The Fundamentals of Education

A Socratic Perspective on
the Cultivation of Humanity

by Max Maxwell and Melete

Page 29

Persuasion in the Socratic Method of Conversation

The typical anti-Socratic talking head embraces their profession of talk as an art of persuasion that can apply to everything, including the kitchen sink. No subject, idea, or consideration of fact or lie is out of its persuasive bounds if it can help them succeed at flattering their demographic into agreement. In contrast to the art of the anti-Socratic talking head, the act of persuasion in the Socratic method of conversation is a highly focused and severely subject limited phenomenon.

In the Socratic method of conversation, persuasion is mostly irrelevant even if the participants have radically different perspectives, because those participants have already joined the same team to examine ideas and beliefs together. The philosophy of the Socratic method of conversation seeks to be persuasive about specific items that have to do with our human character in the dynamics of communication and our will to improve our living. Socratic talk seeks to pursuade all that we have an obligation to question our existence. Socratic conversation never seeks to persuade others with regard to the outcomes of specific topical issues. Socratic conversation demands a serious commitment to examining ideas and beliefs with no attachment to a particular outcome regarding the validation of our preexisting beliefs. There is no agenda that some particular view must win the day.

The participant in a Socratic conversation is not just a spectator watching talking heads, but a living performer that has embraced an artistic "commitment at risk" with their participation in a conversation with another human being. The participant in the Socratic style of conversation is required to make their own unique contribution to the dialogue and is not allowed to depend on the talk of others. Relying on our own abilities to think and communicate is the first step into the republic of the primary for the art of Socratic communication. The focus on first hand participation is one of the reasons the Socratic method stands as a significant development in our history. Vlastos and Graham express this relative to the issue of moral inquiry:

"Why rank that method among the great achievements of humanity? Because it makes moral inquiry a common human enterprise, open to everyone. Its practice calls for no adherence to a philosophical system, or mastery of a specialized technique, or acquisition of a technical vocabulary. It calls for common sense and common speech. And this is as it should be, for how a human being should live is everyone's business."[19]

Socratic conversation is not peripheral spectator sport, but touches upon the most important aspects of the daily life of citizens. In Socratic dialogue we are the participants, the doers, the performers who enact the most important creative process in the history of humanity. Steiner compared the artistic commitment at risk of actual performance with the standard commitments of the non-performing academic.

"Unlike the reviewer, the literary critic, the academic vivisector and judge, the executant (performer) invests his own being in the process of interpretation. His readings, his enactments are not those of external survey. They are a commitment at risk, a response which is, in the root sense, responsible." (Steiner, p. 8)

Socratic conversation requires that we respond responsibly to the issues of the day through the efforts of our own minds. The responsible response comes from our own thoughts and heart. It is not a result of polling the majority. The Socratic way to engage conversation is unlike the typical talking head critic, the professional advocate, or the true believer who pronounces values for the masses. The Socratic conversationalist invests his own being in the act of genuine and open communication to others. The Socratic conversationalist's interpretations and understandings are not those of the external survey of the majority. In contrast, the Socratic conversationalist personally participates with an openness, courtesy, and hospitality to others in dialogue that puts all previous commitments to her ideas and beliefs on the table and fully at risk. In the Socratic philosophy of conversation we are responsible to open ourselves up to welcome the other that we may interpret and respond to one another as real presences in real conversations. The Socratic method of conversation is a living performance art. Steiner writes,

"Interpretive response under the pressure of enactment I shall, using a dated word, call answerability. The authentic experience of understanding, when we are spoken to by another human being or by a poem, is one of responding responsibly." (Steiner, p.8)

The Socratic conversationalist's ability to put all beliefs, and as a logical consequence, all life commitments at risk in dialogue with other human beings is the freedom of human intelligence to live, to breathe and to create through dialogue. This Socratic "commitment at risk" is a gateway to deep and responsible answerability. It is an important part of the art of living an examined life. The fertility of this dialogical productivity is dependent on our willingness to allow all our previous talk about any particular idea or belief to be destroyed and invalidated through refutation. Talk, that comes through a Socratic temperament of conversation, does not seek the anti-Socratic talking head no-risk path of subsuming all things to itself in order to maintain itself. Socratic talk does not seek to dominate. The Socratic eagerness to embrace the refutation of one's own ideas and beliefs is not an idle passion for building sand castles and then arbitrarily destroying them. It is a real pathway to real success.

Paul MacCready realized that he would need to be doing a lot more crashing than flying in the beginning of his aircraft building process. Paul Saffo said that MacCready "designed the Gossamer Condor to crash beautifully — to protect the pilot and be quickly repairable so MacCready’s team could move quickly down the learning curve."[20] This enabled him to succeed because he was able to crash more often. Socratic talk seeks to destroy itself as often as possible through refutation in dialogue. The Socratic method of conversation teaches us to crash beautifully. Our eagerness to own a new refutation of our ideas and beliefs is the pathway to success and the golden road to win the prize. With regard to leading an examined life, if we want to fly, we must be willing to crash more often.

Nothing could be further removed from the character of Socratic conversation than the art of the anti-Socratic talking head, which uses persuasion to preserve an original argument or position at all costs. The goal of the typical talking head is never to destroy her talk (argument or position). Her sacred goal is always to subsume the whole world to her talk and crashing is never an option. The anti-Socratic talking head enters a conversation with the agenda of changing others, but the Socratic method of conversation teaches us to go into dialogue with the agenda of being deeply open to changing ourselves. The anti-Socratic teaches us to seek to dominate as much as we can with our talk. Gaining mastery over the world through talk is the goal. The goal of the Socratic method of conversation is that we gain mastery over ourselves. The greatest tool for self mastery in Socratic philosophy is our own eagerness to seek the refutations of our own ideas and beliefs that we also may move quickly down the learning curve of all life's issues.

Socratic persuasion does not require that the educator or Socratic facilitator study the principles of rhetoric or the psychology of influence. It is not the methods or style of influence that defines Socratic persuasion. It is the subject matter. There are only a few basic things about which the Socratic philosophy of conversation seeks to be persuasive.


[19] Gregory Vlastos, & Daniel W. Graham (1971). "The Paradox of Socrates." In The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays. Anchor Books, p 20. (Quote was gender neutralized)

[20] Paul Saffo, Remembering Paul MacCready, Master of Failure, Retrieved March 22, 2013 from