Getting “Meta” with Socrates

Kierkegaard says somewhere that you can’t learn swimming without swimming. Similarly, I found this week, that the Socratic method can’t be understood without having it done to you. For a while, now, I’ve enjoyed teaching Socrates by emphasising how irritating he was to the Athenian poloi. I do not think it controversial to claim that the real reason he was executed was not that he corrupted youth but that he was bloody annoying. He embarrassed important people who had claim to knowledge and showed them up by revealing their ignorance to all. This has always been a good way of introducing them to Socrates that avoids worn-out, dust-covered platitudes about how the only thing we know is that we know nothing and treating the man as a martyr dying for a cause. It is not that I think the latter is untrue, but that it is so well recognise that it borders on the banal. Socrates the irritant provokes more thought than Socrates the Saint. Why is it that people are so angered when they are proven ignorant? What is it about our prejudices that makes us defend them so ardently? This, perhaps, negative aspect of the Socratic method is more important for new philosophy students to reflect on than its positive epistemological claims. The positive content of Socrates’ philosophy, that we don’t really know anything, sounds far to much like contemporary subjectivism for them to take seriously; they agree with Socrates’ statement immediately and superficially.

However, just talking about this, whilst coaxing assent, did not really make much of a difference to the students’ attitudes towards the idea. And so, this week, the second week on the Apology for our first years, I tried something different in the seminar: I did the Socratic method to them in the most pedantic and irritating mode of which I was capable. I set myself the following rules to do so:

  • I was not allowed to say anything that wasn’t a question
  • Every answer a student would say had to be criticised, even if it was an interpretation I had been arguing for in previous weeks and that I genuinely wanted them to understand and agree to
  • Where a consensus was reached, I was required to break it by finding a problematic implication, however spurious

The first question I asked, by the way, was “Who was Socrates? Why should I care about him?”

This worked really well. I wasn’t very confident going in with this plan, I was worried I would not be able to pull it off (I am getting quite good at teaching, but I’m no Socrates), and I thought the whole thing rather contrived. I expected them to see through it immediately. However, the following things surprised me.

  • They got annoyed at my ignorance, in spite of the fact I was taking positions I’d argued the opposite of only last week
  • They got annoyed long before they realised what I was doing (This delighted me)
  • Where students gave the “right” answer, being forced to defend it in more detail by the method (“Why would you waste your time doing that? Why not just tell people what you think? Asking questions all the time is just annoying and lazy, isn’t it?!”) seemed to
    • Make them realise that they hadn’t really understood, but were just repeating by rote.
    • Made them more passionate about defending Socrates than they might have been

In short, Socrates really knew what he was doing.



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