Thursday, March 19, 2009

What is the Socratic Method?

What is the Socratic Method?
excerpted from Socrates Café (pgs. 18-24) by Christopher Phillips

Gregory Vlastos, a Socrates scholar and philosophy professor at Princeton, asserts that the Socratic Method (AKA the dialectics method or elenchus) is “among the greatest achievements of humanity…[it is] a common human enterprise, open to every man…[that] calls for common sense and common speech.” Christopher Phillips takes this assertion a step further by adding that the Socratic method goes beyond common sense through the examination of what sense is.

The foundation of the Socratic method is to seek out truth through the use of dialogue – commonsensible reasoning and fact seeking will ultimately strip out any prejudices and biases, leaving only truths and realities. It is designed to “reveal people to themselves.” The author suggests that this use of honesty would require us to constantly scrutinize our own convictions. In addition, Phillip posits that the use of a Socratic dialogue will reveal just how pluralistic people are. It will iron-out abstract concepts and bizarre questions, revealing the relationships between relevant human experiences. “What distinguishes the Socratic method from mere nonsystematic inquiry is the sustained attempt to explore the ramifications of certain opinions and then offer compelling objectives and alternatives.” Phillips compares this method to the scientific method, but unlike the scientific method, Socratic dialogue can investigate immeasurable beliefs like love, joy, suffering, and sorrow.

While the Socratic method is designed to reveal truth, oftentimes it leaves us with a sense of uncertainty that makes us question our original positions, and quite possibly, it leaves us more troubled than where we started.

*Authors Note: I believe the above statement points out both the pros and cons of this method. Using the Socratic method can apparently lead two parties to come to a common agreement about a subject or concept – or it can leave the parties both questioning their original viewpoints. The positive aspect is that questioning can leave one open to new possibilities outside the original frames they’ve constructed – thus limiting cognitive biases. In addition, the uncertainty will surely reduce analytic confidence, which can be a good thing if it reflects the true ambiguity of a concept or subject. However, the detriment is that this sense of uncertainty may ultimately confuse the analyst. If the analyst feels as if he/she is seeking one truth while ignoring the possibility that multiple truths may exist, an analysis may be further sidetracked after a time-consuming Socratic debate. In addition, using the Socratic method for purposes for forecasting is problematic in itself – if the Socratic method is to seek truth, truths of future events do not yet exist. It is for this reason analysts use (or should use) words of estimative probability. Alternative possibilities always exist in matters of predictive analysis and forecasting. Therefore it may be safe to say that this method would only be applicable to the examination of past and present concepts and subjects. If a truth is found, an analyst can then use that truth as a starting point for predictive analysis.

*There are also many forms of dialectics: Socratic, Hegelian, Marxist, Brahmin/Hindu/Vedic, Jain, Buddhist, etc.

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