Philosophy 101 – Socrates Factfile

Philosophy 101 – Socrates Factfile February 20, 2013

I’ve been thinking. In doing the philpapers inspired Philosophy 101 series (found here and here, so far), touching on the questions asked in the largest ever survey of philosophers, I thought I would give some nice, basic factfiles explaining what some of the key philosophers have brought to the philosophical table. We hear so much about Aristotle, Plato, Hume and Descartes, but who the hell are they and what did they think (in a really short, easy-to-digest manner)?

I thought I would go back and start at the beginning. Though Thales is often thought of as the first philosopher, I am going to start with Socrates. Let me know what you think (as ever!).


Name: Socrates

Location: Athens

Era: 469-399 BCE

Main area of philosophy: Epistemology (what is knowledge and how do we come by it?)

How do we know: Nothing survives of his work. Only know about him through his protege, Plato.


Son of stonemason and midwife, probably followed Dad. Went in the army. Fought a war, did well. Inherited money, retired early to think. Got known around Athens, had a following, got accused of corrupting young minds, sentenced to death by drinking hemlock.

Philosophy stuff:

Socrates is an interesting blokey. He was well-known for asking questions, not necessarily claiming he had a lot of knowledge, but being able to point out that others didn’t by using a dialectical method. This is working things out through discussion, which is kind of what we all do when arguing on the internet, or in person over a pint.

Eg, Socrates might say:

Q Do you think that the gods know everything?

A Yes, they’re gods.

Q Do some gods disagree with others?

A Yes. You know gods, always fighting.

Q So gods disagree about what is right?

A I suppose so.

Q So some gods can sometimes be wrong?

A Er, yeah, I suppose so.

Therefore, sunshine, the gods cannot know everything!

It was with this dialectical method that Socrates became well known for discussing stuff with people. He used this method to examine people and himself. He was famous for believing that “the unexamined life is not worth living”:

1) The only life worth living is the good life

2) I can only live the good life if I know the difference between good and evil

3) these are absolutes, not relative, and can only be discovered from questioning and examining and reasoning

4) Therefore, morality and knowledge are inextricably linked

5) An unquestioning life is one of ignorance without morality

6) An unexamined life is not worth living

A good life, he thought, was achieving peace of mind by doing the right thing, which can only be discovered by examining oneself and others. He saw virtue as the most valued possession – no-one wants to do evil, it makes them feel uncomfortable (we want peace of mind). It all comes down to gaining knowledge. This is a virtuous goal – it is why we exist. The key to this is self-knowledge.

Socrates was interested in love, loyalty, justice, good and evil, amongst other things.

Socrates’ dialectical method which produced knowledge from a starting point of ignorance – merely questioning – was actually the seed for the inductive method, which became the scientific method. In this way, he set the foundation, not only for Western philosophy, but also for the empirical sciences.

Well done, old chap!

Socrates: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”

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  • pboyfloyd

    “… good and evil3) these are absolutes…”

    I would say no, off hand. What do you think?

    • Well, sir, that’s a biggy!

      My moral philosophy changes. I think it is currently something like this:

      There is no objective morality.

      However, there is universal subjective morality. Or at least there would be if we all had maximal knowledge and education, sound minds, and good understanding and use of logic. Given all of this, we would all arrive at the same moral analysis of actions.

      Therefore, I conclude there is (or at least could be, conceptually) UNIVERSAL SUBJECTIVE morality. That means that we could all agree on what was moral and not. Does this qualify as objective? Well, depends what you define objective as. Do these ideas exist, like Platonic forms, ‘out there’? No. In this way, I could see myself as a moral nihilist – that morality does not exist, per se, But conceptually, it does. Every action can successfully have attributed to it a moral dimension.

      It also relies on an axiom. If you want the world to be like this, or, if happiness or pleasure is the goal (most happiness to most number of people), then morality follows on from there.

      AS with most anything in philosophy, there has to be an asserted axiom that you have to just take as given (ie, we are not brains in vats). 

      How does that sound?

  • pboyfloyd

    Hmm. I was more inclined to believe that there is a cultural intersubjective morality kind of ‘at work’ in groups more or less cut off or which deliberately cut themselves off from surrounding population or other groups.

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