First Semester 2005- 2006
|Course co-ordinator and Lecturer:||Imogen Smith|
The course concerns the philosophy of Socrates (c 470-399 BC), and of the 'early' and 'middle' periods of the philosophy of Plato (430-347 BC), which it treats in an introductory fashion. The focus will be on historical issues concerning the trial and death of Socrates, his personality and philosophical views, and the transitions in Plato's thought away from certain Socratic claims and conceptions and toward metaphysics and the doctrine of Forms. While the course focuses on the three Platonic works Apology, Meno and Phaedo, excerpts from other dialogues will be also discussed by way of contextualising and enlarging upon the issues raised.
The main aims of the course are
By the end of the course, students should be able to
There will be a fifty-minute lecture each week. Students with questions about the lectures are encouraged to raise them at the lecturer's office hours (see 'contact' below).
PHIL 10007 carries 10 credits. In order to obtain credits, students must submit an essay of suitable quality by Tuesday 24th January 2006.
Summative assessment is by essay only. Students who wish to discuss drafts of their essays are encouraged to attend the lecturer's office hours (see 'contact' below) or make an appointment. All students should read the section in the Undergraduate Handbook giving advice on writing a philosophy essay. The full and definitive statement of criteria for award of credit and assessment are contained in the department's undergraduate student handbook.
I can be contacted by e-mail (Imogen.Smith@bristol.ac.uk).
Write an essay of between 2000 and 4000 words on one of the following topics. The essay is due in the office of the Philosophy Department (on the first floor) by 4 p.m on Tuesday 24 January 2006. Essays will be returned with comments, but there will be no essay handback tutorials.
The required texts are Plato, Apology, Meno, Phaedo. These are all available in a single paperpback, Plato: Five dialogues (Hackett), translated by G M A Grube.
In addition, students might want to consult some of the works listed in the bibliographies included in the following extract from the entry on ancient philosophy in the Department’s Study Guide. Those works of most relevance to the unit are in the Library’s Short Loan Collection. Works marked * are recommended as introductions to their subjects.
Socrates is a pivotal figure in Greek philosophy. His predecessors were mostly concerned with investigating nature; their fundamental question was 'What is the world really like?' Socrates has no interest in this question (although Plato in the Phaedo depicts him as having dabbled in the study of nature in his youth). Instead, he directed his attention to a single question: How should one live? Since the best life must be led by the person who has the best qualities or virtues, this led Socrates to seek, in collaboration with his interlocutors, accounts or definitions of the virtues. He believed that this was the supremely important quest because if you know what a virtue (courage, for example) is, then you know how it requires you to act in any situation. But if you really know that, then you'll naturally act in that way in any situation. Why would anyone choose a worse action if he knows that a better option is available? Thus knowing what a virtue is guarantees acting in accordance with it. This line of thought led Socrates to some of his most odd-sounding claims: that no-one does wrong willingly, that weakness of the will is impossible, that it is impossible to have any single virtue without having all of them, and that the whole of virtue is, or is equivalent to, wisdom or knowledge. (There is some dispute about whether Socrates held all of these views in propria persona.)
A second thing that made Socrates' philosophy different was the way in which his method of philosophising was bound up with his eccentric and impressive personality. Since he never wrote anything, we are entirely dependent on others' accounts of what he was like. By far the most important testimony is that of his disciple Plato, who wrote about thirty dialogues which nearly all feature Socrates as the chief speaker. But the issue of Plato's reliability as a portraitist of Socrates is complicated. The general consensus among scholars is that only in his early dialogues does his representation of Socrates (the Platonic Socrates) approximate (making numerous allowances for artistic licence) Socrates the real person (the historical Socrates). In later dialogues the two diverge widely. The historical Socrates (as portrayed in Plato's early dialogues) seems to have been an inveterate questioner, who claimed not to know the answers to any of the philosophical questions he put to others, was interested only in ethical questions and never put forward any metaphysical system. The Platonic Socrates (as portrayed in Plato's middle and, with some qualifications, late dialogues) much prefers propounding theses to asking questions, purports to have a great deal of philosophical knowledge, sees ethical issues as inextricably bound up with metaphysical ones and puts forward the metaphysical system par excellence, the 'theory of Forms' (see below). This list of differences derives from Aristotle, and since it is strikingly borne out by the dialogues it counts as good evidence of the relative historical accuracy of the early dialogues. Naturally scholars squabble interminably about the degree to which the various guises of the Platonic Socrates are likely to coincide with the historical Socrates; one scholar recently referred to this area of endeavour as 'a paradise of inconclusive guesswork.' For the purposes of this Guide I will assume the consensus view, which is pretty close to the truth. Socrates in Plato's early dialogues is far too bizarre a character to have been simply made up.
Socrates was tried on charges of religious heresy and corrupting the youth of Athens in 399 BC. Plato's Apology appears to represent Socrates' speech at his trial. Many of its details are confirmed in the Apology of Xenophon, a contemporary of Plato's on the fringes of Socrates' circle (but was not present at his trial). Unimpressed, a majority of the jurors voted to have him put to death, and after a couple of weeks in jail he was executed by being made to drink poison.
Elenchos means (in some contexts) 'cross-examination' or (in others) 'refutation.' The term is rarely used by Socrates but has come to be used by scholars as a name for Socrates's interrogative method. The standard procedure for the early dialogues is something like this (although it may be that no single dialogue contains every element): The interlocutor (N) makes a claim that refers to a virtue. Socrates asks if N really knows what the virtue is and suggests that he and N should together try to work out a definition. N first proposes a list of examples which Socrates immediately rejects as not having even the form of a definition. N then puts forward an attempted defintion. Socrates gets N to agree to a number of seemingly unexceptionable further propositions, which are then shown collectively to refute the proposed definition. This manouevre is repeated several times before the dialogue ends with Socrates and N both admitting that they do not know the definiton of the virtue after all.
In the Apology, Socrates claimed that he went around discussing virtue with people because the 'the god' (Apollo') had commanded him to do so. He also claimed, on similarly divine authority, that no-one was (humanly) wiser than himself, since he had attained the maximum of human wisdom, which was the avoidance of mistakenly believing that one knows what one does not. And human beings, he thought, could not know anything 'valuable or important' or 'fine and good,' this knowledge being reserved for the god; presumably such knowledge would at least include knowledge of the definitions of virtues. But since these definitions, as well as other 'fine and good' matters, were the exclusive focus of his elenctic activity, Socrates seems to think that he has been commanded by the god to try perpetually to do something which (that same god assured him) it was impossible for him to do. This Sisyphean aspect of Socrates's divine mission is perhaps the least well understood: Socrates clearly thought that his mission had value even independently of its divine inspiration; yet he claimed to know that it was doomed to failure.
Socratic 'paradoxes' which have received far more attention in the scholarly literature arise from his apparent claims to moral knowledge (in spite of his professions of ignorance in the Apology and elsewhere); his apparent disbelief in weakness of the will in the Protagoras; his related claims that knowledge suffices for virtue and that the virtues form a 'unity' - these and other interpretative cruces are well catalogued in Santas and in Vlastos's Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher.
There are in some Socratic dialogues intimations of what many scholars now think of as properly Platonic doctrine. There is an emphasis (in the Euthyphro for example) on the unitary and immanent nature of the Socratic definienda of which the 'Theory of Forms' (see below) might be seen as a natural development ? although this does not preclued the emphasis's being genuinely Socratic. And the conception in the Gorgias of psychic virtue and wellbeing as a kind of 'order' or 'harmony' among the soul's parts is a clear pre-echo of one of the main themes of the Republic.
New editions have been published very recently of Plato's complete works both in Greek (in the Oxford Classical Texts Series) and in English translation (published by Hackett). They will be standard for many decades to come. Of Plato's early dialogues, see in particular the Apology, the Crito, the Euthyphro, the Laches, the Charmides, the Protagoras, the Gorgias and the Euthydemus. On Socrates' death see the Phaedo
The most distinctive feature of Plato's 'middle' dialogues, in which the character of Socrates begins to theorise in a less inhibited way and to speculate about metaphysics as well as about ethics, is their advocacy of the 'Theory of Forms.' This is Plato's most distinctive and influential doctrine, and to this day to call a philosopher a 'platonist' is to attribute to them some analogue of this 'theory.' It is first and foremost a doctrine which purports to solve 'the problem of universals.' This central problem of metaphysics concerns the status of concepts or properties (such as horse or equinity in general) as opposed to individual things (such as particular horses). These universals are not, by definition, particular things in the world around us, and yet rational thought seems impossible without reference to them. What, then, are they? Plato's answer is, to say the least, bold: they are ideal items ('Forms') which populate a realm independent of space and time accessible to the intellect alone, without the help of the senses. The world around us, by contrast, is a world of shadows by comparison with the realm of the Forms and depends on that realm for its lower grade of existence.
It is perhaps misleading to refer to the doctrine as a 'theory' since it is not clear that Plato has arguments for it beyond its admittedly impressive versatility and efficiency in solving, or fruitfully recasting, philosophical problems. Socrates often talks as though acceptance of the doctrine were a sign of moral and intellectual integrity, rather than purely intellectual discernment. The two main origins of the doctrine seem to be these: (a) Socrates' conviction in the earlier dialogues that adequate answers to his questions of definition must pick out some quality (typically a virtue) which is distinct from any instances of that quality in the world around us, yet which those instances somehow share; and (b) the influence on Plato of the distinctive doctrines of Parmenides, who held that an object of knowledge must be unchanging (and so the world, being knowable, must be unchanging), and of Heraclitus, who held that the cosmos was in constant flux (and consequently unknowable). Plato is Heraclitean about things in the world around us, which he takes to be always changing and objects of belief rather than knowledge, but Parmenidean about the Forms, which he takes to be permanent and immutable, and the proper objects of knowledge. The strong influence on Plato of a third major presocratic, Pythagoras, is evident in a corollary of the doctrine of Forms, the doctrine of anamnesis or recollection, according to which (as the doctrine is expressed in the Phaedo) all knowledge acquired during our terrestrial lives is or involves remembering cognitive contact with the Forms which took place prior to our birth when our disembodied souls had access to their realm.
In the middle dialogues the doctrine of Forms is far more likely to show up in the premises of an argument than in its conclusion. It plays key roles in at least two of the arguments for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo, in nearly all the important arguments of the Republic, in the cosmology of the Timaeus, in the conception of erotic love elaborated in the Symposiusm and the memorable eschatology of the Phaedrus.
The Republic is justly the most celebrated and influential of Plato's dialogues. It is the second-longest after the Laws (see below) and although its ostensible topic is the just city-state, its overarching argument of great philosophical power and sophistication interweaves metaphysical, psychological, epistemological, ethical and aesthetic theories. But defences of right conduct in the individual, and of a peculiar and highly authoritarian form of political regime, deserve to be called its main themes. Only philosophers are fit to rule the fully just city, according to Socrates, because only they have the requisite knowledge: knowledge of the Forms. Socrates explains the philosophic life and the doctrine of Forms by means of an intense series of allegories, according to which the Form of the Good is the source of the reality of all the other Forms (and so, indirectly, of the things around us as well), but is itself 'beyond being in dignity and power.' (This strange passage was a source of the highest inspiration among later neoplatonic thinkers, especially Plotinus; see below.) Justice is importantly similar in a human being's soul and in a city because it is manifested in the same kind of structure or orderly arrangement of parts; this view clearly presupposes that the soul has parts, and in this way the psychology of the Republic is more complex than that of the earlier Phaedo (although, interestingly, it is anticipated in the yet earlier Gorgias). The aesthetic doctrine of the Republic is especially harsh. Plato's conception of the legitimate domain of state regulation was of course utterly unmodern, but especially so when it came to the arts, to which he ascribed a crucial role in the psychological formation of the citizens. Thus all art that would not tend to instill the right values and dispositions in the citizens would be banned from the ideal city.
Here are a few sites that you may find useful in studying the three Platonic dialogues. Some are specifically about Plato, or even about individual dialogues; others are concerned with the historical context of the Greek world in the 5th- and 4th-centuries BC.
good starting place for Plato-related sites
Excellent sites of interactive maps of the ancient Greek world. (The latter requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)
A potentially fascinating interactive treatment of the dialectic of the Gorgias
Online text (somewhat antiquated translation)
Online Greek text, if anyone's interested
List of web-resources relating to ancient philosophy in general
Homepage of a site dealing with the study of Plato
For electronic journals have a look at:
and for useful philosophy links you should try:
Indexing and abstracts from books and over 400 journals. A major source of information in the area of aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, logic, and metaphysics, and the philosophy of various disciplines e.g. education, history, law, religion and science. Further information and search help are available on the CD-ROM which is available from the Arts and Social Sciences Library or can be searched on the CD-ROM network of databases which is available on PCs in all the branch libraries, in the Philosophy department library (in the basement) and also accessible from the Arts Faculty Graduate Centre, 7 Woodland Road, and the Psychology Department. To access a particular CD-ROM database from one of these PCs click on:
The networked CD-ROM menu should then open and you can double click on the particular database that you wish to use to start it up.
Routledge Encycopaedia of Philosophy On-Line (REP Online):
This is the online version of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Published in June 1998 in print and CD-ROM editions, this was the first multi-volume encyclopedia released in the discipline for over thirty years. Like the print and CD-ROM editions, REP Online features over 2000 original articles from over 1300 leading international experts across the discipline of philosophy. The articles cover an unparalleled breadth of subject matter, including Anglo-American, ethical and political, cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, continental and contemporary philosophy. A summary provides a rapid orientation at the beginning of every in-depth article. Further information and search help are available on the the system. You can search this resource on the at:
Stanford on-line Encyclopaedia of Philosophy at: