Inside the Book: The Socratic Method

Inside the Book - Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

This blog refers to the best 5 books I read in 2021 and goes deep on the matter. You can find the list of my best readings here.

Complete title – The Socratic Method: a Practitioner’s Handbook

Author – Ward Farnsworth

The feeling of being disconnected from what happens around us, because we are too busy to care, is a common one. We have no time or energy to waste on deep analysis of our surroundings. That also translates into the way we deal with problems. We love pragmatism: so the first, plausible solution seems to be the good one, especially if it receives no objection.

There are several problems with that. The first one is shortcomings. We want to close a deal or an argument as soon as possible, and a quicker closure seems efficient: but it does not necessarily mean effective. Many times we are just hiding the dirt under the carpet. Conflicts hastily resolved will resurface. A negligent decision, taken after a superficial examination of facts, can be more harmful in the long term.

Another problem with quick thinking is that is too comfortable. We give ourselves a great deal of resolution, but probably we are not assessing risks well. And because we are used to a certain way, we fall prey to our own biases. So, even if we are some kind of expert, we are not reasoning better than monkeys taking random choices.

A third reason is that we are deeply emotional beings but we tend not to acknowledge that. In fact, such a reason is a corollary to the former two: because emotions “impair” our thinking in the short term, and we don’t give ourselves time to elaborate further, we fail to discern the emotional mind from the cognitive one. While this kind of insight can be useful, it is a hindrance in more situations than you think.

The reasons why we do not like long discussions are that:

  • they are painful to our minds
  • they can bring up things we don’t want to hear or say
  • we hate to be proven wrong

This list would actually be longer, but the point is that these reasons are founded on a common denominator: repulsion and denial of our personal ignorance.

The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook focuses properly on the human dilemma of self-conscious ignorance – in simpler words, the awareness that we aren’t omniscient and that is okay. The author, Ward Farnsworth, is Professor of Law with a great passion for philosophy and rhetoric. His book serves us well as a bridge between the philosophy of Socrates, the Greek thinker of Athens, and its uses and purposes in the modern world.

Farnsworth is a self-proclaimed Socratic and elaborates on the principles of the ancient doctrine that much influenced our history and its main player, beginning with his disciple Plato.

Here’s what you’ll find inside the book:

There is no framework; only principles

If you aren’t much into philosophy, then you need to know that Socrates did not leave any writing behind, and all we know about his ways come especially from Plato and others who lived in the same period. Such wisdom endured millennia, and nowadays it is still in use because of its unique approach to human thinking.

Socrates was probably the first who shifted philosophy’s attention from the observation of natural events to the one of the human mind and how it affects our way of living. The two concepts of knowledge and wisdom are pivotal.

Individuals have the tendency to find “the right way” to think, a process that admits few possible right answers. Through Plato’s Dialogues, we see that Socrates debunks such ways, demonstrating that there are no universal answers to one question. The dialogues never end with a decisive answer, and its participants end up more confused about their ideas than they were in the beginning. What is then the purpose of the dialogues?

What Farnsworth points out is that the dialogues do not offer any clear guidance through the dialogue, and yet there are patterns of questioning, irony, and confutation that can be summarized in a few cardinal points.

These are the principles of the Socratic method:

  • Hypothesis (usually, a generalization)
  • Elenchus, a blend of confutation and argumentation
  • Aporia, or admission of ignorance
Ignorance is not equal to shame

The feeling of puzzlement induced by Socratic conversation may be seen as a mixture of cognitive and emotional discomfort.

It is a cognitive discomfort, because some assumptions are challenged, making us realize how little we know about something… If we’ve ever known, that is.

It is also emotional, because we are left to cope with this emptiness. We finally know that we don’t know; we feel ashamed to have pontificated about something with a person and now all our theories are debunked. Of course, we feel ashamed of ourselves.

The regular person would feel angry about it, and it is said that this is what caused Socrates to be sent to death. For the philosopher, however, ignorance is cathartic.

It teaches us that life is always worth examining: a continuous process of learning, forgetting, and relearning. Socrates also makes it moral, because he establishes that ignorance is the mother of all evil; by acknowledging our ignorance, we can do something about it.

How does it reflect in our modern life?

If you read some of the Dialogues, you will empathize more with Socrates’ interlocutors than with the philosopher himself. You would rather find the former petulant and annoying. A natural reaction of discomfort, indeed, that happens to us when we are questioned about things.

Millennia have passed, yet we react the same. We are opinionated creatures of habit, after all; even seeing our knowledge being broken to pieces is too much for us.

The underlying, subtle suggestion from page one to the end of the book, is that accepting ignorance is equal to keeping the doors open to new knowledge.

Now, if you consider how fast things are changing in the last two decades, given the advancements we are benefitting for the last 150 years, it is a suggestion that we shall take to heart. Discordant opinions easily evolve into arguments, but they could also become an opportunity for constructive dialogue. This returns new-founded knowledge, and maybe an extra pinch of wisdom. While Socrates goes harsh on his interlocutors, we rather not need it.

What is really important are the advantages coming with it.

  • the use of powerful questions to provoke critical thinking
  • acceptance of multiple answers, to see a problem’s multiple facets
  • consistency over plausibility, because our perception is flawed
  • the acknowledgment of ignorance means we still have space where to put new ideas
  • the scrutiny of a problem implies observation, thus more awareness

There are, then, roles and professions that can benefit from it the most:

  • leaders can adopt a coaching style to empower their employees
  • teachers can use Socratic questions to provoke ideas in their students
  • mentors can offer this as a unique chance to learn better

My favourite quotes from this book

“The Socratic method is a corrective. Before viewing it as a technique, consider it an ethic of patience, inquiry, humility, and doubt—in other words, of every good attitude discouraged by social media and disappearing from our political and cultural life.”

[…]

“Our minds stumble and exaggerate and lie; they fool us and are fooled.”

Ward Farnsworth

The first quote refers to another, powerful advantage of the principles I tried to describe until now. I began this article with a detailed statement on quick decision-making. This does not apply to problem-solving alone and is something we use when taking a side, or reacting to events. People think to know better when, in fact, are lost in mindless choices and decisions. They don’t simply avoid thinking – they do not listen to their emotions, which means acknowledging and understanding them first.

On top of that, we are so prone to bias that we are able to (erroneously) judge a person from a single particular, and then extend our judgment to a whole category, generalizing. Except when we are part of the generalization: in that case, we are good to find reasons and excuses to explain why our case is a different one.

When Socrates speaks of ignorance as evil, think of the conflicts spread across our planet. Think of racists, misogynists, and xenophobics. Think of policymakers manipulating facts to justify greenwashing as ecological efforts.

Because information and data are easily manipulated, yet accessible; and because our brain is made to remember the sensational more than the cold facts: critical thinking and conversations are needed more than ever. The Socratic Method to our capability to use our brain to make the world a better place, beginning from understanding the contradictions of our society.

Finally, Plato brought the Socratic dialogue up for ethical problems. We owe the use of our minds, and of words, to ourselves and the planet where we live on.

What I learned from reading this book

The closest thing to Socratic dialogues today is coaching. Thought-provoking conversations, aimed to bring up something good and new are the essence of coaching. While many professions make use of Socratic questions to confute ideas and to teach something, coaching is unique because the coach frames himself as a “little Socrates”. However, both participants in a coaching conversation benefit from it, as I digressed in my book New Maieutic.

Do not mistake Socratic method for rhetoric. The latter’s goal is, indeed, to convince somebody about something. The Socratic inquiry focuses on the consistency of statements and ensures that what is said relies on facts and is cleansed from opinions and hearsay. Rhetoric can also be used to manipulate ideas, while Socratic questions leave them up to the interlocutor.

I can use it to dialogue with myself. The best thing about this book is that, at the end of each chapter, I was asking myself questions about my own ignorance and understanding of things. Surprisingly, this process continued for the duration of the book, and sometimes I took some pauses in between chapters to better elaborate. I found that I already incorporated some principles into my “lifestyle of thinker”, while I missed others. I feel that my critical thinking is stronger than ever since I accepted to be a happy ignorant.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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