This dissertation treats Socrates’ argumentative strategies in Plato’s Protagoras, Gorgias, and Meno. These strategies will be compared to those found in Aristotle’s logical works, especially his Analytics, Topics, and Sophistical Refutations. In these texts, Aristotle describes the competitive debates popular among certain Greek intellectuals. These bouts featured a questioner who offered various propositions to an answerer. The questioner tried to force the answerer into a contradiction based on affirmed propositions, and the answerer tried to evade contradiction by caution in making affirmations. Few scholars have argued that Plato’s dialogues are representatives of these verbal jousts, but such a claim resolves traditional difficulties, such as (1) what Socrates’ method was (if he had one), or (2) why he made ‘bad’ arguments, or (3) what he hoped to achieve by refuting an opponent.
By using the criteria provided in Aristotle’s logical works, we can offer new answers to these traditional questions. (1) Aristotle would identify the method of any competive debater, Socrates included, as the crafting of premises plausible enough to be accepted by an opponent, which lead the opponent to a patent contradiction. (2) If Socrates makes bad or even fallacious arguments, it is only because he thinks that the premises are sufficiently plausible to be accepted by his opponent. (3) Socrates’ goal within the game of question-and-answer is victory, but Socrates has the broader goal of exposing the ignorance of self-proclaimed experts like Protagoras, Polus, and Meno. The refutations of these experts are an invitation for them to abandon their pretensions, which Socrates sees as roadblocks to philosophical inquiry.
The introduction of the dissertation outlines my synthesis of Aristotle’s dialectical theory, which sets the interpretative framework for the rest of the dissertation. In Chapter One, I use this hermeneutic to read the Protagoras. I argue that Socrates’ conversation with Hippocrates is a successful example of what Aristotle would call examinational (peirastic) dialectic, and that his conversation with Protagoras is a failed example. Chapter Two treats Socrates’ controversial refutation of Polus. Socrates fights the young eristic with eristical arguments of his own—a move countenanced in Aristotle’s Topics. The last chapter treats the Meno. I argue, against one common opinion, that anamnesis and the hypothetical method do not make the dialogue “transitional”, and do not make Socrates more confident in the truth of his conclusions. Rather, the dialogue shares argumention similar to that observed in the previous two chapters.