Socrates seems at first simple and direct: through elenchus, one discovers the limits of one’s knowledge, and from there one can begin to grow wise. The Socratic method involves a series of questions that build from a simple and undeniable premise yet which ultimately challenges a previously held position that is as a result abandoned in favor of aporia, or ‘state of helplessness’.

However, further examination reveals certain underlying assumptions which one might challenge today:

1) That the precision of knowledge attainable in practical skills like pottery or carpentry or ship building is in principle possible in moral conduct.
2) That this precise knowledge is to be won by analyzing moral language.

At one point Saunders ventures forth this opinion:


Today we should be inclined to say that, morally, man cannot but live in the dark: he is often unsure, in particular situations, that what he is doing is right. After a certain point, after all moral deliberation, he has personally to commit himself to some course of action, while still unsure that it is morally correct. The real test of his moral character is the size of the moral ‘risk’ he is prepared to take, the personal commitment he feels (rather than knows) he has to make to certain moral standards and actions.

Socrates is of course being portrayed by Plato, who wrote the dialogues. Plato believed that the basic qualities of certain things, like ‘bedness’ of all beds, or ‘catness’ of all cats, existed outside of the particulars in a strange realm of their own. The Platonic ideal of a Cat was therefor real and existent and could be determined. In much the same manner, he believed that virtues like Justice, Piety and Courage were also distinct, real things, and could similarly be defined, that they existed and it was our burden, our labor and responsibility to work at moral language until we could grasp what they really are.

I think that is what Saunders’ is disagreeing with; there is no a priori Justice, distinct and definable to which we can appeal when confronted with a dilemma; the best we can do is to reason and then act, unsure as to whether or not we are doing the right thing.

Can one attain the same precision of knowledge of moral conduct as one can, say, of carpentry? A position that is immune to elenchus, that cannot be assailed, that is built on the bedrock of the Platonic ideals of all virtues? This would seem to be the thrust of all ensuing philosophy, the drive to determine virtue, truth, surety. Perhaps ultimately the point is not whether or not such a goal is attainable, but rather that the true value of this proposition lies in the very quest it engenders.