Socratic Irony and Neuroscience

Insights Into One of Our Most Important But Least Understood Philosophers

By William Hirstein, Ph.D. in Mindmelding, Psychology Today

The philosopher Socrates lived from 469 to 399 B.C. Although he is one of history’s most famous philosophers—arguably the most famous—he never wrote a word, unless we count a poem that he wrote in prison in Athens while awaiting execution. Why, you ask, was someone so important put to death? We know a great deal about the events leading up to his execution, mainly from an amazing document that survives, called the Apology. It was written by Plato and purports to be a recounting of what Socrates said in his defense at his trial. But, trial for what you ask, what was he charged with? The official charge was impiety, which to the Athenians at that time meant roughly that he was not a good citizen. That charge consisted of three counts: First, Socrates was charged with not worshipping the gods of Athens, second, he was charged with creating new gods, and third, he was charged with corrupting the youth. The last charge came about because many young men would follow Socrates around as he questioned the leading citizens of Athens, or anyone who claimed to have knowledge. The records of these interactions are part of what are known as the platonic dialogues, marvelous works of literature produced by his student Plato that depict what Socratic questioning was like. In them, Socrates shows via questioning that the person he is talking with who is claiming to have knowledge really doesn’t possess it, since he contradicts himself, or is simply unable to answer Socrates’ questions adequately.

The dialogues also contain something else—known as Socratic irony—that has long been one of the great mysteries of western philosophy. While questioning people, Socrates often compliments them and their “knowledge,” even though we suspect that he believes they are ignorant. In one of the best-known dialogues, the Euthyphro, Socrates questions the priest Euthyphro about the nature of piety, hoping to obtain information he can use in his defense. It is obvious that Euthyphro has little real knowledge about piety, despite his claims to know virtually everything about it. Yet several times Socrates compliments him, saying that Euthyphro must be “an extraordinary man” who has “made great strides in wisdom,” and that he cannot do better than assent to Euthyphro’s “superior wisdom” and become his disciple. Why would Socrates do this?

Another part of the puzzle is tied to another of the charges, the one about Socrates creating new gods. He says on several occasions that he hears the voice of a daemon, a word meaning something like a minor god. He says that this voice, which he began to hear in childhood, is always inhibitory, in that it only stops him from doing things, never positive. He says toward the end of his defense at his trial that he is not concerned about the combative attitude he has taken in his speech, since the daemon never objected. Before, he says, it would even stop him in the middle of a sentence if he was about to say something false.

One of the first breakthroughs in neuroscience that could be applied to our everyday psychology appeared in Antonio Damasio’s 1994 book, Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. He extensively tested a patient, known as EVR, who has suffered brain damage to his orbitofrontal cortex, located just above the orbits of the eyes, as a result of a tumor. Initially, after surgery to remove the tumor, Damasio could find nothing wrong with EVR. He easily passed all the neurological tests Damasio could think to give him, typically scoring at above normal levels. But there was clearly something wrong with him. His private life was a disaster, from failed businesses to failed marriages, caused by one disastrous decision after another, whereas before the tumor he had been a prudent businessmand and a good husband.

Finally, along with his colleagues, Damasio tested EVR on a new task, a gambling game played with decks of cards depicted on a touch-screen monitor. Four decks of cards were displayed. The subject touches one deck, and a card is revealed that says, “Win $10” or “Lose $5”. Two of the decks result in small but steady gains over time. The other two, the risky decks, result in large losses and gains, but over time the subject will lose all of the (imaginary) money he started with. Normal people learn rather quickly to stick to the two safe decks, often before they are consciously aware of which decks to avoid. Damasio and his colleagues recorded skin-conductance responses—sweating of the hands—as the subject chose and found that normal people got a response just prior to reaching for a risky deck, but that EVR did not. He interpreted this to mean that EVR had lost a sort of gut-level inhibition that keeps us from doing unwise things. The response comes from the sympathetic branch of the autonomic system, and is more popularly known as the fight-or-flight response.

Notice the similarity to the daemon of Socrates. Just as with the daemon, the autonomic response only signals negatively, and it keeps us from doing imprudent things. But what is the connection to irony, you ask? After Damasio’s work, research began to appear in the literature of cognitive neuroscience showing that the orbitfrontal cortex also responds when people hear irony (Shibata et al., 2010; Wakusawa et al., 2007), and that people who had brain damage in this area caused by dementia were unable to understand sarcasm (Kipps et al., 2009). Perhaps what happens is that the people hear the ironic or sarcastic remark, and they get a negative response to it, which tells them that it is meant to be false. Notice that getting this negative response depends on specific knowledge about the mind of the speaker, otherwise the ironic remark might be interpreted as a lie, or a very ignorant claim. The listener needs to have a model of the speaker’s mind in his own mind. As the researchers point out, the part of the orbitofrontal cortex activated is also thought to be part of what is known as the mindreading system—a system of brain areas that we use to interpret the mental states of others. Perhaps this is why Socrates interpreted the negative voice in his head as being person-like—it is a mind within his mind, actually a model of a mind within his mind.

But what exactly is Socrates’ goal in employing irony? I suspect that by using irony Socrates is testing the person he is questioning, to see whether he also has a daemon, a critical voice that responds when false claims are made. Even when the person fails his test, as Euthyphro clearly does, Socrates continues to question him, since he knows that he himself can act as the daemon for the other person. Perhaps Socrates needs the other person to create ideas for him to criticize, rather like an early type of brainstorming. Hence another function of irony is that it encourages the person to talk, to produce material for Socrates to criticize. This goading works well on Euthyphro. It gets him to divulge knowledge that he obviously regards as secret and special. Socrates is typically delighted when someone claims to have all sorts of knowledge, knowing that he will make a good subject for questioning.

What all this indicates is that human thought requires a combination of two faculties, a positive, creative one, and a negative, critical one. The negative one can take the form of a human mind. There are obviously many connections here to what we know as conscience: Socrates’s voice sometimes stops him from doing unethical things; conscience functions negatively, just as the daemon does; some dementia patients begins doing unethical things. I will save these topics for another entry.



Damasio, A. Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1994.

Kipps, C. M., Nestor, P. J., Acosta-Cabronero, J., Arnold, R., and Hodges, J. R. Understanding social dysfunction in the behavioural variant of frontotemporal dementia: The role of emotion and sarcasm processing. Brain 2009; 132: 592-603.

Shibata, M., Toyomura, A., Itoh, H., and Abe, J. Neural substrates of irony comprehension: A functional MRI study. Brain Research 2010; 1308: 114-123.

Wakusawa, K., Sugiura, M., Sassa, Y., Jeong, H., Horie, K., Sato, S., Yokoyama, H., Tsuchiya, S., Inuma, K., and Kawashima, R. Comprehension of implicit meanings in social situations involving irony: A functional MRI study. NeuroImage 2007; 37(4): 1417-1426.


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