Socrates's contributions to philosophy were a new method of approaching knowledge, a conception of the soul as the seat both of normal waking consciousness and of moral character, and a sense of the universe as purposively mind-ordered. His method, called dialectic, consisted in examining statements by pursuing their implications, on the assumption that if a statement were true it could not lead to false consequences. The method may have been suggested by Zeno of Elea, but Socrates refined it and applied it to ethical problems.
His doctrine of the soul led him to the belief that all virtues converge into one, which is the good, or knowledge of one's true self and purposes through the course of a lifetime. Knowledge in turn depends on the nature or essence of things as they really are, for the underlying forms of things are more real than their experienced exemplifications. This conception leads to a teleological view of the world that all the forms participate in and lead to the highest form, the form of the good. Plato later elaborated this doctrine as central to his own philosophy. Socrates's view is often described as holding virtue and knowledge to be identical, so that no man knowingly does wrong. Since virtue is identical with knowledge, it can be taught, but not as a professional specialty as the Sophists had pretended to teach it. However, Socrates himself gave no final answer to how virtue can be learned.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.