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Socrates’ Hamartia: A Derridean Analysis Of Logocentric Fallacies in Plato’s Apology

By Flora Situ

For we have omitted the master-name of the supplementary series: death. Or rather, for death is nothing, the relationship to death, the anguished anticipation of death.

—Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 183.

Such is the primary accusation made towards the great Greek philosopher Socrates during his final trial: “Socrates is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse into the stronger argument, and he teaches these same things to others” (Apology, 19b). Plato’s Apology is a text that directly goes against the traditions of Western thought in so far as Socrates demonstrates, through his public defense, the metaphysicality of presence that remains the foundation of his alleged crimes against the people of Athens. Socrates argues that the allegations against him derive from a misunderstanding of human wisdom, in as much as they presume the individual as capable of possessing knowledge as such. He famously negates knowledge (as much as it can be understood by the individual) as material presence—by which I mean that it concretely exists in, say, thought—and, instead, illustrates it to be an intrinsic absence, claiming thereby that his wisdom is a direct result of the lack thereof (21d). His argument presents an antinomy that reveals the contingency behind the process of meaning-making: Socrates’ wisdom is a ‘nothing,’ as it were, in so far as he claims to not know anything; however, by being conscious of this non-wisdom, his comprehension of this fact becomes a form of knowledge that he can possess. Human knowledge, then, has the ability to be ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ simultaneously.

This radical affirmation of negation destabilizes the structure of language—and, subsequently, one’s system of thought—which allows for Socrates to defer his accusations by disavowing a normative centering point in his language. By presenting himself and his diction as both lacking, Socrates escapes the conventional dialectic of accused-accuser in a court of law, engaging in what Jacques Derrida refers to as free play^1 in his deconstruction of the self, knowledge, and, ultimately, death (Structure, Sign, and Play,” 278).^2 Socrates’ employment of a language that is apparently sansλόγος [logos] allows him to produce an effective argument against his accusers by imploring a new kind of justice, one that reaches beyond the standard binaries produced by the law. Socrates’ fatal flaw in his defense remains his invocation of the gods, notably the Oracle at Delphi, as the representation of an objective source of truth. He ironically contradicts the inherent instability in the process of signification that he had previously proven by centering his diction around the word of the gods, which expresses itself in his use of binaries during his cross-examination. I contend, then, in this paper, that Socrates bases his defense on the process of deconstruction, which is why his argument ultimately fails once he falls into the trap of logocentrism. 

The Socratic paradox in this apology is an argument that is produced through Socrates’ negation of the language that he is employing. Conventionally, when faced with their accusations, the accused is meant to express “lamentations and tears” in the face of the law as a means to convince the jurymen of their supposed innocence (Apology, 38d). Socrates does not simply refuse to enter this formulaic dialogue, but instead insists that he is unable to do so. He confesses to a deficiency in his knowledge vis-à-vis regular courtly affairs, which renders him “simply a stranger” to the normative relation between an accused individual and their accusers—put otherwise, he does not possess the ability to employ a system of language which has, as its center, the law (17d). The first matter to be addressed, before we truly delve into the problematic of Socrates’ language, is the term around which this paper revolves: the center. Derrida famously draws on Ferdinand de Saussure’s rejection of the Adamic language in order to demonstrate that language is not a nomenclature, but rather a structured system of conventional signs. The process of signification, then, operates on the difference constitutive of the relationship between signifieds, which are possible concepts, and their signifiers, which are their sound-images (Derrida, Of Grammatology, 11-13). Signification stems from the relationship between absence and presence in language: language predominantly exists in instability and absence in so far as there is no intrinsic and established structure in meaning-making. Therefore, absent signifieds are free to adhere to the Derridean ‘play,’ a process in which they can align themselves, in multiplicity, with any possible signifier. 

Words—material signs—are produced when language begins to structure itself around a centering point in signification. Through the establishment of this center, the signifier of a concept is forcefully brought into being—otherwise referred to as presence—from a violent and ongoing suppression of all other possible signifieds (Derrida, Writing and Difference, 279-280). Any type of centering element in language is a “point of presence” that Derrida (and this paper) refers to as the λόγος, which effectively restricts the process of ‘play’ by disabling the signifier from attaching itself to any potential signifieds other than the one concept that it has appointed to it (Of Grammatology, 12). The existence of this λόγος causes language to become ‘logocentric,’ which Derrida defines as a hierarchical placement of some words over others: the production of binaries, in other words. Logocentrism remains the locus of the “history of metaphysics,” in which one is led to dismiss the absent signifieds behind the production of a sign and determine a material signifier as having intrinsic meaning merely by virtue of its presence (Writing and Difference, 279). That said, the act of repression ultimately produces a fundamental lack in the system of language, which itself produces an unfulfilled desire for its natural state: free ‘play.’ This desire manifests itself through the ontological haunting^3 of all other potential signifieds in the material signifier. Signs will thereby always possess the trace of absent signifieds that could have potentially slid into a specific signifier and, because of these traces, the signifier can never truly embody the signified in its totality (Derrida, Specters of Marx, 23).

In the context of the language commonly used in the courtroom, the linguistic λόγος remains that of Athenian law; all diction is under the domain of the law—which most would refer to as justice—through which the speaker is required to be produced as an accused subject by entering a conventional courtly dialogical formula in which they are required to plead their case before the men of Athens. This logocentric language is one that Socrates is not capable of using, and he therefore resorts to a means of speaking that he is most familiar with—his native tongue, so to speak—which is a dominantly-conversational argumentative dialogue between a multitude of individuals, produced by a series of questions and answers, otherwise known as the Socratic method. By using a different tongue than that of the normative courtroom discourse, Socrates’ language presents itself as a space of lack that exists beyond the expectations of the law as a “stranger” (Apology, 17d). Through his inability to enter the normative dialogue in the courtroom, Socrates demonstrates that this lack he refers to in his own tongue, then, is the absence of a λόγος. It is only by openly asserting what he lacks that Socrates enters a means of speaking that is effectively sansλόγος, and he posits that it is only through this kind of language that he can articulate “the whole truth” (17c). That is because this linguistic deficit synthesized with the aforesaid inherent instability of both language and meaning-making reveals that the process of signification is entirely contingent and thereby constantly subjected to change. This demonstrates that the λόγος is merely a metaphysics of presence in so far as it does not truly and naturally exist. Accordingly, the reified concepts from which the accusations against Socrates’ are based are thereby also subject to unreliability. 

Socrates uses the signifier’s inability to embody, in totality, its signified to his own advantage by deconstructing the conventional definition of knowledge in order to contest the first of his allegations. Meletus’ accusation that Socrates studies and teaches cleverly constructed yet fallacious arguments paints him out to be a sophist. Socrates contends, as a response to Meletus, that his accusations cannot be true; he demonstrates the falsity in this claim by once more asserting himself as intrinsically lacking and by positing that he does not, in fact, know anything: “Certainly I would pride and preen myself if I had this knowledge, but I do not have it, gentlemen” (20c). This acknowledgement of a lack of knowledge demonstrates that his knowledge is founded on a void—a nothingness; and it is precisely because of Socrates’ understanding of this that the God at Delphi is able to proclaim him the wisest of men (21d). This then begs the question: how can one claim to be wise while simultaneously admitting to being entirely ignorant? Socrates himself unpacks this by recounting his interactions with other people who were considered to be wise: 

Then, when I examined this [reputed wise] […] my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. (Apology, 21b-21c, emphasis mine)

The “reputed wise” in this passage and Socrates are alike in so far as neither possesses any form of knowledge. Their difference, however, derives from the fact that Socrates, by virtue of operating in a structureless language, can comprehend that knowledge is an indeterminate concept in the Kantian sense, whereas the wise man’s thoughts are confined by logocentric dichotomies. According to Socrates, by identifying him as wise, the God at Delphi is not attributing the existence of wisdom within him, but rather negating it altogether in all mortal individuals: “What is probable, gentlemen, is that in fact the god is wise and that his oracular response meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing” (23a, emphasis mine). In his recognition of “human wisdom” as an aporetic^4 void, Socrates illustrates any type of knowledge to be a surplus of this very lack, hence why the only wisdom achievable by the individual would be “nothing.” Following that logic, it would be impossible for Socrates to “stud[y] things in the sky and below the earth” while “teach[ing] these same thing to others,” as Meletus’ accusations state, because he has proven, through the illustration of this non-knowledge, that an individual can never truly obtain knowledge in its totality (19b). Yet consider that, the number ‘zero,’ despite it being a physical representation of a numeric deficit (or a nothing), is still a number—by which I mean that the nothingness of knowledge does not render it intangible. In confessing to an absence of wisdom during his trial, Socrates manipulates this fundamental lack as a form of knowledge that he can appropriate and subsequently use as evidence, thereby demonstrating that ‘nothing’ ultimately remains ‘something.’ Knowledge’s capability of being simultaneously defined through its own deferral and its materiality highlights its playfulness through which the material signifier ‘knowledge’ constantly interchanges between a myriad of varying signifiers (i.e., absence and presence). The lack of a λόγος in Socrates’ language, then, reveals itself as the key to his arguments’ effectiveness: in his use of language in its natural state, Socrates uses the process of ‘play’ to negate Meletus’ accusations all while successfully demonstrating the existence of his own wisdom. The downfall of his defense can therefore only be seen as an anticipated consequence to the subsequent logocentric reduction of his language. 

Socrates’ invocation of the gods, in his apology, does not come from piety; it is instead an overestimation of the gods’ authority and an attempt to obtain a divine validation for his argument that could encourage the jurymen of Athens to vote in his favor. Socrates demonstrates, in this text alone, that he does not believe in the Greek pantheon as Athenians conventionally do. To further understand Socrates’ relationship to the gods, let us refer to his initial reaction to the God at Delphi’s riddle: “For a long time I was at a loss as to his meaning; then I very reluctantly turned to some such investigation as this: I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: ‘This man is wiser than I, but you said I was’” (21b). Upon divine interpellation, human individuals—mortals—are expected to immediately produce themselves as the deities’ subjects and comply to their will. Contrastingly, Socrates’ use of the word “reluctantly” implies an aversion or unwillingness, which demonstrates that, instead of assuming without hesitation the Oracle at Delphi’s words as an objective truth, he expresses doubt vis-à-vis the reliability of the god’s words. Put otherwise, he refuses to establish divinity as the defining λόγος in his language. Language inevitably shapes thought, since speaking in words is the only means through which one can vocalize, by the φωνή [phonè]^5 of course, their experiences (Of Grammatology, 12). Socrates’ lack of a λόγος allows him to think beyond the words of deities because he understands that, in the natural state of language, meaning always exists in multiplicity; this results in the repeated expression of his desire for “the whole truth,” hence why he attempts to find a contradiction to the Oracle at Delphi’s claims (Apology, 17c). From this investigation, not only does Socrates uncover the aforementioned antinomy of human knowledge, but he also acknowledges that wisdom, thought of as a Kantian indeterminate concept, can only be obtained by the gods (23a). He thereby is a believer of divine superiority in the sense that he accepts the superiority of divine wisdom in comparison to the non-knowledge of mortal individuals, however his lack of immediate compliance to the Oracle’s words proves that he does engage in a conventional pious relationship with the Greek pantheon. His unique relationship with the gods even goes so far as to warrant the accusations that denounce him for “not believe[ing] in the gods in whom the city believes it” (26b). Given this, why, then, does he frame himself as a dutiful servant towards the gods by “attach[ing] the greatest importance to the god’s oracle” (21e) and “call[ing] upon” the divines in his apology as a “trustworthy source” that can support his argument (20e)?

Let us not forget the primary nature of this text: Socrates is being called upon by the men of Athens to defend himself against a plethora of accusations made against his character. Despite the effectiveness of his argument, he is aware that he is not well-liked: “As a result of this investigation, gentlemen of the jury, I acquired much unpopularity, of a kind that is hard to deal with and is a heavy burden,” (22e-23a). This public disdain is further proven by his repeated request—six times, to be precise—for the jurymen to not “create a disturbance” during his speech (17c, 20e, 21a, 27a, 27b, 30c). Taking this into consideration, it is not unusual for Socrates to attempt to gain the favor of his jurymen by grounding his arguments on the seemingly irrefutable words of the gods, which is an authority that these Athenians are normatively expected to respect without question. Nevertheless, in centering the gods’ words as the point of presence in his system of language, Socrates is directly going the foundation of his defense—that of the inability to achieve stability in the production of meaning—, by framing his newfound λόγος (and himself, by affirming his position as a divinely-appointed servant) as a source of objective truth. 

Consequently, with this borrowed authority, Socrates becomes overconfident and he misrecognizes his claims to be factually correct by placing them in direct opposition to Meletus’ statements. His arrogance leaks throughout his speech during his cross-examination with Meletus: Socrates repeats a series of pressing sentences that all begin with a variety of demanding imperatives such as “come,” “come here,” and “come then,” through which he demands from Meletus a swifter response to his questions, and he thus taunts his accuser by presenting him as a man who remains “silent and know[s] not what to say,” presenting this deficit of knowledge as a proof of bad character when, ironically, Socrates prided himself on this lack in his initial argument (24d). Furthermore, when confronted with the allegation that he, alone, is corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates requests for Meletus to frame this accusation in the context of the wellbeing of horses, and he asks him if it is indeed true that, most likely, it is a sole individual—the “horse breeders”—that is able to care for the horse while the rest of the people, unaware of how to care for the horse, corrupt the animal (25b). He does not wait for Meletus’ response before answering his own question: “Of course it is, whether you and Anytus say so or not,” once more betraying his hubris (25b). This interjection is a blatant dismissal of Meletus’ impending answer and a reaffirmation of Socrates’ belief that, by being a messenger for the gods, he is the deliverer of indisputable truth. In the scenario of the horse, Socrates presents the horse breeders as a minority of the population—one can even claim that they are a singularity. By being the solitary accused in the courtroom, the imagery of the horse is meant to frame himself in the role of the horse breeder. He is thereby claiming that the rest of the population lacks the appropriate amount of knowledge needed to educate and influence Athenian youths for the better—a knowledge that he, as the singular accused, possesses. By creating a dichotomy between knowledgeable individuals (the horse breeders) and uneducated people (non-horse breeders), Socrates illustrates that his language henceforth exists within the confinement of logocentric binaries. This ironically refutes his initial argument vis-à-vis his first accusation, in which he states that he cannot teach anything to the youths by virtue of not possessing any knowledge. His conformation to logocentrism thus marks the beginning of his argument’s failure. 

After this fatal fallacy, Socrates’ verdict of guilty and his following penalty of death is to be expected. It should also not come as a surprise, then, that, upon the failure of his logocentric argument, Socrates sheds the λόγος in his system of language because he no longer needs to borrow the gods’ divine authority to support his arguments, which further proves the performativity in his invocation of the gods. His re-entry into the realm of free ‘play’ is illustrated through his parting speech in which he refutes death as defined by being opposite of life: “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know” (29a). No one has yet been able to know and share the experience of death in its totality, and yet society attaches such a negative connotation to it that it has now been reified into the worst punishment upon committing wrong actions. This, in itself, is a logocentric fallacy, as Socrates demonstrates by equating the fear of death to the metaphysicality of presence of human wisdom. Life is an experience that all beings share—it is a palpable existence through presence. Contrastingly, through death, the individual is forced into absence and resultantly death is assumed to be the ultimate annihilation of life and the horizon of non-being. Life, then, by being present, is prioritized over death, illustrating the hierarchical favouring of presence that is constitutive of logocentrism; it is accordingly considered to be desirable and morally good. Death, as thought of as the complete opposite of life, is regarded as intrinsically bad and something to be feared. 

Socrates destabilizes the dichotomic space between life and death by presenting a radical desire for death. He argues that the association of these negative connotations with the idea of death is a “pretence of wisdom” in as much as it is ultimately insinuating a basis of knowledge—that is, in fact, nonexistent—vis-à-vis the experience of death that allows one to fear it; it is a concealment of a fear of the unknown (29a). He compares himself with Achilles’ last battle with Hector as a means to argue that desiring life, following the announcement of his verdict and his penalty, would demand of him to stop practicing his philosophy—an action which he believes is appointed to him by the gods and would thereby be morally wrong to do (28e). On the other hand, no one can truly know the morality of death as it is an aporetic ground of non-knowledge, which leads Socrates to claim that he “shall never fear or avoid things of which [he does] not know, for whether they may not be good rather than things that I know to be bad” (29b). In his acknowledgment of his lack of wisdom, then, Socrates demonstrates how death is the best, most morally sound option for him, and he consequently rejects the conventional definition of death that reviles it according to a logocentric binary. His deconstruction of death is therefore a continuation of his defense against Meletus’ first accusations. 

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense synthesizes the Socratic method and free ‘play’ to reverse the order of what is normally considered to be attainable human wisdom. In his engagement of a dialogue based on questions and answers deconstructing the concept of knowledge and subsequently of death, it is important to notice that Socrates never offers a concrete definition for these terms; there is never a stable or factual answer given to his investigation, leaving thereby a void ground—one constituted by absence—as the only foundation for everything society has claimed to understand, as per Derrida’s theorization of language’s inherent instability. That said, my argument in this analysis of Socrates’ apology—and I do hope this has come across sufficiently—is not positing for the impossibility of knowledge, but rather that the absence of such does not render it nonexistent. Despite the glaring aporia in the process of meaning-making, Socrates reveals that the negation of an absolute truth (or, put otherwise, a non-knowledge) is still something to be taken as a truth. By illustrating the multiplicity of signification in diction, Socrates’ language is able to produce a double-meaning in the sign ‘knowledge.’ It is thus only through his lack of a centering λόγος that he successfully negates his accusations, revealing thus the essence of language in its natural state in his defense. The failure of Socrates’ argument, then, is entirely due to the confinement of this very language into logocentric fallacies. 

  1.  All uses of the word “play” in this analysis and its adjacent forms follow the Derridean definition of “free play,” which I will expand on later in this paper.
  2.  It is important to note that, despite the obvious similarities between Socratic dialogues and Derridean deconstructionism that I will elaborate on further in this paper, I am not claiming to know or understand Socrates’ intentions behind his defense, nor am I attempting to present him as a predecessor of Derridean thought. I acknowledge that my research is theoretically speculative and thereby this paper should be read as a purely interpretive work.
  3.  This Derridean concept, which Derrida refers to as “hauntology,” became popularized once it appeared in Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994), which deals with the aftermath of the failure of the French revolts in May ’68 against the people’s capitalist conditions of living. He uses hauntology to demonstrate that the spirit of communism (as defined by the emancipation of human beings against capitalism) will always absently haunt society, as the titular ‘specters of Marx’ will haunt communism itself.
  4.  I draw the term “aporetic” from Derrida’s theorization of the aporia. In the context of literary analysis, this term refers to the phenomenon in which a text centers around a lack of knowledge, rendering thereby the absence of the centering to be, in itself, the center of the text (Writing and Difference, 154).
  5.  Derrida, in Of Grammatology (1976), defines the φωνή as such: “What is said of sound in general is a fortiori for the phonè by which, by virtue of hearing (understanding) oneself speak—an indissociable system—the subject affects itself and is related to itself in the element of ideality,” (12). Our own physical vocalization, according to Derrida, is irrefutably linked to how we view ourselves. Since this term reveals how our speech—and thereby language—affects the production of thought, it is pertinent to include this word in this sentence.

Works Cited

Plato. “Apology.” Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: from Thales to Aristotle. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Hackett Publishing Company, 2000, 112-130. 

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

———. Specters of Marx. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. Routledge, 1994. Kindle edition.

———. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. The University of Chicago Press, 1978. Kindle edition.