UCL Philosophy


Leigh: The Wolf and the Dog

9 June 2023

Fiona Leigh: The Wolf and the DogEristic, elenchus, and kinds of wisdom in Plato's Euthydemus, Thaumàzein (11:1) 2023

In Plato’s Sophist, the Stranger warns Theaetetus not to let the similarities between the sophist and the practitioner of the elenctic method blind him to their crucial differences, alluding to the resemblance of a wolf to a dog, ‘the most savage of animals to the most gentle’. (231a6) All the same, Plato has the Eleatic Stranger describe the master of elenchus – the method for which Socrates was famous – as a sophist, albeit a sophist of noble birth (231b7-8), leading scholars to ask whether Plato in his later period regarded Socrates’ method as essentially sophistic, and to that extent dubious and destructive.

In this paper I argue that by looking to the illustration of the elenctic and sophistic methods in the Euthydemus, we can see that in several significant respects, Plato regarded the similarities as merely apparent. In particular, I argue, the elenctic method is presented as a constructive method, which facilitates the interlocutor’s articulation and awareness of tacit beliefs about the subject under investigation. Some of these beliefs are tacit in the familiar sense that the interlocutor is already disposed to affirm their content. Other beliefs, however, are a special kind of tacit belief, in that although they follow immediately, or in a very small number of inferential steps from the interlocutor’s pre-existing, explicitly held beliefs, they are not beliefs the interlocutor is disposed to affirm at the outset of the enquiry. The elenctic method is, therefore, able to bring the interlocutor to self-knowledge concerning their own beliefs, and the relations of entailment between them, concerning the subject of inquiry.