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Reviewed by:
  • Socrates and Philosophy in the Dialogues of Plato
  • Hugh H. Benson
Sandra Peterson . Socrates and Philosophy in the Dialogues of Plato. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi + 293. Cloth, $90.00.

Peterson's book is a provocative contribution to Socratic and Platonic studies. She takes up a long-standing problem—how to reconcile the Socrates of the elenctic dialogues, who appears to be primarily a searcher and examiner, with the Socrates of the classical Platonic dialogues, who appears to be purveyor of philosophical theories. And she offers an intriguing response: the Socrates of the elenctic dialogues remains throughout the Platonic dialogues. The alleged purveyor of theory is in reality only engaging in what she calls "extraction by declaration" (59). Socrates is attempting to get the interlocutor to reveal his own views to be examined later. Peterson thereby joins the ranks of recent neo-Unitarian interpreters of the Platonic dialogues. But rather than finding the doctrinal Plato in the elenctic dialogues, Peterson finds the searching, examining, tentative, and ignorant Socrates throughout the dialogues.

Peterson's argument proceeds along two tracks. One track (chapters 2-6) seeks to confirm her hypothesis that in all the Platonic dialogues Socrates is examining his interlocutors rather than revealing the views of Plato. The other track (chapters 2 and 7-9) traces various conceptions of philosophy in the dialogues. The two tracks are related. On one level, the apparent doctrinal accounts of philosophy look themselves to be theories about the nature of philosophy that the tentative and examining Socrates of the elenctic dialogues could not have espoused. On a deeper level, Peterson highlights that the nature of philosophy is a consistent theme throughout the dialogues, and that the tentative, searching, examining conception of the Apology is preferred throughout. [End Page 449]

The first track begins by maintaining that Plato depicts Socrates as understanding his practice as consisting in recognizing that divine wisdom is beyond a human's ken, that recognizing one's lack of divine wisdom (i.e. the possession of human wisdom) is required for thoughtfulness, and that thoughtfulness requires that one continually examine oneself and others to avoid unsustainable beliefs. Next, Peterson argues that the account of the philosopher in the digression of the Theaetetus, apparently at odds with the Apology, is in fact Theodorus's conception, which Socrates reveals by extraction in order to examine in the typical Apology way. Similarly, the account of Kallipolis developed in Republic 2-10 is in fact Glaucon's and Adeimantus's conception, as indicated by Socrates's offer of a counter-speech as in a law court, and the account of the philosopher-rulers and the theory of forms in Republic 5-7 is too implausible for the thoughtful Socrates and so should also be attributed to his less thoughtful interlocutors. And finally, the weakness of the arguments for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo as well as the fact that Socrates is assigned a conclusion to defend indicate that the Phaedo is meant to depict Socrates engaging not in a defense of the immortality of the soul but rather revealing by extraction the views of his interlocutors in order to examine them.

The argument of the second track is less easily summarized. Peterson distinguishes Socratic practice from the various depictions of philosophy in dialogues like the Euthydemus, Lovers, and Sophist. Then she contrasts her neo-Unitarian view of Socrates's practice and Plato's conception of philosophy with those of Charles Kahn, Julia Annas, Aristotle, and the later Platonists. And finally, she defends her view of how the examining, searching, and tentative nature of Socratic practice won the appellation of 'philosophy' and how Plato intends to engage his reader in the very same practice he depicts Socrates engaging in throughout his dialogues.

This is not the place to evaluate Peterson's specific arguments, though I should record my disagreement with her on a number of key points. I am, for example, not persuaded by her account of Socratic practice in the Apology, especially insofar as Socrates is understood as renouncing the search for divine wisdom (although here Peterson is perhaps more traditional than I). Nor do I find...


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