The Socratic Tradition - Christopher Phillips
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
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.
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.