Socrates (469-399 v C)

 Socrates (469-399 v C)


There are many sources about Socrates, some of which are historically more reliable than others. The most famous and perhaps the most beautiful are the books of Plato (428/7-348/7). There, he describes situations in which Socrates holds conversations with Greek boys and men. In Plato’s work from his early period and middle period – probably the most reliable on the historical figure of Socrates– we can read some of the features of Socrates’ character and his pedagogical approach.

A special teacher

In the heyday of ancient Greece, around 450, the Athenian society witnessed the ‘sophists’ or ‘scientists’. For the first time in history, these men took care of a kind of ‘higher’ education. They prepared the most aristocratic boys for a business career by offering courses such as public speaking. Under their influence, philosophical conversations became an important part of Athenian education. It was also a popular kind of ‘sport’ for the Athenians. These discussions were in fact disputes and were part of the ‘eristics’, the art to win a debate by means of a quarrel. An experienced ‘sophist’ was able to bring down a statement such as “Democracy is an invention for the weak” only by asking questions.

Some scholars on Socrates claim that many of his conversations as they are described in the early works of Plato, belong to this genre of sophistic disputes. Socrates, in other words, was practising this method himself. Yet Plato had difficulties with these sophists. He couldn’t bear the uncritical and affirmative character of their education. Persuasion, according to Plato, is a means, not an end in itself. He reacts to their scepticism using his literary hero Socrates. According to Plato, not all opinions are relative, one needs to look behind the phenomena to find truth.

Following Plato, Socrates differs from Plato from the Sophists in a few aspects:

a) His motivation is different. In the Apology, Socrates claims that he is not concerned with « what to most others is so important: money, property, military and political functions and all the other offices, clubs and political parties that our city contains ” (Plato, Apology, 36b). Socrates is not interested in what others think of him, in how you look across, in prestige nor power (Plato, Theaetetus, 173-174). What motivates him to philosophize is not the fame but the concern that every conversational partner develops himself as a person as well as possible. The keyword here is: moral quality and psychological autonomy.

  1. b) Socrates didn’t write any books nor articles, and doesn’t hold long explanations. He is not a “scholar” but is instead continuously doing research with other people. In the Phaedrus, Socrates says he does not believe in knowledge acquired by means of texts and lectures. Real knowledge to him is evaluative and lively. Skills and information cannot in themselves be seen as knowledge because the purposes for which they are used and the conclusions drawn from them don’t stand the test of critical inquiry. True knowledge can only be gained in a reciprocal conversation in which the teacher examines together with his interlocutors their beliefs and judgments based on personal experiences. Some features of such an inquiry are :
  • there is room for doubt and ignorance
  • the teacher is equally committed to the research as his students are
  • there is an ongoing dialectic that is never fully finished.

This enterprise can be quite annoying for people. In the Laches, Nicias, an Athenian general, comments on the Socratic style of teaching in the following words: “You will surely live fully if you are careful and if you don’t shy away from research and are willing, …to continue to learn and not to think that intelligence comes naturally growing older”(Plato, Laches, 187th-188C).
The knowledge that Socrates wants to share with his interlocutors is especially self-knowledge. He is not interested in discussions about something theoretical or obligatory as is often the case with the Sophists.

The knowledge he is after, comes from the heart and is the truth behind the judgments that we make on the basis of personal experience.

His pedagogy

His goal : to arouse awareness

At first sight, Socrates helps his students to find and an answer to their questions. Implicitly, however, he carries them to other questions, questions that according to him are better to seek wisdom. The aim of Socrates’ ‘practical’ philosophy is (a) to show the interlocutors what questions really matter to them and (b) to engage them in a method by which a true answer  to these questions can be sought, independent of mere opinions and popular thought.

His method:  elenctic and protreptic interventions

The self-knowledge Socrates ‘offers’ requires from the interlocutor an attitude to work on him/herself. More specifically, there should be a willingness to review the basic assumptions or habits on the basis of new insights. He brings his students to this attitude thanks to the elenchus, which in old Greek literally means something like ‘refutation’ or ‘shame’, ‘embarrassment’. It can also simply mean ‘education’.  In the Sophist, Plato calls the elenchus a “purification of the soul.” Just like hunger is the best sauce, so is the elenchus the ideal breeding ground for understanding oneself. Basically, the elenchus works as follows :
1. make explicit what your partner thinks he knows, often ‘in confused ideas’, for example, by repeating what he / she says;
2. Show different positions of your interlocutors as clearly and completely as possible.
3. Relate these with one another
4. Bring inconsistencies herein to light.

The elenchus experience is not only negative or destructive. The destruction of the claim of knowledge is only a function of the motivation for further research. This procedure is in some way therapeutic. Socrates wants his students to experience the difference between accepting certain propositions which seem to justify judgments and actions and knowing for oneself  the truth of the statements that the judgments and actions de facto warrant. By offering his students this distinction, he confuses them. The result of the research is therefore often an ‘aporia’, a feeling of ‘I do not remember’. Meno, a slave, is a testimony of this.  He feels mentally and physically exhausted and compares Socrates with a flat torpedo from the sea that paralyzes everyone in his neighbourhood with his touch (Plato, Meno, 79th-80b).
There are two reasons why the ‘elenchus’ experience has worked until today. First, Socrates combines his ‘destructive’ work with a subtle psychological and rhetorical coaching. Just like a good midwife does, his diagnosis and therapy adapts to the situation of each individual partner. From his own psychic freedom, he is able to be flexible: he approaches each partner with the style that suits him/her best.

The second and main reason why the elenchus experience is still valid today is because in Socrates’ pedagogy, recognition of one’s own ignorance is the starting point of a logical analysis. Socrates is not interested in the needs of the pupil nor of himself. What he is after is the development of further and better rationality.
The second method apart from organizing the elenchus experience, is using ‘protreptic’ interventions in his conversations. ‘Protreptic’ means ‘encouraging’, ‘rhetoric’. In different Platonic passages, Socrates encourages his partners to look better at the facts and at their presumptions. By doing so, he replaces the habit of teaching long-held values by a belief in intellectual independence. The confidence building this enterprise entails, is more important to him than finding a one true answer to the philosophical question at stake. The Socratic logic is therefore never intellectualistic but capable of serving the moral quality of life.

1. 3. Some consequences for today’s world
The context in which Socrates did his work is obviously much different than the situation in many schools and organizations today. Some of the differences (generally spoken) are:

  • The Socratic fellows philosophize on a voluntary basis. Today, this vorluntariness is at least to be organized.
  • Socrates doesn’t accept any authority except the use of reason. Today, the use of reason cannot be seen apart from the way reason is used and organized in organizations. An argument such as ‘it is right because my boss told me so’ to Socrates is invalid but might work in some contexts today.
  • Socrates’ medium is the face to face conversation. He doesn’t work with texts, websites nor books but with personal everyday convictions.

Despite the time differences, some contemporary legacies of Socrates’ style are:

  • the confidence in the reason of the other. If he decides something, he must have good reasons for it, even if it is an act you don’t approve.
  • the confidence in the own rationality
  • the ‘maieutic’ (midwife) style : the ability to put oneself aside in order to be able to facilitate the thinking process of the other.
  • the Socratic irony : a feeling for the difference between what one says (f.ex. “I never judge anyone, including powerless people”) and his/her deeds (the judgement ‘some people are powerless”).
  • The preference for concrete statements (not “I always help people” but “I helped my friend yesterday”).
The Socratic method

According to Nelson, the main instrument that provides clarity in a Socratic dialogue, is the so-called ‘regressive abstraction’. This method entails that one returns to judgements based on actual experience to reach underlying assumptions and principles. In doing so, one goes from the concrete to the abstract of the obvious (the experience) to the less obvious (the basic assumptions).

This enterprise is to Nelson not just a philosophical technique or a means to obtain a definition. For him, this conversation is the practice of philosophy itself. Albeit with clearer rules of procedure than in the time of Socrates and with a more actual focus, participants of a Socratic dialogue gain philosophical insight into concepts such as “justice” and “freedom”. They do so by isolating an opinion of their own about their everyday experience. When a participant f.ex. claims that “he was free at that moment”, the group investigates the reasons to call this experience ‘free’ in that particular moment. In this way, they return by means of induction to the philosophical concept behind this word.

Some methodological elements for today

Apart from the methodical elements in Socrates’ work, the following characteristics of a philosophical investigation in the Nelson-Heckmann tradition are still recognizable today:

  • the focus on a concrete example from the experience that is systematically questioned on assumptions and principles. For example : “At that moment, I was free”.
  • the importance of thinking about thinking
  • the use of language and the importance of an exact formulation of statements and arguments. This can go very far. All non-verbal expressions must first be verbalized before they can be considered as an intervention
  • The importance of the search for consensus through argumentation
  • The view of philosophizing as an exercise in “phronesis,” practical wisdom.
The tradition of Socratic dialogue




Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) and Gustav Heckmann (1898-1996)

A new critical approach to “philosophy”

In Western philosophy since Plato and Aristotle, an explicit practice-oriented philosophical approach to everyday life has remained rare. It wasn’t until the work of the German philosopher, educator and politician Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) that the Socratic method regained its importance, both theoretically and practically. Nelson’s inner circle, his studies, first writings and his position as professor at Göttingen, show an interest in the intersection between critical philosophy, epistemology and science. His Critique of Practical Reason (1917)  is not only theoretically influenced by Kant, Fries, and Apel. It also shows concrete links to philosophical practice. Politically, the significance of Nelson lies in the establishment of the International Youth Bund in 1917. This organization had as a main aim to show an alternative thinking to the nationalism of that time. In 1926, Nelson founded the International Socialist Bund Kampf, which became the opponent of  the SDAP. It later played an important role in the underground resistance against the Nazis.

In 1924,  the Philosophisch-Politische Akademie was founded. Until today, this association organizes Socratic dialogues. As a reaction against the education of that time, Nelson started the Landeserziehungsheim Walkemühle where he, Minna Specht and Gustav Heckmann exerted ‘confidence in truth and love’.

For Nelson, who unlike Socrates designed a method to philosophize in groups, it was essential that the participants worked out independently their search for truth. Following Kant, he called his Socratic method essentially ‘critical’ and distinguished it clearly from the ‘dogmatic’ methods in philosophy. The latter ignore the value of the research principles because they draw them without warrant and without a method to indicate that they can be controlled. He calls ‘dogmatic’, any method which assumes that one should teach something to others they themselves do not yet know. Applied to education, this means that one can only teach philosophy philosophically by offering the students an experience of investigation.
In his famous lecture on the Socratic method in December 1922,  Nelson said the following about teaching philosophy (Nelson, 1922 in Saran and Neisser, 2004, p.135-136):

The teacher who seriously wishes to impart philosophical insight can aim only at teaching the art of philosophizing. He can do no more than show his students how to undertake, each for himself, the laborious regress that alone affords insight into basic principles. If there is such a thing at all as instruction in philosophy, it can only be instruction in doing one’s own thinking (…)
After Nelson’s death, Gustav Heckmann (1898-1996) continued his work. He refined the method. After World War II, he returned to Germany and continued the peacemaking work by encouraging independent and critical reflection in the Akademie. The most powerful instrument to do was the Socratic dialogue.

Short bibliography

  • Guthrie, WKC (1971). Socrates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Heckmann, G. (1981) Das Socratisches Gespräch. Erfahrungen in Philosophical Hochschulseminaren, Hannover, Schroedel.
  • Krohn, D.(1989) Das Socratiches Gespräch. Ein Symposium, Hamburg, Junius.
  • Nelson, L., The Socratic method, in Saran, R. and Neisser, B. (2004), Enquiring minds. Socratic dialogue in education. Staffordshire : Trentham Books, p.126-165.
  • Plato (1999). Collected works. translation Xaveer De Win. Kapellen : Pelckmans.
  • Van Rossem, K. (2006). What is a socratic dialogue? in Filosofie, 1, p.48-51
  • Vlastos, G. (1991) Socrates. Ironist and moral philosopher. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
    There is a series of articles in German about the Socratic dialogue that is bundled by the philosophic Politische Academy: Krohn, D., Neisser, B., Walter, N. (ed.), “Sokratisches Philosophieren”. Schriftenreihe of philosophically-Politi Chen Akademie, Band I-VII, Frankfurt am Main, Dipa, 1994 –
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