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What is Socratic Dialogue?

Plato in his academy, painting by Swedish pain...

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Classical education places a great emphasis on Socratic dialogue, but what do we mean when we use the title? Is it question driven instruction? Is there some pre-determined answer the teacher is looking for from the student? Well, Plato is not a writer for either the overly serious (no sense of humor? Don’t read the Symposium) or the vacuous (don’t care about justice? Don’t read the Republic), so there is no simple answer to this question. If you have drawn a firm conclusion about what Socrates meant by a given argument, chances are you missed the point! But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading Plato’s works. On the contrary, it’s what makes them so breathtakingly insightful and profitable. They reflect reality: you know, that place where we keep thinking we understand things only to discover that we were thinking like mere neophytes, that place where we live. But you can’t conclude from this that Socrates/Plato didn’t believe in anything. On the contrary, it was their conviction that truth was knowable that compelled them to contend with the Sophists, who believed that truth was relative or unknowable.

They were so confident that the truth was knowable that they developed strategies for discovering it, and these strategies have proven to be stunningly effective. The post-enlightenment world, however, does not believe that the truth can be known. As a result, they don’t teach the tools of the classical tradition, the lost tools of learning, as Dorothy Sayers called them. Socrates was aware that people were not open to the truth and that they had many barriers to reaching it. He knew that we all spend most of our time living in error. So he developed a procedure by which he was able to rise from error himself and to raise others from error as well. It has come to be called Socratic Method, though I think that Socrates would not agree that there is a “method” being followed. His approach, when fully realized, passes through two stages, which are most clearly demonstrated in the passage in the Meno when he teaches geometry to an ignorant slave boy.

Doubling the square as in Plato´s Meno

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The first stage is what we can appropriately call by a modern term: deconstruction, but which we often call the “ironic.” During this stage, Socrates asks questions that help the disciple see the contradictions and inadequacies in his opinion. If the disciple is willing to accept the obvious, then he will say those magic words: I don’t know. He has reached what Plato calls “metanoia,” which is the Biblical word for repentance and means “to turn around.” When you know you are ignorant, you are now teachable.

Socrates now begins the second stage of his teaching, which he calls remediation or the “maieutic” (maieutic means mid-wifing, which is the analogy Socrates describes for helping the disciple “give birth” to the idea—you can read about this in the Theaetetus). Now he will guide the student to “remedy his ignorance.” As the goal in the first stage was to demonstrate the disharmony of the student’s thought (contradictions, inconsistencies, etc.), the goal of the second stage is to restore harmony on a more solid foundation. Underlying this “method” were at least four Socratic convictions. First, truth is. Second, truth is knowable. Third, truth can be discovered. And fourth, truth is ultimately one, in the sense that all things fit together into a harmonious symphony of being.

The sophists denied each of these convictions. For them, there was no truth, and if there was, you couldn’t know it, and if you could, you couldn’t communicate it to another person. Consequently, there is no harmony of being to guide our inquiry. You have your truth and I have mine. The late 19th century saw the wide spread triumph of the Sophist in the American school. Whereas Socrates tried to deconstruct in order to bring healing, the Sophist and the modern goes in a very different direction. He also has two stages, but they are ugly. Socrates sought to expose contradictions. The Modern Sophist seeks to debunk. Socrates sought to bring healing by remediating his disciples’ ignorance. The Modern Sophist seeks to condition. After all, when there is no truth to seek, all we are left with is power. And that is all we are left with.

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