The Socratic Method as a Means of Learning

Critical Thinking

The Socratic Method as a Means of Learning

Critical Thinking

What does it mean to be educated? The answer may be complex with questions about the differences between having knowledge and wisdom. But whether it’s knowledge or wisdom, we must learn it. In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler describes two kinds of learning:

  • being informed
  • being enlightened

The term ‘enlightened’ might sound at first to be somewhat mystic. And it’s true that some religions employ the term in a mystic or spiritual sense. That’s not how it’s being used here. But the dictionary definition1 is lacking depth of meaning. This article will explore the term in greater detail and how the Socratic method is a means of learning.

Informed vs Enlightened

To be informed is merely obtaining information and using memory recall to repeat it. It means that you know of something. You are informed if you know the fact, the grass is green.

To be enlightened means understanding the import of information. If you know why the grass is green, how it’s green, what green means in relation to other colors, etc. then you’re enlightened about the fact of the grass being green.

Being enlightened is not having the ability to soak up facts and regurgitate them on a test. That doesn’t show that you understand the facts. Doing well on a test may only show that you can exercise your memory. This isn’t to say that memory retention and recall of facts isn’t important, quite the opposite! Being informed necessarily precedes enlightenment. It’s not the end of enlightenment; it’s the beginning.

So how do we come to understand the information available all around us?

Adler says we learn through discovery. Discovery is an action – it’s the activity of learning. The activity of learning happens in the learner. This is an action of the individual who is “choosing, determining and trying to reach an end.”2 In this case, the end is understanding.

There is no such thing as passive learning, according to Adler. Learning isn’t something that happens to you, even if it takes time for the mind to process. Some discovery takes more or less activity, that is more or less effort, but that doesn’t negate the fact of its action.3

If learning happens in the learner, through the activity of discovery, then there are some skills to master in order to be an effective learner.

The art of being taught

Are you teachable?

Here’s how we tend to think of learning: a teacher instructing a student. In this view, the student has relatively no knowledge and the teacher has some to give. The teacher may use written or oral instructions, which the learner must read or listen to. Then we measure the skill of the teacher by whether the student performed well on a test. And though some degree of learning may have taken place, the test doesn’t show whether the student has been enlightened.

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” – Socrates

If we come to understand things through discovery, then there must be two types of discovery: aided and unaided. Why?

Learning may occur through the means of a knowledgeable teacher. But if this were the only means of discovery, then there would be no beginning to learning. This means there would need to be an infinite regress of teachers throughout history. Of course, this is impossible – the history of mankind had a beginning, and so discovery had a beginning.

So there must be another kind of discovery – discovery without a teacher. If discovery is an action, aided discovery is searching, investigating, and reflecting on things with the aid of a teacher. Unaided discovery, then, is searching, investigating, and reflecting on things without the aid of a teacher.

Our current paradigm suggests that unaided discovery cannot truly exist. In fact in this view, aided discovery cannot truly occur without a state-approved teacher. And yet, for this to be true, we’d need an infinite regress of bureaucrats. This too is impossible for the same reason mentioned before. Therefore, the current paradigm of learning is fundamentally flawed.

So how do we do it? How do we start discovering?

If knowledge is having an understanding and ability to explain things about the world, then we all begin in ignorance. There are two kinds of ignorance:

  • childlike
  • sophomoric

A childlike ignorance is when we don’t even know how to obtain knowledge. For example, a toddler doesn’t know how to read and is therefore ignorant of reading as a means of learning.

A sophomoric ignorance is when we know how to obtain knowledge but don’t use the skills well, or at all. You know what this looks like. It’s reading only headlines, or skimming an article and claiming to understand it, or relying too heavily on “expert opinion” to make our choices for us, etc.

This type of ignorance entails easily obtained information, but the learner never comes to understand it. To illustrate further, consider the difference between being “widely-read” and being “well-read.” What use is reading as many things as you can, if you didn’t come to understand the content? Where childlike ignorance is a necessary part of life, we want to avoid sophomoric ignorance.

Child’s play is a good way to think about our own discovery. Play can also be unaided (self-directed) or aided (with a parent playing). Parents may notice their child is sometimes uninterested in what the parent wants to play. Like play, discovery is a two-way, interactive relationship; either between the learner and the world, or the learner and the teacher.

The relationship between teacher and learner is also similar to that of gardener and plant, or doctor and patient. The teacher, gardener, and doctor each take steps to facilitate growth and well-being. But the learner must do the learning, the plant must do the growing, and the patient must do the healing. The learner must be an active participant in their own enlightenment. They are responsible for their own learning. This is a necessary element of being teachable.

The role of thinking

According to Adler, thinking is the use of our minds to become informed or enlightened. It too is an action and peculiar to human beings. Enlightenment requires the skills of thinking:

  • keenness of observation (through the senses),
  • range of imagination,
  • and a trained intellect in analysis and reflection

Thinking allows us to take hold of ideas and come to an understanding of them. When we understand things about the world, we can turn understanding into innovation.

Sometimes we don’t have a teacher (or a good teacher) to aid in our discovery. But as I explained before, even when a teacher is present, the learner has a responsibility to be an effective learner. When we explore nature and the world, we have no teacher. As soon as a book, a video, a tour guide, or other instructional aid is introduced, then we have a teacher.

The role of the teacher is to interact with your discovery. It requires both you and your teacher to listen, ask questions, dialogue, until you (the learner) comes to an understanding. If you seek explanation, you do the work to understand.

In the absence of an in-person teacher, we may ask questions of the world or the aid at our disposal. But in this case, the learner must answer their own questions themselves.

The value of critical thinking with the Socratic method

The Socratic method is first and foremost useful in making us aware of problems in our thinking and our lack of understanding. Socrates often used his method to reveal an error in his interlocutor’s thinking. He then took the opportunity to guide this new learner to a better understanding.

It can be quite intimidating at first – we might feel challenged or exposed. This initial step can make or break our willingness to continue critical thought. Many people stop here because it’s too uncomfortable for them. For some, the prospect of being wrong is unbearable.

But the Socratic method is also useful in learning how our thoughts connect with our emotions. This enables us to cope with our emotions in a healthy way instead of shutting down and not thinking.

Beyond this, the Socratic method engages listening skills, encourages productive discourse, and fosters inquiry for our understanding. It is learning how to discover – and therefore is useful in both aided and unaided discovery. It engages our observations and imagination about the world and our ideas of the world. It helps us dig deeper into ideas, or pan out for a big picture perspective. And it also enables us to take ideas and mold them into new innovations.

Footnotes

1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enlightened

2. Human Action, Ludwig von Mises

3. Discovery shouldn’t be confused with child’s play. Child’s play is developing the capacity to discover. Play for a child is more about impulse and instinct, where discovery is a determinative choice. While play is intended to develop the ability to determine choice, and this is developed over time throughout childhood, play itself is not the same thing as discovery.

B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)

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As an online Socratic Seminar Coach, I teach the skills of critical thought so you or your children can learn how to discover the world. This skills is invaluable! It’s learning how to learn so you or children can learn anything you set your mind to.

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