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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

Can you please tell me if you have had any influence on post-Socratic philosophers, and, if so, how did you influence them and their thought?

Thank you,
Melissa from Cincinnati

Dear Melissa,

Since I myself am now a post-Socratic philosopher, I would have to say that I have had a very great influence on at least one. But seriously, I am pleased to see that many philosophers have accepted the idea of dialogue as their method of doing business. I am much less concerned about whether they accept any of my doctrines ... if I even had any. Plato seems to have been in the habit of attributing many of his to me. Mainly I would question other people’s doctrines, or their very doctrinairism.

Did the notion of dialogue come from me? I may have given the practice a certain twist and emphasis that have made the difference. I believe that dialogue is the royal road to knowledge, but this is only because it engenders a hearty and healthy awareness of one’s own (and others’) ignorance at every step of the way. Perhaps ‘wisdom’ is the better word for the attainment, therefore; however, I would also like to think that there is such a thing as knowledge, so long as it makes no pretensions to certainty.

What exactly is dialogue? How does one go about it? My practice is just to go to the agora, or nowadays more likely into a room, and start talking with whoever happens to be there. It does not matter what the subject is. It does not matter at all how brilliant, or stupid, the opening remark may be or sound (mine or the other person’s), or how clear or fuzzy our respective views on the matter at hand. All of that will get sorted out and ironed out as the discussion proceeds. Refinement of thought and argument is itself one of the products of dialogue, for both parties. This may in the end count for more than any agreement or conclusion they may happen to reach. (Notice also, then, that I am not talking about debate, which is not a discussion but a contest; debate is really triadic since it implicitly involves appealing to a third party, the audience or judge.)

What happens next, I find, is a long period of communicating. It is not only that my interlocutor and I are exchanging information; we must first become oriented to each other. More: It is two different worlds mutually adjusting to each other. More: It is the discovery of a new world (the one that is inhabited by one’s interlocutor). Despite any outward appearances to the contrary – for example, same race, nationality, religion, language – that other person is as different from you as if he or she were of a different race, nationality, or religion, or were speaking a different language or, indeed, came from a different planet.

I cannot stress this point too much. Any two people are talking to each other across a huge gulf. It is so wide that they often do not even hear each other. Do you hear me? So in dialogue we are at first just checking in with each other. We have to find out how much we actually do understand of what the other person is saying. Unfortunately most people miss this. How often I have been considered uncouth when I am simply trying to understand, or make sure that I understand, what the other person is telling me. I may also appear to be stupid, when in fact I am painfully aware of ambiguities in what anybody ever says to me. But if the other person is unaware of those ambiguities, he will simply think me impertinent for questioning his meaning.

The complementary problem is that often my interlocutor will not question me to make sure she understands what I am saying. I am just as aware of ambiguities in my own speech as in other people’s. Therefore I try to refine my speech, and keep querying the other person to see if she follows what I am saying. I wish, however, the other person would perform that task for herself by questioning me for clarification, as I question her. But she cannot do that if she is unaware of her own ignorance (that is, of the ambiguity in my speech). So here again, the other person usually assumes right off that she knows what I am saying and hence not only refrains from seeking clarification but also views my efforts to articulate as tedious if not insulting to her intelligence.

For those who understand the process, the give-and-take of dialogue can be sublime ... at the very least, enjoyable and enlightening. Who better than someone who does not share your most basic assumptions to be able to point them out to you? One may be virtually blind to one’s own assumptions, not to mention their possible shortcomings. In science, for example, breakthroughs in a given field are commonly brought about by somebody who is new to that field. But since most people do not understand the dialogic process, there are perils for the one who would engage in it that arise from the defensiveness of others.

The beauty of dialogue as a learning mechanism is, simply put, that two heads are better than one. (Note, by the way, that I do not say that dialogue is a teaching mechanism, since in this process both participants are learners, who are helping each other to learn by participating in the process. This is why I have always denied that I am a teacher.) The ‘two heads’ enhance learning twofold. For not only does each person have the direct advantage of hearing new ideas from the other person, and also of receiving critiques of one’s own ideas from a different perspective and basis of experience, but one is also stimulated thereby to generate new ideas of one’s own. These are distinct sources of novelty that augment and improve one’s thinking.

Yours as ever,


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