A Metaphilosophical Outline of The Main Concepts of Socrates' Philosophy

[This paper was originally delivered at the conference “Sokrates i jego obecność w filozofii” in Poznań (9-12 / 10 / 2001).; transl. Marcin Mizak]


The present paper is an attempt to use a metaphilosophical option in historic-philosophical domain of research. A metaphilosopher perceives the philosophy of a given thinker in a rather unilateral way. This is because he treats it as a consequence of an adopted concept of philosophy: the choice of a way of understanding philosophy is here the furthest and the most profoundly reaching choice in the domain of philosophy. Any other philosophical decisions issue from an adopted in this way perspective. A mathematician does not need to ponder over the notion of mathematics, for, in order to do this domain of knowledge it is sufficient for him to be aware of the existing mathematical problems. This is also true for other exact sciences. In philosophy however it is different, as everything is dependent upon the accepted concept of philosophy and upon the conception of doing philosophy, which is built upon the accepted concept. Eventually, it is on the adopted in this way base that anything is or is not a philosophical problem to a given philosopher.

Two research perspectives delimit the fundamental background for metaphilosophical studies. The first may be named a vertical perspective. Analyses conducted within its frames allow us to define the metatheoretical character of the studied conception of philosophy. Practically, it resolves itself to answering the following question: which of the known cognitive levels forms a point of departure in a studied conception? There are three possible levels to choose from: a) the level of objective thought (a theory of being performs the role of “first philosophy”); b) the epistemological level (a theory of knowledge proceeds the theory of being); c) the metaphilosophical level (a theory of philosophy conditions the adoption of the theory of knowledge and so on). Taking this vertical perspective into consideration, it needs to be said that Socrates consistently located himself on the first level of philosophical cognition and in this respect he did not differ from other ancient philosophers. To be more exact, it needs to be added “in principle”: in principle, Socrates did not differ from other philosophers of antiquity, but, because of the depth and power of the consistency with which he created his own philosophy, he distinguished himself. This is due to his breaking with those elements which accompanied the philosophical theory, which, in the distant future, were to lead to the emergence of an epistemological way of doing philosophy.

The second perspective is delimited by a horizontal vector. The studies in this domain focus on the issue of mutual correlations functioning in the following relations: object-subject-method. Taking it into account, it must be said that Socrates introduced to philosophy an extremely important thing: he created a completely new conception of doing philosophy. To the already existing conceptions of philosophy, that is to say, the archaic conception of philosophy, which derives from the Ionian philosophy of nature and proposed by Sophists humanistic conception, Socrates added a conception which transcended the frames of the existing styles of philosophying. It is worthy of attention to note here that his personal spiritual development contained a dynamics of the existing at that time transformations. Three periods can be isolated in this development: a) the period of doing philosophy within the frames of archaic conception of philosophy; b) the period of the influence of the humanistic conception of philosophy and c) the period of his own philosophying within the frames of the created axiological conception of philosophy. It can be said then that Socrates learned to his cost about the advantages and disadvantages of the ways of philosophying which existed at that time. He then found his own way.

The acceptance of a metaphilosophical research option may generate certain controversies on the ground of historical studies. A historian of philosophy may be struck by for example the fact that on numerous occasions the metaphilosopher goes against the grain of the known historical facts in the process of his research. Moreover, he rejects what is well grounded in the sphere of documentation, but which does not fit the frame of the accepted conception of philosophy. The conception, which, more or less consciously, is adopted by the studied philosopher. A metaphilosopher perceives philosophy of a studied person as a process of creative discovery of an independent understanding of philosophy. This is a process which, on the one hand contains places full of useless information (sometimes misleading) and on the other, a process which has an empty space which requires a complementary surmise. A metaphilosopher is not interested in a unique expression of a given philosophical proposal. Therefore he tries to leave out everything that has an individual and repeatable character. A metaphilosopher interprets studied philosophy through metaphilosophical models, which made a given proposal more or less compatible with the consistently realised conception of doing philosophy. If, then, there is some historical information missing, the philosopher makes up for this lack by referring to model exemplifications discovered on different occasions or indeed in other cultures. As far as he does it deliberately, employing all the criticism, this should not be dangerous. Personally, I am of the opinion that this sort of effort may aid the work of a historian of philosophy, who found himself in a situation where there is a lack of sources, which is the case with Socrates, and who is also doomed to conjecture. It was no one else but Aristotle who reproached Plato for interpreting the philosophical practice of Socrates within his own philosophical aim, regardless of the historical truth, and who repeated the Plato’s mistake persuading the future generations that it was no one else but Socrates who was the first to introduce those elements of philosophy which are otherwise well known from his own works.

In my paper I focus on outlining the metaphilosophical base of an axiological conception of philosophy. A realisation of such an undertaking is possible since Socrates undertook a direct reflection on the specific character of his philosophying, which makes his philosophy particularly susceptible to metaphilosophical study. It is common knowledge that two events in Socrates’ life made him interested in the nature of his philosophical practice. The first was connected with Chaerephon who, when in Delphi consulted the oracle whether there was anybody wiser than Socrates. Pythia was to reply that such a person did not exist. The second event was the trial that Socrates was put on and at which he faced charges directly related to his way of philosophying. The preparation to the defence was then to be concentrated on the exposition of the correct sense of the practised philosophy. The texts which related the legal proceedings confirm this assumption and this is also the reason why they constitute the basis of pointing the concepts which conditioned the created conception of philosophy at that time.


The central intuition of Socratic way of understanding philosophy is found in his statement, which interprets the sense of the above mentioned oracle: “(...) but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise – we read in Plato’s Apology - and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing”.1

The significance of the above words is visible in every place of Socrates’ philosophy. God does not accept human attempts to rival the power of his wisdom. This is the reason why the people who do not lay claims to having “higher” or “supernatural” wisdom are closer to him. Socrates realised how necessary was the change in the present-day thinking concerning what was divine. The reason was its being founded on a false analogy between god and men, between god’s wisdom and men’s wisdom. In order to achieve it, it was necessary to discard the already existing conception of doing philosophy.


Why did Socrates discard both the archaic conception of philosophy and the humanistic one, despite considerable differences between them? At the foundation of the archaic way of understanding philosophy were two basic assumptions: Firstly, the true, unshaken and complete wisdom is possessed by god. Secondly, the role of men is to endeavour after this wisdom so as to draw nearer to the level of divine intelligence. Philosophising appears to be a massive effort of the realisation of the ways of divine cognition. A philosopher is a friend of god. He is a man who strives to imitate the work of a divine intellect. The perfection of a divine wisdom substantiates the acceptance of an ideal of abstract cognition as well as disinterested cognition, which is an ideal of theoretical understanding. Thus, a philosopher enters the path of knowledge in order that, through the development of scientific research, he could achieve the desired goal, which was achieving a unity with divine reality. Living within the frame of the model of contemplative cognition was to lead to a quasi existential transformation of a philosopher, who, gradually losing typically human traits, in the eyes of his disciples and adherents was becoming somebody who resembled a deity. Eventually, what counted was a way up, a way towards divine reality, a way towards god as identified with arche. This was one-directional way of episteme.

Socrates too believed that god knows everything, that he knows the whole past and future, that he knows the deepest mysteries of the universe and the inmost thoughts of every man.2 Having rested on this conviction, he arrived at a conclusion of a different kind. In the face of the power of divine cognition, human cognitive efforts mean nothing. This is why men should not compare themselves with god through whom the whole world is as it is. Men ought to respect this mystery of divine wisdom. They ought to have awareness of the existence of the impassable distance separating man from god. The real “love of wisdom” must then take this mystery of existence into account, which no human mind is able to penetrate. Men cannot cross the borders given to them by god. In the name of this very belief he rejected the archaic ontologies. On rejecting them, he did not leave emptiness. To say then that Socrates broke with the speculative style of doing philosophy, not pointing to how he replaced these ontologies, will be the first step towards missing his philosophy.

It was not only the philosophers of nature, but also the Sophists who Socrates regarded as “wise beyond human measure”. It is true that the latter did not commit the same error as the philosophers of nature, as they were against their cosmocentric way of “loving wisdom”, but they perceived themselves as those who posses wisdom or indeed may teach wisdom. It was, however, the wisdom of the world of human activities, very practical and concrete as regards the developed skills. According to Sophists, a wise man can manage without a necessity to appeal to gods for their help. Protagoras adopted the standpoint of theological agnosticism, Antiphon said that god did not need anything nor did he receive anything from anybody because he has no needs. Still another Sophist, Thrasymachus, contemporary with Socrates, asserted that gods did not care about human affairs. So Sophists broke not only with the theory of a resemblance between human and divine wisdom, but also they cut a more profound relationship between man and god. This is after all what makes them deserve the name of those who brought philosophy from the skies to the earth.

Contrary to Sophists, Socrates understood philosophy as a kind of mission assigned to him by god, as god’s service whose aim was to restore the correct proportions in relation “god – men”. This is why – as relates Xenophon – beginning a co-operation with a new person, Socrates first tried to ground in him “the proper understanding about gods”, without which all the skills of philosophical thinking were to be fruitless.3 In order to understand Socrates’ standpoint better it is necessary here to take into consideration the role of a daimonion (daemonion). A daemonion is a divine voice which Socrates already encountered in his early days. His first philosophical attempts clearly did not include the role of a daemonion yet, though in time the experience of the voice had a greater and greater influence on Socrates’ thought. How highly he valued a daemonion in the last stage of his philosophical work testifies the fact that in the contents of the legal complaint was a change which stated that Socrates, not believing in the gods accepted by the nation, accepts the existence of daemonions.

Socrates must have talked not only about his own daemonions, but also must have accepted the possibility of the existence of other daemonions, since the prosecutors used the plural in the legal proceedings. He may have believed that also other people are capable of hearing this supernatural voice, which required a fulfilment of several conditions. Thus, is Socrates hears the divine voice, he will have deserved so great a favour. The expression of this personal deed was, inter alia, the axiological conception of philosophy, as proposed by Socrates. It is possible that the mission of his philosophy is connected with a daemonion. It is a philosophy which is a quasi preparation for others to hear the divine voice. It may have been this very moment which led to so violent an outburst of aggression that the seventy-year-old man faced. All of a sudden, traditionally minded Athenians saw a grave threat to their religion. Accordingly, they demanded of him to renounce his teaching and stop street philosophying. The philosopher however did not intend to yield.


In spite of numerous and profound differences separating “the way up” ontologists and “the way down” Sophists, from the viewpoint of the new philosophy of Socrates they had the same denominator: intellectualism. In both these cases wisdom was limited to the level of knowledge. Philosophy, instead of developing the love of wisdom, reached a stage of loving knowledge. Socrates saw a number of such lovers of knowledge around himself and realised that most people who came to him took a course in philosophy understood as love of knowledge. That was one of the reasons why they did not understand the novel sense of his philosophy, whereas an effect of an incompetent imitation on their part was strengthening the already existing distorted picture of Socrates and there was a continually growing number of people with a negative attitude towards the philosopher. When talking to the judges he drew their attention to the very fact of taking the consequences of the actions undertaken by people who were supposedly his disciples and who did not understand his philosophy. The thoughtless imitation on their part causes that the people with whom they talk do not know what Socrates’ philosophy consists in and “if somebody asks them, why, what evil does he practise or teach? They do not know, and cannot tell; but in order that they may not appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges which are used against all philosophers ...; for they do not like to confess that their pretence of knowledge has been detected – which is the truth...”.4

It is clear then that Socrates perceived his own philosophy as opposing to those notions of philosophy which were employed by “the lovers of knowledge”. Personally, he did not considered himself to belong to this group and saw a clear difference between the philosophy as love of knowledge and the philosophy as love of wisdom. On no way should one identify one with the other. He was also very distinct about the purpose of his philosophying, which is uncovering ignorance and pretending wisdom. This way an attitude to knowledge became one of the main determinants of a new conception of philosophy.

What could the above mentioned procedures of uncovering ignorance and exposing pretended wisdom mean? That they were closely related is certain, but what was their role? Let us begin with the procedure of uncovering ignorance.

Uncovering ignorance was to show that no one is capable of complete control over his actions. Talking to well-known politicians, poets, craftsmen and other famous persons of the then Greece, Socrates discovered that their works and actions depended very little on their own effort. He knew that – as we read in Apology (22 c) – “not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them”. These words very strongly bring into relief the faith with which Socrates experienced the presence of god in the life of men: the mystery of this presence lay, among other things, in the fact that a man who undergoes divine inspiration does not need to be conscious of it. God may act through men without leaving any traces of it in their limited consciousness. However, this principle did not refer to the sphere of moral decision.

Uncovering ignorance was closely correlated with the intention of the protection of the autonomy of the moral domain of human existence. What is this autonomy to be protected from? The greatest menace seems to be a human inability to use knowledge, especially transferring mechanisms which were checked in various occupational competencies into the field of moral behaviour. “...because they were good workmen - we read in Apology – they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters; and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom” (22 d). A success, achieved in the field of professional work, bears a blind faith in the strength of the employed method, gives a feeling of strength and introduces one into a state of self – complacency whose effect is an easiness in passing moral judgements. Also, “the lovers of knowledge” lose the specific character of moral values because they commit an error parallel to the error committed by politicians, poets and other “experts in the subject”. When trying to talk on moral matters, Socrates discovered a kind of advantage over his “educated” speaker, for – as he recollected his talks in the court – “Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know” (21 d). The proclaimed “knowledge about ignorance” constituted then a kind of barrier protecting the moral sphere before the unsubstantiated claims from a motley of experts. Most probably it was a common element of Socrates’ talks: a politician was then shown a limited sense of the principles of wielding power; a poet was presented with the limitations of using poetic principles; a blacksmith was shown that a way of using a hammer has nothing to do with what we deal with in morality. Morality has its own laws, whose understanding requires of man to acknowledge the fact that it is here that his knowledge, useful in his own profession, ends.

The motto “I know that I know nothing” was a specific guarantee of protection, where resolving of various kinds of moral dilemmas was concerned. Socrates had a conviction that expressing ideas on the subject of what had not been personally experienced should not take place. The moral choice, if it is to oblige to responsibility. It has to be taken out of one’s free will, therefore no one can be replaced in his effort to take a moral decision. The Athenians heard this way that tradition, as far as it is not confirmed in real experience, means nothing, that the kinship of blood does not create any privileges within the realm of experiencing values; that, eventually, it is one’s own experience that is the basis of making moral choices.

What does “pretending wisdom” consist in? To pretend wisdom is, first and foremost, to say what one does not know, to say what one has not experienced in person; to go beyond the scope of one’s own experience; to think that one fully controls one’s own fate; to teach others and to relinquish working on one’s own character. A way of forming public opinion is subordinated to this pretension to wisdom, according to which the attained social position is a determinant of the possessed wisdom: the higher someone was on social hierarchy the wiser he was. This is one of the effects of the faith in the above mentioned false analogy. Socrates’ studies did not confirm that. He was to say the following words in court: “I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that others less esteemed were really wiser and better” (22 a).

Taking into account the standards of the archaic conception of philosophy, cosmocentric and theoretical by nature, Socrates philosophy needs to be dubbed practical. However, if we take into account the new standard of philosophy, that is to say the conception of axiological philosophy, Socrates goes with his thinking beyond the opposition: theory – practice. Why? Because there is no object of study on the horizon but a concrete person – a person who enjoys the freedom of thinking.

Socrates realised that he must limit the sphere of axiological freedom, as even gods did not do it. Philosophy gained this way a protreptic dimension and became an exhortation to living in accordance with moral fortitude. Qualified in this way, the aim of philosophying gave Socrates’ actions a character of very personal and unrepeatable meetings, at which he helped the people to get over their conceit, arrogance and bumptiousness. He proved to every person that he did not deserve to be named wise, if he considered himself wise, but that he only pretended to be wise, and that he did not have a whit of real wisdom.


If god has the power to shape all the reality, including the most intimate affairs connected with man, is then philosophy possible at all? Is it needed? If so, what philosophy will not be an expression of disobedience towards divine wisdom? What philosophy will god like? What is to be the measure of the wisdom men can possess? These and other similar questions must have entered Socrates’ mind. Can men help god direct the movement of the stars? Can they assign an order to the seasons of the year? Of course not. These are the issues men ought not to deal with because their scope goes beyond the human potential of making changes. Indeed, understanding has as much sense as it allows action.

There exists however a dimension of reality in which the divine omniscience limits its causative power. This is a dimension of morality. Why? Why does god not use the power of his omniscience in order to directly steer the moral behaviour of men? There seems to be one answer: it would destroy the whole dimension of moral life whose heart is the right to have a choice. Freedom turns out to be this very goodness of men which they may control, which they, in fact, must control themselves.

Freedom consists in being the fundament of the new anthropology of Socrates. It was an anthropology which proclaimed the motto of concretism: only individuals are endowed with freedom and it is only individuals who bear the real responsibility for their deeds. As bodily beings, men are submitted to divine order; as individuals however, they are always concrete and unrepeatable. This individual has this spiritual ability to distinguish between good and evil – the soul – which is a source of intuitive recognition of moral values. An action deserves to be called moral if it issues from an individual and independent effort of a concrete individual: no one and nothing is able to replace men in taking a moral choice. As far as men allow themselves to be steered by what is outside, e.g. tradition and authority, their deeds do not acquire an authentic moral qualification. Pressure, even if it comes from god, not only limits but rather abolishes any moral responsibility for deeds. Yielding to pressure itself is something deeply immoral. Immoral is also exerting moral pressure on another person, probably because, in the name of the defence of moral responsibility, god does not interfere with the sphere of choice, although it is not indifferent to him which men choose: good or evil.

This way the freedom of thought became the proper domain of reflecting the new philosophy and the moral choice stopped being something optional and attained the rank of something truly essential. In this sense, no one can on his own deprive himself of his freedom, nobody can stop being responsible for his own actions. Men can perform many roles in life: they may be soldiers, physicians, farmers, sculptors, etc. They cannot however escape from the inevitable, that is – making moral choices. Where moral behaviour is concerned, men must be independent in their thinking and where professional activities are concerned, they may depend upon the wisdom of others or the opinion of the oracle. Xenophon says that Socrates, as far as his intimates were concerned, applied this same method: “As regards the ordinary necessities of life, his advice was: act as you believe these things may best be done. But in the case of those darker problems, the issues of which are incalculable, he directed his friends to consult the oracle, whether the business should be undertaken or not”.5 Going beyond the moral sphere equalled entering the sphere of doubtful affairs.


Since nobody and nothing is able to release men from taking moral responsibility for their deeds, there remains a question to be asked: what is there to do for men to be able to make right moral choices? The above mentioned conditions connected with the knowledge about ignorance make personal, individual and conscious choice-making the foundation of the authentic moral choice. What we know about good as such does not count. What counts is whether I assume a good attitude to another person, whether I want to harm him or whether, by pretending to be wise, I introduce evil and chaos. “I am convinced that I never intentionally wronged any one.” - with these words Socrates defended his philosophy.6 Ignorance does not release from taking moral responsibility. The destiny of men is a conscious and deliberate participation in the sphere of values. It is only then that men can properly manage the received freedom of choice. It is even better to harm somebody deliberately rather than undeliberately. A good man is a man who knows when he is allowed, for instance, to lie. Socrates was free from moral sentimentalism and realised the fact that generalisations such as “every lie is evil” or “truthfulness is always a virtue” do not hold on the ground of real morality. Too hasty generalisations hinder one from discovering a relation between two concrete individuals. This is why he did not write speeches or avoided making them. A crowd is not a subject of moral decision, the general public is stripped of soul. This is why the philosopher went to an individual to help him be a better person.

Committed evil cannot be justified by a willingness to obey parents, politicians, power, priests. Since every man has a soul, every man possesses an ability to intuitive differentiation between good and evil. This ability consists in a kind of self-knowledge, or, more precisely, in the fact that every man who makes a moral and intentional decision wishes to strengthen or weaken somebody or even destroy them. Intuition of this kind does not pertain words but people. It always pertain concrete people. This is why a good man may lie if, in doing so, his aim is to strengthen a given person. On the other hand, words which are misunderstood bring about a lot of prejudice and become a source of harmful stereotypes, which replaces the true moral self-knowledge by the “always right knowledge”. If one does not understand that in Socrates’ mouth the word did not perform a descriptive role, but that it was to change, one will not understand the axiological conception of Socrates’ philosophy.7

The language of Socrates deliberately avoided descriptivism. As long as somebody tried to place the nature of some moral value in a word, Socrates tormented him with questions. This must be strongly emphasised: Socrates’ words were, first and foremost, to change and not to describe. Socrates realised this creative dimension of language, the experiential dimension at the moral level. A word taken within the frame of protreptic function does not replace anything, nor does it represent anything. It is action itself. This is the reason why his philosophical effort needs to be perceived within the frames of concrete surroundings and in the aspect of concrete people towards whom he directed his “worddeeds”. Any attempt to read his dialogues from on epistemological viewpoint must be doomed to failure.

Socrates noticed in language an exceedingly important moment of a moral act; a moment which opens the soul to the outer world. Anyhow, it was Socrates himself who daemonion “butted into” when he was realising a bad decision. The power of word is an integral part of the power of deed. Know thyself could not have meant an egoistic procedure of self-knowledge. No one can know himself. Every time others co-participate in this procedure. Men recognises themselves only when they participate in relationships with other, always concrete and unique, people. This is why a dialogue ceases to be an arena of an exchange of opinions and becomes a place of trial of characters, a field of an exploitation of moral sensitivity.

The soul, being a quasi centre from which comes the authentic power of making moral choices, demands that the way of moral self-knowing be developed. In this way, the motto Know thyself, so well known to the Greek, became an important element of the Socratic way of philosophying. The gist of his preotreptics appeared to be a call for everybody to develop this elementary consciousness of making moral choices and, by means of it, to make his own decisions. Just as nobody can relieve a concrete woman of bearing a child, nobody can replace a concrete person in effort of making a moral choice. Even Socrates realised the fact that law must not be limited to an independent making of choices. If somebody, for some reason, expected that Socrates would give him the correct solution to a problem, he answered briefly: “I do not know.” This categorical “I do not know.” meant that Socrates could not think for somebody else, that he could not make a decision in this person’s name. It is in this spirit that we can understand Socrates’ words to the judges, in which he said that he had never been anybody’s teacher. In his conception of philosophy, there was no place to teach, create or form in his own fashion. This is something for which he criticised Sophists’ philosophy. A variety of schools created by his “disciples” splendidly renders the specific character of Socratic thought. He allowed then to be such as they uncovered themselves to their environment.

1 Plato, Apology, 23 a-b.

2 Cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia, I.1.

3 “His first object was to instil into those who were with him a wise spirit in their relation to the gods”. Xenophon, Memorabilia, IV.3.

4 Plato, Apology, 23 c-d.

5 Xenophon, Memorabilia, I.19.

6 Plato, Apology, 37 a. As Xenophon has it: “By a lifelong persistence in doing nothing wrong and that I take to be the finest practise for his defence which a man could devise”. Xenophon, Apology.

7 This was the reason why, among other things, Socrates’ dialogues have an inconclusive character. All those who expected from Socrates to categorically settle, at least by means of a definition, a moral issue, did not understand his philosophical practice. Hippias was the one who with the following words was to ask Socrates during a discussion about justice. “You shall hear all in good time [Hippias answered], but not until you make a plain statement of your own belief. What is justice? We have had enough of your ridiculing all the rest of the world, questioning and cross-examining first one and then the other, but never a bit will you render an account to any one yourself or state a plain opinion upon a single topic.

  • What, Hippias [Socrates retorted] have you not observed that I am in a chronic condition of proclaiming what I regard as just and upright?

  • [Hippias] And pray what is this theory of yours on the subject? Let us have it in words.

  • [Socrates] If I fail to proclaim it in words, at any rate I do so in deed and in fact. Or do you not think that a fact is worth more as evidence than a word? (IV.4).