What, after all, is our motive for reading a dead philosopher’s words about another dead philosopher who never wrote anything himself? This is a way of asking a popular question, Why do history of philosophy? –which has no settled answer. Our study of some of our philosophical predecessors is intrinsically valuable, one might reply, philosophically enlightening and satisfying. When we contemplate the words of a dead philosopher, a philosopher with whom we cannot engage directly–Plato’s words, say–we seek to understand not merely what he said and what assumptions lie buried in those words, but also what the words meant, what they imply, and whether they are true. Sometimes, making such judgments requires us to learn the language in which the philosopher wrote, more about his predecessors’ ideas and those of his contemporaries.
The truly great philosophers, and Plato was one of them, are still capable of becoming our companions in philosophical conversation, our dialectical partners. Because he addressed timeless, universal, fundamental questions with insight and intelligence, our own understanding of such questions is heightened. That explains Plato, one might say, but where is Socrates in this picture? Is he interesting merely as a predecessor to Plato? Some would say yes, but others would say it is not Plato’s but Socrates’ ideas and methods that mark the real beginning of philosophy in the West, that Socrates is the better dialectical guide, and that what is Socratic in the dialogues should be distinguished from what is Platonic (Â§2.2). But how? That again is the Socratic problem.
If it were possible to confine oneself exclusively to Plato’s Socrates, the Socratic problem would nevertheless reappear because one would soon discover Socrates himself defending one position in one Platonic dialogue, its contrary in another, and using different methods in different dialogues to boot. Inconsistencies among the dialogues seem to demand explanation, though not all philosophers have thought so (Shorey 1903).