Posted: September 6th, 2023
The Socratic method is a philosophical inquiry
Write a short, objective summary of 250-400 words that summarizes the main ideas being put forward by the author in this selection.
From What Is the Socratic Method?
By – CHRISTOPHER PHILLIPS
The Socratic method is a way to seek truths by your own lights.
It is a system, a spirit, a method, a type of philosophical inquiry, an intellectual technique, all rolled into one.
Socrates himself never spelled out a “method.” However, the Socratic method is named after him because Socrates, more than any other before or since, models fir us philosophy practiced–philosophy as deed, as way of living, as something that any of us can do. It is an open system of philosophical inquiry that allows one to interrogate from many vantage points.
Gregory Vlastos, a Socrates scholar and professor of philosophy at Princeton, described Socrates method of inquiry as “among the greatest achievements of humanity.” Why? Because, he says, it makes philosophical inquiry “a common human enterprise, open to every man.” Instead of requiring allegiance to a specific philosophical viewpoint or analytic technique or specialized vocabulary, the Socratic method “calls for common sense and common speech.” And this, he says, “is as it should be, for how many should live is every man’s business.”
I think, however, that the Socratic method goes beyond Vlastos description. It does not merely call for common sense but examines what common sense is. The Socratic method asks: Does the common sense of our day offer us the greatest potential for self-understanding and human excellence? Or is the prevailing common sense in fact a roadblock to realizing this potential?
Vlastos goes on to say that Socratic inquiry is by no means simple, and “calls not only for the highest degree of mental alertness of which anyone is capable” but also for “moral qualities of a high order: sincerity, humility, courage.” Such qualities “protect against the possibility” that Socratic dialogue, no matter how rigorous,
“would merely grind out . .. wild conclusions with irresponsible premises.” I agree, though I would replace the quality of sincerity with honesty, since one can hold a conviction sincerely without examining it, while honesty would require that one subiect one’s convictions to frequent scrutiny.
A Socratic dialogue reveals how different our outlooks can be on concepts we use every day. It reveals how different our philosophies are, and often how tenable–or untenable, as the case may be-a range of philosophies can be. Moreover, even the most universally recognized and used concept, when subjected to Socratic scrutiny, might reveal not only that there is not universal agreement, after all, on the meaning of any given concept, but that every single person has a somewhat different take on each and every concept under the sun.
What’s more, there seems to be no such thing as a concept so abstract, or question so off base, that it can’t be fruitfully explored [using the Socratic method]. In the course of Socratizing, it often turns out to be the case that some of the most so-called abstract concepts are intimately related to the most profoundly relevant human experiences. In fact, it’s been my experience that virtually any question can be plumbed Socratically. Sometimes you don’t know what question will have the most lasting and significant impact until
you take a risk and delve into it for a while.
What distinguishes the Socratic method from mere nonsystematic inquiry is the sustained attempt to explore the ramifications of certain opinions and then offer compelling objections and alternatives. This scrupulous and exhaustive form of inquiry in many ways resembles the scientific method. But unlike Socratic inquiry, scientific inquiry would often lead us to believe that whatever is not measurable cannot be investigated. This “belief” fails to address such paramount human concerns as sorrow and joy and suffering and love.
Instead of focusing on the outer cosmos, Socrates focused primarily on human beings and their cosmos within, utilizing his method to open up new realm© of self-knowledge while at the same time exposing a great deal of error, superstition, and dogmatic nonsense. The Spanish-born American philosopher and poet George Santayana said that Socrates knew that “the foreground of human life is necessarily moral and practical” and that “it is so even so for artists”
-and even for scientists, try as some might to divorce their work from these dimensions of human existence.
Scholars call Socrates’ method the elenchus, which is Hellenistic Greek for inquiry or cross-examination. But it is not just any type of inquiry or examination. It is a type that reveals people to themselves, that makes them see what their opinions really amount to. C. D. C.
Reeve, professor of philosophy at Reed College, gives the standard explanation of an elenchus in saying that its aim “is not simply to reach adequate definitions” of such things as virtues; rather, it also has a “moral reformatory purpose, for Socrates believes that regular elenctic philosophizing makespeople happier and more virtuous than anything else. Indeed philosophizing is so important for human welfare, on his view, that he is willing to accept execution rather than give it up.
Socrates’ method of examination can indeed be a vital part of existence, but I would not go so far as to say that it should be. And I do not think that Socrates felt that habitual use of this method
“makespeoplehappier.” The fulfillment that comes from Socratizing comes only at a price–it could well make us unhappier, more uncertain, more troubled, as well as more fulfilled. It can leave us with a sense that we don’t know the answers after all, that we are much further from knowing the answers than we’d ever realized before engaging in Socratic discourse. And this is fulfilling and exhilarating and humbling andiperplexing.
There is no neat divide between one’s views of philosophy and of life. They are overlapping and kindred views. It is virtually impossible in many instances to know what we believe in daily life until we engage others in dialogue. Likewise, to discover our philosophical views, we must engage with ourselves, with the lives we already lead. Our views form, change, evolve, as we participate in this dialogue. It is the only way truly to discover what philosophical colors we sail under. Everyone at some point preaches to himself and others what he does not yet practice; everyone acts in or on the world in ways that are in some way contradictory or inconsistent with the views he or she confesses or professes to hold. For instance, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, the influential founder of existentialism, put Socratic principles to use in writing his dissertation on the concept of irony in Socrates, often using pseudonyms so he could argue his own positions with himself. In addition, the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, who was called “the French Socrates” and was known as the father of skepticism in modern Europe, would write and add conflicting and even contradictory passages in the same work. And like Socrates, he believed the search for truth was worth dying for.
The Socratic method forces people “to confront their own dogmatism,
” according to Leonard Nelson, a German philosopher
who wrote on such subjects as ethics and theory of knowledge until he was forced by the rise of Nazism to quit. By doing so, participants in Socratic dialogue are, in effect, “forcing themselves to be free, Nelson maintains. But they’re not just confronted with their own dogmatism. In the course of a [Socratic dialogue], they may be confronted with an array of hypotheses, convictions, conjectures and theories offered by the other participants, and themselves-all of which subscribe to some sort of dogma. The Socratic method requires that-honestly and openly, rationally and imaginatively
-they confront the dogma by asking such questions as: What does this mean? What speaks for and against it? Are there alternative ways of considering it that are even more plausible and tenable?
At certain junctures of a Socratic dialogue, the “forcing” that this confrontation entails the insistence that each participant carefully articulate her singular philosophical perspective-can be upsetting.
But that is all to the good. If it never touches any nerves, if it doesn’t upset, if it doesn’t mentally and spiritually challenge and perplex, in a wonderful and exhilarating way, it is not Socratic dialogue. This
“forcing” opens us up to the varieties of experiences of others
-whether through direct dialogue, or through other means, like drama or books, or through a work of art or a dance. It compels us to explore alternative perspectives, asking what might be said for or against each.
The Socratic method is a philosophical inquiry that allows one to interrogate from many vantage points. It is an open system that makes philosophical inquiry a common human enterprise, open to every person. Unlike requiring allegiance to a specific philosophical viewpoint or analytic technique or specialized vocabulary, the Socratic method calls for common sense and common speech. Socratic inquiry is not just a simple process; it requires moral qualities of a high order, including sincerity, humility, courage, and honesty. A Socratic dialogue reveals how different our outlooks can be on concepts we use every day. It reveals how different our philosophies are and often how tenable or untenable a range of philosophies can be. What distinguishes the Socratic method from mere nonsystematic inquiry is the sustained attempt to explore the ramifications of certain opinions and then offer compelling objections and alternatives. Socrates focused primarily on human beings and their cosmos within, utilizing his method to open up new realms of self-knowledge while at the same time exposing a great deal of error, superstition, and dogmatic nonsense. The scholars call Socrates’ method the elenchus, which is Hellenistic Greek for inquiry or cross-examination. Its aim is not simply to reach adequate definitions of such things as virtues; rather, it also has a moral reformatory purpose, for Socrates believes that regular elenctic philosophizing makes people happier and more virtuous than anything else.