Plato uses the term dialectic throughout his works to refer to whatever method he happens to be recommending as the vehicle of philosophy. The term, from dialegesthai, meaning to converse or talk through, gives insight into his core conception of the project. Yet it is also evident that he stresses different aspects of the conversational method in different dialogues.
The form of dialectic featured in the Socratic works became the basis of subsequent practice in the Academy—where it was taught by Aristotle—and in the teachings of the Skeptics during the Hellenistic Age. While the conversation in a Socratic dialogue unfolds naturally, it features a process by which even someone who lacks knowledge of a given subject (as Socrates in these works claims to do) may test the understanding of a putative expert. The testing consists of a series of questions posed in connection with a position the interlocutor is trying to uphold. The method presupposes that one cannot have knowledge of any fact in isolation; what is known must be embedded in a larger explanatory structure. Thus, in order to know if a certain act is pious, one must know what piety is. This requirement licenses the questioner to ask the respondent about issues suitably related to his original claim. If, in the course of this process, a contradiction emerges, the supposed expert is revealed not to command knowledge after all: if he did, his grasp of the truth would have enabled him to avoid contradiction. While both Socrates and the Skeptics hoped to find the truth (a skeptikos is after all a “seeker”), the method all too often reveals only the inadequacy of the respondent. Since he has fallen into contradiction, it follows that he is not an expert, but this does not automatically reveal what the truth is.
By the time of the composition of the Republic, Plato’s focus had shifted to developing positive views, and thus “dialectic” was now thought of not as a technique of testing but as a means of “saying of each thing what it is.” The Republic stresses that true dialectic is performed by thinking solely of the abstract and nonsensible realm of forms; it requires that reason secure an unhypothetical first principle (the Good) and then derive other results in light of it. Since this part of the dialogue is merely a programmatic sketch, however, no actual examples of the activity are provided, and indeed some readers have wondered whether it is really possible.
In the later dialogue Parmenides, dialectic is introduced as an exercise that the young Socrates must undertake if he is to understand the forms properly. The exercise, which Parmenides demonstrates in the second part of the work, is extremely laborious: a single instance involves the construction of eight sections of argument; the demonstration then takes up some three-quarters of the dialogue. The exercise challenges the reader to make a distinction associated with a sophisticated development of the theory of Platonic forms (see below The theory of forms). Even after a general understanding has been achieved, repeating the exercise with different subjects allows one to grasp each subject’s role in the world.
This understanding of dialectic gives a central place to specifying each subject’s account in terms of genus and differentiae (and so, relatedly, to mapping its position in a genus-species tree). The Phaedrus calls the dialectician the person who can specify these relations—and thereby “carve reality at the joints.” Continuity among all the kinds of dialectic in Plato comes from the fact that the genus-species divisions of the late works are a way of providing the accounts that dialectic sought in all the previous works.