What is Socratic Dialogue?

Mar 24, 2011
Plato in his academy, painting by Swedish pain...

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Classical education places a great emphasis on Socratic dialogue, but what do we mean when we use the title? Is it question driven instruction? Is there some pre-determined answer the teacher is looking for from the student? Well, Plato is not a writer for either the overly serious (no sense of humor? Don't read the Symposium) or the  vacuous (don't care about justice? Don't read the Republic), so there is no simple answer to this question. If you have drawn a firm conclusion about what Socrates meant by a given argument, chances are you missed the point! But that doesn't mean it isn't worth reading Plato's works. On the contrary, it's what makes them so breathtakingly insightful and profitable. They reflect reality: you know, that place where we keep thinking we understand things only to discover that we were thinking like mere neophytes, that place where we live. But you can't conclude from this that Socrates/Plato didn't believe in anything. On the contrary, it was their conviction that truth was knowable that compelled them to contend with the Sophists, who believed that truth was relative or unknowable.

They were so confident that the truth was knowable that they developed strategies for discovering it, and these strategies have proven to be stunningly effective.  The post-enlightenment world, however, does not believe that the truth can be known. As a result, they don't teach the tools of the classical tradition, the lost tools of learning, as Dorothy Sayers called them. Socrates was aware that people were not open to the truth and that they had many barriers to reaching it. He knew that we all spend most of our time living in error. So he developed a procedure by which he was able to rise from error himself and to raise others from error as well. It has come to be called Socratic Method, though I think that Socrates would not agree that there is a "method" being followed. His approach, when fully realized, passes through two stages, which are most clearly demonstrated in the passage in the Meno when he teaches geometry to an ignorant slave boy.

Doubling the square as in Plato´s Meno

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The first stage is what we can appropriately call by a modern term: deconstruction, but which we often call the "ironic." During this stage, Socrates asks questions that help the disciple see the contradictions and inadequacies in his opinion. If the disciple is willing to accept the obvious, then he will say those magic words: I don't know. He has reached what Plato calls "metanoia," which is the Biblical word for repentance and means "to turn around." When you know you are ignorant, you are now teachable.

Socrates now begins the second stage of his teaching, which he calls remediation or the "maieutic" (maieutic means mid-wifing, which is the analogy Socrates describes for helping the disciple "give birth" to the idea—you can read about this in the Theaetetus). Now he will guide the student to "remedy his ignorance." As the goal in the first stage was to demonstrate the disharmony of the student's thought (contradictions, inconsistencies, etc.), the goal of the second stage is to restore harmony on a more solid foundation. Underlying this "method" were at least four Socratic convictions. First, truth is. Second, truth is knowable. Third, truth can be discovered. And fourth, truth is ultimately one, in the sense that all things fit together into a harmonious symphony of being.

The sophists denied each of these convictions. For them, there was no truth, and if there was, you couldn't know it, and if you could, you couldn't communicate it to another person. Consequently, there is no harmony of being to guide our inquiry. You have your truth and I have mine. The late 19th century saw the wide spread triumph of the Sophist in the American school. Whereas Socrates tried to deconstruct in order to bring healing, the Sophist and the modern goes in a very different direction. He also has two stages, but they are ugly. Socrates sought to expose contradictions. The Modern Sophist seeks to debunk. Socrates sought to bring healing by remediating his disciples' ignorance. The Modern Sophist seeks to condition. After all, when there is no truth to seek, all we are left with is power. And that is all we are left with.

Andrew  Kern

Andrew Kern

Andrew Kern is the founder and president of The CiRCE Institute and the co-author of the book, Classical Education: the Movement Sweeping America

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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I was meaning more in an academic way, using the idea of repentence in the way you did in this post. If someone will not readily admit "I don't know", but continues to try to justify their postion even when it becomes obvious that they do not really know. Or when you get a response of "I don't care" , what to do then?

That makes sense. i suppose I would say that if they won't repent, you have two options: one, keep probing or two, leave them alone. Often people aren't ready yet. That's one of the great things about Plato's dialogues: criticize the participants all you want, there was an amazing number of people willing to think openly.

But sometimes Socrates ran into people who wouldn't learn. Check out Callicles in Gorgias, It's not unusual.

i would also recommend courses in logic and geometry so they get practice seeing that they are wrong and that it's OK to grow.

before, Socrates was resigned to death. If he hadn't told all those peploe he was wiser than them because he knew that he knew nothing (ha, paradox), what point would he have made? What impression would he have made on them? He did what he had to do to get his point across, there was no other way. He was almost a pathological truth-teller (except he had good reason behind it). I agree with Noodles that he was much more worried about being honest than being a fraud (or dying for that matter). Integrity doesn't die. As far as dying cutting off someone's ability to change, you also have to remember that the pupils Socrates had carried on his ideas, and Plato has even given us enough that we have it now and we're still learning from Socrates and letting him change our worlds. And dying in the name of self-examination was the most important thing and was the most valuable lesson Socrates taught.

Relentless patience is a good way to do it. Also, the conscience is aroused by high ideals that are visible. Give your children experiences of beautiful things, of truth, of good things. Try to give them lots of those experiences: in music, in stories (fables and fairy tales are great for this), in work (give them experiences of hard work and the ensuing satisfaction - like God's "very good" at the end of each day), in feasting and fasting, etc etc.

Conscience is not often directly cultivated but it is nourished by experiences patterned on Phil 4:8.

I do like that quote. But how to touch the conscience in the first place, I think that is what I am after. Relentless patience,maybe?

Can you use the Socratic method to teach some one who is not repentant, who does not want to admit when they are wrong or don't know the answer?

Let me try a better reply: I don't believe there is any other way to lead a person to repentance. It is what Nathan used with David, what our Lord used with His disciples, etc.

But I am extracting an essence from his "method" that goes beyond merely imitating his procedure. The essence is this: to lead a person to repentance you must expose the inconsistencies in his soul, which manifest themselves in inconsistent behavior or thought.

Sometimes this is done through bold, prophetic utterances, sometimes through gentle pleading, sometimes through probing questions. For myself, I am reluctant to engage in prophetic utterances when I am not quite certain that the Holy Spirit has given me both glaring clarity into the situation and the authority to speak. So I tend toward the probing questions.

And I try, though I am not very good, to probe myself first.


Have you read Norms & Nobility? In Chapter 6, On the Necessity of Dogma, Hicks describes how "Socrates softened his dialectical challenges" in order to remove "eristic emotion and egotism from the dialogue." You might enjoy reading about the dialectic tension and the mysterious wholeness of Socratic conversation. I continue to be wholly amazed by it all.

And here's an amazing quotation about conscience ("the dialectical core" "the daimonion" "that inner voice of unfailing certainty which only negates":

“So much in a classical education depends on the development of conscience: the student’s motivation to learn, his leisure and understanding in reading old books and in discussing new ideas, the quality of his relation with the teacher, his ability to be objective about himself and to discover in learning a way to compose his life. The normative yeast of conscience works relentlessly in classical education, holding the student’s actions accountable to his thoughts, shuttling him back and forth between theory and practice. Conscience enforces the claims of dialectic on the student, blocking his retreat into the unreal realms of ignorance and arid analysis, ensuring that the dialectic’s challenges to thought and action win a fair hearing and cause a creative tension, pursuing the contradiction to a higher level of unity and self-awareness. Conscience commits the student to truth, the whole truth, establishing in him the good life, the life of virtue, and urging him to overcome his superficial, selfish, and utilitarian orientation in order to participate dialectically in the whole of knowledge.” p. 69

I would argue that their refusal to repent, if that is what it is, marks the limit of how far you can take the method. However, the whole point of the questions is to get them to see what they would not otherwise see, so often what it means is that you need to take a different tack.

I would caution anybody against using Socratic questioning in a moralistic way, however. If you goal is to get your child to see where he is sinning or obstinate or whatever, it won't be effective. Socratic is about perceiving truth.