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Socratic method? What's that?

Andrew Kern

7 socrates

Classical education emphasizes "Socratic dialogue," a mode of teaching named after the famous Greek philosopher Socrates. But what is Socratic teaching? You may have heard that it is "question driven instruction". This isn't wrong, but it's not entirely right. Anyone can ask questions. 

For Socrates it was about Truth. He was so confident that the truth could be known, he developed strategies to discover it. Socrates knew it is hard to see the truth, so he followed a path to rise from error and to raise others from error as well. It has been called the Socratic Method, though Socrates would probably not agree that there is a "method" being followed. Instead, there is a goal: to perceive truth; and there is a means: dialectical thought.

In the simplest sense, Socratic, or dialectical thinking, means examining each thought in order to remove every contradiction and inconsistency. When the inconsistencies are cleaned up, we can move forward to new insights, often using analogies and comparisons from what we already know.

Socrates' approach, when fully realized, passes through two stages.

The first stage is perhaps best called the Ironic stage. Socrates asks questions that help his student see the contradictions and inconsistencies in the student's opinion. If the student is willing to see what Socrates shows him, then he will say those magic words: I don't know. He has reached what Socrates' prodigy, Plato, calls "metanoia," the Greek word for repentance. It means "a change of mind." According to Socrates, the person who accepts his own ignorance is prepared to see the truth.

Socrates then begins the second stage. Here he helps the student remedy his ignorance. Whereas the goal in the first stage was to demonstrate the disharmony of the student's thought, the goal of the second stage is to restore harmony on a more solid foundation.

Underlying this "method" were at least four Socratic convictions:

1.  Truth is. 2.  Truth is knowable. 3.  Truth can be discovered. 4.  Truth is ultimately one [in the sense that all things fit together into a harmonious symphony of being].

The Sophists, Socrates' intellectual adversaries, denied each of these convictions. They believed there is no truth; and even if there was, you couldn't know it; and even if you could, you couldn't communicate it to someone else. Consequently, according to the Sophists, there is no principle of harmony, no logos to guide inquiry. You have your truth and I have mine. We live in two different mental universes.

The late 19th century saw the wide-spread triumph of the Sophist in the American school. Whereas Socrates tried to deconstruct a student's thoughts in order to bring healing, the Sophist (and the conventional educator) goes in a very different direction. Like Socrates, the Sophist has two stages, but not those of the classical educator. Socrates sought to expose contradictions. The Sophist seeks to debunk. Socrates sought to bring healing by remediating his disciples' ignorance. The Sophist seeks to condition. After all, when there is no truth to seek, all the teacher can do is influence students.

That's why, for educators who seek to cultivate wisdom and virtue in students, Socratic teaching is a meaningful, useful, and even necessary approach. For only a student who learns to seek Truth relentlessly can be truly wise and virtuous. And only a teacher who seeks Truth can be anything other than a tyrant, petty or otherwise.