What I learnt at a Socratic Dialogue

As a philosophy student I jumped at the chance to take part in a philosophical dialogue. The method of discourse that we were using was called ‘Socratic Dialogue’. This method takes a universal question, a handful of people, a real example, and we sit in a room for 3 days trying to figure out a particular answer to the universal question. Our question was: When is it OK to judge? You might think that there was not much to say about this interrogative. You’d be wrong.

The dialogue was taking place in a quaint village called Springe, which is about 25 minutes from Hannover, located in the Lower Saxony region of Germany. It was pleasantly warm when I arrived and I was ushered straight into a philosophical conversation with two Germans and a fellow Essex girl. (They’re everywhere.) Whilst I can’t remember the particulars of the conversation now, I know that Dieter, Kirsten and Unathi immediately made me feel at home.

On the first day, Professor Hannah Altorf introduced our topic. Hannah is young for her title, quick witted, intelligent and I was later to find out, a superb facilitator for our Socratic Dialogue. She spoke about how the tensions within the question intrigued her. On the one hand, we have embedded into our social code that one must not judge. However, on the other hand, within the question there is the assumption that we have to judge, and so it is a matter of working out when.

This brings me to my next point nicely. Have you ever thought about the word ‘when?’ I hadn’t. But, we quickly realised that it was a word which needed our attention. The group was very European. There were 2 from England, 3 from Germany, 1 from the Czech Republic and 2 from the Netherlands. Translating the word ‘when’ was essential. ‘When’ is a word that holds within it modality. For our purposes though, the correct translation of ‘when’ was ‘under what conditions’. We weren’t looking for a time and a date in response to the question, we were seeking out the criteria of when we should judge.

This all looks perfectly clear in hindsight, but at the time it couldn’t have been further from the truth. There were many moments of utter confusion as we desperately tried to hang onto the red thread and Ton (a very cheeky, but lovable Dutchman in our group) planted red dots all over the place. This would have us in staunch disagreement for hours. In fact, at one point, I exasperatedly admitted: ‘Ton, I don’t understand you!’

The dialogue was refreshing because saying things like that was not only common, but vital to our progression. In this experience, unlike any other I’ve encountered, we did not leave a single person behind in the discussion – not once. If someone was lost, confused or in disagreement, we would continue with that point until a consensus was reached. This meant that many a heated discussion emerged as we grappled with the finest details of the fine details of our particular question. This is how clarity arises out of the murky depths in Socratic Dialogue.

On our last morning, the criteria for our question, ‘When is it OK to judge?’, emerged. Because we were using a particular example, we reframed the question to be ‘when should I judge?’, with the ‘I’ referring to the example we had chosen to use as our central focus to answering the question. In answer to this, we concluded that, I should judge when; I am responsible, there is a need, and I am capable.

The steps in getting to that answer roughly follow this form. First, we each gave our own personal examples, then, after a lengthy discussion and assessment of what would be best, we chose one. (In our case, we chose an example of where someone was asked to judge a painted egg competition.) Then we understood the example given further by asking probing questions. As a group, it then became clear that we needed to clarify an essential distinction between decision and judgment. From that point, we identified when there were decisions in the painted egg example and when there were judgements. At this point, we then worked out the criteria for each. And after that, we fought over what the criteria would look like for more general judgements. In the dying hours of our last day we managed to reduce these down to the three criteria for judgment that I mentioned above; responsibility, need and capability.

All in all, participating in the Socratic Dialogue was a fascinating and thought provoking affair. It slowed my thinking down. It allowed me to peer into the minds of other people. And most of all, our group just couldn’t stop laughing. I’ll never forget my 4 days philosophising in Springe. I learned so much about myself, the true nature of teamwork, what it means to judge and, last of all, how to disagree with people yet still be able to reach a consensus. That in itself is invaluable.

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