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August 29, 2007

The Socratic Tradition - Christopher Phillips

Thumbnail image for socrates.jpgAn array of academic courses today center on Socratic inquiry, and a number of them include in their syllabi one or both of my first two books, Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, and Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy, which relate my experiences of bringing Socratic discourse to cultures around the globe in venues ranging from prisons to plazas, libraries to schools, nursing homes to churches.

Such courses are offered by philosophy, education, humanities and communications departments. They aim to develop transferable skills such as critical investigation, and focus on the role of Socratic questioning in thinking, teaching and learning as a means for students to become more autonomous thinkers and doers. Such syllabi generally fail, however, adequately to make the critical connection with the ultimate and original end of Socratic inquiry, namely fomenting an evolving deliberative democracy.

One humanities course with Socrates as a centerpiece, has the theme of "character, ethics and wisdom" as a primary pathway for achieving greater individual excellence and virtue, neglects to underscore that the type of wisdom Socratic inquiry seeks to generate is of a sort that necessarily helps us realize a more inclusive world, and so is decidedly as collective in bent as it is individual. A philosophy department course with a Socratic unit on "philosophy and human nature," (and another on "uncertainty, inquiry and commitment,") fails to link Socrates' overarching aim of linking the cultivation of individual autonomy at every turn with the sculpting of a keener social conscience - always via a certain pathway of deliberative inquiry - thus promoting the objective of achieving more meaningful democratic citizenship.

A humanities course with a thematic unit on Socrates and "the art of changing the brain," would equate Socratic practice with individual development, altogether divorcing this from the Socratic art and science of changing democracy via deliberative discourse.
Meanwhile, a comprehensive Socrates anthology by classics and philosophy scholar Paul A. Vander Waerdt, The Socratic Movement, featuring essays by many leading Socrates scholars, makes no mention of the political dimension embedded within all Socratic inquiry. Instead, Socrates' work has often been refashioned to fit the framework of courses of the west, with a nontraditional emphasis on the individual's own development.
Such an approach sells short the benefits of Socratic inquiry. The pursuit of the noble, the good, of all-around excellence - of arête, as the Greeks called it - can only be accomplished within a society with a type of openness that seeks ever to widen the circle of inclusiveness.

The ultimate end of Socratic inquiry is to engage in a type of rigorous, methodical, deliberative dialogue that lends itself to continual social evolution in ways that necessarily contribute to democratic renewal and even upheaval. It is based on a revolutionary notion of self in which the individual and society are not at opposite ends of a continuum, but are interlaced, requiring a dual nurturing of both if greater individual autonomy is to be coupled with a developing social conscience for the realization of democratic ends. Moreover, such ends can only be realized via a type of deliberative dialogue that is as methodical as it is open, that hinges on rigorous experimentation and upon creativity and degrees of randomness, and that is conducive to combining and recombining with other cultural traditions that nonetheless share remarkably similar values and ends.

Martha Nussbaum is an exception to this Socrates-as-a-vehicle-for-individual-development norm in that she recognizes the integral Socratic impetus towards democratic evolution and revolution. Indeed, Nussbaum asserts, in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, that the vibrancy of a democratic society hinges on its pervasive capacity to reason Socratically. "In order to foster a democracy that is reflective and deliberative...that genuinely takes thought for the common good", argues Nussbaum, "we must produce citizens who have the Socratic capacity to reason about their beliefs." She goes on to suggest that: "It is not good for democracy when people vote on the basis of sentiments they have absorbed from talk-radio and have never questioned. This failure to think critically produces a democracy in which people talk at one another but never have a genuine dialogue." (1997, p. 19). To Nussbaum, the concomitant nurturing of individual autonomy and social conscience foments a more participatory and democratic society that "can genuinely reason together about a problem, not simply trade claims and counterclaims." (1997, p. 19)

Nussbaum believes the responsibility for such Socratic cultivation today lies squarely with formal academia embodied in institutions of higher education; this perspective ignores the fact that Socrates shunned the cloister, preferring to engage with people of all walks of life - from slaves, to women (even in the chauvinistic world of Athenian society), to the well-educated, to children: holding his gatherings in the public agora or plaza, where a decided element of randomness and openness ensured there was genuinely pluralistic exchange in the marketplace of ideas among the most diverse groups possible.

Those following the original Socratic model operate from the premise that one must open oneself up to as vast a range of human experience as possible. While formal education can be one such experience, the informally educated also have great stores of wisdom - and voluntarily coming together on a regular basis to share knowledge in ways that hold the potential of advancing both individual and societal goals is one way of fostering democracy in action.

If one divorces Socratic ideals and their integral political dimension from the ideal Socratic setting for deliberative discourse, one diminishes the capacity of Socratic inquiry to advance deliberative democracy. His were self-moderated groups, with an egalitarian ethos in which all taking part implicitly recognized their responsibility (and even duty to) participate. Discussants posit their own perspectives and support them with cogent evidence and discursive reasoning, and then entertain objections to these perspectives followed by the offering of alternative viewpoints from others. Socrates did not aim for a representative democracy, but for a deliberative one in which everyone had a right and responsibility to take part in the processes of deliberating and governing - one in which the habit of deliberation itself, both within and without formal institutions, was the centerpiece of democracy.

Socratic inquiry at its essence implies that universal or common goods are not acquired by conducting one's investigations in a vacuum, with those who are already politically and philosophically like-minded, but in inquiring far and wide in a non-hierarchical way in particular cultures, the more the better, with people who embrace an array of ways of world-viewing and world-making. Moreover, in engaging in this deliberative process, adopting a rigorous experimental method coupled with an open deliberative bent, it is inevitable that the method itself - as well as those using it - will be irrevocably altered.

Participants are likely to find themselves changing and growing their ideals in tandem with evolving the method of deliberative discourse itself, generally with the aim of making the world a more participatory one that celebrates diversity (in people, aims, and ideals) that contribute to this inclusiveness.

-- Christopher Phillips

© 2007

Editor's note: Christopher Phillips is the co-founder of the Society for Philosophical Inquiry (SPI), a grassroots nonprofit organization devoted to supporting philosophical inquirers of all ages and walks of life as they become more empathetic and autonomous thinkers who take active part in creating a more deliberative democracy. Its members strive to form and facilitate "democratic communities of philosophical inquiry"... SPI has over 300 ongoing gatherings around the globe coordinated by hundreds of dedicated volunteers who are deeply committed to making ours a more participatory and inclusive world.

August 20, 2007

Internet Use and Gender Differences

Male_Female_Sym.jpgThe researchers at the Pew Internet & American Life Project have some useful data about how men and women use the internet differently. Not surprisingly they find that men "are using the internet more intensely than women [and] are still first out of the blocks in trying the latest technologies" while "women are catching up in overall use and are framing their online experience with a greater emphasis on deepening connections with people."

Some of their other conclusions are noteworthy as well:


Men reach farther and wider for topics, from getting financial information to political news.
Women are more likely to see the vast array of online information as a "glut" and to penetrate deeper into areas where they have the greatest interest, including health and religion.

Still, our data show that men and women are more similar than different in their online lives, starting with their common appreciation of the internet's strongest suit: efficiency...
Men and women also value the internet for a second strength, as a gateway to limitless vaults of information.

Looks like the virtual world is very much like the "real world" after all.

Here is a link to the report.

August 15, 2007

Critical Thinking and National Security

Thumbnail image for dune.jpg

"I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear..."

From Bene Gesserit prayer, The Litany Against Fear, in the novel, Dune.


When we are in a pleasant alpha-state carefully mulling over all the various possible occurrences that might, well might occur, we are usually capable of making fairly reasonable threat assessments.

If it is threatening to rain, for example, we might choose to take an umbrella.  We probably would leave the titanium umbrella safely stored in the umbrella stand accurately assessing that the likelihood of being struck by a meteor during our walk braving the elements was minimal.  Not zero.  But close enough to take our trusty old fabric one to keep us nice and dry.

When we put random events that generate a fear response - like terrorism - into the mix, though, remarkable things begin to happen. We begin to over estimate the likelihood of "big" disasters (like 9-11) and falsely minimize the likelihood of small ones (like getting hit by a bakery truck).

Zack Phillips at GovernmentExecutive.com* has written a very clear and cogent piece about this entitled Security Theater.  Phillips references John Mueller, author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (Free Press, 2006):

For example, international terrorism annually causes the same number of deaths as drowning in bathtubs or bee stings. It would take a repeat of Sept. 11 every month of the year to make flying as dangerous as driving. Over a lifetime, the chance of being killed by a terrorist is about the same as being struck by a meteor.


Phillips also makes the case that the Department of Homeland Security is slowly getting up to speed in terms of measuring risk, rather than just responding to possible threats.

That's reassuring.  The biggest risk we have as citizens is to create a culture of fear that leads to the further reduction of our civil liberties while not really making any of us any safer.

Fear is the mind-killer.


* (h/t Bruce Schneier)



August 3, 2007

From Whitman thought partner BTW...

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BTW is a consulting organization with strong ties to TWI. One founder of BTW, Jill Blair, is on the Whitman board. BTW's latest newsletter has some interesting articles about philanthropy that is worth a read.

Kim Ammaann Howard, BTW's Director of Evaluation and Organizational Learning, wrote a wonderfully clear and concise article, Designing Learning Communities for Enhanced Impact. Check it out here.

If more grant makers and grantees actually did have effective learning communities, then there would be fewer situations described in this New York Times piece about some of the spectacular failures in the philanthropic world. (The evaluator in one of these studies was BTW.) Link also here.