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Aristotelian Refutations in the Protagoras and Gorgias

Dale Parker


Plato’s readers cannot describe his method of argumentation with much consistency. Vlastos asserted that the “Socratic elenchus is a search for moral truth by adversary argument”, with certain other conditions (1991: 39 and 44ff). Benson called it an examination of “doxastic coherence.” (2011: 198). Vogt (2012) has suggested that Socrates exposes the blameworthy ignorance of interlocutors so as to induce investigation in place of knowledge claims. In response to the lack of consensus, Brickhouse and Smith claimed Socrates had no methodology (1994: 5).

This paper argues that in the “early” dialogues, Plato (1) had not a single, but many different argumentative methods, (2) which were tailored to the interlocutor, (3) and which anticipated Aristotle’s classification of dialogue-types (τῶν ἐν τῷ διαλέγεσθαι λόγων) in the Sophistic Elenchi. These are the didactic (διδασκαλικός), dialectic (διαλεκτικός), peirastic (πειραστικός), and eristic (ἐριστικός). (SE.165a38-165b8). I focus on the latter two, as they are less straightforward, closely reading two passages in which (to his commentators) Socrates’ mode of argument seems troubling. Reading these alongside Aristotle alleviates their difficult. For the peirastic, I have selected the scene in which Socrates confronts Hippocrates’ desire to see Protagoras (Prot.311c-314c); for the eristic, the scene in which Socrates argues that it is better to suffer than commit injustice (Gorg.474c-475c).

Hippocrates informs Socrates that he wishes to study under Protagoras. Socrates decides to “put Hippocrates to the test” (ἀποπειρώμενος 311a8), anticipating what Aristotle would later call the peirastic. This aims at those who “pretend to have knowledge… and argues from their own opinions (ἐκ τῶν δοκούντων).” (SE.165b4-6). The peirastic “does not refute with respect to the object and shows that people are ignorant.” (SE.169b24-25). Hippocrates has apparent knowledge of Protagoras’ wisdom and pedagogy, and the thought of it puts Hippocrates into an overexcited emotional state (τὴν πτοίησιν Prot.310d2). Socrates argues from Hippocrates’ knowledge and emotion, countering the latter with corrective shame (312a5-6), and testing the content of the former, for which Hippocrates fails to provide an adequate account (312b2-e3). This exercise, especially the test of Hippocrates’ emotions, was not a dialectical abuse (pace Beversluis 2000: 245-256). Socrates only wants to expose Hippocrates’ inadequate knowledge claims based on what seems to be the case to him (ἐκ τῶν δοκούντων).

Scholars have long been troubled by the invalid refutation of Polus in Gorg.474c-475c (see Irwin 1979: 157-159 for discussion). As Kahn describes the episode, we “somehow feel that Polus has been outwitted rather than substantially refuted.” (1983: 93). But Socrates is not trying to win by any means necessary: we are supposed to detect the fallacy. Socrates is pulling a sophism against an aspiring sophist. The whole episode is an example of the eristic, in which “[t]he argument seems to be brought to a conclusion when it is not really so.” (Top.162b3-5) (pace Vlastos 1983: 39, who denies that Socrates engages in the eristic). Aristotle gives a clue as to why Socrates would indulge in sophistics here: “[W]e ought sometimes deliberately to argue plausibly (ἐνδόξως) rather than truthfully… [W]hen we have to fight against contentious arguers, we ought to regard them not as trying to refute us but as merely appearing to do so… they must be corrected so as not to appear to be doing so.” (SE.175a31-36). Socrates “argues plausibly” in the Polus-argument by giving premises that seem like common opinions, but depend on equivocation (ὁμωνυμία see SE.165b30-166a6). We can account for Socrates' behavior here if we read it alongside the Stranger’s account of the eristic/sophistic technai at the beginning of the Sophist. The Stranger defines these arts with echoes in both thought and expression from the Polus refutation. This would furnish a ready model for the Aristotelian eristic.

I conclude by connecting the paper with previous scholarship that has read Plato alongside Aristotle’s dialectics (esp. Nehamas 1990, Frede 1992, Blank 1993, Ostenfeld 1996, and Rapp 2003), and by suggesting using word data for further developments in this area.

Session/Panel Title:

Argumentation in Plato

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