The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 20

The Malaise of Public Discourse

(NOTE: If you got here through a link from the "How to Use the Socratic Method" research summary, it is highly recommended that you read Part I of this essay to fully understand the meaning of the following materials. However, Part II, with its focus on the social/psychological dynamics inherent to Socratic discourse can be read with profit in the absence of Part I. )

In part I of this essay, I interacted with George Steiner's perspective on the academic study of the arts. The end result of the philosophical / musical journey in Part I was the articulation of the first principle of all possible Socratic philosophies of education and conversation. The principle is about the necessity of cultivating "Hospitality to the Stranger Within". In order to raise the question of being, we must be hospitable to our own being. If we cannot tolerate and work productively with the cognitive diversity within our own minds, we cannot productively face a world more diverse than our own minds. In Part II, I extend this principle, which governs the fertility of our own inner discourse, to the realm of public conversation. I extend Steiner's criticism of the academic study of the arts to the dis-ease which has infected our public conversations in the U.S.. Public discourse, with its love of secondary and tertiary talk, has infected the character of public discourse in the United States with a bleak malaise that is antithetical to the nature of intelligent discussion. I will compare the commonly expressed nature of public discourse to a Socratic philosophy of conversation. The Socratic method of conversation will be presented as a gateway to a dialogical analogue of Steiner's republic of the primary, where courtesy and hospitality to the other, as well as the primacy of personal participation in the process of creating new knowledge is paramount. Part II moves the theme of Part I from the realm of our inner minds to the open forum of public discussion. "Hospitality to the Stranger in Dialogue" invokes Steiner's principle of real presence as it relates to our conversations with one another.

The current malaise of public discourse in the United States represents a powerfully disabling malady in the life of our citizens. The symptoms of this dis-ease are visible everywhere people discuss their differences. The most common form of public discussion has become a circus of polemic uselessness. The style of interaction that governs a significant amount of public discourse in the U.S. involves malingering in a perverse focus on leveraging the weaknesses of opponents instead of constructively discussing the building of strengths, ranting impotently at one another with irrelevant ad hominem attacks, and forsaking every principle of intelligent discourse in favor of cheap and deceitful one-upmanship.

This style of mendacious grumbling (I am reluctant to refer to it in terms of useful conversation.) teaches us a number of things that are false and severely damaging to our capacity to productively relate to and work with one another. The lack of genuine communication and real personal presence in our overly polemic public communications in the U.S. constitutes an anti-Socratic style of talk that is the opposite of the philosophy of the Socratic method of conversation.