Some Notes on the Nonexistence of the Socratic Method

Recently, on a trip to Bisbee, browsing in that town's public library, I happened upon the collected works of Plato in English translation (it was Hackett's useful edition) and, on opening it, dislodged some handwritten notes that someone had scribbled on various-sized scraps of thin, yellowed paper.

Gathering the scraps as best I could (some may have slipped beneath the shelves of the Philosophy section, but I was pressed for time, and could not search thoroughly), and collating the notes into a rough kind of order, I realized that the slips contained an argument, or at least the beginnings of something resembling an argument.

And believing the argument (or at least that much of it as I could reconstruct and discern) to be not entirely devoid of interesting points, I thought it would be worthwhile to publish some of the gathered scraps, with a few clarifying headings and some minor edits (for ease of reading), here for the Readers of The Kindling to consider, so that they might help decide whether the scraps' argument contains any hint of truth, or whether the underlying thought is nothing other than the crazed notions of some Platonic dabbler from the southern part of our state.

Here, then, Readers of The Kindling, are the notes assembled for publication:

The Thesis

The Socratic method does not exist.

A Sign that the Thesis is True

No one talks about anything called the Jesus procedure.

No one talks about anything called the Buddha technique.

No one talks about anythinganyhting called the St. Francis process or the St. Thérèse system.

Why?

We recognize that it does not make sense to reduce a great personality to something that sounds like a standardized and reproducible manner of acting, thinking, or feeling.

The Argument

Definition of "Method"

What is a method?

The dictionary offers these two definitions:

  • A careful or organized plan that controls the way something is done.
  • A procedure or process for attaining an object.

What Was Socrates Actually Doing?

Here is a sketch of what Socrates was doing:

  • Socrates talked to people.
  • Socrates asked questions.
  • Socrates listened to a speaker's argument, tried to find the unstated suppositions needed to make the speaker's argument work, and then questioned the speaker about the truth and sensibility of those suppositions.
  • Socrates paid attention during conversations, and if a speaker said something later in the conversation that contradicted something that the speaker had said earlier, Socrates would draw the speaker's attention to the contradiction and insist that it be resolved.

Here is a reminder of what Socrates was not doing:

  • Socrates did not operate a school.
  • Socrates did not have a curriculum.
  • Socrates did not have a scope and sequence for any material that he would cover.
  • Socrates did not have any recurring scheduled times during which he met with students.
  • Socrates did not state or explain any series of steps by which he approached or interacted with students.
  • Socrates did not really have "students." He did not have any formal or official teacher-student relationship with anyone. He was not part of any organization in which that relationship existed, nor did he accept payment as any kind of independent contractor for teaching services (as the Sophists were doing).
  • Socrates did not administer examinations, and he certainly did not administer examinations that could be widely reproduced and administered en masse with bubble sheets and Number 2 pencils or government-mandated, computerized testing applications.
  • Socrates did not have a way of quantifying how much material anyone learned from him.
  • Socrates did not have a way of ranking or categorizing the degree to which anyone benefitted from his conversation or questions (Plato: A+; Alcibiades: D-).

One could say:

Socrates was just a guy who talked about things and who asked people questions when the things that those people said didn't make any sense.

Conclusion of the Argument

If Socrates was a guy who talked with people and insisted that they say things that were not contradictory, it does not make sense to say that he had a careful, controlled plan or manner for attaining an object — i.e., that he had "a method."

Talking with people and asking them questions is not careful or controlled. Talking with people does not always (or even usually) result in the resolution of contradictions in the arguments or the discussion.

Talking with actual people and asking them real questions is random, messy, and unpredictable. In talking with people, there is no guarantee that discussing questions is going to result in the resolution of contradictions. Rather than reaching satisfactory resolution, people might just end up confused and angry. Or people might evade the import of a question, falling back on commonplaces and pat answers.

Socrates did not have a method. Socrates talked, asked questions, and insisted that contradictions be faced rather than avoided or ignored.

If a person coming after Socrates wants to talk, ask questions, and insist that contradictions be faced rather than avoided or ignored, that person should not think that he or she is implementing a Socratic "method."

It would be truer and better for that person to think of himself or herself as imitating Socrates.

A Practical Proposal Following from the Argument: The Imitation of Socrates

I propose that we no longer speak of the Socratic method.

I propose that we speak of the imitation of Socrates.

A Qualifier for the Argument

The conclusion in the argument above — i.e., that there is no Socratic "method" — rests on a premise:

Talking with people and asking them questions is not careful or controlled.

To be rightly understood, the premise really depends on introducing the qualifiers genuinely and genuine into the proposition.

This may illustrate what I mean:

Illustration: The Car Salesman

I had to buy a 15-passenger van in July. The salesman was talking with me and asking me questions. He and his questions were careful and controlled (methodical). He was steering me toward a conclusion: Buy the van for the price the dealership wants to sell it.

The salesman was not genuinely talking with me. His questions about my family, my financial situation, and my need for a 15-passenger van weren't genuine. His talk and his questions were calculated to steer me to the conclusion he had in mind.

Similarly, a person could set himself up in a classroom and say: "I'm going to do the Socratic method." He could talk with his students and ask them questions. But if he is using the talk and the questions to steer his students toward some pre-determined, organizationally-approved outcome — a safe, sanctioned conclusion — that he has in mind, then he is a salesman. He is not genuinely talking with his students or asking them genuine questions. He is not doing what Socrates would have done.

[Nota Bene: The Reader will understand that the Bisbee author's reference to the purchase of a 15-passenger van in July was extremely startling to me, as I myself had just purchased a vehicle of that exact type in that very month. — JNH]

Why is the Idea of a Socratic Method Inevitably Attractive?

If an author argues that the Socratic method does not exist and proposes that a new phrase be used in its place (i.e., the imitation of Socrates), that author should face the practical difficulties raised by his argument and his proposal.

That is, the author should express an understanding that, for practical purposes, the phrase Socratic method is unlikely to give way to anything else in contemporary usage.

First, the phrase Socratic method, besides being entrenched in usage, has a certain cachet, prestige, and sexiness. Some parents like being able to say that their kids go to a school with "Great Books," a "classical" curriculum, and "the Socratic method." Some schools like being able to say that they offer those things; it sounds good to those people to whom they want it to sound good. (Note: I put those terms in quotes not because of any cynicism suggesting that they are devoid of all meaning and goodness, but only to signify that the terms are often used as buzzwords and catchphrases. [Nota Bene: The reader should understand that the parenthetical notes, as opposed to the notes in the square brackets, are the Bisbee author's original notations. — JNH])

Second, the imitation of Socrates as I've described it would be difficult to talk about and to explain at a school. Many parents don't want to think that their kid is going to be subject to genuine questions. Genuine questions can lead to the re-evaluation of piously held beliefs or to radical doubt. Many parents want a method: a set curriculum from which their kid will emerge smarter, quantifiably improved, and intellectually safe.

Third, institutions that talk about the Socratic method want to be able to truly offer a real method. An institution does not want its teachers to be a collection of persons each individually committed to asking genuine questions and engaging in genuine discussions. That's impossible to control. The institution can't guarantee quantifiable, reproducible outcomes.

The IKEA Analogy

An educational institution is tempted to be like IKEA.

IKEA has attractive displays and tidily packaged delivery systems. The customer goes to IKEA, sees the displays, and desires something just as orderly, lovely, and useful in the customer's own home.

The customer goes to the IKEA warehouse, picks up the cardboard box (or boxes) containing the furniture parts, and takes the box home. Everything is in the box. The customer may have to work a bit to get everything assembled, but it's not a real, anxiety-inducing, make-something-exist-that-did-not-exist-before kind of work. There's no art involved at that point. There's no risk. All the art — all the real risk — went into designing the furniture in such a way that it would be attractive and guaranteed for easy assembly.

The IKEA customer is safe and feels assured that he or she is getting something that works and leads to a definite, attractive outcome.

An educational institution can be tempted to commit itself to producing effects that are uniformly attractive and guaranteed.

Like the customer going to IKEA looking for a boxed, hassle-free, manageable solution, a parent can approach an educational institution with a similar attitude:

Provide me an educational experience that is already thought-out, fairly easy to handle, and reasonably attractive.

Provide genuine — potentially soul-disturbing — intellectual struggle? The kind that moves a person beyond his or her current mental frontiers?

No, thank you. That would be like IKEA handing out bandsaws or chisels.

Dangerous.

Unpredictable results.

Not part of the business model; nothing that either the business or the customer really wants.

Some Positive Points

The thesis and argument are negative:

  • The Socratic method does not exist. Or: 
  • The term 'method' does not describe what a teacher is doing, if the teacher is genuinely doing what Socrates was doing.

But some positive points should be touched on:

  • Mechanical Method vs. Human Love: Rather than a Socratic method, we can speak of a Socratic imitation. The imitation of Socrates. Imitatio Socratis. Imitation is less mechanical, more human — more humane — than method. Imitation is natural — inspired by love.
  • Artisanal, Craft-Based Teaching: If Socratic imitation is not viable, perhaps Socratic art or Socratic craft can serve as useful replacements for Socratic method. An economy eager for artisanal bread and locally crafted beer may be capable of receiving an educational approach embodied in the Socratic craft.
  • Socratic Personalism: Catholic educational institutions should be particularly leery of using the phrase Socratic method. Why? Catholics understand that truth comes into the world through particular persons, and that the Truth is a Person ("Ego sum via, veritas, et vita."). Divine Truth is witnessed by and exemplified in the saints, not in procedures. The truth is personal — it emerges for a person from encounters with other persons (sacraments; preaching; friendships).
  • The Gift of the Socratic Tradition: Catholic educational institutions should not be leery of the figure of Socrates (indeed, this holds true for any educational institution). Socrates desired the truth (cf. eros and love of the divine). Socrates committed his life to serving the truth by searching for it and helping others search for it (cf. questioning; prayer as desire). Socrates is a genuine, enduring model for both intellectual and spiritual life. Catholic educational institutions ignore the natural attractiveness of Socrates at their own peril — and the peril of their students. Socrates is a gift to the Western tradition from which the Church has drawn much good. The Socratic tradition remains a vital wellspring in an age of intellectual desiccation.

[The sheet with this collection of "positive points" appears to have been intended as the conclusion of the unknown notetaker's work, because it bears the abbreviation mark —A.M.D.G.— in large letters at the bottom of the paper. — JNH]

Jamie Hanson