Critics have often debated the so-called ‘Paradox of Socratic Ignorance’. Thedilemma is as follows: How can Socrates’ position be both coherent and serious whenin one breath he professes ignorance and yet, in the next, either avows knowledge or self-assuredly states opinions? In an attempt to resolve the paradox some scholars,such as Gulley
,have argued that Socrates is disingenuous in his claim of ignorance.According to Gulley, Socrates’ professions of ignorance are a mere ‘expedient toencourage his interlocutor to seek out the truth, to make him think that he is joiningSocrates in a voyage of discovery’
(Gulley,1968, p.69)
and are evidence only of his‘slyness or irony’
(Gulley,1968, p.63).
Alternatively, there is the claim made byThrasymachus,
, 337a4-7)
that Socrates conceals his knowledge deliberately inorder to bait his interlocutor into forwarding their own beliefs, which he can thendisparage and refute. However, this notion, the idea of ‘Socrates the sly’
(Forster, 2007, p.2)
is unconvincing for numerous reasons.Firstly, Gulley’s argument fails to account for those situations where encouraging people to elenchus is not an option, such as when Socrates professes his ignorance tothe members of the jury in the
( 21b4-5)
. Secondly, if Socrates aim weresimply to shame and refute his interlocutors, then why does Socrates repeatedly insistthat his quest is for knowledge and why does he continue to search for it? Would suchan elaborate hoax really be necessary if ones aim were merely to humiliate onesopponents? Moreover, if Socrates actually does possess the knowledge he claims tolack, he is certainly ‘remarkably good at hiding it’
(Brickhouse and Smith, 1994, p.3
asover half the early dialogues conclude with the participants in a state of 
; thatis
in the traditional sense of confusion or perplexity, and all end in failure toobtain definitional knowledge
. Furthermore, if one were dissembling, would one
I am not referring here to
in the traditional sense of a state of perplexity and puzzlement,which commentators typically maintain is the result of a failed search for the answer to a particular 
question, but rather 
, ‘in the sense of what is articulated by a two-sided question with whatappear to one and the same person to be good reasons on both sides’(Politis, 2011, p.8).
, in thesense of ‘lack of passage’ or ‘inability to advance’(Politis, 2011,VI, p.3).
Gulley,1968, pp.63-70.
Brickhouse and Smith, 1994, p.32, Benson, 2000, p.178. However, one may argue that perhaps in thisinstance Socrates dissembles in order to secure his acquittal. Yet, in response, as Benson, 2000, p.179,notes, he certainly could have picked a more convincing story.
Brickhouse and Smith only recognize the traditional type of 
Brickhouse and Smith,1994, p.3.
really maintain this façade even when faced with death? Hence, the most credibleinterpretation of Socrates’ claim of ignorance is that he sincerely believed himself to possess no worthwhile knowledge. We will now turn to examine Socrates infamousdefence in the
In the
Socrates endeavours to explain the cause of his bad reputationwhich has culminated in his trial. He reasons that it has arisen due to the fact that heappears to possess a particular kind of wisdom, which he defines as ‘humanwisdom’
Socrates informs the jurors that his friend Charephon once went to theoracle at Delphi and inquired if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The oracle pronounced that there was no one wiser. However, Socrates was baffled by theoracles answer, as he was conscious of being ‘not wise at all’
After puzzlingover the oracles message Socrates embarked upon a quest to determine the truemeaning of the oracle by examining those with a reputation for wisdom. FollowingSocrates’ investigation of politicians
, who he found to know nothing fine or good, poets
, who he considered to be divinely inspired, and artisans
whohe found possessed knowledge of their crafts, Socrates concluded that although thecraftsmen did indeed know ‘many fine things’
, that they were not truly wiser than Socrates for they falsely thought, as did the poets and politicians, that they alsoknew other, ‘most important’ things
Although Socrates lacked the artisan’sknowledge, he also lacked their foolishness as they believed that they knew what theyfailed to know. Hence, Socrates was wiser than anyone as only he understood that hiswisdom was worthless
Therefore, Socrates does acknowledge that he possesses a certain type of wisdom,namely ‘human wisdom’
Yet, this human wisdom is worthless
unlike thewisdom possessed by the gods
In disavowing knowledge Socrates is,therefore, disavowing the knowledge possessed by the gods and not human wisdom,which consists in the recognition that one fails to know. Yet, Socrates does not deny possessing any knowledge, of any kind, but rather having knowledge of ‘anythingworthwhile’
or of what is ‘most important’
What Socrates is denying then,is knowledge of the most valuable kind, namely divine knowledge of virtue
Socrates appears to believe that the virtues form a unity in some way, yet how he understands thisunity has been widely disputed. Some scholars defend what has come to be known as ‘the equivalencethesis’, which maintains that the individual virtues form a unity in the sense that a person who possesses one of the virtues must possess them all. Other scholars, however, argue that Socrates thinksthat the separate virtues form a unity in an altogether stronger way, in that they actually are the samething. This is known as the ‘identity thesis’(Brickhouse and Smith, 1997, p.312).

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