The Semantic Independence
of Socratic Focus

by Max Maxwell


An Illustration of Structural Constraint in the Classic Socratic

Constraint is fundamental to the productive use of the Socratic Method. Managing and limiting the unwieldy diversity of possibilities inherent to human dialogue is very necessary. There are a variety of constraining principles that relate to the structure of Socratic Dialogue, which we will examine. We will look at them in detail in later essays, but for now I want to illustrate how a simple principle can greatly reduce the difficulty of interpreting complex or unexpected responses to a Socratic question.

Illustration of a Grammatical Constraint:

In the late 1980's I was doing research on the Socratic Method and conducted a survey that asked people the question, “What is justice?” A lawyer gave the following definition of justice, “Justice is the restoration of actual human behavior according to the expectations of natural law.” Leave it to a lawyer to come up with that one. This response illustrates why the classic form of the Socratic Method is almost never used. What kind of follow up questions do you use to move the Socratic process forward in response to such a wordy and conceptually dense definition? What does he mean by actual human behavior? What is natural law? What are its expectations? Which historical source will have more weight in our understanding of natural law? Will it be Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas? Perhaps we will lean towards Thomas Hobbes? What of the Islamic understanding of natural law? The lawyer’s definition of justice contains enough debatable complexity to keep the conversation spinning in non-Socratic circles for quite some time.

Below is an illustration of how a simple principle constrains our focus and simplifies the process of interpreting and responding to the lawyer’s definition, while moving the Socratic process forward. In the example below, it is not necessary to worry about the many different directions a dialogue may move as a result of such a difficult definition. The Socratic questioner can take control of the conversation by limiting her focus to a simple structure. Do not worry about understanding the full context of this principle now. Just take note of how this principle frees the Socratic questioner from having to attend to most of the semantic content of the lawyer’s definition.

The Principle of Verbal Precedence:

When encountering a complex definition of a term, just look for the main verb or the verb in noun form. Then ignore the rest of the definition and formulate further questions around the verb. This particular constraint results in attempting to link the action of the verb to a specific field of knowledge. This is because all actions (verbs) conducted by a willing participant require a context of knowledge even for the simplest of things. Socrates often sought this connection through reference to various arts and trades.

In the lawyer’s response, “restoration” is a verb in noun form. Heeding the principle of verbal precedence, just focus on the verb and then proceed to link it to a field of knowledge. The following is one possible result:

Socrates: Can a human being have any knowledge of justice?

Lawyer: Yes.

Socrates: That is good news! I seem to be lacking in the knowledge of justice. Please tell me, what is justice?

Lawyer: Justice is the restoration of actual human behavior according to the expectations of natural law.

Socrates: So justice is a kind of restoration. Tell me; whenever we restore anything, do we not always need some kind of knowledge to help us?

Lawyer: What do you mean?

Socrates: If I want to restore a piece of antique furniture to a fine condition, I must know how to treat the wood and what materials and methods to use. If I want to restore the engine of a car, I must have a useful knowledge of auto mechanics. When justice restores actual human behavior, must we not have some knowledge that makes the restoration through justice possible?

Lawyer: Yes. You would need the knowledge of the expectations of natural law.

Socrates: When actual human behavior is inhibited by the disease of the body, do we require the knowledge of natural law in order to effect this restoration or is it the knowledge of medicine that is needed?

Lawyer: You would need the knowledge of medicine.

Socrates: And if badly designed shoes were hurting someone’s feet to the point that it inhibited their actual human behavior, is it the knowledge of natural law or a better knowledge of shoemaking that is more restorative?

Lawyer: The knowledge of shoemaking is useful in this case, or at least the knowledge of where to get better shoes.

Socrates: It seems sometimes that the knowledge of justice and its relationship to natural law is not required to restore actual human behavior?

Lawyer: That appears to be true.

Socrates: Then in what area of life is the knowledge of natural law required in order for justice to restore actual human behavior?

So far this small dialogue has already shown that the scope of application of the knowledge of natural law is not adequate to cover all possible instances of restoring “actual human behavior.” This leads to difficulties for the lawyer’s definition that can be pursued. Exposing problems with proposed definitions is at the heart of the successful use of the Classic Socratic Method. This example was still possible even through the Socratic questioner did not have to know a thing about the meaning of “actual human behavior” or “natural law”. If you have some knowledge of natural law, you may certainly follow up on that. If you have insight on how to follow up on the meaning of “actual” in the phrase “actual human behavior”, you may do that as well. The use of constraining principles in this system does not mean that you cannot do other things if you have the knowledge. However, in the absence of such knowledge, these principles will give you a baseline of Socratic Method functionality to get you going.

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You have seen from the snippet of dialogue above that it is not even necessary to know what “actual human behavior” or “natural law” is in order for the Socratic questioner to successfully use those terms during an application of the Socratic Method. This simplification is possible because the focus of Socratic questioning is on the verb. This example illustrates that we can still function as a Socratic questioner even in the context of our own ignorance. We can continue to formulate follow up questions that can successfully apply the Socratic Method to concepts, even if we have no knowledge of those concepts. A little knowledge of structure is all that is needed. In this case, a little focus on grammar and the basic relationship between human action (verbs) and human knowledge makes things much easier. At this point, many very different continuations of the dialogue are possible. There are so many that some of you should be wondering how it is possible to accommodate them all. Yes, it is possible. All responses that result from sincere participation in a Socratic dialogue can be interpreted and responded to through a variety of principles that constrain the conversation to simple structures that are useful for philosophy and teaching. Keep in mind that the principle of verbal precedence is just one tool in a set. Once you are familiar with all the tools, you can use and combine them at will.

Like chess, the intelligibility of human dialogue benefits from constraint. In Socratic Dialogues this intelligibility is measured in terms of moving the Socratic process toward its goals. Attending to the structure of Socratic Dialogue gives us the necessary constraints we need to raise the quality of our use of the Socratic Method. As the principles of positional chess play provides productive limits to the game of chess by focusing attention of specific structures, the structure of Socratic Dialogue will provide us with productive principles to assist us in the application of the Socratic Method. The Socratic questioner will have her attention limited to the most important structures relevant to moving the Socratic process along. This will provide a new baseline of effectiveness in using the Socratic Method. In the next essay, I will begin to describe this framework of principles in a way that is organized to enable the practice of them.