Thursday, June 28, 2007

Was Socrates so great anyway?

The name of this blog pays homage to Socrates, whose fame as a philosopher rests in part on his eminence as a teacher. Many of us at least pay lip service to Socrates as a model not only for teaching philosophy but for teaching generally. So does Socrates deserve his status as a model for philosophy teachers, and if so, why? His temperament? His methods? What do you take from Socrates that influences your own teaching? Are there aspects of 'the Socratic method' that can be used to teach philosophy effectively in an academic context?


  1. I think one aspect in which it is important to recognize Socrates, so presented in Plato's writings, as an influence is that his method of constant questioning was supposed to politely suggest that perhaps his interlocutors did not have the lock on the truth that they thought they might have. When a teacher makes contact with their students for the first time in an introductory course, more often than not in my experience, the students simply don't know what to think about the issues that they are presented with, but they expect that the "right" answer, whatever that may be, will soon become apparent. They are more likely to have reasonably strong but unreflective views about current moral issues, like capital punishment or what have you. For the student who isn't used to the reflective, questioning mindset needed to do well in philosophy, an intro class can be something of a mental shock or a source of frustration.

    In Plato's dialogues, Socrates converses not with undergraduates, but with people who have strong beliefs about the subject in question. The conversation is typically a bit more confrontational than would be advisable for people new to philosophy. But without adopting Socrates' specific methods, I think it is possible to take some inspiration from him. In the process of helping students to think more clearly about the issues they study, especially in ethics, I think it is advisable to make students aware that being critical of not just others but also themselves is a good thing. They obviously need help in learning about the subject, but equally important as learning what the Principle of Utility or the Categorical Imperative is is acquiring the capacity for intellectual curiousity and the habit of being intellectually curious. Cultivating that sense of curiousity is what I've always thought was important about Socrates, and I think that is especially important for undergraduates.

  2. Justin,

    Thanks for your remarks. I often wonder if 'the Socratic method' rests on assumptions that often do not hold true of students. As you point out, unlike Socratic interlocutors, many students have no views (or no settled or well worked out views) about various philosophical questions, in which case persistent questioning probably feels like bullying - or simply aimless questioning. I'm also a bit uncomfortable with the adversarial stance that the method seems to invite (as if I come to my courses looking to duel with my students as intellectual opponents!).

    A lot of people have pointed out that the Socratic method as used in law school teaching is somewhat fraudulent, in that the instructor wants to guide the student toward correct understandings of the law rather than engaging in an open-ended inquiry driven by curiosity. Here's a long quote from an article by John Sellars that raises some good points about the Socratic methods (whatever that is):

    "In much of the existing literature there appears to be an assumption that there exists one generally preferred teaching method for philosophy: ‘the Socratic method’. This method has been expertly defined in The Oxford
    Companion to Philosophy:

    'The question-and-answer method of philosophizing (dialectic) used by
    Socrates in Plato’s early dialogues (e.g. Euthyphro), often in conjunction with pretended ignorance (Socratic irony), whereby a self-professed expert’s over-confident claim to knowledge is subverted.'

    Brickhouse and Smith, commenting upon popular references to Socratic
    method, add that:

    'The questions he [Socrates] asks, are, moreover, always “leading”
    questions; we never see Socrates asking questions when he does not at least appear to have some answer already in mind.'

    Much of the existing scholarship simply assumes that this is the
    best way to teach philosophy. In particular, it has been argued that the teacher of philosophy should not make explicit his or her own philosophical beliefs when teaching a course on, say, ethics. If the teacher states in class that
    he or she can see no good reason why abortion should be banned, this
    might discourage students from exploring the issue for themselves. Some students might take such a statement to be a definitive pronouncement and bow to the teacher’s superior wisdom, enshrined as it is by the authority conferred on the teacher by his or her academic position. Other students, less naïve and more pragmatic, might decide not to risk
    arguing against the teacher’s publicly proclaimed views in case they are marked down for their disagreement. Or they might simply assume that if they do not agree with the teacher then they—the young and inexperienced students—have missed something important in the debate.

    So, for all of these pedagogical reasons, it has been suggested that
    teachers should not make known their own philosophical beliefs.
    Instead, they should adopt the ‘Socratic method’ in which the teacher gently encourages his or her students, guiding them through a question and answer discussion until, by their own means, they come to a conclusion that the teacher has already reached. By using this method, it is argued, students are introduced to arguments both for and against a
    particular issue and are encouraged to explore those arguments for
    themselves, examining their relative merits. An intellectual space is created, so to speak, in which students can explore their own thoughts on a philosophical topic without being forced to frame those thoughts with reference to the opinions of the teacher. Students learn how to do
    philosophy, and not what the teacher happens to think about the issue under discussion." (PRS-LTRN Journal 2 (2002), pp. 119-20)

    Sellars then goes on to state that this method is disingenuous, since the instructor does have philosophical views; too idealistic, since most instructors are not sufficiently impartial; and counterproductive, since it might suggest that the instructor is not really passionate about the issues under discussion and is merely going through a detached intellectual exercise.

    So I'm interested in how students *perceive* the Socratic method and what messages it suggests about the roles of instructor and student in the classroom.

  3. I think that one of the most important features of the method is that it is designed to expose what Hope May refers to as 'definitional ignorance' and 'inconsistency ignorance.' I come to teaching philosophy full-time from having had 35 years experience in business and from that perspective learning how to detect these types of problems is very important to critical thinking and problem solving in concrete situations. As most of my students will not take any other philosophy courses, I think that it is important to teach this method, not only to uncover the ignorance in others, but also to uncover our own ignorance. 'Shared ignorance' is a good place for desirable organizational change to begin.

  4. I don't know if this is genuinely "Socratic," but I ask a lot of questions in my classes and give them time to answer these questions *on paper*, either individually or in small groups. We then use these answers to develop arguments to evaluate.

    So, some common questions include:
    - "Have you ever heard anyone say X?" (yes). "What might they mean when they say that?" Write down as many meanings of this claim that you can think of.
    - "Are there people who believe P?" (Yes). "What reasons might someone give to think P?" Write down as many reasons for this claim that you've ever heard or can imagine.

    Answers to these kinds of questions, especially the 2nd kind - the asking for reasons, form the basis for some worksheets I use in class (e.g., the ones on homosexuality, abortion, famine aid, and eating animals).

    I mostly try to manage these kinds of discussions and attempts to foster working through arguments than give lectures. As a TA in grad school, when I ran discussion sessions or review sessions, I got the sense that many students did not understand a lot of the lectures anyway!

  5. Was which Socrates so great? The Socrates of: Republic Bk 1, or Republic Bk 2-10, or Euthyphro, or Protagoras, or Phaedo, or Crito, or Theaetetus, or Laches, Alcibiades I, or . . .? Plato's Socrates uses different approaches with different people, which I suggest exhibits Plato's awareness of pedagogical issues. Using different approaches with different students is hard (but perhaps not impossible) to do in the classroom because of the variety of students. At the end of Republic 1 I usually ask students how they would like to have Socrates for a teacher; the response is overwhelmingly negative. They see him as arrogant, too picky, too tricky, too interested in embarrassing his interlocutor, in scoring debate points rather than providing insight. But the Socrates of the rest of the Republic receives a much more positive response, even if the students disagree with much of what he actually says.

    And then there is the matter of the current emphasis of many philosophy faculty on analyzing arguments, their strengths and weaknesses. Plato/Socrates may offer a corrective here, especially (but not only) in the Republic. There are relatively few explicit arguments, with premises and conclusions spelled out: the mostly specious arguments in Bk 1 (see John Beversluis, Cross-Examining Socrates), arguments concerning the tripartite soul (Bk 4), arguments for the superiority of rational pleasure (Bk 9), and the embarrassingly weak argument for immortality (Bk 10). But there is a plethora of images, illustrations, analogies, metaphors, and allegories; and these are the items that stick in the mind. When toward the end of the course I ask students what they think they will remember about the Republic, the great majority say, "the cave." Fewer pick one of the other analogies: the ship, the lion & the ring of heads, the myth of Er, the small & big letters. None pick any of the arguments.

    So I suggest: using Platonic/Socratic pedagogy means, first, offering vivid memorable analogies, metaphors, illustrations - to which, second, arguments, objections, and refutations may be attached. What is the point of emphasizing the latter if they are not remembered past the final exam for the course?

  6. I came across this; I wonder how common this phenomenon is:

    "Similarly, many students are liable to misunderstand the modelling we do in class. Kerry Walters (‘On Bullshitting and Brainstorming,’ Teaching Philosophy, 11, Dec. 1988, pp.301-313) found that some of his
    students concluded from his Socratic teaching method that philosophy is a meaningless game. Students misinterpreted the questioning Walters pursued as a cover up for the fact that there are no answers or data in philosophy. If there are no answers, some students conclude,
    then the teacher must just be playing a trivial philosophy game.
    Competitive students may want to learn how to win this game. But
    ultimately, even competitive students may mistakenly conclude that philosophy is unimportant"

    Troubling ...

  7. Oh - I pulled that quote from David Concepcion, "How to assure student preparation and structure student-student interaction," Discourse 5 (2005), p. 111.


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