Socratic Method: Methods of Philosophizing (Part 1)
In this post, I am going to review Gerry Arambala and Rhiza Mae Damasin-Arambala’s Chapter on the Methods of Philosophizing in the book titled Introduction to the Philosophy of the Human Person. Gerry and Rhiza presented four methods of philosophizing in Chapter 2 of this book, namely, 1) Socratic Method, 2) Phenomenological Method, 3) Hermeneutical Method, and 4) Analytic Method. In this post, I will only focus on the Socratic Method.
It must be noted that my main intention here is to explain further or highlight those important concepts in the topic methods of philosophizing that may provide the students and senior high school teachers in the Philippines who do not have a strong background and orientation in philosophy with additional information that would help them further understand the different approaches to doing philosophy. It must also be noted that because of word count requirement set by the publisher of the book, the authors have to present their chapter in a succinct manner. This review will also guide the students in reading the chapter.
According to Gerry and Rhiza, the Socratic Method is a didactic dialogue of questioning that is expressed in the critical examination and cross-examination of the positions of every participant in the dialogue. However, it is important to note that this method is simply a way to discover the truth. Hence, the Socratic Method is neither a rhetoric (or the art of persuasion) nor a debate in which participants in a dialogue (discourse or discussion) prove their position. For this reason, those who are involved in a dialogue do not attempt to persuade the other or debate with each other, but work together in order to discover the truth. As Gerry and Rhiza rightly claims, the didactic dialogue of Socrates intends not to convey new truth but only as a guide in arriving at the truth. Socrates calls this method Maieutic or “intellectual midwifery.”
When intellectual midwifery is at work in a dialogue, the participants do not force-fit their own beliefs on others. Instead, as already mentioned, they work together in order to arrive at the truth. Applied in a classroom setting, the teacher does not seek to inculcate the students with knowledge or truths. On the contrary, the teacher simply acts as a guide in arriving at certain truths. Thus, in this method, the students are no longer viewed as passive recipients of knowledge, but as an active agent in the acquisition of knowledge. Here, the students think for themselves and the Socratic teacher only facilitates the discussion.
It is worth noting, however, that the participants in the dialogue must first admit their ignorance. This is because, for Socrates, knowledge begins the moment one admits her ignorance, that is, when one realizes that she does not know―thus the famous Socratic dictum “Know thyself.” For sure, it is when we admit that we do not know, that there is so much to know (that the more we know, the more that we do not know) that we begin to seek the truth and acquire wisdom.
More importantly, the Socratic Method is a way of thinking that involves three important steps in arriving at the truth. In the first step, we give an initial definition of a thing or a concept. For example, we say: “A table is a four-legged furniture.” In the second step, we look for those characteristics of the table that are not captured in the initial definition. For example, we may ask the question: “Is the table a cow?” We raise this question because if our initial definition of the concept of a table is based solely on the idea of “four legs,” then it follows that anything that has four legs can be called a table. But is a cow really a table simply because it has four legs? Obviously not. This question would lead us to the third step, where we give additional or new definition of a table. Thus, we may say: “A table is a four-legged furniture, made up of wood and has a flat surface.” Let me schematically show the three steps in Socratic Method:
Step 1: A table is a four-legged furniture.
Step 2: Is the table a cow?
Step 3: A table is a four-legged furniture, made up of wood and has a flat surface.
Now, if we repeat these steps, then we eventually arrived at the truth, that is, we eventually came up with a precise definition of a table, understood as the essence of a table―indeed, that which makes a table “a table” or that which makes a table completely different from any other things, such as a cow or a chair. Thus, we may say: “A table is a four-legged furniture, made up of wood, has a flat surface, rectangular in shape, and is used primarily for dining or putting things on it.” As we can see, this is the essence of a table. This is what makes a table “a table,” so that even if one sits on a table, the table remains a table; it does not become a chair because the main purpose of the table is for dining or for putting things on it, and not for sitting.
Let us consider another example.
Step 1: Freedom is the ability of the human person to do whatever she wants to do.
Step 2: Am I really free to kill my enemy simply because I hate him?
Step 3: No. We cannot just kill anybody we want to kill. There are rules to follow in a civilized society.
Now, if we repeat this process, then eventually we can come up with a true definition of freedom. Indeed, with the Socratic Method, we are able to improve our understanding of something and eventually arrived at the truth. For sure, with the Socratic Method, an individual is able to move from the state of “not knowing” to that of “knowing.” Lastly, this process is what we call the Socratic Dialectic.
For a detailed discussion on the life and works of Socrates, see Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Socrate,” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/
Below is the front cover of our book in philosophy of the human person, a core subject in senior high schools in the Philippines. If you are interested to purchase the book, you may contact the publisher at email@example.com. For more on the basic information of this book, please visit this link: http://philonotes.com/index.php/2017/11/24/textbook-iphp-k-12/
DR. JEFFRY OCAY
Professor of Philosophy