The art of enquiry (and self-examination) in Plato


Most people do not like ‘difficult words’, such as metaphysics, ontology, axiology, propaedeutics, and try to stay away from such things as philosophy, ethics and other disciplines… even from speaking about religion. These are considered to be either too hard, unnecessary or uninspiring. Plato, Aristotle, Kant… God forbid!

In the last entry the term ‘elenchos’ appeared, and today ‘dialectic’ shows its countenance. Well, dialectic is nothing else than enquiry, examination – on or about Truth, Being, or any particular ‘truth’ or belief – looking at them from several angles. Self-examination obviously belongs here. ‘Elenchos’ simply means cross-examination, and is the method that Socrates used with any of the citizens, walkers by, that were willing to engage him on any important topic (such as virtue, morality, democracy, justice) in the squares and streets of Athens. That was his method, and he himself called his art maieutic (evocative), that is, the “art of midwifery”. Below is a short selection from one of the best books on Plato ever written and that really is a hidden treasure – now being republished after many years. Its author was a Protestant minister called Robert E. Cushman, and the title, THERAPEIA – Plato’s Conception of Philosophy.

Elenchos is, primarily, if not exclusively, the instrument of metaphysics. In this sphere issues may be isolated which lead, or may lead, to “agreements” which are neither forced nor enforceable. Hence, in metaphysics, a judgment is worth nothing if it is not one’s own. If it is, it is a conviction and a commitment. It is, even more profoundly, an agreement of the mind with itself and with ideal Being.
Philosophy, whose best helper is dialectic, is not in Plato’s view – and contrary to Aristotle’s occasional indication – simply knowledge of the truth. On the contrary, for Plato philosophy is a way and a life, a way to a moment of existence in which there is direct confrontation with reality. Correspondingly, Plato’s conception of Wisdom is governed by his conviction that truth relating to ultimate reality resists propositional status and cannot be corralled and contained. Truth about reality is subordinated to truth as reality. Where man’s relation to ultimate Being is involved, truth and reality are inseparable, for reality is embraced in immediate apprehension. Manifestly, then, truth as reality is not something admissible of transference by some men to others.
Accordingly, the function of philosophy is that of rightly disposing men toward truth (p. XVIII).

About amartingarcia

General surgeon (retired). Studied Western philosophy at U of Toronto. Afterwards interest turned to advaita vedanta and non-duality for past 20 yrs, plus a long interlude in Sufism coinciding with that period. Now contributing in ’Advaita Vision’ with regular posts and discussions.
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4 Responses to The art of enquiry (and self-examination) in Plato

  1. Pingback: 2500 Years of Great Storytelling « The Great Dorset Vegetable Experiment

  2. Jailbreak says:

    Greetings from across the sea! This is just what I was searching for, and you wrote it nicely. Thanks

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