The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook

From a Wall Street Journal review by Martha Bayles of the book by Ward Farnsworth titled “The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook”:

To every received truth there are exceptions. For example, it is often said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But in the case of “The Socratic Method,” you can. Written by Ward Farnsworth, a classics scholar and dean of the University of Texas School of Law, and published by Godine, a Boston-based company known for both its editorial judgment and its artisan bookmaking, “The Socratic Method” is a beautiful object, with a costly sewn binding, an elegant font—and a jacket illustration that is richly suggestive of what is inside….

Not a caricature, this illustration reflects Mr. Farnsworth’s hope that by adopting the Socratic method of discourse, Americans might restore a modicum of civility between the totem critters of our polarized politics. As a student of Stoic philosophy, Mr. Farnsworth doesn’t delude himself that this restoration will happen any time soon. But his book and its cover invite the reader to imagine a public forum in which a red-state pachyderm and a blue-state equine can reason together peaceably and constructively instead of biting and kicking each other.

Mr. Farnsworth’s Socrates is less the lofty theorist of the Forms described by his devoted student Plato than the “gadfly” ambling around Athens engaging in casual banter with fellow citizens and over time leading them to see the inconsistencies in their received ideas about the world. This gadfly (also described by Plato) doesn’t delude himself that his tête-à-têtes with playwrights, soldiers, rhetoricians and youthful acolytes will result in a perfect city perfectly ruled. But he is sure of one thing: The best activity for a human being is to seek the truth without expecting to grasp it definitively.

In this spirit, Mr. Farnsworth insists that the Socratic method is nothing rare or exotic, just everyday common sense and simple logic. Encouraging the reader to conceive of it “as a farm animal rather than a zoo animal,” he summarizes the method as “asking and receiving questions fearlessly, . . . saying what you think, and not getting hot when others say what they think; . . . loving the truth and staying humble about whether you know it.” These are, he notes, “all the good things that have been vanishing from our culture of discourse.”

About the state of that culture, Mr. Farnsworth minces no words: “Fanatical partisanship, wishful thinking in place of truth, the shaming of dissenters, the censorship or self-censorship of disapproved views, the inability of people who disagree to talk, let alone cooperate—everyone sees all this on the rise, and most thinking people fear and loathe all that it involves and portends.”

Perhaps for this reason, Mr. Farnsworth devotes a chapter to “the Socratic method as an activity for one.” To demonstrate, he quotes from the Platonic dialogue “Hippias Major,” in which the sophist Hippias asks Socrates to identify a “boor” who had “dared” to disrupt “an august proceeding” with a “vulgar speech.” Socrates remarks that the boor in question is indeed “not refined. Garbage, really.” But he refuses to identify him because, as it happens, the boor is his own critical intelligence, his inner gadfly, who pesters others because he “must have an answer.”

There is, of course, a connection between one’s inner gadfly and one’s ability to deliberate with others. Reasoned self-scrutiny is not an isolated activity but a step toward becoming a better citizen—or so Plato argues in what Mr. Farnsworth calls the “long and famous comparison of the city and the soul” in “The Republic.” The connection between the dispelling of private delusions and the dispelling of public ones is of urgent importance in any age but especially in our own, as digital media confound private and public in new ways that bizarrely favor isolation over sociability, strangers over neighbors and families.

If “The Socratic Method” has a flaw, it is organizational. The preface and first four chapters offer a lucid exposition of the method’s five key elements: (1) proceed not by downloading your opinions but by posing open-ended questions; (2) probe (gently) for inconsistencies in your interlocutor’s reasoning; (3) identify the deeper principle driving your interlocutor’s reasoning; (4) use well-chosen concrete examples; and (5) avoid claiming expertise. Having absorbed these chapters, most readers will have a fair enough grasp of the Socratic method to look forward to some real-life examples of how these elements can play a constructive role in today’s fractious discourse. But this is not what follows.

Instead, the next eight chapters contain a long and detailed analysis of each element, of related concepts, and of terms such as elenchus and aporia that, while worth knowing, are hardly essential to the everyday application of the Socratic method. The book’s preface offers a “brief roadmap” suggesting that certain chapters can be skipped by the general reader, but it does not say which ones. Better perhaps to have included the analysis in footnotes or an appendix.

Other readers, in a suitably gadfly mode, may disagree with this criticism. But none should be discouraged from seeking out this remarkable book. By presenting the Socratic method as invitingly as it does, it eases the daunting task of taming the fanatical, irrational, censorious beasts in the American political zoo.

Martha Bayles is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and the film and TV critic for the Claremont Review of Books.

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