The Death of Socrates and the Birth of Socratic Conceptualism

Classified in Philosophy and ethics

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The death of Socrates

has become an iconic event in the consciousness of the West. It is the ultimate expression of the individual putting his moral integrity above his physical wellbeing, and his own conscience before the demands of authority.

According to the account of his defense at his trial, recorded by Plato, Socrates chose death rather than face a life of ignorance:

“The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” For Socrates it was a process of questioning the meaning of essential concepts that we use every day but have never really thought about, thereby revealing their real meaning and our own knowledge or ignorance. This determination is called Socratic conceptualism.

Through a series of questions, he revealed the ideas and assumptions his opponent held, then exposed the contradictions within them and brought them to agree to a new set of conclusions. This dialogic method involved two phases:

  1. Socratic irony:

    deconstructive phase which prepared people to think as it implied the reckoning of respondents own ignorance. The only person who cannot think is the one who thinks she already knows. Socratic irony deconstructed people’s previous understanding using their own words and left them with the experience of being less sure of what they previously knew with greater certainty.

  2. Socratic maieutics:

    constructive phase which implied bringing to birth of new ideas. As his mother did, Socrates assisted in this birth by clearing away ideas that could not stand up to questioning. This allowed the respondent to do their own work in the second phase through her creation of new ideas. Whereas the first phase was primarily the work of the Socratic questioner, this second phase was entirely the work of the respondent, as “knowledge is inside our own souls”.

This method of examining an argument by rational discussion from a position of ignorance marked a complete change in philosophical thinking. It was the first known use of inductive argument, in which a set of premises based on experience is first established to be true, and then shown to lead to a universal truth in conclusion. This powerful form of argument was developed by Aristotle, and later by Francis Bacon, who used it as the starting point of his scientific method. It became, therefore, the foundation not only of Western philosophy, but of all empirical sciences.

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