As a fan of Socrates and Plato, I’ve often wondered about the Socratic Dialectical Method. What exactly is dialectic? How does the dialectical method work? Is the dialectical method a way of acquiring knowledge? I haven’t found any definitive answers to these questions yet, however, I’ve discovered some interesting characteristics of Socrates’ method.
The contentious way of philosophical discourse is to make your statement and challenge others to examine and refute it
Most dabblers in philosophy, myself included, tend to take the contentious way, asserting our own opinion as the truth and rejecting others’ without giving any reason as to why our opinion is better. As a result, discussions often end in a stalemate, with both sides going away unimpressed and unaffected –an exercise in futility. By contrast, the Socratic dialogues often end in unanimous consensus among the interlocutors, with others subscribing to Socrates’ point of view and seemingly unable to muster any kind of intellectual resistance, as if they were stunned by a torpedo fish.
How does Socrates vanquish his opponents time and time again? The short and simple answer is that Socrates always turns his opponents against themselves –if anyone can do that, he’ll never suffer defeat. Socrates is able to prove that his opponents opinions are self-contradictory, and thereby uncover and eliminate false opinions by applying the Law of Non Contradiction. But it is more complicated than that, and far easier said than done.
The dialectical way is not merely to answer what is true, but also to make use of those points which the questioned person acknowledges he knows.
I. He must know and make use of those things which his opponent acknowledges to be true. In other words, the dialectical method must start with a consensus, in order to reach a consensus by causal reasoning. Unlike in battles, where the two parties take up their positions opposite each other and try to conquer the other side by force. Socrates always comes to the side of his interlocutors, as a starting point of a joint journey and inquiry, and gradually lead them step by step to his own position. This requires a tremendous amount of patience and genuine goodwill, which most debaters lack, who are only interested in winning arguments.
Any one who has an intellectual affinity to Socrates and enters into conversation with him is liable to be drawn into an argument; and whatever subject he may start, he will be continually carried round and round by him, until at last he finds that he has to give an account both of his present and past life ; and when he is once entangled, Socrates will not let him go until he has completely and thoroughly sifted him.
II. Absolute intellectual honesty is required in order for the dialectical method to work. The interlocutors must be prepared to bare his mind and soul for examination. Socrates likens this to a patient being examined by a doctor, and answering the doctor’s probing questions about his body with an honest Yes or No answer, so the illness, if any, can be properly diagnosed. The dialectical method requires each interlocutor to be cross-examined by others and answer questions put to them with an unequivocal Yes or No. This precludes any evasion or indecision. The interlocutor has to make a plain and open admission of what he knows and believes, and what he doesn’t.
III. Socrates likens teaching to leading a person from one place to another. In order to lead others, the teacher must have walked the path himself and can retrace his steps. This is analogous to making a chain of logical inference from one point to another. The admission of Yes and No is analogous to making a choice at a crossroad. The dialectical method thus leads one to construct for himself and follow a chain of causal reasoning, and he is bound to discover for himself whether or not the logical consequences of his opinions are self-contradictory.
IV. Some people argue that the Socratic method is negative and does not lead to knowledge, because Socrates only proves the ignorance of his interlocutors. I think it is both positive and negative, precisely because Socrates cannot prove the ignorance of others unless he can prove their presumed knowledge contradicts the true knowledge. So he must have true knowledge in the first place. The Socratic method won’t work if none of the interlocutors have any knowledge, or if they have exactly the same opinion.
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