Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Socratic Method

Socrates (470-399BCE) was a Greek philosopher who, despite being considered one of the greatest and most important philosophers who ever lived, left no writings at all. Most of what we know about his life and work comes from the writing of his disciples, Xenophon and Plato. He lived during a period of transition in the Greek empire, and after the Peloponnesian War, he was tried, convicted, and executed for corrupting the young. 

Socrates cigars, cigar label, c. 1910

Socrates engaged in questioning of his students in an unending search for truth. He sought to get to the foundations of his students' and colleagues' views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption. This became known as the Socratic Method, and may be Socrates' most enduring contribution to philosophy. 

The Socratic Method ~ 5 Steps

  1. Seek out and question popular belief 
  2. Look for the exception
  3. If an exception is found, the imprecision or falsity of statement is found
  4. Evolve the statement to the point it is again consistent
  5. Return to Step #2 as many times as necessary to reach a truth statement

The Socratic method is acknowledged as the foundation of Western pedagogical tradition. Utilizing the Socratic method, students actively engage in the critical thinking process. This is not to say that the teacher is the purveyor of knowledge, filling the empty minds of passive students with facts and truths acquired through years of study. The professor is not "the sage on stage" who delivers lecture after lecture while students scramble to memorize passages by rote. The professor, as you might expect, is also not "the guide on the side" cheering students along as they randomly choose subject after subject with no guidance to help them build a cohesive foundation of knowledge. 

Prudence and Temperance with six ancient worthies, 1497
(Socrates is second from the left)
Perugino (Pietro Vannuci, 1450-1523)
Fresco in the Collegio del Cambio, Perugia

In the Socratic method, the classroom experience is a shared dialogue between teacher and student in which both are responsible for pushing the dialogue forward through questioning. It is the teacher's role to ask probing questions in an effort to expose the values and beliefs which frame and support the thoughts and statements of the participants involved in the inquiry. The students also ask questions of the teachers and each other. 

Socrates teaching Perikles, 1780
Nicolas Guibal (1725-1784)

The Socratic-minded teacher does not just passively "teach" or even actively teach, the Socratic-minded teacher participates in the learning. Relearning the information with the students, questioning and asking, bringing forth experience and knowledge to the discussions while working through the problems in an open-ended search for new knowledge and ways of experiencing the material. Each student offers fresh insight not before encountered. In this respect, the teacher coaches the students toward active learning much like how a sports team captain leads their team onto victory. The victory in learning comes with one's ability to discover or be surprised by information. 

While traditionally those who practice the Socratic method do not use lesson plans or PowerPoint slides, opting instead to follow the dialogue where it goes, a balance between traditional instruction and Socratic-like exploration can equally allow the teacher to explore a specified path while still obtaining new knowledge in the process. 

Socrates disputing, detail of The School of Athens,
Fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, c. 1508-9

The Socratic Professor's Toolkit

1. The Socratic Questioning Method

Once the Socratic professor has questioned the values, principles, and beliefs of his/her students, identifying the moral institutions that shape the way they think about the world, these beliefs can be continually put to the test as new information enters that can alter or cause one to question previously held beliefs, which when held for a given period of time turn into systems of thought or habitual algorithms by which information is processed. 

Each piece of new information allows students and professors the opportunity to question the logic of abstractions which are held up for comparison. It is not about challenging the student's beliefs as much as it is challenging the information the student and teacher have adopted as knowledge. When knowledge is perceived as fluid, changing form as it travels through different experiences (thought systems, geographical constraints, gender necessities, etc.), the opportunity to examine the information presents itself to the true Socratician. The purpose of the Socratic inquiry is not merely to question and challenge, an activity that is often times disasterously met with opposition and aggression, but rather to question and challenge concepts so that they may remain fluid, i.e., true concepts of which we are free to adopt or not. 

The Death of Socrates, 1787
Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

2. The Morality of the Socratic Method

Socratic inquiry follows an ad hominem style. Rather than constructing arguments or asking questions designed to convince individuals toward a specific conclusion, Socratic inquiry personalizes propositions and abstractions, probing instead the underlying values and beliefs of each inquirer. It is in this way that biases can be cleansed off the surface of the information or data, leaving behind root knowledge that can more easily be examined in and of itself as well as its relationship to other knowledge. 

The substance of the Socratic inquiry is indeed the belief and value system of the participants, but it does not stop there nor is it for the sole purpose of altering those belief systems. It is rather the opportunity to precisely identify all the thought systems that the observer brings to the table when examining new information. Once all participants are examining root information or raw data (with their belief systems sitting side-by-side where they can be observed for their influence on the material being explored), true exploration, wonder, and imagining may begin. Yes, these explorations, wonderings, and imaginings are reliant upon values, principles, morals, and beliefs, but rather than being hidden, they are acknowledged. This approach is simliar to shinning different colors of light on a material in order to observe the differences in how that material responds to differing wavelengths of influence. 

Socrates standing before seated group of men; figure of Justice stands behind him, 1750
Engraving by L.P. Boltard
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Collection: Miscellaneous Items in High Demand

3. The Socratic Environment

Lying repose on the couch or under a tranquil Cherry tree does not consistently produce the best Socratic dialogues; of course, nor does the discomfort of a traditional classroom environment. If we are to examine information from every possible light, a myriad of environments are necessary in order to do so... at the grocery store, at the kitchen table, on a hammock, walking down the street, sitting in a library, huddled around a computer, in a museum, hiking a mountain, on the telephone, texting, while watching television or a movie, at a coffee house, while stuck on an airplane ride, in the quietude of a sitting room, while watching the sunrise or sunset, and so on ad infinitum. 

It is illogical to expect to find variances under the same lighting. When examining information or thought systems, sensory experiences present unique viewpoints that might not otherwise be considered. Just as "not thinking" about a subject can yield unexpected answers (when you separate yourself from an inquiry), so too can thinking about a subject in the shower or swimming pool or while waiting in a doctor's waiting room or while walking the dog. 

The point is to integrate the Socratic method in a way that it becomes a traveling toolkit. Take a vacation, visit the places of your dreams, and give yourself new information by which to examine information, old and new. 

Socrates conversing with a Muse
Musée du Louvre, Paris

4. The Socratic Uncertainty Principle 

The moment you deem something uncertain, it presents the mind with a system to either accept this uncertainty or continually question uncertainty. This is not to say that some information cannot be taken at face value as true. For example: "My neighbor is not married. Thus, my neighbor is a bachelor." There is no reason to question these facts unless probing into why your neighbor is unmarried, whether or not marriage as an institution is a beneficial one, and whether or not governments have the right to regulate personal relationships. There are endless questions to ask regarding the content of a truth statement, but that does not mean one must waste one's time doing so unless the answers to these questions somehow affect the inquirer's thoughts or lifestyle choices. 

Bertrand Russell once wrote, "As usual in philosophy, the first difficulty is to see that the problem is difficult. If you say to a person untrained in philosophy, 'How do you know I have two eyes?' he or she will reply, 'What a silly question! I can see you have [two eyes].' It is not to be supposed that, when our inquiry is finished, we shall have arrived at anything radically different from this un-philosophical position. What will have happened will be that we shall have come to see a complicated structure where we thought everything was simple, that we shall have become aware of the penumbra of uncertainty surrounding the situations which inspire no doubt, that we shall find doubt more frequently justified than we supposed, and that even the most plausible premises will have shown themselves capable of yielding implausible conclusions. The net result is to substitute articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty." 

Socrates receiving the hemlock
Engraving by D.N. Chodowiecki (1726-1801)

While Russell's viewpoint is a valid one, it is still the viewpoint of a philosopher. Not all information must be examined under the philosophical mindset for it to be a philosophical inquiry. Inquiry is a natural occurrence, trained inquiry is a philosophical approach to the act of inquiring. There is much to be learned from non-philosophical inquiry. Take the wondering mind of a child, for example. This child does not have a predefined method for interpreting and classifying what they perceive. Like our not-too-distant ancestors, their unique ability to connect different or seemingly different stimuli or sensory data allows them to come up with stories like: 

"Mommy, did you see that giant piece of grass? A family of dust bunnies live there." 

This is a plausible explanation for the presence of microscopic entities found on a blade of grass. While most parents laugh this off as adorable or nonsensical, a Socratic-minded philosopher might question whether or not the child has extrasensory abilities that they themselves do not possess. This Socratic-minded individual would take a second look at the blade of grass. 

Imagine this... Some years later a scientist comes along and discovers that microbes are present on plants. Thirty years later a merchant begins selling probiotics for plants. 

Now, is the merchant this same child who saw the family of dust bunnies? Was the child encouraged to explore their thoughts and as a result grew up to become the inventor of the probiotics and humates (rich organic matter) that specifically addresses soil treatment issues to address the digestive health of plants, which are dependent on a strong and diverse microbial population for their nutritional needs? 

Or was this child told that their dust bunnies didn't exist... that they weren't real? Did this child go to college to instead become a dentist who while one evening watching late night television sees an infomercial for plant probiotics, vaguely remembers the dust bunnies he or she saw and wonders what would have happened had he or she been encouraged to play with the dust bunnies, adopt them, and feed them. 

(A classic example from The Little Prince)

What would Socrates have asked this child? 

Socrates Statue at Athens Academy

5. Learning is Fun

Above all, the Socratic professor enjoys learning. The Socratic professor is not the opponent in an argument, but rather a fellow student that has relinquished ego for a plastic pail with which to play in a new sandbox. The Socratic professor knows that he or she does not know anything. This allows for continual inquiry and discovery, which for some is a satisfactory way to live and be in the world. There is no need to publish theories and no need to define the undefinable. It is there for our contemplation, exploration, and practical use. Anything worth knowing is worth exploring and sharing with others for their exploration, wonderment, and inquiry. Where's the fun in defining something? The moment we do it no longer is. It is then something else. 

It follows that this type of approach to interpreting and classifying the world can be seen as defiant, nonconforming, and downright annoying for those who enjoy packing information into tiny bits of interrelated atomic matter categorized by form, fit, and function. People often times panic or feel intimidated when faced with uncertainty. The Socratic professor is just the opposite, panicking in the face of certainty. All values worthy of adoption are worthy of scrutiny. 

Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure, 1791
Jean-=Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829)
Musée du Louvre (Department of Paintings, Sully, 2nd floor, room 56)

Don't be afraid of not knowing
it is here where learning and discovery begins
and where the enjoyment of wonderment resides


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