Perhaps the greatest philosophical personality in history was Socrates. Unlike the Sophists, Socrates refused to accept payment for his teachings, maintaining that he had no positive knowledge to offer, except the awareness of the need for more knowledge. Despite his humble self-opinion, it was through Socrates that Greek philosophy attained its highest level. His avowed purpose was "to fulfill the philosopher's mission of searching into myself and other men".
The Socratic Method
Socrates was not a systematic philosopher and was content to teach mainly by informal discussion, using the Socratic method of feigning ignorance and asking questions of people so as to expose their own lack of real knowledge.
After a proposition had been stated, the philosopher asked a series of questions designed to test and refine the proposition by examining its consequences and discovering whether it was consistent with the known facts. The philosopher's task, Socrates believed, was to provoke people into thinking for themselves, rather than to teach them anything they did not already know.
Socrates taught that every person has full knowledge of ultimate truth contained within his soul and needs only to be spurred to conscious reflection in order to become aware of it. In Plato's dialogue Meno Socrates guides an untutored slave to the formulation of Pythagorean theorem, thus demonstrating that such knowledge is innate in the soul, rather than learned form experience.
Socrates described the soul not in terms of mysticism but as "that in virtue of which we are called wise or foolish, good or bad". In other words, Socrates considered the soul to be a combination of an individual's intelligence and character.
It seems that Socrates had studied the speculations of the Ionians and the Atomists about the nature of the world, but had been disappointed by them and so had turned to the study of man himself.
In this concern with moral questions Socrates is, in a sense, a descendant of the Sophists. Moreover he makes use of the dialectic method of the Sophists, though with him this method is always used in the service of the truth. The Socratic Method assumes a trust in reason and objective truth and emphasizes that one must, in acquiring knowledge, begin by being humble before reality.
His contribution to the history of thought was not a systematic doctrine but a method of thinking and a way of life. He stressed the need for analytical examination of the grounds of one's beliefs, for clear definitions of basic concepts, and for a rational and critical approach to ethical problems. Socrates left no writings as records of his thought, but his teachings were preserved for later generations in the dialogues of his famous pupil Plato.