Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is a form of dialectic inquiry that in its strictness sense, isn’t of much use in real life. However, it is worth discussing given its historical importance, and as a precursor for a more loose definition which is of greater use in Humbug Hunting.

Essentially the Socratic method is a running dialogue between two persons (actors), one taking the lead role, in a question and answer format. The purpose is to establish the truth of the matter under consideration by proposition, contradiction of the proposition, repetition of this process and then eventual synthesis (the truth).

In its strict sense, the requirement is for both actors to have an agreed upon topic, to remain on topic, and to proceed by a question (from the lead actor) and response (from the minor actor). The lead actor looks for fallacies and contradictions in the minor’s responses, which are then used to drive the discussion forward until, eventually, the truth of the matter is attained. Note that this strict definition for the Socratic Method is known as the dialectic, made up of the thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis.

The non-strict interpretation, which is entirely more useful, is any kind of thorough question and answer dialogue, with all involved agreeing that the questions are answered and that the goalposts remain firmly in place. This requires a strong lead actor who refuses to allow the dialogue to go off topic and will not tolerate non-answers (so perhaps even this interpretation is somewhat unrealistic). The best example of this is actually the epitome of its converse - any interview with any politician, anytime in the past, present and future.

A common misconception among professional philosophers is that the best example of the Socratic Method is found in Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. Obviously this is where the Socratic Method gets its name, but the new and best exemplar is to be found in every single episode of Perry Mason. (Though there is a case for Detective Robert "Bobby" Goren from Law and Order - Criminal Intent; is there anything that guy doesn’t know?) In all cases, the principal actor uses their superior knowledge and skills in rhetoric to get to the truth of a matter (garner a confession from the baddy in the contemporary examples I cite).

Interesting aside regarding the dialectic and truth: The dialectic formed the basis of Marx's view of the development of history and political ideology (with his ideas being based on Hegel's work). The difference between this and the Socratic Method is extreme. One is the (attempted) search for the truth, one is asserted to be historical truth. Both are flawed, but only one profoundly so. As a tool for truth seeking, the Socratic Method is useful in particular domains of knowledge - in ethics and epistemology (for example) but not (usually) science. And even then the Socratic Method will more than likely not yield the truth. It is best viewed as a tool used to clarify ideas, spin other hypotheses, defend a position and remove contradictions and fallacies from that position. Much like Playing the Devil's Advocate, the Socratic Method is guaranteed to keep you "on your toes" and defy dogmatism.

Marx argued that history actually proceeds dialectically, through direct clashes of social systems with a resulting synthesis. This process then repeats, eventually culminating (after the violent overthrow of Capitalism) into a final synthesis - a benevolent Socialist utopia. Though there is a sort of poetic beauty in this idea (minus the violence, though Marx thought that necessary), it is clearly simplistic and untrue - Socialism didn't come after Capitalism, it coexisted with it and "lost". (Not only this, try to fit all of history into thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis, not just a few examples that suit… good luck.)