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The Neoplatonic Answer to Socrates' 'What is X?

Danielle Layne

Infamously, Walter Bröcker entitled one of his lectures on the philosophy of Plotinus Platonismus ohne Sokrates and therein burdened the Neoplatonic tradition with an undeserving characteristic. The actual fact of the matter, however, was that many Neoplatonists, including those who were conspicuously silent with regards to the life and philosophy of the son of Sophroniscus, e.g. Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus, still inherited the methods and goals of Socratic philosophy, including the commitment to dialogic inquiry through question and answer and the search for self-knowledge. It is illegitimate, therefore, to assume that this tradition has lost the Socratic element of Platonic philosophy. Furthermore, in the later Neoplatonic tradition many philosophers began to engage explicitly with the apparently troublingly enigma of Socrates, overtly analyzing his claims to ignorance and seeming use of irony. As a consequence, they often attempted the Herculean task of reconciling the Platonic paradigm of the philosophical life with their highly elaborate metaphysics which, as far as our project is concerned, is interestingly manifest in their attempt to understand the philosopher's infamous search for definitions. For instance, while only mentioning the philosopher once, Syrianus ascribes to the historical Socrates the argument that there is no scientific knowledge of things in flux but rather all knowledge is based off logical proof and dialectic. More strikingly still, Syrianus further credits Socrates with a theory of immanent universals and argues, in tune with the Phaedrus and the Phaedo, that Socrates did not confine universals to mere abstract definitions. Syrianus rather contends that the philosopher proposed that there are reasoning-principles in the soul itself and thus Socrates' search for definitions was centered upon this discovery. In order to authenticate this depiction of Socrates, Syrianus concludes that Plato was the most upright and reliable writer with regards to Socrates and, accordingly, Plato would not make a mistake in depicting Socrates' way of life or philosophy. In short, it seems that Syrianus feels comfortable ascribing a traditionally Platonic and Neoplatonic metaphysics to the historical Socrates. Following Syrianus' lead, Proclus also argues that Plato's Socrates is the most reliable depiction of the philosopher and he consequently offers throughout his work various defenses of Socrates' commitment to the theory of the Ideas. For Proclus, Socrates' leads his interlocutors to the Ideas insofar as he moves from common characteristics in the many to the primary causes that are prior to the many while further clarifying that Socrates' search for definitions lead him to the objects and ideal causes of definition. Ultimately, the Neoplatonist argues that Socrates' search for definitions and his famous "What is X?" question are geared toward the discovery of the common and universal characteristic of particulars and so Socrates' infamous question was a divinely inspired investigation, i.e. a metaphysical inquiry, into the reasoning-principles in the soul which all share and thus Socrates truly heeded the Delphic injunction as this investigation constituted the premier enactment of self-knowledge. In the end, Proclus fully dismisses Aristotle's account of Socrates' charge as a mere search for definitions and concludes, contrary to contemporary depictions of Socrates as ignorant of metaphysical issues, that his activity reached far beyond ethical questions but ascended to the very heights of Neoplatonic metaphysics. The following essay purports to examine this highly intriguing interpretation of Socrates' search for definitions, comparing it to contemporary interpretations and the Platonic dialogues themselves in the hopes of showing that Neoplatonic analyses bear fruit for those interested in questions related to the Socratic method and its metaphysical import.

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What is Neoplatonism? Purpose and Structure of a Philosophical Movement to New Directions in Neoplatonism

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