Ancient Philosophers: The Doctrine of Socrates, Concepts

Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World


by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

IV. The Doctrine of Socrates, Concepts

The doctrine of Socrates can be summed up in two words: concepts, morality — or better, moral concepts.

For Socrates, the concept is that of which all think when they speak of a thing. In the rational part of every man there exist some notions which are common to all and hence enjoy universality and necessity, and which form the substratum of true understanding or knowledge. The concept of which the Sophists speak is merely an opinion, a fleeting instant of knowledge. Socrates does not undervalue such knowledge, but neither does he consider it to be full; for knowledge should be well enough established to serve as the foundation of science. True science is universal; that is, it is common to all men and to all times; it is objective, and is not subject to the changes of fortune. True science consists in understanding through concepts, which have the same universal characteristics as science itself.

To arrive at an understanding of such concepts, Socrates used the inductive method of dialogue (Socratic method), the principal parts of which were two: irony and maieutics. In general the process was as follows:


Socrates first posed a question — for example, “What is justice?” Since he had said that he did not himself know what it could be (Socratic ignorance), he asked his pupils what they thought was justice.

The pupils, for the greater part Sophists, answered according to the Sophistic method, adducing many examples; e.g., “Zeus is just”; “the gods are just,” etc. (Exemplification.) “Oh, how many justices!” answered Socrates. “I asked what is justice, and you answer by bringing me a great number of justices.”

Thus he passed over to a criticism (irony) of the examples adduced, through which he cleared the disciples’ minds of prejudices and false notions about the question proposed.

From irony he passed to maieutics — the art which Socrates said he had learned from his mother; she helped the parts of the body, he aided those of the spirit. (The word is derived from the Greek “maieutikos,” pertaining to midwifery. The maieutic method was Socrates’ way of bringing out ideas latent in the mind.) Maieutics was the conclusive part of the dialogue, in which Socrates tried to make his disciples see how, by reflecting upon themselves, they could observe the presence of certain elements common and necessary to all justices (the concept of justice).

Such elements took concrete form in the definition, which summed up in a few words the characteristics that were judged necessary to the concept of the question proposed.

It is needless to say that the Socratic dialogues did not always succeed in stabilizing the definition. In such cases, the so-called Socratic ignorance which Socrates professed at the beginning of the question was not fictitious. Thus the dialogue was a work of self-criticism, done with the help of the students for the purpose, if possible, of arriving at a concept — a true understanding of the question proposed

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work. “Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World” was designed and organized by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in © 2011 -2013 The Radical Academy (a project of Self-Educated American).

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