A New Perspective on Plato’s Socratic Dialogues

By Phin Upham

I recently re-read the essay “A New Interpretation of Plato’s Socratic Dialogues,” by Charles H. Khan, included in my book Space of Love and Garbage. Charles H. Kahn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published The Art and Thought of Heraclitus, The Verb ‘Be’ in Ancient Greek, and Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans, as well as his first book, Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology. The present article reflects the views developed in his Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (1996).

Here is the bio (above) from the essay and a quotation of my favorite paragraphs of the essay (below).

Despite the fact that he perfected the form, Plato did not invent the Socratic dialogue. In the years following Socrates’s death, a number of his former associates wrote short dialogues in which Socrates was the principal interlocutor. Aristotle in his Poetics recognizes the sokratikoi logoi, or “Conversations with Socrates,” as an established literary genre. One of the innovations in my interpretation of Plato is to attempt to situate his early work in the context of this literary genre.

In some fields, and particularly in Biblical scholarship, genre studies have been dominant for a generation or two. Students of the Gospels, for example, have shed new light on their subject with interpretations that focus on the literary form of the narrative and speeches reported in each Gospel. It is a striking fact that, as far as I can see, there has never been a similarly genreoriented study of Plato’s dialogues. So I want to direct your attention to certain generic features of the Socratic literature that can be of considerable importance for the understanding of Plato’s work.


About the Author: Phin Upham is a writer and investor from NYC and SF. He usually writes about philosophy, investing and travel. Visit Phin Upham Facebook page.

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