24 - Famous Last Words: Plato's Phaedo

In the Phaedo, Plato depicts the death of Socrates, and argues for two of his most distinctive doctrines: the immortality of the soul and the theory of Forms.

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Further Reading: 

• D. Bostock, Plato's Phaedo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

• R. Dancy, Plato's Introduction of Forms (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

• D. Gallop, Plato's Phaedo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

• A. Nehemas, Virtues of Authenticity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

• D. Scott, Recollection and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

• D. Sedley, "Platonic Causes," Phronesis 43 (1998), 114-32.

• G. Vlastos, “Reasons and Causes in the Phaedo,” Philosophical Review 78 (1969), 291-325.


Marissa's picture

Socrates and definitions


I assume you're monitoring all comments, so will see one back here, as easily as under the current episode?

Since all these Roman-era people keep citing Plato and Socrates, I thought I'd listen to the Socrates/Plato episodes again.

I have a question about Socrates' quest for a definition of Virtue. Actually, it's not so much a question, as a rant.

Socrates wants to know what Virtue is, and he specifically wants (it seems) a water-tight definition, not more than a paragraph long. But Virtue is a human concept and human concepts are not developed that way. A word is used to point to a cluster of characteristics, some of which are more central than others. A commonly discussed example these days would be a definition of life. You can come up with some important characteristics; like reproducing, being lower entropy than the surrounds, etc. But no-one has proposed a uniformly accepted version, as can be seen from arguments over whether or not viruses are alive.

Surely the same is true of the (human concept of) Virtue. And, if Socrates is thinking that Virtue is not a human concept but some external, objectively-real entity: he would presumably cite people's sense of Virtue as evidence for this external entity. So what people mean by the word is still the only evidence available.

So he could have spent the years (decades?) compiling a list of agreed characteristics, and a list of disputed characteristics. And these could have been used as a checklist for determining Virtue in any arbitrary situation, which I gather was one of his main goals.

So I guess my question is: why didn't he?


Peter Adamson's picture

Defining virtue

Hi Marissa, Yes, I do get a note every time a comment is posted. This question of yours gets to an issue that seems to be raised explicitly in the dialogues: Socrates is frequently shown objecting to someone who gives a kind of "list" in place of a definition (e.g. Meno and Theaetetus both try this, for virtue and for knowledge). He objects that there must be some kind of overarching unity to the concept to be defined, and asks what they all have in common. (In the Meno he compares Meno's list to a swarm of bees.) There's some evidence that the historical Gorgias actually did have an approach like the one you are suggesting, which may be why Gorgias' student Meno comes up with a "list" style answer in the Meno. I guess that one would need to say more in favor of the "list" idea given Socrates' plausible sounding suggestion that each item on the list must have something common with every other item, and this is what make it a list of virtues as opposed to just any old list of items. You seem to me to be thinking that virtue could be like what Wittgenstein says about "game" -- there is only a family resemblance between different virtues or cases of virtue. But this view has its own problems, e.g. it becomes hard to say where the boundary between virtue and non-virtue is, and you might also worry that there is in the end no fact of the matter here, which Plato/Socrates would definitely not like! Hope that helps, Peter
Marissa's picture

What counts as argument?

For example, the argument for learning being really a remembering of what we knew before we were born:
* in the steps of the argument, Socrates says that our seeing two sticks that are about the same makes us think of a concept of Equal. This has to be a remembering, bc seeing a cloak of a friend makes you think of them. But that's an outrageous stretch. Why not posit instead that the mind has a capacity for identifying relationships, like Equal? And the whole argument depends on this assertion!
* I can't see any advantage to pushing back the learning to before we're born. In fact, it seems to me to make a bigger problem. If explaining how we learn in this life is so hard, how can you hope to explain how we learn under circumstances you don't even have any data on? (Occam rides again)
* Surely we're not born with all kinds of knowledge? I doubt any of them were born with the knowledge that Athens would lose the Peloponesian war. If you can learn that, why not anything else?

In general, I feel that I haven't got a handle on the rules of this game. Arbitrary, unsupported assertions are (apparently) legal but the participants (apparently) take the resulting "proof" seriously. Maybe analogy had the weight of evidence in that culture? Or maybe only logical inconsistency counted as a counter-argument, not plausibility?

I think I need a culture transplant.


Peter Adamson's picture

Plato's arguments

Actually I think Plato is usually (maybe always) extremely sensitive to questions about what can and can't be assumed without argument -- in part because he writes dialogues so Socrates is often allowed to assume something because the opponent is willing to concede it, and that means that what he can assume varies from dialogue to dialogue or conversation to conversation. Here in the Phaedo he's talking to his own students and friends so they have a lot of common ground already, and in fact the Forms are introduced as if it were an idea they were all familiar with and basically accept (but that isn't the case at all in the Meno, there the Forms aren't even mentioned). In the cases you mention, your first objection indeed sounds a lot like Aristotle's objection to Plato: a capacity is all we need, we don't need pre-existing knowledge. But of course explaining why it is that we have an innate capacity to know equal is not a lot easier than explaining why we have innate knowledge of equal. (Is there a separate capacity for each thing we could know? A single capacity which is somehow ready for each knowable thing? How does such a capacity compare to just being "blank" -- we need Aristotle's notion of a potentiality here.) Your third point may be one Plato would find untroubling, I don't think there's any suggestion that he thought we recollect things like historical. As I discussed in episodes on his epistmology, and likewise in Aristotle, they seem to be taking knowledge to be of general features of reality, not things like this. Finally I tend to agree with your second point -- so here one might want to insist that we did not "learn" before being born, as Plato suggests in the Meno, but rather the soul has always existed and always had knowledge, so that learning is never necessary.
Marissa's picture

Plato's argument cont.

Well, I think I could argue the case for "innate capacity to abstract patterns" vs "innate knowledge of patterns". But I guess you read enough first-year papers already.

I am going to ask for two points of clarification, but:

* if we can learn historical facts then why posit either innate pattern recognition OR innate knowledge? We know about "equal" bc we heard people talking about it as children, and learnt the concept that way. Probably at the same time we heard them talking about the Peloponesian War.

* in response to my objection that we don't know anything about what happens before we're born, so we can't explain how learning would take place then, you said we could instead insist that "the soul has always existed and always had knowledge, so that learning is never necessary." But we don't know anything about what happens before we're born! We can't say anything about it! Can we?
Honest, I hope I'm not coming across as a self-opinionated pedant. It's bc I'm trying to take these arguments seriously that I just used two exclamation marks in one paragraph.
Any aids to comprehension gratefully accepted.


Peter Adamson's picture


Hi Marissa,

To your first point I'd say: remember that he has a specific argument against acquiring the understanding of equality from sensation, namely the point about compresence of opposites (the sticks and stones are no more equal than unequal). That wouldn't apply to the date of a War for instance, only to other general concepts. Actually though you might then come back and say that if this argument works at all it works only for comparative judgments, like "equal," "just," "beautiful"; thus he'd need other arguments to establish other Forms for non-comparative concepts (if there are any such Forms).

And on point 2, again he has a pretty detailed argument to give here: the argument is that (a) we know Equality, (b) we can't learn Equality from sensation in this life, (c) we can't learn it at the moment of birth, because that is the only moment for us to be shocked into losing our access to this knowledge, so (d) the only time the knowledge could have been "acquired" is before birth. And then my last post was trying to say that it is misleading to speak of "acquisition" here, because in fact if the story makes sense then we should always have had the knowledge, otherwise we would have "learned" it which seems ruled out by (a).

Does that help?


Marissa's picture


Actually, I think it does help. I can finally see an outline of an argument, rather than arbitary assertions. Progress.

Part of the problem was that I blipped over compresence of opposites bc it made zero sense to me. So I didn't realise it was the starting point. This also explains why all his Forms are relationships (as in Largeness, which can only be applied to real things as "larger than"). That was bothering me.

Also, I find I'm still wedded to: if it's not falsifiable, it's not legal. This is my problem, I know, not Plato's. It's a hard one to give up, but I'll work on it.


Peter Adamson's picture

Falisfiability and Forms

Well you are going to like the Logical Positivists, if we ever get there!

One last point I should add about Forms is that there are other reasons to posit them, e.g. the "one over many" argument (there must be something to unify all the things that have a given character), the idea that there must be unchanging objects of knowledge, and so on. These could get you Forms of non-relative concepts (for instance in the Republic he talks about a Form of Bed and seems to have in mind that this would be the object to which a craftsman looks in building a bed). In general I don't think he had just one single reason for positing Forms, he found them useful to deal with a whole range of problems, and the compresence problem is only one of these.

Steadfast's picture

On soul

In the Meno Socrates pulls the concept of soul into his argument stating that some old priest or priestess says there is one. He does it without questioning old priests or the concept. That seems suspect. He questions everything his interlocutors say but not the phantasy of some old priest. Here in Phaedo he trips on the word 'soul' and slides into a substance 'soul' with nary a blink. Surly all those 'Forms' are just concepts. They can't be real things if for no other reason than there isn't a physical place for their substance to be and there isn't a time when that place existed/exists.

Peter Adamson's picture

Sloppy Socrates?

Hi there. Yes, these are all significant worries. A few quick thoughts:

• Some people read the religious presentation of the theory of recollection as a sign not to take it seriously; but I wonder whether it may be a sign that we should take it seriously. Or something more subtle. Anyway it is hard to know what Plato is trying to signal with that but I assume it is supposed to signal the reader how literally to take what follows.

• I don't think he slides into talking about soul as substance, really; the one thing he does assume is that soul (psychê) is distinct from body. That is apparently uncontroversial, or he takes it to be so (and he marks that assumption more or less explicitly). Thus the question is whether this soul-that-is-distinct-from-body is going to die along with the body, or not.

• Your last point shows how radically our modern intuitions can differ from those of other periods. I agree that many people would now think that something that does not exist in a place cannot exist at all. But this immediately assumes that nothing non-physical can exist, which shows how controversial the intuition is -- it would immediately eliminate belief in (a) God, (b) an immaterial soul, (c) as you say, Forms, (d) other immaterial things like numbers, which some people think do exist in their own right. Time is a bit more complicated, it isn't clear to me that the Forms are supposed to exist outside of time. Anyway Plato does try to give reasons why we should in this case accept the existence of something immaterial, here in the Phaedo the reason is that they have to be invoked in causal explanations. And that seems like a good reason to accept that something exists, it is exactly the sort of reason a modern scientist would give for accepting the existence of some postulated entity of the physical world, like a subatomic particle.


Glenn Russell's picture

Beyond Death

Thanks for these podcasts, Peter. 24 down and 76 to go to catch up with your current podcasts. I am enjoying them all! Yes, indeed, Plato’s Phaedo is just as real and vibrant as it was 2500 years ago since it speaks about what happens to us (our soul, in the Greek tradition) after we die and death is just as much a mystery to us as it was to cave dwellers 25,000 years ago. Is there any place in Plato’s dialogues where he envisions our experience after death as a dissolution into light, in other words, a realm of non-duel conscious awareness? Thanks.

Peter Adamson's picture

The afterlife in Plato

Glad you are enjoying them! I'd say the answer to your question is no. There are several dialogues which describe the afterlife but usually in highly physical terms (bodily punishments, for instance), albeit in the context of myths, as in the Phaedo, Gorgias, and Republic. I talk about these in a later episode. The idea that we would become purely immaterial is however suggested by the Phaedo too, when it says that the soul is akin to Forms (which are immaterial) and has seen the Forms before coming to be in the body.

Steven P. Rodriguez's picture



Thanks so much for creating these very informative podcasts. I'm currently a Philosophy major at The College of New Jersey and I am taking a "History of Ancient Philosophy" class--this podcast is a great compliment to our in class discussions. I look forward to future episodes!