Socratic Dialogue as Collegial Reasoning

Green Tea Way

[Source of every quote: Van Hooft, S. (1999). Socratic Dialogue as Collegial Reasoning. Practical Philosophy 2:2 (July), pp.22–31 – Web Archive]

Van Hooft’s ten pages article is quite useful to understand the basic principles of Socratic Dialogue in its modern, practical philosophy meaning.

Necessary to the dialogue are from 6 to 10 participants, one facilitator (the counselor) and one question to discuss. It can last one day, several evenings, one weekend or a whole week.

Each Socratic Dialogue focuses on one topic. Examples of suitable topics include:
– What is of fundamental importance in life?
– What can we know?
– What is human dignity?
– Are there any fundamental human rights?
– What is the significance of death to the living? – What is interpersonal love?
– What do we understand by ‘Education’?
– What (in a caring profession) is ‘caring’?

The logical structure of a Socratic Dialogue is called ‘regressive abstraction’, which is an inverted syllogism. The discussion starts from a concrete example of everyday life and gets to an abstract value. According to Van Hooft’s example, the structure is:

Step one -The example is offered as one in which teacher and student treat each other with dignity.

Step two -Inquiry into the example reveals that Lynn responded to the student’s need to be treated as an equal.

Conclusion -Human dignity is the need to be considered an equal.

This structure is naturally obtained following some basic rules:

Procedures:

The Socratic Dialogue normally uses the following procedures:

1. A well formulated, general question, or a statement, is set by the facilitator (sometimes in consultation with participants) before the discourse commences.

  1. The first step is to collect concrete examples experienced by participants in which the given topic plays a key role.
  2. One example is chosen by the group which will usually be the basis of the analysis and argumentation throughout the dialogue.

Crucial statements made by participants are written down on a flip chart or board, so that all can have an overview and be clear about the sequence of the discourse.

Criteria for suitable examples:

  1. The example has been derived from the participant’s own experience; hypothetical or ‘generalised’ examples (‘quite often it happens to me that …’) are not suitable.
  2. Examples should not be very complicated ones; simple ones are often the best. Where a sequence of events has been presented, it would be best for the group to concentrate on one aspect of one event.
  3. The example has to be relevant for the topic of the dialogue and of interest to the other participants. Furthermore, all participants must be able to put themselves into the shoes of the person giving the example.
  4. The example should deal with an experience that has already come to an end. If the participant is still immersed in the experience it is not suitable.

For example, if decisions are still to be taken, there is a risk that group members might be judgmental or offer advice; and if there is still an emotional involvement, the discussion might re-open emotional wounds.

  1. The participant giving the example has to be willing to present it fully and provide all the relevant actual information and answer questions so that the other participants are able to understand the example and its relevance to the central question.
  2. Positive examples: i.e., examples that affirm the question or statements, are preferred.

Rules for Participants:

  1. Each participant’s contribution is based upon what s/he has experienced, not upon what s/he has read or heard.
  2. The thinking and questioning is honest. This means that all and only genuine doubts about what has been said should be expressed.
  3. It is the responsibility of all participants to express their thoughts as clearly and concisely as possible, so that everyone is able to build on the ideas contributed by others earlier in the dialogue.
  4. Participants should not concentrate exclusively on their own thoughts but should make every effort to understand those of other participants. To assist with this, the facilitator may ask one participant to express in their own words what another participant has said.
  5. Anyone who has lost sight of the question or of the thread of the discussion should seek the help of others to clarify where the group stands.
  6. Abstract statements should be grounded in concrete experience or in the example which is central to the discussion in order to illuminate such statements.
  7. Inquiry into relevant questions continues as long as participants either hold conflicting views or have not yet reached clarity.
  8. It is important and rewarding to participate in the whole of a dialogue even if there is disagreement. No one should leave early or cease participating before consensus is reached.

Metadialogue:

It is permissible at any time within the dialogue for the facilitator or for any participant to call a kind of ‘time out’ in order to direct the attention of the group to any problems that may have arisen. It may be that a participant has lost track of the discussion, is unable to understand what others are saying, or feels excluded. Or it may be that one or more participants have become upset with the way the dialogue has developed. Or it may be that the group has lost its way and needs to review the structure or content of the dialogue. Or the group may want to discuss the strategies it is using to seek a consensus on the question.

Whatever the reason, a discussion about the dialogue, or a ‘metadialogue’, can be called for at any time. If it is thought appropriate, someone from the group other than the facilitator may be asked to chair the metadialogue. The group should not return to the content dialogue until all the difficulties that led to the calling of a metadialogue have been resolved or until strategies for proceeding with the content dialogue have been formulated.

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