Friday, September 2, 2011


Thomas C. Brickhouse, Nicholas D. Smith, Socratic Moral Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. viii, 276. ISBN 9780521198431. $85.00.

Reviewed by Scott Carson, Ohio University (

Version at BMCR home site


This book argues that the account of moral failure in the so-called "early" Platonic dialogues1 is not the strictly intellectualist one that has been attributed to the character of Socrates in Plato's dialogues by commentators from Aristotle to Vlastos. According to this "traditional" view, moral error is due entirely to cognitive error, and the passions and desires can play no role in our mistaken choices. Brickhouse and Smith, by contrast, argue that our souls are constituted in such a way as to harbor aims other than those that are in our long term best interest, aims such as the satisfaction of desire for its own sake or for the sheer pleasurableness of the experience. These subsidiary aims can be controlled by a certain feature of the rational element in the soul, but if they are not controlled in an adequate manner they have the effect of eroding the capacity of the cognitive faculty of soul to choose correctly what is indeed in our long term best interest (p. 108). This suggests that moral failure is due, in some sense, to the passions and desires that have this effect on our cognitive faculty; hence the traditional view that Socrates is a strict intellectualist about moral error fails (though the authors admit that their own view is still within the general parameters of a loosely intellectualist account, p. 107).

Although much of the work presented in this book has appeared in earlier publications by Brickhouse and Smith,2 they have reworked nearly all of it in light of the considerable critical response it has generated.3 Indeed, to get things rolling they begin their study with a lengthy chapter devoted to defending the very idea that there can be anything like a research program dedicated to the exploration of "Socratic studies" if by that phrase we mean a systematic exploration of the philosophy of the historical Socrates. As Chapter 1, "Apology of Socratic Studies", progresses, however, it becomes clear that "Socratic studies" need not be taken to be a set of hypotheses about the historical Socrates at all. Rather, it turns out to be a set of hypotheses about the coherence of the views attributed by Plato to the character "Socrates" in the so-called "Socratic" dialogues. Although it may be the case that these views were also the views of the historical Socrates, Brickhouse and Smith do not commit themselves to this, a view that is arguably underdetermined by the available evidence (pp. 16-17). So discussion of the philosophical views of "Socrates" turns out to be little different from discussion of, say, the practices of "Gandalf" in The Hobbit as opposed to The Lord of the Rings, or the teachings of "Jesus" as found in the Gospel of Mark as opposed to the Gospel of John. The examination of such questions, while of great interest to some, need not entail anything at all about the actual views, or even the existence, of a real person corresponding to a given literary character. We are justified in calling such studies "Socratic", or "Gandalfian", or what have you, on the grounds that the authors of the works involved treat the characters as though real enough and refer consistently to them across literary works. Indeed, just as Tolkien often referred to "Gandalf" as though he were real (attributing to him beliefs and motivations that appear nowhere in Tolkien's published work), so too Brickhouse and Smith are willing to write (p. 144):

In fact, despite the differences we have noted in their moral psychologies, these differences seem to compel no substantive differences in the way Socrates and Plato would conceive of early education.

Since, on their own account, we cannot assume that the Socrates of the early dialogues is really anyone other than Plato himself (though a Plato who chooses to express himself in a manner that is different from his mode of expression in "later" dialogues), we should perhaps not be very surprised to find that "Socrates" and "Plato" agree on many things.

The first chapter, then, will be of interest principally to the literary theorist who is interested in questions of conceptual unity, character development, and perhaps authorial intent (if anyone is still interested in that). The philosophical interest in the chapter lies mainly in the clear and concise comparison of competing interpretive strategies. By and large the rest of the book is independent of this chapter, and lays out in detail the interpretation of Socratic moral psychology defended by Brickhouse and Smith, drawing mostly upon texts taken from Apology, Crito, Meno, Protagoras, and Gorgias. The discussion is rich in nuance and clever in argument, and will be of great interest to anyone interested in moral psychology, whether it is Socrates or Plato to whom one ascribes the view being defended. The success of the argument as a whole is rather difficult to see, however, since it seems that the appetites and passions can hardly play anything but an indirect role in moral error even if this account is correct. They compromise the capacity of reason to make proper choices, but in the end it is still reason that makes the improper choices and, hence, is responsible for the moral error—the traditional form of intellectualism would appear to be intact. Brickhouse and Smith claim that their view differs from the traditional form of intellectualism in that the role played by appetites and desires in eroding the cognitive function is excluded by the traditional view (p. 108).

Chapter 2, "Motivational Intellectualism", compares texts drawn from the Gorgias and the Apology in order to begin their argument against the "standard view". The references to the appetites and passions are analyzed to show that Socrates is portrayed as not only aware of appetites and passions as mental states but also as committed to giving them a causal role in how people behave. In particular, Apology 21b1-23e3, 29e3- 30a4, 32b1-d4, and 34b6-d1 are adduced to show that Socrates was keenly aware of "the potentially dangerous effects of passions on the way people act" (p. 53).

Chapter 3, "The 'Prudential Paradox'", draws upon Meno 77b6-78c2 and Protagoras 352b1-358d4 to argue that Socrates held that there is a sort of desire that is compatible with ethical knowledge. This sort of desire must be relatively weak and under the direction of the "craft of measurement" (metrêtikê technê, p. 70), the rational capacity whose job it is to direct desire and thereby produce peace of mind. The weakness requirement ensures that such epithumiai will be disposed to capitulate to knowledge of what is best.

Chapter 4, "Wrongdoing and Damage to the Soul", a discussion of texts drawn principally from the Crito and Gorgias, defends a realist interpretation of the Socratic claim that proper punishment can be salutary given his view that wrongdoing always harms the agent in some sense. Conversely, "maintaining our appetites and passions in a disciplined condition helps us to preserve our soul's ability 'to perform its function to manage, rule, and deliberate'" (p. 130).

Chapter 5, "Educating the Appetites and Passions", continues to explore themes from the Gorgias and the Crito on the topic of early education in an attempt to show how certain puzzles can be solved by taking the approach to moral psychology attributed to Socrates by Brickhouse and Smith. The Socrates of the early dialogues could not have accepted the assumption in the Republic, that children must be educated because appetites and passions can motivate action independently of reason; but they see no reason why he could not acknowledge that early training of the emotions and appetites could help train them to be orderly and disciplined later (p. 144).

Chapter 6, "Virtue Intellectualism" explores the so-called "unity of the virtues" thesis along with the problem of Socratic intellectualism as a motivation for human action. The unity of the virtues lies, the authors claim, in the fact that all of them are essentially powers (dunameis) to distinguish the difference between good and bad. This power is itself a form of knowledge, hence their version of the unity thesis is in some ways the same as, and in some ways distinct from, the unity thesis as it is usually attributed to Socrates. If we are to fully understand how Socrates sees the relationship between wisdom and other goods, we must see this power of virtue as productive: "in some sense, virtue produces good things for the person who possesses virtue and for those affected by the virtuous person's actions" (p. 180).

Chapter 7, "Socrates and his Ancient Intellectual Heirs: Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics", first endeavors to show that the view they are attributing to Socrates regarding the role of passion and desire in virtue is in fact different from the view defended by Plato in the dialogues not falling into the "Socratic" group. Brickhouse and Smith then argue that, in spite of certain key differences, Aristotle was in fundamental agreement with Socrates about the capacity of nonrational desire to affect reason's power to initiate action while for the Stoics, in spite of certain key similarities, "the best life for human beings is importantly un-Socratic" (p. 246).

The book concludes with an appendix in which the authors ask "Is Plato's Gorgias consistent with the other early or Socratic dialogues" and answer that it is.

Overall the book has much to recommend it, not least of which is the lively and engaging style in which the authors have managed to express what is, in many ways, a complex and difficult reading of some very fundamental texts. Brickhouse and Smith remain true to their origins as students of Gregory Vlastos, who studied Socratic philosophy largely in isolation from its literary context. But they have provided scholarly and intelligent arguments for what remains a challenging and unorthodox thesis. The book deserves to be widely read.


1.   Specifically, for Brickhouse and Smith, these "early" or "Socratic" dialogues include Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Protagoras, and Republic I (p. 18).
2.   For example Socrates on Trial (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), Plato's Socrates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), The Philosophy of Socrates (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000).
3.   They consider in particular detail the work of McPherran, Penner, Kahn, Nails, and others who question either the proposal that we can really determine anything about the historical Socrates with certainty on the basis of the available evidence from Plato or the specific proposals of Brickhouse and Smith regarding the views we may attribute to "Socrates".

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