Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Socratic Method

This quote is for those who think Socrates is smug in his dialogues:
In scarcely one of the dialogues up to and including Book I of the Republic (if, as some scholars assert, this was originally composed separately) does Socrates answer his own original question; he always leaves the interlocutor in a fury. How are we to understand this procedure? When the Delphic oracle described Socrates as the wisest of the Athenians he concluded that he deserved this title because only he, among all, knew that he knew nothing. So it would not be surprising if Socrates envisaged his duty as a teacher as that of making his pupils wiser by making them discover their own ignorance. To this it may be objected that Socrates is too often pictured by Plato as driving his interlocutors into an exasperated fury, and that this is scarcely a convincing method of moral education. But infuriating someone may indeed be the only method of disturbing him sufficiently to force him into philosophical reflection upon moral matters. Of course, for the majority of those so assaulted there will be no admirable consequences of this kind. But there is no evidence that Socrates expected the activity of an intellectual gadfly to benefit more than a tiny minority. Moreover Socrates' method is both more intelligible and more justifiable if it is understood as aimed at securing a particular sort of change in his hearers rather than arriving at a particular conclusion. It is not just that he does not arrive at conclusions; it is rather that his arguments are ad hominem in this sense, that they derive contradictory or otherwise absurd consequences from admissions secured from his interlocutor, and induce the interlocutor to retract. This desire to secure conviction in the interlocutor is underlined in the Gorgias, where Plato makes Socrates say to Polus that he will have achieved nothing unless he can convince him. It is therefore a mistake to complain of the particularity of the Socratic method. The whole point lies in its particularity. (Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics)

Oh, um. Happy new year!

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