Review of Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook. Boston: Godine, 2021
It is not very popular to be an intellectual in America today. My husband and I, both college professors, were careful not to draw our neighbors’ attention to our status lest they hold back their friendship. And now, country-wide distrust has been fired up by the idea that intellectuals inevitably condescend to ordinary people and that neither facts nor reasoning are to be trusted.
The problem is, I become more and more intellectual as I get older. Some years ago, having read Christopher Phillip’s Socrates Café about the discussions he holds in nursing homes, schools, prisons and public parks, I decided to solve my problem by convincing friends and neighbors that they were just as intellectual as I, and that it would be fun to have philosophical discussions with each other.
In my Socrates Café, I make a firm distinction between an opinion and a thought, and I always insist that you can’t engage in thinking if you are opinionated. (see https://bit.ly/3jtmQ2b), Most people are pleased to think things through, although I had to dissolve a Socrates Café at a senior center when, week after week, discussants refused to abandon their opinions about immigrants and people of color.
In Socrates, Farnsworth finds a perpetual questioner of “the commonplace. the acceptance of traditional opinions and current sentiments as an ultimate fact.” People feel good expressing their opinions in a pushy way, but it is precisely this kind of bold assertion that Socrates questions. “Questions and answers are the sound of thought happening. An essay or lecture is usually the sound of a thought having happened.”
In asking one question after another Socrates is a skeptic, a word whose root means “inquiry” and which involves less of the modern “disdainfully doubtful” connotation than a person who “inquires without reaching a conclusion. Skeptics don’t say ‘no’ to every claim, or indeed to any of them. They just keep asking questions. They want the truth, and are always trying to get closer to it, but they never reach a stopping point; they never find certainty. They have a dread of ‘rash assent’ and of thinking that you’re done thinking before you really are.”
I have noticed that people really like it when you question yourself in front of them: You can’t come across as intellectually condescending when you display skepticism about your own opinions!
When you apply the Socratic method to yourself, you arrive at a state of mind which Socrates calls Aporia. “You realize that you’ve been pushing words around as if their meaning were obvious but that you don’t really understand.” Once you learn to do this, you can help other people get there, and that is why, pursued in a non-judgmental, non-interruptive manner, the Socratic method has a lot of promise for the hard-held opinions that endanger American democracy today
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Let’s give it a try with a guy who “doesn’t believe in facts”:
G(uy). Global Warming is a hoax made up by the democrats. It isn’t a fact – it’s propaganda.
Q. How about in your personal life? Do you use facts there?
G. What do you mean?
Q. Well, just for an example, how did you decide on the best commute to work today?
G. I started with a map when I first got the job, but as I went on, I worked out some shortcuts to make it quicker
Q. What did the map tell you?
G. Which roads intersected, distances – things like that.
Q. How did you work out the shortcuts?
G. I found some side roads, and then tested the route with my watch.
Q. Were the roads on the map and the timing you worked out based on facts?
G. Yes, but those aren’t the made-up kind.
Q. So you trust some facts, but not others?
Q. How about weather reports – do you trust those?
G. They are pretty accurate most of the time.
Q. Who does those weather reports?
G. The news, tv shows
Q. Where do they get their facts.
G. They get them from meteorologists.
Q. So you trust the accuracy of weather reports because they are given by trained meteorologists?
Q. Do you know where the reports on Global Warming come from?
G. Of course: the democrats – Biden and his elite east coast friends who look down at us and want to ruin our economy.
Q. Do you think the inftense new hurricanes, wildfires, deluges, droughts and heat waves are really happening?
G. I see them on TV and we had a whole week of really heavy rain ourselves last spring.
Q. Was your house okay?
G. Yes, though the porch floated away.
Q. So your direct observation tells you that those kinds of storms are facts?
G. Yes, but they are not caused by humans: that’s the hoax!
Q. (summarizing): Okay, I see where you are coming from: you trust maps and your own observations of the closest route to work – which means that you trust your own reasoning from obvious facts. You trust what Meteorologists report about weather because it lines up with the facts you see on TV and with your own experience. On the other hand, you don’t trust what meteorologists and climate scientists tell you about the causes of Global Warming. I am not sure how one set of facts that you trust differs from the set of facts you don’t trust?
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What do you think? Is it working? If not, why not? And then what? Do you think there is room for using the Socratic method in everyday life?