The Semantic Independence of Socratic Focus

by Max Maxwell

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Philosophical Foundations

Research Implications


The First Principle of Socratic Questioning: Structural Constraint


Human language and chess have something in common. Chess, like language, can generate an amazing number of new forms. There are more possible games of chess than there are stars in the universe (a great many more). Yet, using the goal of the game of chess as the evaluative criterion, most of these possible games are junk. There are only a relatively small number of the total possible chess games that are useful or interesting. The same is true of conversation. Human language can generate more possible statements and questions than can ever be anticipated in an organized manner. Most of the possible verbal statements and questions are not useful to any particular intelligent conversation, Socratic or otherwise. What is needed is a way to constrain the possibilities in a manner that serves the Socratic goal refuting a definition in Socratic style without being bogged down by the ocean of semantic possibilities that are inherent in more complex responses to basic questions such as "What is Justice?".


I first realized the amazing usefulness of constraining the permutation complexity of a generative system (such as language) through an unusual chess experience. Although, I had played chess here and there since I was a child, while working on a master degree I started playing once a week at a club. I was a typical patzer (poor player). After a couple of months of weekly play during which I learned to not drop pieces so much, I dedicated one month to studying the structure of the game for the first time using a book that taught the principles of positional chess play. I spent a lot of time over the next month learning how to incorporate the knowledge of positional principles into my chess play. Prior to studying positional play, chess seemed like a messy and unpredictable game. I found the principles of positional play made much of the game seem simple, organized and easy to understand. These principles gave me a framework for understanding the game in terms of strategy. At the end of that month I had the opportunity to play a chess grandmaster, who at the time was one of the top players in the world. I went into the game knowing I would be handily swept off the board in much less time than the ninety minutes allotted for the game. To my surprise, I survived the opening and the middle game. The game was exhausting and I had only five minutes left on my clock. As my time was running out, I blundered (lost a piece) like the rank amateur I was and promptly resigned. I looked forward to hearing from the grandmaster about all the things I did wrong.


I asked the grandmaster to analyze my game prior to my obvious mistake so that I could learn. He told me that he had nothing to say and that I could not have played better. At this point I was stunned. How was it possible that, after one month of the study of positional play, I could do so well against a chess grandmaster? The answer to that question is that we had played an opening that was relatively non-tactical and heavily favored positional considerations (exchange variation of the French Defense). The grandmaster choose to not raise tactical complications, most likely because he knew pure technique would win the endgame for him. Yet, my performance in the game was very much better than I was anticipating. In such openings, a sound knowledge of positional play is enough to play an enjoyable game. All I had to do was carefully attend to positional knowledge and not drop a piece. I learned that a little knowledge of structure, well attended to, goes a long way. In a more tactically complicated game, he could have easily swept me off the board with his eyes closed. The grandmaster performed such sweepings in later games while he played me blindfolded.


Even though my abilities with chess calculation and tactics were not much improved, the principles of positional play still allowed me to raise my game far beyond my highest expectations and play a decent game against a world class player.  This worked because the positional principles constrained my attentiveness to useful structural considerations of chess play. With regard to the idea of constraining the possibilities, these principles gave me easy to understand reasons to reject a great many possible chess moves. The rules allowed me to focus much more efficiently and limit the possibilities of the game in a way that was productive. The principles I will describe in this series of essays have a similar dynamic for understanding the use of the Socratic Method. They will greatly limit the possible directions in which a Socratic conversation can go by focusing our attention on the structure of Socratic Dialogue. In chess, it takes more than positional play to be a real chess master. Although the same is true with regard to mastering the Socratic Method, these principles can take you far. By working to be persistently attentive to principles derived from the observation of the structure of Socratic Dialogue, you can raise your Socratic game to an enjoyable and useful level to use the method more effectively than you thought possible.