The (Un)Socratic Method of Philosophy

“He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand.”
The Dispossesed by Ursula Le Guin (1978, p. 127)

Let us start with a story:

The new Jewish bride is making her first big dinner for her husband and tries her hand at her mother’s brisket recipe, cutting off the ends of the roast the way her mother always did. Hubby thinks the meat is delicious, but says, “Why do you cut off the ends — that’s the best part!” She answers, “That’s the way my mother always made it.”

The next week, they go to the old bubbie’s house, and she prepares the famous brisket recipe, again cutting off the ends. The young bride is sure she must be missing some vital information, so she askes her grandma why she cut off the ends. Grandma says, “Dahlink, that’s the only way it will fit in the pan!” [1]

While this tale, noted by some as a “Tale of the Bungling Bride” trope [2] and stereotype, has religious connotations (the bride, and it’s always a bride or a woman, is usually said to be Jewish) I want to use it in a way that, perhaps, it wasn’t intended to be used. Rather than use it to have a conversation about how to make roasts or the plausible implications of the parable on religious traditions and practices, I want to use it as a frame for a discussion on education.

When I think about my discipline, philosophy, there is a fairly set way that large lectures tend to go. One person, usually a white dude, stands at the front of the room and talks at you about what Plato, Socrates, or Aristotle said for an hour or so. You go home and do something “fun” since reading philosophy is probably not fun and you’re only in the class for a distribution requirement. Then, when it is time for the exam, you write a few essays paraphrasing and miming back whatever it is the instructor said. Unless you continue on in philosophy after that initial class, and even then perhaps only if you specialize in ancient, it is unlikely that you will remember the views all that well. And yet the “talking at” mode continues to be a default for lectures, at least, within the discipline when “dealing” with large groups of seemingly lethargic college students.

It should be little surprise that what I’ve said above is, more or less, taken directly from my past students. In large lecture they are bored. At home they would rather read the sparknotes version of Aristotle’s hylomorphism than trek through page after page (after page) of dry, dense prose. On the exams they want to know what they “need to know” and nothing more and, once they’ve spat it out once, to not have to keep on knowing it.

Within philosophy (and other disciplines of course) I think it is important to have a discussion about how we teach. Within my discipline, the current mode is even how philosophers we read say not to teach it. The Socratic Method is contra the banking method of education that Ellen Langer, Ken Robinson, and Mike Wesch seem to be gesturing at in their respective pieces. And yet, that is the method we continue to use at times. To bring this back to the initial parable, where did we learn that this is the way to do it? More importantly, why do we believe that this is how is has to be done? What would it take for us to imagine, and then create, or maybe to create and then imagine, a myriad of different ways of teaching? While, as with most things, I think that the answers to these questions will be ones that must be collectively discovered, rediscovered, made, and unmade, I have a few initial musings that may be a starting point.

In his TEDTalk, Robinson notes that there are three central traits to humans: we are diverse, curious, and creative beings. Our current model of teaching and instruction seems to be doing a pretty good job at minimizing those elements and forcing students into a shape that works with the system as opposed to reworking and redesigning (or maybe totally scrapping…) the system to put it into the obediential service of the varieties of shapes, sizes, and styles that would be present in our students if it weren’t metaphorically (almost) beaten out of them in K-12 education. To move out of the metaphorical Death Valley of Education, I think that Langer is gesturing at important elements for beginning to tweak the system.

Langer’s construction of mindfulness , in particular, along with notions of frame shift/the “priming” affect would, for philosophy, be helpful in changing the paradigm. [3] As I read Langer, mindfulness constitutes the continuous labor of creating and deconstructing, making and unmaking thoughts, ideas, and persons; a great deal of openness and receptivity; and understanding that there are other perspectives (and I would personally add being open to the possibility that you won’t understand why people with the other perspectives believe what they believe).

When I ask my students to have philosophical discussions one of the tools (or rather games) I have them try out is to pair up with someone who shares the same view about x as they do and then work together to create and motivate an argument against x. For many of my students this is not something they’ve had to do before. In fact, many of them will write that they found the activity very frustrating and it made their heads hurt in their participation page for the day. But usually they start to “get” how arguments and conversations in philosophy are intended to work (i.e., pretty openly) after the activity and they start being much more charitable with views they disagree with. This incorporates the three elements that Langer proposes (somewhat) and while difficult for many of my students it makes doing philosophy “fun” for that day at least (even if it’s also frustrating). It ultimately seems to make them more mindful of how they “do” philosophy.

Their mindfulness extends, sometimes, to the words that they use when they present their ideas. Very often philosophy students will start the semester by using universal statements such as “all x are…” or that “the view for this is y”. Slowly, and sometimes not until the last week, their language can open up and they start to linguistically represent the multiplicity of views even as they argue and motivate the view, or views, they think are correct. And when they meet pushback (it’s a philosophy class; there’s always pushback) they are less likely to default to ad hominems or other so called “fallacies”. Much like Wesch’s child, they show elements of resiliency in response to challenges to their oftentimes deeply held convictions. Much of what I have written here is of course anecdotical. However, it’s interesting to see how some of the smaller things that folks such as Langer intimate can have an impact on students who have been imbedded in an otherwise dry and dusty system.

As I began, I would like to end. Another old parable is that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. Maybe the new adage could be: don’t try to lead a horse to water in the first place but, rather, support them and let them lead themselves to the water and choose where to drink. You might have to ask the horse to be curious about what water tastes like, whether different waters taste different, etc. but that’s a separate matter.

That said, try to make sure there aren’t any small birds about or they may try to grab a snack on the way to the water. It turns out the meat eating Horses of Diomedes may have been based on fact insofar as Horses aren’t always herbivores.

“”We in the Handdara don’t want answers. It’s hard to avoid them,
but we try to.”

“Faxe, I don’t think I understand.”
“Well, we come here to the Fastnesses mostly to learn what questions not to ask.
“But you’re the Answerers!”
“You don’t see, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”
“No—”
“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer
to the wrong question.””

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969, pp.69-70)


[1] “The Pan Was Too Small” by Alan E. Mays in FOAFTale News. June 1996 (pp. 15-16).

[2] See pp. 191-192 in Curses! Broiled Again! (1990) by Jan Harold Brunvand.

[3] The Power of Mindful Learning (1997) by Ellen Langer.

4 thoughts on “The (Un)Socratic Method of Philosophy”

  1. A philosophy professor at Stirling began class by telling us that when he was coming through school “the picture of a philosophy professor was a rather disheveled looking gentleman, standing in front of the class in an over-worn plaid jacket, reading lecture notes off of bar napkins while shaking off a hangover.” Not much has changed – at least not in Scotland – about that picture. However, philosophy as a discipline is picture perfect for mindful learning. I’m worried that the skills developed in a philosophy classroom will be dulled by the automation of education as we move into the faceless world of online education. It’s still possible to develop philosophical tools; but is there something about face-to-face interaction that fosters their development? One area where online learning falls short is the speed at which debates can happen. The self-discipline required to react cordially and thoughtfully is trained in real time rather than through (presumably) the more thought out text responses via an online classroom.

    The expansion of online learning, the retooling of the university to meet the constant demand for student enrollment, and the attractive cost compared to bricks-and-mortar may push philosophical education into the web, but it may keep the tradition on life support only. The discipline itself may have to readjust to these forces or watch the slow death of a cornerstone of democratic citizenship.

    1. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, although I agree that the climate is pretty ominous right now. Lindsay….”The perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question”…..What a perfect time to highlight this. Thank you so much for this post. I learned a lot.

  2. Thank you for your post Lindsay! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and getting to know the way in which you are making meaning and exploring the concepts and ideas being presented.
    PS – wonderful use of parables.

  3. Lindsay, thank you for telling the story of the bride’s roast! For the sake of efficiency of mass education, students suffer the loss of the juicy bits and are conformed to a shape that is convenient for the educational system, but not conducive to their own learning experience. This system teaches students to be the roast. I picture Michael Wesch’s cavernous classroom, each seat occupied by a roast. Teaching the class in a mass education style is not unlike lecturing to roasts; attempting to engage the roasts will seldom provoke a response!

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