The Socratic Method and the Engaging of People in Conversation
A Philosophical Practice of Socrates Paper
Professor Dr. Burkey
February 16, 2010
Socrates was a man that challenged the minds of many. He did it in ways that many would consider different than the average human. He took his power of knowledge and understanding to examine the undefined and unexplained. He eventually went as far as to die for what he practiced. Socrates died for his beliefs and his philosophical practice because he is a lover of wisdom and was only trying to define life's most intimate secrets. When examining the thoughts and conversations of Socrates, it is noticed that there are a number of important key concepts that need to be focused on. First Socrates has a number of stages of Socratic thought when he is engaged in conversation. Secondly, there is a general pattern and a typical strategy that he goes through when talking to someone in general trying to gather knowledge or if he is trying to outwit an opponent. This evaluation is crucial and can further evaluate the validity of Socrates teachings and whether or not they are effective. Therefore, Socrates, posing as an ignorant man, sets out on a quest for wisdom by engaging other individuals in conversation by use of "Socratic Conversation" which challenges their inner self and ideas to come to a common understanding of a particular topic.
First it is important to examine the foundation of the conversation that Socrates involves many of his subjects. There are several stages to the Socratic conversation that have proved to all be important. The first matter is that Socrates is skeptical when Socrates denies the fact of any type of knowledge in the discussed subject area. This is something that is Socratic irony because Socrates is the teacher in reality but happens to treat his listeners as the teachers as he takes a back seat to play ignorant. This is important to the foundation of Socrates and how he views himself internally. He believes that knowing that you are ignorant is one of the first steps to the pursuit of knowledge. Therefore he claims this with the statement "I do not think I know what I think I know". This statement is the basis and meaning of Socratic wisdom. It was pointed out in the Apology when Socrates is being confronted with his accuser. The next stage of Socratic conversation is conversation itself. He uses this not only to communicate with other men but to but to find their opinions. He uses this dialectical method to bring together the ideas of other people and help form them from ideas in to stronger arguments and perhaps even theories. The next stage is definitional stage. Socrates uses definitions to obtain understanding in his works and uses them as a type of goal. Making an operational definition is also seen to be one of the first steps in solving a problem. The next step is the testing of the definition by preparing examples and then relating it to common experiences and general instances. Socrates maintains these examples and they become a strong basis of his Socratic conversation because he helps relate everyday instances to the individual with common knowledge. These examples are often simple and get to the point. The last step of the chain is when Socrates has all of this information given in the conversation and he makes a final inference from the general principles to come to give closure to the ideas. The stages of the Socratic conversation are all important and depend on each step in the chain.
Next it is important to analyze the types of general patters and strategies that he involves himself in. When Socrates is talking to an individual he is one that fully dedicates himself to the conversation. He goes about conversation and reasoning in a certain way. Socrates uses the five stages of Socratic conversation as one of his main strategies. Here are examples of all of them in order as proof. He starts by asking a question or having been asked one. There is a question and answer form of arguing with an 'expert'(Example: Socrates) on one side and a 'searcher'(Example: Euthyphro) on the other. In the dialogues, the questioning of the expert by the 'searcher' often exposes gaps in the reasoning. This is something that Socrates is very fond of. He takes a back seat so he does not impose his ideas onto any person he comes in contact with. For the example with Socrates and Euthyphro, Socrates does not declare that he knows the meaning of piety when Euthyphro knows he is an expert. This is a prime example that proves the traditional teacher, student relationship to be different when it comes to Socratic Method. This is important to the character of Socrates because he might be acting ignorant to show that he does in fact know a great deal. But he does it in a way that is enlightening. His strategy proves to benefit the student clearly because he plays that ignorant role and makes the individual work through their own examples to help improve their thought, hence making them learn from their mistakes without criticisms. Next, he uses conversational. This is seen in the Apology when Socrates is addressing the court. He mentions that he doesn't know the language of the law, or "court" in this case. Therefore he must speak normally for he is not a man of the law. This is a prime example because he uses conversation and reasoning to get out of the normal proceedings of the court which are more formal and would not help Socrates in arguing and asking questions. Without this step of being free in conversation he would not have been able to defend his life by asking questions which is the next step. Another example is in the Euthypho. When Socrates meets Euthyohro they start discussing piety and they get into not only this argument eventually, but Socrates uses conversation to know where Euthyphro stands on his opinions of piety, and religion. This is a great strategy for Socrates because it gets to know a little background on his student in the first few moments of talking to them. This has proved to give Socrates the upper hand in arguments. Then, suddenly Socrates starts to ask questions revealing the next step of thought and is another important strategy of his work. He asks questions left and right to try to impose thinking among his public audience. In the Republic: Book II, questioning goes back and forth from the sophist Glaucon, to Socrates. Glaucon is so focused on proving Socrates wrong and he puts up a good fight counter arguing with questions to Socrates and his questions. When Socrates provides how a person is "just" and "unjust". Socrates asserts "Then where are justice and injustice to be found in it?"(Rep 371E10). Eventually Glaucon asks three of his own questions. What is justice, what is injustice, and prove the just life is better than unjust. Then next strategy that Socrates has to fulfill is using definitions and using particular instances to prove a point. This is a strategy that is very basic but can prove theory's wrong or right simply if they do not fit the example. In the same book, Republic: Book II, the perfect example is provided. Socrates proclaims "The result, then, is that more plentiful and better-quality goods are more easily produced if each person does one thing for which he is naturally suited, does it at the opportune moment, because his time is freed from all the others."(Rep 370C5) This is important to the strategy because it takes a basic definition and furthers it with examples. At this point on in book II, Socrates provides more examples from his experiences to try to explain what producers must produce according to their natures. Whether it happens to be a farmer to farm, doctor to heal these examples are basic knowledge that anyone he talks to would know making this another good strategy in his conversational skill range. The final step in the chain is the relation to logical and reasoning. Here is where he draws inferences and makes an abstract thought coherent and logical in the eyes of others. Basically he makes a final conclusion and is rewarded with his final definition as an outcome.
Finally questions must be asked to understand this character Socrates. Are there general problems with Socratic practice? And are his methods of teaching others logical and effective? The answers of these are simple. Socrates clearly loved what he did and had a hunger for wisdom and knowledge. His Socratic practice is flawless. He uses the Socratic steps as a process of inquiry. He tries to find out the theorys about life. Socrates knows many are unaware of their ignorance and he doesn't pass judgment. He wants to do right by them and not show his subjects the "right way" but perhaps make them learn by their own way and thought. This main strategy is not seen as a general problem but a general bonus that tends to benefit all who try to understand theory's of life. Every question that Socrates asks opens up a new question. This makes his subjects think constantly. With this constant thought process and the guidance from Socrates a human is bound to learn for they are not taught the right thing but lead by self example. Therefore, through Socrates' steps of Socratic conversation, he provokes his subjects to learn effectively no matter what the topic is with logical and knowledgeable thought that is replaced from previous opinions.