Two Socratic Teachers

I’ve had this idea for a week now and I’m considering writing a paper on this.

Socrates is known as the archetype of philosophy.  His Socratic Method is the paradigm of what Western philosophy is all about.  You go through each belief and idea meticulously and with precision.  You make sure that all of your beliefs are coherent and concrete.

Now part of the Socratic Method was the Socrates would go around and ask the citizens certain questions.  Things like what is justice, piety, courage, love, beauty, and so on.  Each time someone gives Socrates and answer, Socrates replies with another question in order to make the student think more about his answer.  The idea was to make sure you have a pretty good idea what you’re talking about.  Example:

  • Socrates: “Tell me, what is justice?”
  • Citizen: “Justice?  Why, it’s giving back what is due.”
  • Socrates: “Splendid!  So this means that if you borrow a sword from your neighbor, being just means that you must give back the sword?”
  • Citizen: “Of course, Socrates!”
  • Socrates: “I see, but suppose your neighbor decides to go on a murderous spree and he comes to you asking for his sword back.  Would it be just to give him his sword back?”
  • Citizen: “Heavens no, Socrates.”
  • Socrates: “So you see, justice cannot be giving back what is due.”
  • Citizen: “I see what you mean Socrates.”
  • Socrates: “So then, we are back to the beginning: What is justice?”

Now this continues on and on and on.  Now in the dialogues, the citizens can’t come up with the answer and so they depart, and we the readers don’t know the answer either.  However, part of this is to make us the reader (and the citizen) to say, “Wow, I don’t know what justice is.  Perhaps what I’m doing or what my city is doing isn’t just.  Perhaps before I can say for certainty that my state is being just, we must figure out what justice is first.”  But of course, not many people want to do this.  Most people don’t want to learn, to gain wisdom.  This is where I see Socrates, as a teacher diverge into two different teachers.

1.  The first is what I’ll call Strict Socrates.  Strict Socrates makes sure that you do learn and gain wisdom.  This is why in the dialogues it takes about an hour, or longer, to discuss the term in question.  Imagine that: you are trying to find the definition of justice (or some other term) and another person keeps proving you wrong.  Won’t that drive you crazy?  Wouldn’t you find Socrates just plain annoying?  Of course you would.  In fact, that’s why he was condemned to death.  But here’s the thing: Socrates will keep on pushing you because that’s how you get knowledge.  Teachers like Socrates says that he wants to wake you up and make you gain wisdom.  In Plato’s Apology, Socrates likens himself to a gadfly (basically, they’re horseflies).  What do horseflies do?  They annoy you.  But they keep you alert, more awake, and mentally focused.  That’s what Socrates was trying to do to the state: he wanted to wake up the state, keep them alert, make the citizens aware of what was going on and seeing what they believed.  Even if the citizens are stubborn, it’s for the best of the community if they gain wisdom.  But the point is that you will learn, even if you don’t want to.  If you try with all your might to get away from Socrates, Socrates pulls you back in.  The rule for Strict Socrates is if you don’t want to learn, he will force you to learn.

2.  Now another type of Socrates is what I’ll call Lenient Socrates.  This Socrates does want you to learn and goes through the same dialogue as above.  However, if you part ways with Socrates, Socrates takes this as someone who doesn’t want to learn.  But the difference is that Socrates will leave that person alone.  If that person doesn’t want to gain knowledge and wisdom, then Socrates isn’t interested in you.  He only wants to talk to people that truely want to gain wisdom.  They are the ones that will have an affect on society.  To those that are just stubborn, dogmatic, or wishy-washy, Socrates has no time for you because you’re not gaining wisdom.  Thus, if you find Socrates annoying and you leave, Lenient Socrates would be thinking, “fine by me, I don’t want to teach someone as stubborn as you.”  Thus, the method behind Lenient Socrates is if you don’t want to learn, I don’t want to talk to you.

Now we learn about Socrates eventually in philosophy class.  But while I was thinking about this, it seems that these two teaching methods contradict each other.  Socrates will force you to learn, but at the same time, he’ll leave you alone.

As I was thinking about this, this also happens to many teachers (myself included).  Why is it that with some students that aren’t understanding the material, I’ll approach them and ask them what troubles they’re having?  But at other times, if students aren’t understanding the material, I’ll leave those students alone?  After all, if we’re going to be consistent with our philosophy, then we should adopt one or the other.  But we cannot adopt both because they seem to contradict each other.  So how or why do we adopt both?

I’ll give other examples: a student hasn’t turned in any work during the semester.  I approach him and ask him why he hasn’t turned in any work.  In this sense, I’m Strict Socrates.  But also, some students don’t show up to class, and I don’t tell them that they missed an assignment or exam.  In this sense, I’m Lenient Socrates.

I kind of want this to be more open ended.  I’m not really looking for a solution to this problem, but maybe a realization or at the very least, I want people to recognize that this is a problem.  Perhaps other teachers can tell me their experiences because these two different Socrates’s seem to contradict each other.

*                   *                      *

I think from a student perspective, things are different too.  I had a teacher who was Strict Socrates with me.  I dreaded that class, but amazingly, it was my favorite class that whole semester.  That teacher really made me think in a different way.  I studied differently, I philosophized differently, and my teaching habits are based upon his.  But during class, he would always use the Strict Socratic Method and I wouldn’t know the answer.  He kept on pushing me and it seriously annoyed me.  (This would go on for about an hour or so.)  It was mentally exhausting.  But at the same time, this also encouraged me.  I would study harder, I would be more independent-minded, and it made me want to learn more.

However, I’ve used to Socratic Method in other non-teaching situations and it annoys people.  In fact, they don’t want to be associated with me anymore because of it.  So obviously, there are some “students” out there that don’t like this method.

I know I’m still rambling here, but maybe it’s psychological.  To me, if someone uses the Socratic method on me, it actually encourages me to think harder and do more research.  I can’t stop unless I find some answer.  But I know some people where if the Socratic Method is used on them, they stop thinking because, well, they don’t want to think, or else they’re annoyed that someone would disrupt their quiet life.

I could keep talking about this, but I feel I’ll go way off tangent if I keep going so I’ll stop and add more comments if needed.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Education, Paper Topic, Socrates, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Two Socratic Teachers

  1. Killer J says:

    Maybe part of the problem with being strict socrates is it ends up feeling deconstructionist. A lot of people tend to be comfortable with a reasonably thought out, albeit imperfect explanation for different things.

    When continually pressed, it shakes the foundation of a person’s belief system and causes anxiety/frustration. This obnoxious feeling isn’t alleviated by strict socrates approach, as an alternative answer isn’t always offered. A person’s response is always met with, “Well, what about x?”

    Anytime a belief is challenged, anxiety is going to be evoked. If a rational, reasonable belief isn’t substituted for the previous belief and is only met with more questions then you can see why people get frustrated and don’t listen.

  2. shaunmiller says:

    Sure, people feel uncomfortable with their beliefs being on shakey foundation. But Socrates (both of them) would say, “good, that means you’re thinking.”

    Now you may say that all this does is it just humiliates the person. But the aim isn’t to humiliate, but it’s rather to discover the truth.
    When we do this, we engage in reflective thinking. We usually think that when people agree with each other, then that’s actually supportive.

    Socrates, on the other hand, thinks that the best help you can get–what you really need–is given questions that make you think again, questions that make you uncomfortable and makes you defensive. By seeking, we approach the truth, and that’s neither easy nor comfortable.

    And remember Socrates’ famous line, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” When you examine your life, it doesn’t mean that you have all the answers. But notice that we never got the ultimate answer. But that’s ok; the point wasn’t to find the answer, looking for it was.
    It means that you have conscious awareness of the human condition; that you live in full intellectual and moral personhood. There is no real philosophical thinking until your turn around and reflect it on yourself.

    Here’s Socrates’ motto: know thyself. Philosophy isn’t just an occupation or a hobby, it’s a way of life. The goal of philosophy and any philosopher is to seek truth and to live justly.
    If you insist on talking with him, you are bound to be humiliated, and that’s progress to reach your goal.

    The key with Socrates (again, with both of them) is that you must be happy to accept that you could be wrong. More than that, you must be happier that you have been proven wrong, because to get away from something wrong is get you away from a false opinion, and thus you have escaped from a great evil. We usually, don’t like to be proven wrong. But Lenient Socrates is going to say: “then you’re not ready to gain wisdom.” Strict Socrates is going to keep pushing you, even if it makes you mentally uncomfortable.

    You should be able to say to yourself: “yes, I do indeed hold that opinion, but I’ll be glad to get rid of it for another if there’s a good reason for doing so.” By doing this, you won’t be wishy-washy (because you do have opinions), and you won’t be dogmatic (because you’re eager to improve your opinions).

    Someone who doesn’t examine their life is just taking their character for granted for Socrates.
    The unexamined life is basically an unconscious life: you don’t think, or you life your life on a very minimal level. You don’t ponder over your desires, you don’t think about your world you live in, and you have unquestioned beliefs. When you engage in an unexamined life, then you are truly reflecting not on your thinking activity, but also on your ethical activity.

  3. Killer J says:

    I’m 100% on board with you man. I’m just explaining the thought process behind it. Some people I am very close to haven’t really examined their beliefs. I have tried the strict socratic method with them, but it ends up negative. I think lenient socrates approach is best for people close to you it they are not down for contemplating change. Better to preserve the relationship the way I look at it.

  4. shaunmiller says:

    I’ve noticed it too. The Socratic Method (either one of them it turns out) doesn’t work out that well in personal relationships.

  5. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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