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This essay is a product of over thirty years of my research and experimentation in the Socratic method and thirteen years of work in the field of curriculum development.
The purpose of this essay is:
• To offer a philosophical basis for a broad range of uses of the Socratic method
• To demonstrate the principled potential for creating innovations in the use of the Socratic method
• To indicate new directions for future Socratic method research
In focusing on the most fundamental aspects, I worked to articulate information that is useful for creating innovations in the implementation of the Socratic method regardless of the methodological variances of the individual Socratic facilitator. The theoretical ideal is to articulate principles so fundamental to human education and living that they are useful for all possible implementations of the Socratic method and for understanding what underlies all possible expressions of living the examined life.
I will discuss the contribution of the Socratic method to the cultivation of the following human fundamentals:
• Unending enthusiasm to grow and better oneself
• The persistence of high quality attentiveness
• The ability to find the peace within ourselves and with others to repeatedly embrace the differences, questions, and challenges that we encounter while expressing a commitment to living an examined life.
I will explore the potential for new research in the areas of:
• Creating innovative Socratic exercises
• Using the Socratic method in oral and written form
• Using the Socratic method as a formal system
One of the exciting implications of this new research into the Socratic method is recovering the long lost ability to effectively use the Socratic method in its classic deconstructive mode in live conversation. This mode is the style of the Socratic method as illustrated by the early dialogues of Plato. The deconstructive aspect of the Socratic method from the early dialogues, characterized by the question form "What is X?", has been used very little since Plato. I will illustrate through example and in principle, how this style of the Socratic method may be used in both oral and written form.
Parts one through five will lay down a philosophical foundation for the Socratic method of conversation, philosophy of education, and articulate the fundamental nature of the examined life. This foundation will reveal how the most essential structures of human thriving are related to a Socratic philosophy of education. Parts five through seven will detail some of the implications for future Socratic method research.
NOTE: The summary of this essay below describes a large body of my work. If you are interested in a summary of this research with a focus on using the Socratic method in the classroom, use the link below:
"How to Use the Socratic Method"
Part I, The Art of Living: Hospitality to the Stranger Within, explores the relationship between academic talk and artistic doing as a gateway to articulate the first principle of a Socratic philosophy of human development. I respond to George Steiner's book Real Presences in order to illuminate an important principle in the art of living the examined life through Steiner's issues with secondary discourse in the academic study of the arts. Steiner's idea that academics talk about their own theoretical abstractions and each other far too much, and incorporate far too little direct experience of art, is examined through the perspective of artistic experience rather than academic analysis. This is a different path from the typical academic commentator on Steiner's book in that I construct a critical reading of Real Presences through the practice of the 'participatory philology of ideas'. This is primarily done through my experience of living out two artistic experiments, which are my interpretive performance of a Rachmaninoff composition and a four year experiment with a Beethoven piano sonata. The effect of this artistic look into the relationship between academic talk and artistic doing results in a reassessment of Steiner's view of meaning in language, the arts and all human creativity. My thinking on Steiner's principle of emphasizing a hospitable openness to the real presence of art as a path to deepening the quality of our experience of art leads to the articulation of the fundamental first principle that stands at the foundation of all uses of the Socratic method and of all expressions of living an examined life. The fundamental first principle, which is "Hospitality to The Stranger Within", highlights the importance of opening ourselves up to our own inner diversity in order to gain self knowledge. The living activation of this principle is the foundation of all possible "real presence".
Part II, Socratic Talk: Hospitality to the Stranger in Dialogue, builds off the concepts of Part I in an explanation of what the Socratic method and Socratic perspective of education have to offer as a philosophy of human interaction. The Socratic method of conversation is compared to the habits of talk in the U.S media. This comparison demonstrates that the structure of secondary and tertiary talk in the academic study of the arts, which troubles Steiner, also has a negative effect on the quality and value of public communication in the United States. The Socratic method and philosophy of conversation is presented as a dialogical gateway to Steiner's concept of the republic of the primary, where hospitality and personal participation in the creation of knowledge make up the performance art of living an examined life. The human character developing qualities of the Socratic method of conversation will be articulated in regard to their ability to increase the intelligence and usefulness of conversations devoted to seeking knowledge and understanding. The Socratic method is also shown to make a fundamental contribution to the character development of a human being in the practice of peacemaking. The principle of hospitality for the stranger (within and in dialogue) will be established, as the essay proceeds, as the most important fundamental of education.
Part III, The Fundamentals of the Human Condition, will integrate the art theme from part one into an exploration of what is most fundamental to the human condition. Structures of repetition and variation will be explored in terms of their extraordinary fundamentality to the human condition and their relationship to increasing complexity and meaning. This exploration will involve expressing the human condition in terms of a process of being in time rather than attempting to define an object. The structure of the human condition is explored in its relationship to the theme of repetition, variation, complexity and meaning through such topics as Leonard Bernstein's concept of musical semantics, the permutation complexity of music, and Steiner's definition of literature.
Steiner's definition of literature as "the maximization of semantic incommensurability in respect of the formal means of expression" is explored through the framework of repetition and variation to articulate an essential structure of the artistic in the art of living as the reader is led through an exercise of interpreting a poem written by Max. The essence of the structure of the artistic is shown to be realized in the process of gaining self knowledge through our will to create new variations. The implications of this structure will be summarized along with the principles of Parts I and II to serve as an introduction to Part IV.
Part IV: Groundwork of The Physics of Metaethics:
The Rubato of Being in the Music of Life
Key ideas from Socrates, Kant and Nietzsche are organized into a systemic relationship under a framework of focus created by Max's reading of Martin Heidegger's Being and Time. Our take on the relationship between being and time, which began with the focus on repetition and variation in Part III, is the focus for defining the physical necessities that demand we pay attention to Socrates' ideal of living an examined life. Heidegger's ontology project is moved forward through a system (set of relationships) inspired from Max's reading of Buckminster Fuller's work, in particular from: Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking. The focus on the fundamentality of repetition, variation, increasing complexity, and meaning, which was established in Part III, join into a systematic relationship with other concepts such as the relationship between frequency and meaning, the relationship between expansion and contraction, group object formation, the unity of singularity and multiplicity, and the unity of knowledge and will that will redefine knowledge as a space filling geometry. The result is a description of an "inherently minimum set of essential concepts" needed to clarify the cognitive-temporal dynamics of the human process of being leading to the articulation of one uncontroversially universal human world view, which underlies all possible world views that claim any concern for living well. The temporal geometry that results constitutes the physical foundation for describing the universal human need for incorporating metatheoretical inquiry into our daily practice of trying to live well. Making room for metatheoretical inquiry is at the heart of Socrates' ideal of living an examined life, in which the structure of the artistic developed in Part III shows itself to be fundamental to all human living.
Part V: A Socratic Perspective on The Examined Life: Toward a Human Consensus on The Art of Living,
Part V is the conclusion of the "Philosophical Foundations" portion of the essay. It translates the language of principles from Parts I through IV into simple common language. Part V can be read independently from parts I through IV since Part V is the essential practical fruit of the "Philosophical Foundations" portion of this essay. This take on the examined life maintains that its foundation is composed of things people already know, which consciously or unconsciously underlay their world views. Part V could also be read as a criticism of Plato's theory of anamnesis. It is not in remembering just any knowledge (such as the geometry experiment in Meno), but in bringing into remembrance basic self knowledge that does the trick. The living repetition of embracing and recalling that which we already know of ourselves is a powerful resource in living well and the heart of living an examined life. The nature of this knowing of self is very different from Plato's theoretical obsessions. The most succinct summary of the philosophical foundations portion of this essay is: "The principles that underlay the living of an examined life are the fundamentals of education".
Part VI, Envisioning the Examined Life, explores the first direction of research involving the creation of new types of Socratic exercises that do not depend on the dialogues of Plato for their form, yet retain the important character developing Socratic dynamics. The example provided is a method to encourage a Socratic envisioning of personal development. The purpose is to help students develop their own personal vision of living the examined life. The concept of the 'Hero' is used as a focus to help students envision their better self.
Part VII, Socratic Texts: Written Tools for encouraging the Examined Life, looks into the second direction of research by exploring the use of the Socratic method as a written text. An example of how to apply the Socratic method to modern topics in written form is provided. The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith is a Socratic dialogue I wrote that is close to the dialectical style of the early dialogues of Plato. This dialogue can be used in written or oral form. It uses a technique for refuting definitions that relies on clarifying the scope of knowledge pertaining to morality. It also uses the "one example" technique, which allows an idea or definition to stand or fall based on the success or failure of finding one illustrative example of the idea that is able to stand up to further examination. The net result of this dialogue is that the respondent is unable to either define morality or the scope of application of moral knowledge. The implications of this dialogue are discussed regarding the application of the Socratic method in both written and oral form to a broader range of topics.
The most exciting implication of this line of research is the recovery of an ancient aspect of Socratic dialogue. The most famous portrait of Socrates is in the early dialogues of Plato. Here, Socrates and his conversation partners fail to find the answer they seek as each definition is refuted. The repeated cycle of definition and refutation ends with an admission of failure to find the knowledge they seek. We almost never use the Socratic method as portrayed in the early dialogues of Plato because it is too complex to reliably overturn another's deeply held view through simply asking questions. The verbal possibilities are too unwieldy, the tenacity of people in clinging to their views too great. The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith is a demonstration of the ability to use the style of Socratic method, as seen in the early dialogues of Plato, in application to modern topics. To the best of my knowledge, this dialogue is the first, or one of very few, dialogues since Plato that actually captures the flavor and functionality of the early dialogues of Plato.
Part VIII, The Semantic Independence of Socratic Focus, demonstrates a third direction of new research. This direction explores the possible use of the Socratic method as a formal system such as propositional logic or formal systems capable of basic arithmetic. The first step in this research is to create methods for generating valid Socratic questions in a way that functions through dependence on rules and exhibits semantic independence from natural language. A proof of concept example is provided that describes a technique for generating valid Socratic questions in response to a definition by attending only to the formalities of the definition's grammar. The introduction of this kind of formality means that we can create effective Socratic questions that can be asked without the questioner knowing the meaning of the respondent's definition. This line of research favors the development of the Socratic method as seen in the styling's of the early dialogues of Plato. The proof of concept example is constructed by using a formal rule that eliminates most of the natural language semantic entanglements of human dialogue. This research demonstrates that the Socratic facilitator may indeed be quite ignorant, yet still able to successfully conduct a Socratic process. It also indicates that it is more possible than previously believed to write computer programs capable of having effective Socratic dialogues with a human being.
This essay has been significantly shaped and written through philosophical dialogue with my best friend. I will refer to her by the pseudonym Melete. My dialogues with Melete have been a manifestation of the best of a Socratic philosophy of conversation. Her philosophical dialogues with me over the course of over thirty years have helped me to become a better human being. Our philosophical dialogues together over the subject of this essay and its various draft manuscripts helped make this essay significantly better than it would have been without her. At the beginning of this project, the number of possible ways for expressing the information were mind boggling. My own fondness for unusual associations had me considering writing this essay using such out of the way frameworks as the energy dynamics of increasing complexity, Gandhi's principle of satyagraha, the categorical imperative "Thou shalt make thy loop stranger", which I construct from Douglass Hofstadter's work, or using Buckminster Fuller's Book "Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking" in the same manner that I used Steiner's Book "Real Presences" for Part I of this essay. Fuller got into the work but in a different way. Melete brought her down to earth wisdom to me in dialogue in a way that kept the creativity of my own mind rooted in earth. The chosen framework for this essay of using our experience of the arts to illuminate the art of living an examined life brings forth a richness and simplicity of understanding that would be absent if it were not for the dialogues with Melete. Using the theme of our attentiveness to art in order to construct a Socratic philosophy of education would have been impossible without her. If I am the intellect of this essay, she is its heart. She gives depth of heart to my ideas and I speak her sensing. I want to thank Rebecca, who read through the manuscript draft with me. Her insight and her wonderfully life affirming human character clarified my thinking in important ways.
You are about to read something different. The focus of this essay is the result of the Socratic life I have lived for over thirty years with Melete as my companion in dialogue. This essay is designed to stimulate thinking about a few fundamental principles that affect all possible expressions of living the examined life. The purpose of this essay is fulfilled when the reader takes these principles into their own unique process, and in that process create new expressions of the Socratic method and philosophy in the living of her own examined life. This essay is also a call to new research in the Socratic method. There are richer opportunities to advance our knowledge in this area than have been previously considered. This essay is a modest demonstration of that truth. The potential for new understanding in the use and value of the Socratic method is just beginning.