Socrates – part 2: Searching for the essence

Welcome back awesome nerds. This is the second part of my study of Socrates, where I’ll mainly focus on his philosophical ideas. If you want to know more about Socrates’ history and how much of a Chad he was, please go read the first part.

Without further delay, let’s explore the philosophical ideas of this prominent figure. For Socrates the search for knowledge was very important.  He considered knowledge to be the most important thing in life, as he equated knowledge with virtue itself (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1946). His reasoning was that you needed knowledge about something to do it well, and when you do something well, you are doing it virtuously (Adamson, 2014).

Due to this, Socrates held the doctrine that no one does something wrong knowingly (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946). No one will think something is good and then choose not to act in that way. If someone acts wrongly is because they lack knowledge: they fail to see that even though they may have some short-term benefit, in the longer term that action is not good for them. (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010). It follows that, in order to act well, we simply need to have the knowledge of what is good and what is bad, this knowledge being virtue (Kenny, 2010). Following his reasoning, we can understand why Socrates gave such importance to being able to define virtues (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946).

In his search for the definition of virtue, we can see Socrates’s method of philosophy. Firstly, when questioning people, he would try to go from particular cases where virtue could clearly be identified and through these reach more general characteristics that were common between all virtues, but also not present in any other things beyond virtues (Kenny 2010). By doing this, Socrates would be utilising inductive arguments (Kenny, 2010). In case you have forgotten since I mentioned in my first text on philosophy, inductive reasoning is precisely when we devise a theory starting from several particular observations (Bowling, 2014; Sim, 2002).

In other words, Socrates tried to find the essence of virtues, as he argued that unless we have this, we won’t be able to identify the properties that belong to virtues, such as their usefulness, nor will we be able to identify if someone is acting virtuously when taking a certain position in an ethical dilemma (Kenny, 2010). This search for the essence of something has been massively influential, still being used by some philosophers as the framework for true knowledge (Kenny, 2010). However, it has also been contested recently as some recent philosophers argue that certain topics studied by philosophy don’t necessarily have an essence, for example language in its many forms (Kenny, 2010).

We can argue that Socrates’ reasoning is not entirely true, as someone acting in a way that is considered morally better or worse may not be just down to knowledge. There are situations where we may have all the knowledge available within human limitations about the circumstances of that situations, but how to act in a morally correct way may still evade us. A good example of this is the trolley problem and its many versions. However, Socrates is the first philosopher to focus on virtue in such a systematic manner and develop a logical approach to better understanding it.

With the aim of reaching these definitions and increasing his understanding of virtue, Socrates started questioning those considered knowledgeable, as in the same way that an expert carpenter can explain to you in detail how a shoe is made, someone who is knowledgeable and thus virtuous, will be able to tell you in detail the details involved in having virtue, starting by explaining what virtue is (Adamson, 2014). This reasoning lead Socrates to the comparison of virtue with forms of expertise, as those needed in certain crafts such as carpentry or shoemaking, or as in a scientific skill such as geometry (Kenny, 2010). He thought both virtue and skill expertise to be human characteristics that are both acquired as opposed to being innate, both are valued and beneficial to those who possess them, as the more virtuous or skilled we are the better we are likely to do in life (Kenny, 2010).

This particular way of searching for knowledge is known as dialectic and, despite Socrates not being credited with it, he used dialectic so much that it is often referred to as the ‘Socratic method’ (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1946). Interestingly, the dialectic method would then methodologically complete Socrates’ search for knowledge. The dialectic method is mostly useful for questions for which we already have the facts but still haven’t reached a satisfactory answer due to not analysing these well or by an error of logic (Russel, 1946). This is an example of deductive reasoning (Russel, 1946), which, just in case you have also forgotten since (hyperlink), is when we test a theory or definition that we have developed from general principles to see if it survives scrutiny (Bowling, 2014; Sim, 2002). This type of reasoning is not useful when we are trying to answer questions that require us to obtain new facts, such as those often researched in physics or chemistry, but it well suited to answer the type of ethical questions that Socrates was occupied with (Russel, 1946).

Still Socrates continued to be influential, his values and actions influencing not only Plato, but other schools of philosophy. The Stoics would take on the belief that virtue is the supreme good and that our own virtue cannot be touched by external factors (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1946). The Cynics would take on Socrates loathe for material goods, which lead to him walk barefoot and in old clothes all year long factors (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1946).

But now we come to the time for you to reflect. Do you think virtue and knowledge are one and the same?

Would enough knowledge allow us to live the most virtuous of lives?

Do we need to have a complete and un-flawed definition of something to be able to understand it in a pragmatic way?

I hope to see you amazing nerds in the next text,

The Physiolosopher


Adamson, P. 2014. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1. 1st edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Bowling, A. Research Methods in Health – Investigating health in health services. 2014, fourth edition. Open University Press. Berkshire, England

Kenny, A. 2010. A New History of Western Philosophy: In Four Parts. Reprint Edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Russel, B. 1946. History of Western Philosophy. Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group: New York.

Sim, J., Wright, C . 2002. Research in Healthcare – Concepts, Designs and Methods. Second edition. Nelson Thornes Ltd. Cheltenham, United Kingdom

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