It starts with a question: “What is justice?” The examination of what is just and unjust and the ways people use both leads to an inductive conclusion. Instead of telling students what to think, the mere asking of questions about what students believe they know produces facts, which, when arranged or combined, create a paradigm shift that allows them to see the old in new ways so that troubleshooting leads to a correction of their own errors. In the process, one must always be willing to rethink and reargue any question anyone might raise. All that is needed is knowledge of how the words in question are used as “Definitions.” For example, Socrates directed questions showing how particular events or things varied in some respects or passed away. Then, he led students to discover something about them that were the same—that never varied—that never passed away. When satisfactorily answered, the student had arrived at the definition or its essential nature. To illustrate, although beautiful things differ from each other, each share the common element of beauty. Hence, the mind has the power to discover in facts (e.g. beautiful flowers) the abiding elements that remain (the concept of beauty) after the facts disappear. Beauty remains after the gardenia fades.
In talking philosophy with people on the streets and to reduce the chance of semantic misinterpretations he stayed with homely examples drawn from everyday life. A deceptively simple question was to ask a carpenter how to make a table. The idea was to start spotlighting the need of the artist or craftsman or professional to know the rules of his craft and the limitations of his materials. From a thing used in ones job on the way to assessing that job, Socrates would ask searching questions about ethical problems and old beliefs so as to develop the meaning of concepts and to bring out knowledge already in a craftsman’s or a student’s mind. From this information he continued cross-examination with carefully designed questions.
Along the way he would impart knowledge or evoke knowledge the person did not realize he possessed. Hence, the person activated his own rational powers to arrive at knowledge that had been dimly present in his mind since birth—a process resembling the way a midwife only assists at the birth of a baby. Once pupils paid attention to detail and begin to doubt some of their old beliefs, Socrates would then lead them to discover what is right. Efforts were made to step over to demonstrating the same need of knowledge and skill in the leading of the good life. The interlocutor was pressed to say what he thinks is the correct account of virtue of the particular virtue involved. The proposed account, which thereafter became common property between them, was then scrutinized for consistency with other beliefs firmly accepted by Socrates and/or by the interlocutor. Did they accept as virtuous those acts or objects that this definition would imply to be such? Does the definition agree with other beliefs about virtue or the virtue in question that they also hold. How do these fit with what a shoemaker, carpenter, or horse trainer does?
Such an analogy shows the kind of powers and dispositions possessed by the just man and those other practitioners. If some account of justice had the effect of denying such analogies that was a mark against it. If no definition survives the test and inconsistencies persist, the examination continues. This uncovers ignorance where it existed unnoticed.
When there was no further cross-examination, the answer was accepted as genuine knowledge of the subject. “Human excellence is a state of mind.”
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