What Is Socrates’ Question? [abstract]

by metalogike

Some readers deny that Socrates’ elenctic arguments depend upon a signature, formally-identifiable question. Others (justly) insist that the multiplicity of contents and contexts not be too-hastily reduced to formal unity in any account of Socratic questioning. But to the extent that a logically-pivotal Socratic question is allowed, its identification has been a matter of apparently-unbroken unanimity since the rediscovery of Aristotle’s authoritative judgment: Socrates’ question is the ti esti[n] or “What is…..?” question.  Then if I ask, “What is Socrates’ question”, I seem to display the answer in seeking it, and perhaps this ready-made circle has contributed to the real difficulty and apparent superfluity of reopening the question of Socrates’ question. But if we reconsider the evidence of the dialogues, we may discover that the ti esti denotes at best one pole of a dual Socratic question. It is convenient to refer to the other pole, using one of its formulations to stand for all, as the peri tinos or “…about what?” question. I argue that we are compelled by consideration of core cases of elenchos to recognize this second question as also fundamental, in that it is formally irreducible to the ti esti and functionally inseparable from it, and that the pattern and goal of the elenchos become intelligible only in terms of the relation binding the two questions together. From the side of pattern, i.e. from a logical point of view, this relation shows itself to be a duality that conjoins only by negation, compelling each question at once to demand and to block completion by the other. This apparently-unsatisfactory relation renders the elenchos formally nontrivial in ways that the ti esti alone is not, outstripping it  in specificity, expressive capacity, and fruitfulness in consequences. By virtue of this duality, I argue, the elenchos poses a metalogical dilemma, viz., the knowledge that would be helpful to us must and must not include itself in its own scope. Thus, Socratic questioning demands that we take on surprisingly specific and difficult problems of reflection, reflexivity, and self-reference, along with the closely related problem of the definition or undefinability of truth, and places high demands on any philosophical and mathematical methods for the investigation of these problems. From the side of the goal, or ethically speaking, I argue – starting from the concise re-presentation of this pattern of elenchos at the threshold of the Agathology of the Republic – that the puzzles and paradoxes of the idea/form of the Good are none other than those at work in the elenchos, reflectively recognized. Thus, recovery of the dual structure of Socratic questioning is necessary if we are to understand and evaluate what Plato could indicate by he tou agathou idea.