Who’s Afraid of Epistemology? Socratically Seeking Knowledge for Learning, Teaching, and Long-term Flourishing

“Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.” –Socrates in The Apology 

“There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” –Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, quoted in Scientific American

From the ancient Greek culture to various current events in America and beyond, trying to know the truth about an important topic can be extremely difficult. 

Last week, I introduced my initial plans for writing about epistemology or theory of knowledge at the service of better learning, teaching, and long-term flourishing. I don’t really have any special credentials for this project, but I do like to think, and I like to know things that can help us all flourish. 

Here again are my collected categories of six basic perspectives for ways of knowing: 

  • Rational 
  • Empirical
  • Intuitive 
  • Personal 
  • Pragmatic 
  • Suspicious   

And here’s what I have in mind as a hexagonal-perspectival way of visualizing these ways of knowing and their interconnected relationships: 

Six Ways of Knowing

 In this post, I want to touch on some features of rational knowing in relation to a very important ancient Greek thinker: Socrates. He believed that knowledge and virtue are inseparable, and therefore the search for knowledge is a search for virtue and vice versa. Socratically, teachers and students should strive to be virtuous in their pursuits of knowledge. What does virtue mean? How does one acquire virtue (and knowledge)? Why, those are just the sort of questions Socrates wants us to thoughtfully explore throughout our lives.  I’ll just apologize up front that there is so much to know about their approaches to epistemology that I’ll be leaving our many important things, but I think the incompleteness fits well with the spirit of Socratic thinking as ongoing inquiry. 

Socratic Questioning and Discussion as a Way of Life 

To start with Socrates is to start with questioning, so who is Socrates and why does he matter? He lived in Athens, Greece from about 470 BCE to 399 BCE. Apparently, he never wrote any of his thoughts down, but we do have written accounts of his philosophy most famously recorded by his student Plato and also from a few other important Greek thinkers. 

Socrates’ importance lies in his influence in pursuing systematic and varied approaches to exploring knowledge. In ancient Greece, Socrates would whimsically and wisely explore important topics through conversations, which later got crafted by others into written dialogues. At the risk of oversimplifying, Plato’s versions of early Socratic dialogues often feel much more like mutual open-inquiries that challenged the interlocutors (conversation partners) to realize how little is truly known about a topic such as truth, goodness, beauty, justice, or virtue and to thereby encourage a fuller, life-long pursuit of better knowledge. Sometimes, the interlocutors would enjoy honestly engaging but sometimes they resisted the process.

Shallow Rhetoric: Sophists as Posers 

The most troublesome interlocutors for Socrates were the Sophists. The aim of a Sophist, at least through the lens of Plato’s depiction of Socrates and his discussions, was to teach people skills for sounding like they knew what they were talking about. 

A relevant term for methods of persuading others is “rhetoric.” Rhetoric isn’t always bad. However, from a Socratic perspective, when someone ignores concerns about true knowledge as essential to good persuasion, then rhetoric has a pejorative sense, which is still often present today in terms of how people comment on politics (in the sense that someone says, “Oh, that’s just rhetoric.”). Such skeptical viewers of politics today would have likely made similar comments about the Sophists of Socrates’ time. 

Socratic Questioning in a Nutshell

Basically, Socrates used conversational questions to explore the explicit and implicit views that his interlocutors were living by. In terms of epistemology, he was always probing at what people know or think they know about a topic such as virtue or justice. Using the topic of knowledge as an example, one version of Socratic questions would include the following:

  • What is knowledge? 
  • How do you know knowledge from mere opinion? 
  • How do you know that you know something? 
  • What difference does your claim to knowledge make? 
  • If you’re right about a significant knowledge claim, what does that say about how we should live our lives?
  • Why do we turn to ignorance rather than knowledge?

If all of this seems a bit esoteric, consider a playful yet significant Socratic dialogue that Peter Kreeft crafts concerning a college student. In Peter Kreeft’s The Best Things in Life, a student named Peter is studying for a philosophy exam, and Kreeft has Socrates mysteriously appear to guide Peter through some important questions about life, learning, purpose, and long-term flourishing. As Socrates leads him through considerations about why he’s going to college, Peter encounters a much needed but slightly unpleasant dose of Socratic counseling: 

Socrates: I see. Let’s review what you have said. You are reading this book to study for your exam, so that you can pass it and your course, to graduate and get a degree, to get a good job, to make a lot of money, to raise a family and send your children to college.

Peter: Right.

Socrates: And why will they go to college?

Peter: Same reason I’m here. To get good jobs, of course.

Socrates: So they can send their children to college?

Peter: Yes.

Socrates: Have you ever heard the expression “arguing in a circle”?

Peter: No, I never took logic.

Socrates: Really? I would never have guessed it.

Peter: You’re teasing me.

Socrates: Really?

Peter: I’m a practical man. I don’t care about logic, just life.

Socrates: Then perhaps we should call what you are doing “living in a circle.” Have you ever asked yourself a terrifying, threatening question? What is the whole circle there for?

Peter: Hmmm … nobody ever bothered me with that question before.

Socrates: I know. That is why I was sent to you.

Socrates has Peter’s attention, as Peter starts to realize that he doesn’t have much of a thoughtful purpose for why he’s attending college:

Peter: Are you telling me I should just drop out of school and goof off?

Socrates: No, I am telling you that you should find a good reason to be here. I don’t think you have found that yet. Shall we keep searching?

Indeed, the Socratic vision entails a life of meaningful searching. Such “Why?” questions resemble potentially annoying questions from young children, but authentic Socratic questioning is much more about childlike honesty concerning knowledge versus any sort of childish avoidance of trying to learn how best to live a life. 

Tight versus Loose Socratic Dialogues 

In his Autobiography, Ben Franklin illustrates some thoughtful caution about Socratic methods. He notes how much he delighted in the method, and how much he enjoyed using it on other people:

I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis’d it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved. I continu’d this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence.”

Actually, I think that some of Franklin’s practice of Socratic method was more akin to the Sophists rather than Socrates, and perhaps Franklin is playfully presenting his own growth beyond sophistry as he confesses it and reflects on following a more modest route of relating to others. His more modest route actually seems more faithful to Socrates’ way of life.  

 At least with Plato’s version of earlier dialogues with Socrates, his spirit seems focused on mutual inquiry rather than one-upmanship. The open sense of inquiry has much more to offer modern learners and teachers in our already polarized and antagonistic society. 

For the classroom, the uses of Socratic questioning seem to fall into the direction of either a method for instruction or a method for assessment:

  • Some teachers feel that Socratic questioning and discussions should be limited to the process of learning and thereby use Socratic strategies to help students explore, develop, and challenge their learning while seeking to build their knowledge.
  • Other teachers have found that staging a Socratic discussion with pre-planned questions and some room for student questions can serve as an enjoyable and relatively easy to grade assessment.
  • And some teachers use Socratic strategies for both instructional and assessment purposes. A basic Internet search will yield many methods and models, but I find it most helpful for one to think about what purpose you have in mind for the Socratic approach. 

Takeaways about Knowing

Socratically, we shouldn’t blindly accept everything that came from Socrates. He had a very strange claim in his epistemology concerning “recollection.” He seemed to think that true knowledge was actually an act of remembering knowledge from before one’s birth. This part of his philosophy is typically rejected, but his general approach to critical thinking through conversation (also referred to as “dialect”) serves as an enduring legacy for good learning and teaching.

Famously, Socrates is known for his assertion that “The unexamined life is not worth living” (also found in Plato’s Apology–note: apology in this sense is an argument in defense of a position rather than a request for forgiveness.). One should also realize that not everyone welcomes the philosophical quest for knowledge in the style of Socrates, even if it is done in a manner more amicable than Ben Franklin describes above. 

As with all of the best learning, teaching, and philosophizing, the end for which one is aiming for is a rich and virtuous sense of long-term flourishing, and that claim invites further inquiry and reflection. In the next few weeks, we’ll have a few more ancient philosophers join the conversation. 

Invitation to Reflect and Consider: 

  1. Do you enjoy asking philosophical questions? How do others seem to respond to such questions that more carefully examine life? 
  2. Are there things in life like Peter’s view of college that might need some further questioning? What would you add to the conversation in terms of questions or alternative purposes for Peter (and for Socrates)? 
  3. Are public schools (especially high schools) places where students should do more Socratic learning? How so? Or, do you think that’s a specialized area for liberal arts colleges? 
  4. What kind of open Socratic discussions might help improve life with your family, friends, and maybe even with yourself?
  5. What gets in the way of good Socratic discussions? 

For Further Study and Reflection: 

Socrates: A Man for Our Times, by Paul Johnson 

Early Socratic Dialogues, by Plato (The Penguin edition, edited by Trevor Saunders, provides helpful introductions and notes for understanding and enjoying the dialogues.)

The Gorgias, by Plato

An Introduction to  Philosophy: An Online Textbook, by Philip Pecorino

Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy via Plato’s Apology, by Peter Kreeft

Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic, by Douglas Groothuis

Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, by Christopher Phillips

Socratic Logic: A Logic Text using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles, by Peter Kreeft (This is a great academic text for understanding how Socratic dialogues work and how to write them.)

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