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Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy, and: The Philosophy of Socrates (review)
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.1 (2001) 137-139

Gareth B. Matthews. Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. 137. Cloth, $29.95
Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith. The Philosophy of Socrates. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000. Pp. x + 290. Paper $22.00.

Matthews' little book tracks the course of Socrates' perplexity, which, Matthews contends, starts out as an obstacle to successful inquiry, but becomes, eventually, itself the target of inquiry. Matthews regards as quite genuine the perplexity that Socrates professes in certain of the early dialogues—Laches, Charmides, Euthyphro—largely, however, because Matthews himself finds Socrates' questions so stubbornly persistent. Yet, couldn't Socrates, at least with respect to some of his questions, experience no state of confusion, no perplexity, but, nevertheless, profess perplexity? Perhaps Socrates' confessions of perplexity signal only his awareness that he lacks knowledge of virtue; perhaps they are but rhetorical devices for encouraging Socrates' interlocutors to admit to their own ignorance.

As the book continues, Matthews, following a line fairly standard by now, thinks that, in the "transitional" Meno, Socrates discovers two ways out of the perplexity: recollection, and the method of hypothesis; and that, in the "middle" dialogues—the Republic and Phaedo—the Theory of Forms comes to his rescue. In the Parmenides and, perhaps later, Matthews maintains, the Theory of Forms becomes itself the object of inquiry, as Socrates recognizes the perplexities with which it is fraught. Matthews mentions, but takes no stand on, the controversies surrounding the late dialogues, moving on at last to Aristotle and the different kind of perplexity one encounters there.

For the briefest moment it looks as if Matthews might resist the standard line, when, in discussing the Meno, he notices not only that the geometrical problem of the Meno's slave-boy passage causes no perplexity comparable to that caused by Socrates' philosophical problems, but that Socrates is fully in charge in the geometrical demonstration, stinging another without simultaneously stinging himself. Yet, not only does Matthews fail to pursue his insight that moral or philosophical questions are, for Socrates, not like mathematical ones; on the contrary, he suggests that, in the Phaedo, philosophical problems are viewed by Socrates as mathematical ones.

In The Philosophy of Socrates, Brickhouse and Smith undertake the ambitious task of expounding and defending a coherent and cohesive Socratic philosophy, one that encompasses Socrates' method, his wisdom and ignorance, his understanding of the nature of knowledge, his moral philosophy, psychology, politics, and religion. For a book meant to be a popular introduction, it is remarkably comprehensive—even exhaustive—and serves to acquaint the reader with the current scholarly controversies surrounding Socratic philosophy as it is debated in the analytic tradition associated most frequently with the late and great Gregory Vlastos.

In many respects, The Philosophy of Socrates is but an updated version of Brickhouse and Smith's earlier book, Plato's Socrates (Oxford University Press, 1994)—though without the rich and copious notes. The earlier book is the better one. The new book, although it purports to discuss the philosophy of the historical Socrates, is, from Chapter 2 on, a book about the Socrates of Plato's "early" dialogues. Yet, it is precisely this Socrates who is largely absent from its pages. The Socrates of the early dialogues is a character: both in the sense that he is a protagonist in the dramas that are Plato's dialogues, and in the sense that he is sarcastic, funny, makes bad puns, strikes at his interlocutors where they are most vulnerable, teases, baits, and annoys. But, most importantly, this Socrates is no solitary thinker. He talks to people; and what he says and how he says it is influenced both by his interlocutor and by the context of their conversation. Brickhouse and Smith, however, take such factors into account but rarely—and then only to save their own take on a particular Socratic doctrine.

The two interpretive principles that Brickhouse and Smith invoke most often are the Principle of Textual Fidelity ("No interpretation that is unambiguously contradicted by some relevant text whose meaning is clear can ever be adequate") and the Principle...

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