Is Socratic Dialogue really good praxis?

In contrast to recent collaborative posts, this one is all my fault. The only mercy is its brevity.

I am not the first to suspect that the valourising of Socrates, not in terms of founding Western philosophy*, and all that, but in terms of character, and approach, was a little problematic. There’s a blog post, in true Buzzfeed style, entitled 7 Times Socrates Was Kind Of A D-Bag: This is what happens when the Oracle of Delphi tells you you’re the wisest person in Athens, I guess.

soc1However, I am not here to do the impossible, and improve, lol-wise, on a BuzzFeed article, but to just express some mild discomfort. Anyone who has knocked around education or a while, will have been subject to hearing about the potential for Socratic Dialogue. There is a veneration of this model, or an idea of it, which persists across the disciplines. The Foundation for Critical Thinking describe it:

The oldest, and still the most powerful, teaching tactic for fostering critical thinking is Socratic teaching. In Socratic teaching we focus on giving students questions, not answers. We model an inquiring, probing mind by continually probing into the subject with questions. Fortunately, the abilities we gain by focusing on the elements of reasoning in a disciplined and self-assessing way, and the logical relationships that result from such disciplined thought, prepare us for Socratic questioning.

This makes it sounds powerful, as they say, and something we can learn as a method for working with students. The method is not useless, far from it. However, it should remain as a tool for use in very particular circumstances. If I over-state my case, perhaps it’ll be sufficient to ensure we engage in a little reflection before seeking to emulate Plato’s hero, as a tutor:**

  • Socrates publicly humiliates his interlocutors. “Oh, really? You actually think that? Let me show wrong you are. In front of everybody.” I don’t want this kind of activity in any classroom I am responsible for.
  • No one actually learns anything (other than that Socrates is awesome, and the others are idiots). Although Pierre Hadot has a more generous view of Socrates, he also reminds us*** that: In a “Socratic” dialogue, Socrates’ interlocutor does not learn anything, and Socrates has no intention of teaching him anything.
  • I have had children. I remember when they were toddlers (just). I’d say stuff. They’d say “why?”. It was charming. Then annoying. It didn’t mean they were remarkably wise,. Remind you of anyone?

More seriously, I guess, we can see Socrates, as he apparently saw himself, not as someone who knew stuff, but as a ‘midwife’ to knowledge. The idea of the ‘Socratic Method’ is, as you might imagine, a more complex, topic, and the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a good article on it. What I have sought to achieve here, with my slightly over-done hyperbole, is to get us to reflect, when we think, “I know, I’ll do Socratic dialogue with my class in week X”, on what model we are actually using, and what we want the interlocutor, and the rest of the group, to take away from the session..


diog2.gif*A claim you are welcome to object to. I’ve always had a soft spot for Diogenes anyway, but that’s another story.

**For those objecting that I am engaging in a Straw Man attack, and that the thing educators engage in under the term ‘Socratic Dialogue’ is not to be identified with the practice that Socrates actually models, is ‘really?’. If that is true, you need to cease identifying yourself with an Ancient philosopher, whose practice who don’t share, as it both undermines what you are trying to do, and makes you look a pretentious name-dropper..

If you actually want to look at some interesting ideas for teaching, then the internet is replete with references to R. W;. Paul and his 6 types of questions (though how Socratic they are..!)

*** In his Philosophy as Way of Life, while discussing ‘Learning to Dialogue’.

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