The Socratic Temperament

Max Maxwell

Due to requests from educators:
I have made a PDF file of this essay available for download to make distribution to students easier.Get the PDF.

The most basic goal of Socrates' work as a philosopher and teacher was not, through questioning, to induce a person to realize a particular fact or to cause a person to rethink an idea. For Socrates, the Socratic Method was just a means to an end. The end that Socrates sought was the excellence of human character. Excellence of character and the quality of living that results from good character was the holy grail of Socrates' quest. Socrates believed that a continuous journey of self-improvement was essential for every person. He believed this self-improvement is to be realized through the acquisition of knowledge. It is the fundamental goal of the Socratic Teacher to improve the character of her students. This is done by making them more receptive to and effective in the process of acquiring knowledge and increasing their understanding.

Prior to looking at the structure of Socratic Dialogue, we must look at the most important foundation for Socratic teaching, which is the personal temperament of the Socratic Teacher. In order to be effective at using the Socratic Method, the Socratic Teacher must be able to live and model positive attitudes regarding the discipline of inquiry and must also be experienced in the practice of her own self-examination.  A teacher, who is completely lacking in what I call the Socratic Temperament, will have a difficult time bringing the Socratic Method to life in the classroom.

Characteristics of the Socratic Temperament:

The Socratic Teacher loves to discover her own errors. There is no shame in discovering that we are in error or are lacking in understanding. The Socratic Teacher embraces the discovery of error as a joyful moment. Even if the realization of her fault causes difficulties, the Socratic Teacher cherishes this moment of realization because a step towards knowledge and understanding is taken with every error and lack of knowledge we uncover. It is important that you are able to naturally express this positive attitude about the discovery of your own lack of understanding. The aggressive, thorough and productive examination of your own knowledge and ideas is the hallmark of an excellent thinker. It is also the hallmark of the Socratic Teacher. The capacity to examine our own cherished ideas and beliefs without the fear of replacing them with something better is an essential part of the Socratic Temperament and the Socratic Method. Students learn this best by watching their teachers live it. If you cannot develop the capacity to model a positive attitude about discovering and dealing with your own lack of knowledge, you cannot be a Socratic Teacher. Errors pave the grand highway that leads to understanding. The Socratic Teacher treats the discovery of error as an essentially valuable asset in the journey to gain knowledge. In contrast, the fear of having your worldview challenged is the greatest inhibition to developing excellence in critical thinking. A teacher who is afraid of such challenges will telegraph this fear to her students, and do great damage to the value of the use of the Socratic Method in the classroom.

The Socratic Teacher is in touch with her own ignorance. Socrates said that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. This disavowal of knowledge, which became known as Socratic irony, was more than a rhetorical stance designed to make the Socratic Method function. Because the Socratic Teacher knows that her ignorance touches every area of life, student participation and answers are naturally treated with respect. This awareness of ignorance is much more than just acknowledging that there are some things you do not know. The Socratic Teacher knows that her ignorance touches every thought she has and every fact she knows. For example, if a student told you that "one plus one equals four", there is no doubt that you would recognize this simple error. Many teachers would naturally be inclined to assume that this is absolutely and always wrong. However, did you know that sometimes one plus one can equal four? If you add two triangles together as left helix and right helix, you will get a six edged tetrahedron with four triangle faces. In this case one plus one equals four. (Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics 108.02) The Socratic Teacher realizes that her ignorance touches even her understanding of the possibilities of something as simple as one plus one. There is always an abiding knowledge in the heart of the Socratic Teacher that she is ignorant in some way that touches every word she speaks, every thought she has and every perspective she embraces. The realization of her own ignorance fosters humility about her status as a teacher, inspires empathy for her students and provides an illustration to her students of the most important psychological reality of a quality thinker (i.e. the self knowledge of our own ignorance). This also helps the Socratic Teacher to see her students as teachers and to embrace a love of learning from them. Because the Socratic Teacher knows that her ignorance touches her understanding of even the simplest facts, she feels a profound awe in wondering what depths of ignorance are in her mind pertaining to more complex subjects. Just as it is possible for the teacher to be ignorant about some aspect of one plus one, the Socratic Teacher knows that it is possible for the students to be wise in unexpected ways. This realization makes it easy for the Socratic Teacher to treat all students as living sources of understanding, who have the power to teach the teacher. This is most commonly expressed in attitude and good manners. The Socratic Teacher realizes she is more ignorant than not and thus always expresses a positive, open and earnestly seeking attitude when dealing with disagreements of fact or interpretation. The Socratic Teacher's vivid awareness of her own ignorance makes it natural and easy to communicate respect and appreciation to her student's for their class participation. The Socratic Teacher is always looking for opportunities to grow under the tutelage of her students.

The Socratic Teacher models the joy of hard work in the quest for knowledge.">The Socratic Teacher sees knowledge as a great treasure for all humanity. Obtaining knowledge is a goal of the utmost importance and worthy of every effort. The Socratic Teacher experiences a joyful satisfaction in working hard to gain knowledge. The Socratic Teacher knows when she is found to be wrong in some way that this is actually a sign she is on an active and successful journey towards knowledge (as opposed to those who do not even know they lack correct knowledge). Thus, the Socratic Teacher does not allow any measure of failure to get her down and expresses patience, persistence and a positive attitude while working to gain knowledge. The Socratic Teacher knows that, without knowledge, her students will live miserable and destructive lives. She feels an extraordinary urgency to ensure that her students will be successful in learning. Thus, the Socratic Teacher takes opportunities to demonstrate and communicate the value of hard work to her students and the joy that can be found in the work of learning.

The Socratic Teacher experiences deep curiosity and the desire for self-improvement. It is impossible to value knowledge so greatly yet remain uncurious. A teacher that is not curious cannot be a Socratic Teacher. A lack of curiosity is a lack of insight into the tremendous value of knowledge. This lack of curiosity can result from the self-satisfaction of being out of touch with your own ignorance. A lack of curiosity can also result from not being willing to live the patience and hard work needed to gain knowledge. The Socratic Teacher is deeply curious and always desires to improve her understanding. The improvement of understanding is seen as an essential self-improvement. This means that the Socratic Teacher is not content to remain stagnant and actively works to improve herself throughout her life. The Socratic Teacher usually has some personal project or subject that she is engaging for the purpose of improving herself. The Socratic Teacher makes opportunities to present her deep curiosity and passionate desire for self-improvement as a model for the students.

Some readers may wonder at the extent to which they do not recognize themselves in the above description of the Socratic Temperament. These characteristics were at home in the natural temperament of Socrates, but may not be completely descriptive of your natural inclinations. Do not worry. If you are at all open to positively embracing the discovery of your own lack of knowledge and have any desire at all for self-improvement, then you will be surprised at how much good you can do by applying yourself to increase the quality of your understanding and the productivity your living. Just realize that you must earnestly stoke the fires of your heart with the desire to grow and improve. Combine that fire with work and you can forge yourself into fine form. If, on the other hand, you have no desire to productively engage your errors and failures and want to avoid applying yourself to the task of self-improvement, then perhaps teaching is not for you. How well you know this or that subject matter is not even relevant. The failure of a teacher to be alive to her own journey of growth in life will completely destroy the very best she has to offer her students.

When a teacher has a well developed Socratic Temperament and uses the Socratic Method, this combination brings an extraordinary power of inspiration to the classroom. As I wrote in the introduction on the home page, "Without true Socratic irony (Socratic Temperament), the Socratic Method can easily become an exercise in shallow manipulation that lacks the power to inspire." When a teacher uses methods that have the power to bring the process of learning alive in the minds of her students, this very important awakening must be conducted with humility and grace. If you always need to be the one who is right, always think of yourself in terms of what you know and have achieved, are lazy about the acquisition of new knowledge in your own life, have no curiosity and no desire for self-improvement, then you will never be able to use the Socratic Method for even 1/100th of what it is worth. The first step in learning the Socratic Method is to open yourself to the task of developing your own Socratic Temperament.

Necessity of the Socratic Temperament

The most fundamental and powerful contribution to education by the Socratic Method is not as a method to communicate specific facts. It is in the demonstration and communication of the Socratic Temperament to the students. To cultivate the Socratic Temperament in the students is to lay the ultimate foundation for the development of superior critical thinking later in life. Deep curiosity, fearless questioning, productive critical thinking and a lifelong quest for self-improvement are the fruits of the Socratic Temperament. The opportunity to develop their own Socratic Temperament is the finest gift you can give to your students. This is done best by teachers who are living the Socratic Temperament in the classroom. It is absolutely necessary to develop the Socratic Temperament in students. The fear of having their own beliefs and assumptions challenged must be replaced with joy. Students must learn to take joy at questioning everything, especially their own ideas. If a student remains uncomfortable in questioning her own ideas, she will be emotionally handicapped with regard to the development of her capacity for critical thinking and her ability to face the uncertainties of life in a productive and reasoned manner. As Plato wrote, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

If you wish to support this Website's mission
to educate, see the MISSION STATEMENT PAGE.

On a side note, the law school version of their so-called Socratic Method is not compatible with the Socratic Temperament as demonstrated by Socrates. This is not to say that law school professors do not have a Socratic Temperament or employ such temperamental characteristics in their teaching. Although there is nothing genuinely Socratic about the violently contentious law school version of the method, the fact that a law student's exposure to this very intense type of questioning will often break her down and force her to dig deep and perform better does have something of the flavor of the Classic Socratic Method. The purpose of this style of questioning in law school is to prepare students for the extremely rough environment of courtroom litigation. Even though the law school form has the flavor of the deconstructive nature of the Classic Socratic Method, the actual structure of Socratic Dialogue and the nurturing gentleness, which was characteristic of Socrates and his method, are absent. The law school form of the method is not what will be discussed in future essays, nor is it appropriate in most educational contexts. If you want to see a balanced presentation of law student's reactions to the "Socratic Method" used in law school, check out this video.