Based on Plato's dialogue, Apology, (a) in what sense does Socrates claim to be wise? (b) Summarize and evaluate the value of the Socratic Method and Socratic wisdom and whether this method and attitude are valuable for a democratic society such as ours.
During his defense, Socrates recounted the time his friend, Chaerephon, asked the oracle at Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The oracle replied that no one was wiser than Socrates. Upon hearing this, Socrates thought to himself:
“What can the god be saying? What does his riddle mean? For I’m only too aware that I’ve no claim to being wise in anything either great or small. What can he mean, then, by saying that I’m wisest? Surely he can’t be lying: that isn’t lawful for him” (Apology, 21b).
After much thought, Socrates resolved to determine if the oracle was telling the truth or not. He approached people who were thought to be wise and he examined them. Upon examination, he found them not to be wise and then he tried to show them how they were not wise. But this simply upset them and they would not admit to not being wise. The self-awareness of not knowing is where Socrates has the upper hand in the wisdom department and makes true the oracle's pronouncement that no one is wiser. He claims,
“I’m wiser than that person. For it’s likely that neither of us knows anything fine and good, but he thinks he knows something he doesn’t know, whereas I, since I don’t in fact know, don’t think that I do either. At any rate, it seems that I’m wiser than he in just this one small way: that what I don’t know, I don’t think I know” (Apology, 21d).
During his examination of various people, in an effort to find someone wiser than himself, Socrates used a form of questioning and dialogue which has come to be known as the Socratic Method. His method would sometimes begin with a flattering invitation, in a sense to establish in the other person's mind that they are knowledgeable on a particular subject. Once this is established, Socrates posed a question to the interlocutor, asking for a definition of something. The interlocutor responded with an answer or statement and then the back and forth dialogue began.
At each turn, Socrates either sought clarification, or put forth a premise in an attempt to break the ideas into manageable concepts and ideas, until either they arrived at the essence of the answer or at least they think they've arrived closer to the essence.
The use of the Socratic method, coupled with an attitude of curiosity and probing toward truth, can be very valuable for all who participate in this rich and caring exercise. It's valuable for the questioner, who out of a sense of genuine curiosity, is able to uncover or advance the discovery of profound truths. The questioner seeks clarification so that he and others many benefit from knowledge. Even if truths are not discovered, the questioner helps himself and others arrive at a clearer definition of the problem which is being discussed.
The method and attitude of curiosity are also valuable to the interlocutor who may have assumed too much and is too confident in his position. By engaging in the method and dialogue, the interlocutor is brought to an awareness (whether he cares to admit it or not is another thing) of how little he knows or how his previous thinking may have been faulty or incomplete. If the interlocutor is open to being skeptical about any previous notions he had, he will have greatly benefitted from the line of questioning and dialogue and will become more aware and even more knowledgeable.
Another way the method and attitude benefit both is how they provide a framework for respectful discourse. In a sense, the method assumes good intent, instead of taking a dogmatic, know-it-all approach. The Socratic method invites discussion rather than preaching on one person's part and passive listening on the other's. This discussion gradually, and in an organized fashion, makes mental connections in the minds of the participants and helps them learn, together, more deeply.
The method and attitude are valuable and needed in our democratic society, perhaps now more than ever. In the age of 'soundbites' and tweets, where statements are seemingly one-sided and restricted to 280 characters, people who wish to persuade have to maximize impact and in the process take strong stances. These are then responded to with equally forceful and adamant statements. No where to be seen are questions, curiosity and dialogue. And in some cases, people become so dogmatic in their views, they figuratively wish to plug their ears and yell "la-la-la-la-la!" while remaining protected in their "safe zone."
The authors of The Coddling of the American Mind noted this phenomena in the mid-2010's and asked many questions about this trend in American universities. They wondered,
"What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help? What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?" (Lukianoff).
Further in in the article, they note that what begins in the university, later spills into our political and workplace discourse. "Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship."
Besides many detailed recommendations for parents and educators, the authors advocate for the use of the Socratic method to help our students and young citizens learn how to think instead of what to think.
"Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding."
Unfortunately, as of the 2020 census, the highest educational level of about 40% of Americans age 25 and over is only a high school degree or less. Another 16% only had partial college credit or no associates degree (Educational Attainment in the United States: 2019). One can assume that of this 56% of the population, a small portion may have learned or heard of the Socratic method, as philosophy and rhetoric courses are not widely required in the curriculum. How we tackle this potential problem is left for another day.
Plato, & Reeve, C. D. C. (2012). A Plato reader: Eight essential dialogues. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.
Greg Lukianoff, J. H. (2017, July 31). How trigger warnings are hurting mental health on campus. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/.