Anime Philosophy #5: Phoenix Wright Games and the Socratic Method

Updated on March 3, 2018
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Nigel has been playing video games ever since he first picked up a Master System controller in his diapers. Nintendo fanboy.

Editors Note: Despite being included in my "Anime Philosophy" series, this article is strictly about the Ace Attorney video games.

I love the Ace Attorney games. Absolutely love them. As someone who makes a hobby of studying philosophy on the side, I became enthralled with the games ever since I first played through "Dual Destinies" when it first came out. Then when Capcom released the bundle of original GBA/DS games on the Nintendo eShop, I picked those up and played them. I was drawn to them because of one thing I noticed was a recurring theme through the games: The use of Socratic Method to move the plot forward.

Now, I would like to think that, in an ideal world, we could use the Socratic Method to resolve issues with ease, but unfortunately we can't. This is something that could only work in the Phoenix Wright games. But before we get into discussing what the Socratic Method is, and how Phoenix Wright uses it, we must first discuss a little about what makes the Phoenix Wright universe different from our own.

The Stern (albeit daft) Judge that presides over court cases in the Ace Attorney Games.
The Stern (albeit daft) Judge that presides over court cases in the Ace Attorney Games. | Source

The Initial Trial System

The Ace Attorney series of games are a visual novel/mystery adventure series that take place in an alternate timeline to our own. Using a point-and-click interface, you search the crime scene for clues and interview witnesses.

In this alternate timeline, in order to deal with a backlog of court cases a new justice system is introduced in the early 2010s called "The Initial Trial System." Trials are limited to only three days of length, and if the defense attorney cannot prove his client's innocence in court during that time, then the charges stand and the case moved to a higher court for determining the sentence (Hence, why this is referred to as an "initial trial").

Features of the "Initial Trial System" include:

  • It lays with the defense to prove the defendant's innocence (no presumption of innocence)
  • No jury. All trial's are performed by judge (Except for one trial, as part of an experiment to reform the justice system). There are also no "lay judges," however a judge may also question witnesses in addition to cross-examinations performed by the defense.
  • Attorneys are responsible for gathering their own evidence.
  • Evidence need not be disclosed until actually presented in court.
  • Both the defense and the district attorneys may present evidence or call upon witnesses, but burden of proof lays with the presenter.
  • Trials must be completed within three days. If a defense attorney fails to prove the defendant's absolute innocence, the defendant is declared guilty, regardless of whatever doubts exist.

"It doesn't matter how many underhanded tricks a person uses... The truth will always find a way to make itself known. The only thing we can do is to fight with the knowledge we hold and everything we have. Erasing the paradoxes one by one... It's never easy... We claw and scratch for every inch. But we will always eventually reach that one single truth. This I promise you"

— Miles Edgeworth on what it means to be a lawyer, "Ace Attorney, Justice for All"

The Socratic Method and What it Means to Be a Lawyer

The Socratic method is a form of cooperative debate used heavily in the works of Plato by his character Socrates. It is unclear if this was used at all by the historical Socrates, however, Plato used it in his many of his writings, called "Dialogues" to illustrate an arriving at the truth through two opposing viewpoints interacting with each other. The method is also sometimes referred to as dialectic.

In a simplified sense, the dialectic works as follows:

  • One person takes an initial position. This is known as the Thesis.
  • Another person takes the opposing position, which is known as the Antithesis.
  • Through examination of evidence and rigorous debate, both positions move closer to something in between, this new position is called the synthesis.
  • The synthesis becomes the new thesis and the pattern continues.

You may notice that this is a pattern that could go on forever. When Socrates would engage in dialogue with his interlocutors, Socrates rarely was ever trying to point out any truths. Rather, he was simply attempting to make his opponents give up and admit their own ignorance, much like Socrates himself. There is a tale about the Oracle of Delphi, upon being asked who is the wisest person in the world, responded that "There is no man wiser than Socrates." Socrates, not considering himself wise at all, concluded that this could only mean that other people were ignorant to there lack of wisdom, and proceeded to make them as wise as himself by convincing them of their own folly.

In modern times, the Socratic Method has been adapted to teach through critical thinking, and encouraging people to adapt and challenge their preconceived viewpoints, with the goal of eventually finding a universal truth. The methods are sometimes unusual as often tactics involve trying to put your "opponent" in a position where they contradict themselves, pointing out contradictions in logic, providing concrete evidence to support your position or concrete evidence that contradicts your opponent's position. Both participants continue in this manner until a synthesis is reached, then the synthesis becomes the thesis and debate continues until a truth is finally arrived at that neither side can find any evidence to challenge.

Miles Edgeworth, as prosecutor, is one of the interlocutors in courtroom debate.
Miles Edgeworth, as prosecutor, is one of the interlocutors in courtroom debate. | Source

I myself know nothing, except just a little, enough to extract an argument from another man who is wise and to receive it fairly.

— Socrates, Theaetetus, 161b

I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do the greatest good privately to everyone of you, thither I went, and sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the State before he looks to the interests of the State; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions.

— Socrates (through Plato) "Apology" 36 c-d

The Dialectic in Ace Attorney

So, now that we have a basic understanding of the Socratic method, let's explore the world in which Phoenix Wright lives.

You play as Phoenix Wright, an attorney in an alternative near-future Los Angeles with an alternate history that was more friendly to Japanese immigration. Throughout the games, you defend various clients in courtroom from false charges against a variety of prosecutors, most notably Miles Edgeworth, a childhood friend who also grew up to study law.

As you and the prosecutor present evidence, refute each other's positions, point out contradictions in each other's arguments, you become closer to solving the crime and not only obtaining a "not guilty" verdict for client, but also finding out who the real criminal is. If this sounds familiar, it's either because you watch too much Perry Mason or Matlock, or because you recognize this as the dialect in action.

In debate, the participants are referred to as interlocutors. In the case of the trial system in Ace Attorney, the interlocutors are yourself and the prosecutor. The prosecutor makes his thesis: He describes the crime and posits that the defendant committed it. You reply with the antithesis: That your client is innocent. Through hearing witness testimony, both sides counter each other's argument. You find out where testimony (which usually favors the prosecution) contradicts the evidence or the prosecutors position, and the prosecutor will do the same towards you.

The prosecution and yourself also subtly refine your positions over time. The prosecution might change their position on how the crime was committed, you'll change your position as to what else may have actually occurred at the scene of the crime or the events leading up to the crime until finally you have removed enough false information that whatever remains as truth can point you towards a suspect.

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

— Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier (1926)
Yes. That is indeed an Orca testifying on the witness stand. Socratic Method often takes a turn for the absurd, and so often does the Ace Attorney series.
Yes. That is indeed an Orca testifying on the witness stand. Socratic Method often takes a turn for the absurd, and so often does the Ace Attorney series. | Source

Of course, once you have a suspect in place, the tables turn. While parts of the prosecutors thesis has changed, the main thesis hasn't. That is, he still has to prove that your client was the one responsible for the crime. While most of the dialectic has been you finding contradictions and poking holes in his thesis, now it is him doing this to you.

Throughout all this, there will be periods of synthesis. In the initial trial system, there is really no "agreed statement of facts" as part of the pretrial process. Rather, at various points during the debate, parts of each other's arguments - and sometimes even theses - will be things you agree upon, and be adapted into each other's arguments

You both continue to refine your thesis surrounding the events that happened leading up to the crime, until eventually, neither the prosecutor nor the witness that you have accused can refute your argument. At this point, the judge becomes satisfied that the evidence and testimonies determine that your client is not guilty and issues an order for the trial of the real perpetrator.

Closing Arguments: Miles Edgeworth and Truth

Throughout the game series you'll face off against a number of prosecutors, but none will be more noteworthy than Miles Edgeworth. Most prosecutors are concerned with only one thing: Winning a case, and maintaining a perfect record of victories. At first, Edgeworth is no different, having never lost a case since first becoming a prosecutor. But after losing several cases to Phoenix Wright, and also having Wright successfully represent him when he himself was framed for murder, he took a break from law and traveled to answer one simple question: "What is a lawyer?"

In the end, he came back with a simple premise: The purpose of a lawyer is to seek the truth. And he argues that this is regardless of what side of the courtroom you sit on. Socrates debated on very esoteric concepts, what is virtue, what is justice, what is love. But in Phoenix and Miles had the advantage of having very specific and concrete subjects to debate over: the exact events that happened that lead to a crime.

Of course, as prosecutor, Edgeworth fights hard to attempt to prove that people committed a crime, even if the defendant is totally innocent. But that's because he firmly believes that when both the prosecutor and defense argue with all their might, only then can the truth be revealed. It is in these moments, when Wright and Edgeworth give it their all in the courtroom that you see that by debating each other they are actually working together, and getting closer to solving the case and finding the truth.

If Socrates ever asks "What is Beauty?" I would start my argument precisely with that.

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