What was the purpose of the Socratic method?

The Socratic Conversation in Philosophy Class


1 Introduction

2. About Socrates
2.1 The Maieutics

3. The Socratic method in the tradition of Leonard Nelson and Gustav Heckmann
3.1 Nelson's criticism of the traditional Socratic method
3.2 Socratic philosophizing in class
3.3 Constituent elements of the Socratic method in relevance for philosophy teaching

4. Conclusion


1 Introduction

The Socratic Conversation not only has a long tradition, but also has great potential, namely to teach students to philosophize:

“The young man who had been discharged from school was used to learning. Well, he thinks he will learn philosophy, which is impossible, because he should now learn to philosophize " (Kant).1

Philosophy lessons should not be about learning theories by heart and just reproducing the thoughts of others, but rather it should be a place where you can produce your own thoughts. Pupils should learn to think, form judgments and then be able to justify them accordingly. Philosophy lessons are much more than just imparting knowledge, but above all a place for self-confidence. If philosophy lessons are not supposed to be a mere transfer of knowledge or even instruction, then the idea of ​​the Socratic Conversation is possibly a suitable method to activate the pupils' own thinking.

I will show that the correct implementation of the Socratic conversation is a promising method for teaching. The Socratic Conversation has the potential to make philosophy lessons more realistic again and to dissolve the distance between theory and practice. The pupils learn to philosophize with the help of the Socratic Conversation and not just specialist knowledge.

First I will show the method of historical Socrates, especially what the concept of Maieutics is all about. This is followed by the modified neo-Socratic method by Nelson / Heckmann. These have not only taken up Socrates' method, but developed it further and carried it into schools and universities. Then I will go into Gisela Raupach-Streys, who continues the Nelson / Heckmann tradition. This introduced seven constitutive elements of the Socratic conversation for philosophy lessons.

Finally, I will refer to the requirements of the Ministry of Education for the secondary level II grammar school / comprehensive school in North Rhine-Westphalia for philosophy and explain why the Socratic conversation meets the requirements mentioned there.

2. About Socrates

Plato's Apology for Socrates is the best introduction to Socratic thought and Socratic pedagogy we have. Here Plato would open up the pedagogically relevant questions that would later be discussed in detail in the written Socratic dialogues. It is here that Socrates' way of self-knowledge is described in an understandable and understandable way. Above all, however, the Apology gives us a first glimpse into the fundamental method of knowledge and the “work” of Socrates. Although it must be said here that Socrates himself did not leave us anything in writing. Everything we learn about Socrates, we learn about Plato.

The apology can be easily understood by any reader without any previous knowledge of philosophy. Despite its simple and understandable nature, the apology has a high philosophical content. Based on an everyday situation, she raises the following questions: “What is knowledge? What is wisdom And how do knowledge and wisdom relate to one another? ”.2 The own correct relationship to knowledge and wisdom characterizes the core of Socratic philosophizing and the learning goal of Socratic pedagogy.

The aim of the Socratic Talks is to clarify terms that every person uses in everyday life without giving an account of them. These thoughtlessly used terms needed to be reconsidered. In addition to the factual-explicative clarification of the terms, the Socratic dialogue had another goal, namely the formation of a moral attitude. The aim was to enable people to communicate with others and, if necessary, to correct their own opinion. This attitude stood in contrast to that of the sophists, who at the same time tried to get their own opinion through by skillfully speaking and persuading. Socrates, it was primarily about the maturity of the people and the improvement of the communication culture. The moral attitude required for this is the recognition of equivalence and the seriousness of the interlocutors.3

In order to achieve these goals, Socrates did not present his interlocutor with knowledge in order to instruct his counterpart, but rather: [...] brought about independent philosophical knowledge formation through skilful questions and answers ”.4 This is what the famous midwifery of Socrates is called.

Dialogue is the instrument with which one can recognize the true and the not only supposed essence. The dialogue was the place where Socrates wanted to advance from the perhaps true opinion of a single person to the established truth. The dialectical method with which Socrates confused his interlocutors had the task of getting from uncertain opinions or prejudices to certain truth. With the help of inquiries and objections, Socrates managed to entangle his interlocutors in contradictions and to expose their wrong opinions Horster.5

Socrates' primary interest was not the building of a teaching structure or a theory, but the self-clarification and self-examination of oneself and others: “[...] whose primary interest is not aimed at philosophical teaching structures, theorems or conceptual analyzes for their own sake, but at one Self-clarification and self-examination carried out with oneself and others with conceptual-analytical means in the name of virtue. "6

The goal of Socratic philosophy is ultimately not a theoretical one, but an ethical and therapeutic one, in the sense of self-knowledge. Philosophical knowledge is therefore less an increase in knowledge, but more the uncovering of non-knowledge: "[...] the enlightening-sophistic unmasking of supposed certainty as prejudice guided by interests."7 That is also the reason why the Socratic dialogues often end in an unresolved aporia.

Dialogue is of decisive role in Socrates' philosophy, because Socratic philosophizing would be dialogical due to its objective: "This philosophizing is from the beginning educational, therapeutic, aimed at processes of consciousness change."8

Turning to and communicating with others are therefore not just elements of form and representation, but essential purposes of this philosophy. The focus is on the thinking of the dialogue partners: ,, [...] central to the thinking of the other and about this other himself. "9

2.1 The Maieutics

The release, the release of one's own thoughts and judgments of the interlocutors, is the core of Socratic art. Socrates himself, as is well known, compared himself to a midwife in Theaetetus, only not for physical but for spiritual children. In a conversation with Socrates, Theaetetus reports his compulsion to think. Socrates thereupon certifies pregnancy problems because he thinks Theaetetus is pregnant. Soktates asks Theaetetos to confide in him, because he is a therapist for such ailments. As the son of a midwife, he also works as a midwife; however, not for the body, but for the human soul and its births.

Socrates compares his educational work with the art of midwives and explains who can be a midwife and who cannot and why: “No fertile woman works as a midwife, only women who had given birth themselves and who have now become sterile due to their age. Even childless women cannot work as midwives because human nature is too weak to attain an art in things of which they are completely inexperienced. "10

A midwife can only be someone who has had the experience of giving birth. So she knows better than anyone whether a woman is pregnant or not: "[...] they can induce or alleviate labor pains, they can help give birth to severe women, they can also abort a child."11

The art of the midwives corresponds to the spiritual transferred, the pedagogical art of Socrates. He himself is unable to give birth to his own knowledge, but he can help others to bring about knowledge births. The knowledge does not take place through instruction, but through the signer himself: "[...] without ever having learned anything from me, but only from within themselves they discover a lot of beautiful things and give birth to it [...]."12

So just as the midwife cares about the body, so Socrates cares about the signing soul. Precisely because he is a real expert on the human psyche, he can recognize spiritual pregnancies better than anyone else. The main concern of the Socratic Maieutik, however, is that it can examine and recognize whether the soul has given birth to an illusory image or something vigorous and genuine, an error or a knowledge. The maieutic dialogue is therefore a suggestion and instruction for the independent production of knowledge and control and examination of the result.

From this the following question arises, namely to what extent one can give birth to all knowledge from oneself. It is important to mention here that Socrates (always) came to an understanding with experts on a certain topic. The interlocutors therefore had a certain prior knowledge of a topic: "Self-thinking cannot do without the imparting of factual knowledge and the transmission of traditional knowledge."13

With regard to philosophy lessons, one could add here that it is; Although philosophy lessons are not just about imparting knowledge, it is still important for the pupils to get to know the thoughts of traditional philosophers. But more on this later.

It is important to emphasize here that with Socrates the development of thoughts of the interlocutor is at the center of the conversation and not his own; also that it is not about a didactic purpose. The interlocutor already has knowledge, but he is not yet aware of it. In the Platonic self-interpretation of the Socratic method, the anamnesis theory and the Maieutik would intermesh at this point: If knowledge is understood as a memory of the ideas seen before birth, then it follows of course that the help of the “midwife” will help Memory work is. "14

Critical philosophy freed the doctrine of remembrance from the entanglement of mysticism, Nelson said. What remains, however, is the reason for making the Socratic method possible. Man has in him, as it were, an unconscious knowledge that needs to be raised and made conscious: "To instruct the ignorant by forcing him to understand that he really knows what he did not know he knows. "15

It is important that the intellectual products, whatever their content is related to, come to light as free as possible from outside determination of content or communication, i.e. that they can develop as free as possible from dogmatism and domination. The one who takes on the role of midwife then helps to give birth to one's own thoughts and judgments.

3. The Socratic method in the tradition of Leonard Nelson and Gustav Heckmann

In 1922 the Göttingen philosopher and educator Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) and his student Gustav Heckmann (1898-1996) revived the intention of ancient philosophizing in a modified form. Nelson gave a famous lecture on the Socratic Conversation in 1922 and in 1923/24 he realized his own school project, the Walkemühle State Education Center. His aim was to introduce Socratic Conversation into universities and school classes. Leonard Nelson did not simply adopt Socrates' method, but modified it, especially with regard to the discussion situation.

Nelson used the term "Socratic Method" in two ways; On the one hand, it means the spiritual midwifery art, the art that a teacher uses in conversation in order to help the pupil to gain knowledge from within himself. Secondly, a method of philosophical thinking is meant, namely the extraction of general philosophical truths from the judgments of concrete cases through the process of regressive abstraction.

The neo-Socratic conversation differs from the (traditional) Socratic method, especially with regard to the Maieutik. In contrast to the traditional Socratic method, this is not about a conversation between two people, but a group conversation. Nelson / Heckmann and Socrates also have one thing in common, namely the central idea that the pupils should develop the knowledge themselves or give birth to them. In contrast to the Socratic method, the moderator of the neo-Socratic method is required to exercise restraint: "[...] be cautious with contributions and, in particular, not ask questions that express your own judgment."16 The role of the midwife is no longer assigned to the teacher (facilitator), but to the participants in the conversation.

In contrast to the Socratic dialogue, which is strictly limited to two dialogue partners, the Socratic dialogue with Nelson / Heckmann is one aimed at several participants. In this group discussion, the participants would not only get the chance to be the knowledge seeker, but also to act as a midwife for each other's thought development. Ideally, such a group discussion would not result in the knowledge of an individual, but in one shared by all group participants.17.

In Nelson / Heckmann's conception, dialogue and discourse, communication and criticism play a key methodological role. They are contrary to the traditional philosophy, which was understood as the intellectual effort of an individual. They are moving away from the idea of ​​the lonely thinker and towards the discourse community, which is about exchange and communication.

Nelson invokes Kant's widely recognized basic idea: “The young man who had been discharged from school was used to learning. Well he thinks he will learn philosophy, which is impossible, because he should now learn to philosophize. "18

Here it becomes clear that philosophy cannot simply be taught because there is no one philosophy that is summarized in a book. Philosophy arises here in independent thinking and in the development of one's own insights and not in parroting any theories.

This view is in contrast to Hegel's, who demands: “Philosophy must be taught and learned as well as any other science”. Hegel therefore deals with: “the learning of an already existing, pronounced science. This is a treasure trove of acquired, elaborated, educated content; [...] The teacher owns it; he thinks it out, the students think about it. "19


1 Krohn, Dieter / Neißer, Barbara / Walter, Nora (ed.): The Socratic Conversation in Class. [Socratic philosophizing; Vol. VII]. Frankfurt am Main: dipa-Verlag, 2000. p. 69, lines 5-8.

2 Gutmann, Michael: The dialogical pedagogy of Socrates. A path to knowledge, wisdom and self-knowledge. Münster 2003. Waxmann Verlag. P. 13, lines 13-15.

3 Horster, Detlef: The Socratic Conversation in Theory and Practice. Opladen: Leske & Budrich, 1994. p. 9.

4 See ibid: p. 11, lines 18-19.

5 See ibid: p. 23.

6 Krohn, Dieter / Neißer, Barbara / Walter, Nora (ed.): The Socratic Conversation - Possibilities in Philosophical and Pedagogical Practice. [Socratic Philosophizing, Vol. VI]. Frakfurt am Main: dipa-Verlag, 1999. p. 17 ff.

7 See ibid: p. 18, lines 19-22.

8 See ibid: p. 18, lines 30-33.

9 See ibid: p. 19, lines 3-4.

10 Gutmann: Münster 2003. p. 225, lines 18-23.

11 See ibid: p. 226, lines 2-4.

12 See ibid: 226. lines 18-19.

13 See ibid: p. 227, lines 20-21.

14 Raupach, Strey, Gisela: Socratic didactics. The didactic significance of the Socratic method in the tradition of Nelson and G. Heckmann. 2nd ed. 2013. p. 53, lines 26-28.

15 See ibid: p. 53 ff.

16 Pfister, Jonas: Subject Didactics Philosophy. 2nd ed. Haupt Bern: Haupt UTB Verlag, 2014. P. 48, Z- 20-22.

17 Birnbacher, Dieter / Krohn, Dieter (ed.): The Socratic conversation. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2016. p. 8.

18 Krohn 2000: p. 69, lines 5-8.

19 See ibid: p. 69, lines 18-23.

End of the reading sample from 22 pages