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The Socratic Method

Making people question themselves can drive them up the wall. But can it also encourage them to develop better concepts to live better lives?

When, around 450 BCE, the Oracle at Delphi was asked who the wisest man in Athens was, it replied “Socrates”, without explaining why. Explaining why is not what oracles do, so Socrates came up with his own explanation. Socrates felt surrounded by people claiming to know things with certainty. They all had definite answers to questions like “What is good, and what is right?”, “What is justice?” and “How should I live and make decisions?” But how could they? Seeing that Socrates himself claimed to know very little, if nothing at all. Perhaps this is why the Oracle referred to him as the wisest man – because Socrates was the only one to admit that he knows nothing at all.

Socrates was mainly interested in ethical questions like the ones mentioned above. In fact, he was probably the first to scrutinise these questions with such rigorous and unabated vigour. But contrary to most philosophers before, and especially after him, Socrates did not work out comprehensive theories, did not invent new words, and did not write anything down. In fact, it seems that Socrates was not after answers, at all. For one, he didn’t offer any. But anyone who dared to suggest an answer to any of his questions, regretted it immediately, and was roasted with a barrage of logical mind games that left them either bewildered, curious or furious. In any case, hardly any the wiser.

One of the few statements Socrates did make, seems rather flimsy.Virtue is knowledge“. Living ethically is a matter of knowledge. Once you know what’s right, you will do what’s right. Before you can be just, you need to know what justice is. Before you can be ethical, you need to know what ethics are. And he added: “No one errs willingly”. If people act immorally, that is because they did not know what the right moral action is.

There are of course two problems with these claims. First, Socrates never seemed to have been able to reach conclusive answers to any of his own questions. If he has, he or anyone reporting on his life after him, hasn’t written them down. If being ethical means knowing what ethics are, but no one actually manages to define what ethics are, then how can anyone be ethical? Socrates’ own method of endlessly pulling apart each and every definition that is suggested by his interlocutors, makes his own claims impossible. Secondly, is this really how people experience morality? Does knowing what’s right really automatically lead to doing what’s right? When we see someone act immorally, do we automatically say “Oh yeah, clearly he didn’t know what was right …”? I think it is safe to say that, more often than not, acting immorally is not the result of a temporary lapse of moral knowledge. People who act immorally do this most often in the crisp and clear knowledge and awareness of what morality requires of them. They simply decide to ignore it.

The task, and the process, of philosophy is not to provide answers, Socrates may have replied, but to help people to reveal their own answers. By stating that “An unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates seems to imply that we need to permanently and profoundly scrutinise our lives to be able to live our best lives. The analogy of midwifery is often used here. Socrates was nothing but a midwife, helping the people around him to give birth to their own ideas. A little like therapy, where the therapist says that not she, but you will produce your own answers while she keeps asking the right questions. Only, in the case of Socrates, those answers never seem to materialise. This midwife just keeps telling you to push harder, push faster, slower, breathe, contract and release, but in the end there’s never a baby. Or is there? Some people may reply that Socrates’ answers must be found in his suggestive questioning. The way he phrases his questions, the words he uses, the distinctions he makes, those are your answers, right there …

The Socratic method is frustrating, if it is answers you’re after. But it is brilliant if you’re after logical scrutiny of your moral outlook. It requires you, first and foremost, to undo your own assumptions of their implicit presumptions and logical inconsistencies. This is highly uncomfortable, and disorienting, but does lead to more consistent and well-argued concepts to live by. Socrates was absolutely right in claiming that most of our morality is based on assumptions and unsound logical arguments, which seem to crumble in the face of detailed analysis. Whether that analysis leaves you bewildered, curious or furious, is entirely up to you.

Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]