What Are The Principles of Socratic Questioning?

What are the principles of Socratic Questioning?

This question can be answered with a finite list of definitive principles proscribed as the correct solution, and it would be useless for anything but comparison as a finite list, or use as an object for putting on an appearance. A finite list of known actions, described as though they were a series of switches, is not sufficient for exploring ways to better bring the known and unknown together. Finite definitive lists are great for measurement and comparison, and for these two tasks they allow us to do many fantastic things, such as commonly-understood writing systems and all of computer science. The only uses of knowing principles as a list without internalized familiarity with each of them, are extrinsic values such as seeming a certain way more or less than one naturally is: e.g. a political campaign relying on popular slogans unsubstantiated by its policy platform. Command decisions of the most essential kind, the kind that guide our lives and give them the context of meaning, demand dealing with both the known and the unknown without being able to know in a fixed way what the best things are.

Principles, therefore, must be learned by application as heuristics, guidelines to help you interpret situations and make decisions about them.(1) “When your tire looks flat, you get some air pumped into it. If it keeps going flat, you get it inspected for a leak,” is an example of two heuristics that combine positional information–the ‘if’ bit to help you recognize what is going on–with directional information–the ‘then’ bit about whether and what you should do.(2) As this example shows, heuristics can link into or build upon one another. This is useful because small heuristics about facets of simple situations can come together to form more complicated heuristics to help us decide about more complex situations. Our heuristics about that tire are not as absolute when taking into account other things, like urgently needing to get somewhere or not being able to pay to fix the tire. A principle is a heuristic which is so handy, it seems to always have some good use in deciding what to do across a wide variety of contexts and situations. An example of a principle in communication would be, “When you don’t understand something someone is saying, ask for a specific example.”(3)

What we call Socratic method is a process of refining experience into principle. The first principle of Socratic dialog is that those who participate in it do so to refine their principles as better guides toward virtue. If we take Platonic ideals as a basis, we might reason that our principles are always imperfect copies of perfect ideals, but by studying the copies we can make strong guesses about the shape of the Ideal or master principle to guide us toward virtue. Consider from Timaeus: “Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and… he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time.”(4) This passage affirms cookie-cutter-induction logic, but it is the definition of the nature of time that can help us make time and the process of changing more useful to us. Plato asserts that our totality seems like it is chopped up into distinct moments, but that it really is whole in a way we can only see indirectly from here inside the world. Ideals and things in their wholeness, then, are indicated by their manifestations across time. In the real world, we piece together the wisdom we actually use from experience over time. Heuristics and principles must grow over time, building up from specific cases of trial-and-error into sensibilities and rules-of-thumb that are more and more broadly useful for asserting who we want to be. Socrates’ own quest to reconcile a prophesy he describes in the Apology develops in much the same way, and leads both to his death and to the very peace he feels as he faces this sentence. This arc is everywhere Socrates is, which makes sense because it is powered by the same act Socrates was driven to death for: questioning.

What is this Socratic questioning? To really get inside that, we need some fundamental understanding of Socratic dialog, which is exclusively how I will call both this style of dialog and Socratic method in general because the method is inextricably linked with dialog, even when presented as a monologue like this article.

Suppose Socratic dialog were a car being used for a road trip, the four principles of Socratic dialog would describe the arc of its use and experience. Just as one gets into the car, alone or with others, with the ultimate goal of travelling to places of interest, the participants of a Socratic dialog participate with the ultimate goal of going to a better set of heuristics for living their lives than they had coming in. In precisely the same way that where the occupants do or don’t go is grounded in where the car does or doesn’t go, the basis for change to principles in a Socratic dialog is where the participants find consensus about what they do or do not want–what they all find clearly admirable or clearly unadmirable. Routes that are considered but not taken for some mitigating factor would be the analog for the principle of counter-example, refining a principle toward the admirable by finding how one could go into the clearly unadmirable following its current working draft. The specific choices of route and road stop and so on actually taken and explored, mirror the principle of elaborating the new heuristics toward virtue by exploring positive examples of them. At the end of the trip, participants should be enriched in their ability to live closer to virtue, that they may better enjoy the good.

If Socratic dialog is this car, Socratic questioning is the energy that makes every part of it go. What virtues to build principles toward, the sense of what is clearly admirable or unadmirable, the counter-examples, the positive examples: Socratic questioning is the art of elaborating all of these and all other aspects of interest to them, by an iterative process of question and answer. Socratic questioning is both the only way of developing toward knowledge and the good in Socratic dialog, and the foundation by which we accept the heuristics and techniques of Socratic dialog without needing to reestablish them from scratch every day. Questioning is taken as the means for both exploration and test, a practice the reason for which might be answered in this recurring idea, that what we want can never be something we already know we have. This lemma, “he and every one who desires, desires that which he has not already,” is used as the basis for discerning what Love is in Symposium, not by Socrates but by a woman who taught him of Love this way when he was young. Because she taught it thus to Socrates, her words will be the basis for teaching questioning to us.

Diotima of Mantinea, whose lesson Socrates repeats in Symposium, teaches him the nature of Love in such a way that with it, “a child may answer” the question of who lovers of wisdom are and what love of wisdom is. Love, she teaches through this questioning, is the great spirit between desire and having: “He interprets… between gods and men, conveying and taking across to the gods the prayers and sacrifices of men, and to the men the commands and replies of the gods; he is the mediator who spans the chasm which divides them, and therefore in him all is bound together, and through him… prophecy and incantation find their way.” He is a daimon, one of the great intermediary spirits which stand between the gods and mankind in the Hellenic view of the world, and “a philosopher at all times…. For wisdom is a most beautiful thing, and Love is of the beautiful; and therefore Love is also a philosopher: or lover of wisdom, and being a lover of wisdom is in a mean between the wise and the ignorant.” It is precisely this being “in a mean between… the foolish and the wise” which characterizes philosophers according to Diotima, to Socrates as her student repeating her decades later, and to Plato as the scribe of them both. Questioning here is implied not only as the means for deriving these conclusions, but as the practice that enables philosophers to be philosophers and Love to be Love, that empowers them to be “in a mean between” those who have and those who want. Nowhere in this lesson does Socrates’ teacher explicitly say so; instead she demonstrates it by participating in the volleys of question and answer to the young Socrates in just the way the older Socrates does for others.(5)

We can also derive from this discourse of Diotima and Socrates that his first principle of questioning and ours should be to be “in a mean between” like the great daimon, Love. Between the influences of Enlightenment philosophy and its preceding trend of Christianizing Platonism, it may be difficult for us to approach discussions of gods and daimons in this reading or Hellenic philosophy in general with the gravity its authors felt. Yet, quite contrary to his accusers, Socrates took divine matters with such gravity that he would rather suffer death by the order of his own neighbors and state, than compromise the divine command to his questioning mission. Men who still possess great wisdom do not drink poison lightly, and as Socrates is as cogent as ever in the Apology and his wisdom remains so perennially celebrated, we may benefit from imagining Love as a daimon whose character we might emulate.(6) Emulating Love is also implied by the text itself: “But that which is always flowing in is always flowing out, and so he [Love] is never in want and never in wealth; and, further, he is in a mean between ignorance and knowledge.” The phrase “in a mean between” is introduced to illuminate the possibility of a third option or quality between an either-or duality, namely that “a mean between wisdom and ignorance… is right opinion.” She uses this phrase four more times in describing Love, and then never again: once, to describe Love as a daimon go-between between gods and men; twice, to describe what philosophers are, and once to relate it to being never in wealth and never in want. All of Diotima’s further words build a path which mirrors the Socratic progression from specific cases into knowledge of virtue, a path based on “[instruction] in the things of love… and… [learning] to see the beautiful in due order and succession” which culminates in “holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine” and “bringing forth, not images of beauty, but realities” akin to the reality of the gods which make the illusion of time. All this again echoes the first principle of Socratic dialog as well as agreeing with the sense we established of what principles are for Plato and Socrates. Love, the daimon, is clearly a model to follow for Diotima, for Socrates, and for us. (7)

How does one make oneself “in a mean between” in the manner attributed to Love? It may be simpler to start with Diotima’s fiscal illustration of it, “that which is always flowing in is always flowing out, and so he is never in want and never in wealth.” Love is clearly someone who is always winning and losing, always receiving and always giving away, but as this follows a discussion of want and wealth on the ground that one can only want what one does not have, this is also implying a cessation of wanting and of aversion alike. Even the joy of goodness seems to come and go for Love, and yet Love must be unmoved to desire cessation or continuance. The quality is quite a pervasive sentiment, which is also resisted by a sense that “love… [is]… the love of the beautiful only,” as Diotima describes it. She is describing not just another iteration of how Love must always be spanning dualities, but specifically how Love and loving operate by being willing to move on even from peaks of delight, experiences where one may understandably want to linger instead of making peace with how one moves on. Her discussion with Socrates of immortality across time through rhythms of generation and recreation quietly reveals this reality of change, even as she carries on to her point that leaning into these is what allows one to connect to the eternal, the real and the divine. To be like the daimon, Love, must at least mean to be flowing between findings and fortunes without getting stuck on them, which naturally allows explorations of all kinds to follow. This also invites a fluidity with inviting, receiving, entertaining and releasing questions, which both Socrates and his teacher in this story are practicing prolifically; these are also practicable arts of Love, or at very least clearly admirable qualities of lovers in their pursuit.

Beauty, whom Diotima names not as a daimon but as a goddess, seems posited as our second principle of questioning, to be our midwife to our births into the quality of being “in a mean between” like Love.

“Beauty, then, is the destiny or goddess of parturition who presides at birth, and therefore, when approaching beauty, the conceiving power is propitious, and diffusive, and benign, and begets and bears fruit: at the sight of ugliness she frowns and contracts and has a sense of pain, and turns away, and shrivels up, and not without a pang refrains from conception. And this is the reason why, when the hour of conception arrives, and the teeming nature is full, there is such a flutter and ecstasy about beauty whose approach is the alleviation of the pain of travail. For love, Socrates, is not, as you imagine, the love of the beautiful only.” “What then?” “The love of generation and of birth in beauty.” (dialog between Diotima and Socrates, as recounted in Symposium)

Parturition, or childbirth, is an act that creates separated parties which can then be joined by those “in a mean between.” It is a demarcating act of change, allowing movement from one to two, from is-not to is, from here to there, from the ignorant to the wise, by the partial recreation of the one as the other. Where Love is our guide for how to join our knowledge and our ignorance without being defined by them, Beauty stands as the one with whom we are always seeking to commune through Love. If Love is the Internet, Beauty is who we are always trying to livestream. Questioning, then, would be our every activity to join the livestream, from finding an endpoint device, to establishing network connection, to sending our information as a request, to receiving the livestream information and parsing it into sense on our end. The art of questioning is the art of exploring and building upon every facet of this, to the end of connecting with “beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things.” Our only way into communion with Beauty is to explore her what she gives to the beauties of all other things, which we explore through the contacting, or rather the prayerful act, of questioning. Socratic questioning must have as its ultimate end this objective.

Combining the influences of this goddess and this daimon, we can derive numerous practical principles of questioning. First of these are principles of the informative class, that is to say, techniques for questioning. All six basic questions taught in English grammar fall under this category, guided by surveying the subject by attaining facts, opinions, stories, and so on. Questioning here follows the principle of uniting disparate information into whole contexts, as Love unites its subjects by being a mean between them. The purpose of this is the second principle that will guide questioning, which is to look for the aspects of Beauty, the aspects of our ultimate want, in the particular contexts we have united from facts. Our third principle is the ultimate goal of life Diotima and Socrates outline, “the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld… you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them [without prerequisites for continuing].” Thus we have a fourth principle of Socratic questioning–to intend towrd discovering wholes and systems and essences through their instantiations and parts. This fourth principle is supported by the preceding three: discerning facts to unite into a whole context, honing in on the points of interest, and following wherever their pursuit leads.

Principles may always be discerned, held, challenged, enumerated and relinquished. For Socrates and Diotima, their guiding relationship seemed never to be finding an absolute right set, but to always be appealing toward a communion with Beauty through Love.(8)

Must we, then, insist on being Hellenic in our relation to daimons and gods that we, too, may question “in a mean between?” No. At this question: Zhuang Zhou probably would laugh; Puhua would probably bray like an ass; Ikkyu and Mori may wander away hand-in-hand; Lalleshwari might ask who it must be that can melt your desires; Dr. Judith Butler can examine what the performative characteristics of being Hellenic might be; the Drs. Mindell will follow what flirts with their attention and perhaps ask me what being Hellenic would be like; and Sobonfu Somé did observe that no matter what else we might take up as our own, we must also address the matters of where we came from. I do not mention all these figures simply for that negative quality, that they are absent making themselves Hellenists. They belong here, at the end, united and uniting for their positive quality, that they can sometimes take a side while staying available to be a mean between.
** Footnotes
(1) Heuristics are the focus of several fields of study, depending on what is being worked on or measured. The field that dives into how to measure things in physical sciences is Metrics. Morality and Ethics are two distinct fields within the Enlightenment-influenced field of philosophy, discussing what is good and how we should live, respectively. Mathematicians balance equations based on proofs, which rely on the contextual truths and rules they assume to be true.
If you like homework, you can apply the principles you discovered here to Socratically Question heuristics and your assumptions about them. Alternately, you can Socratically Question your love of homework.

(2) These two subtypes of heuristic are really heavily used by Dr. Richard Garfield in his text, Characteristics of Games. The man is a modern god among game design nerds, and I have been impressed and entertained by his works as well.

(3) This is a specific principle I get from both Socrates and James Bach. If you want to explore some practical applications of questioning in software development, I highly recommend his works and most everyone else’s in the Context-Driven Testing community.

(4) I love that a bilingual anthology of Plato is available for free on the internet. And it’s searchable. 🙂 https://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-greece/plato-time.asp

(5) I particularly love this page. https://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-greece/plato/plato-symposium-2.asp?pg=4

(6) For this, I can only refer you in the broadest way to the works of James Hillman and those students of the Hellenic influenced by him, such as Acyuta-bava Dasa, formerly Adam Elenbaas. The latter’s work is heavily peppered with this refrain of approaching the gods as gods for the purpose of developing a living, personal relationship of the kind Socrates attests to with his own oracle in the Apology.

(7) I particularly love this page, too. Really, the whole Diotima segment. https://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/ancient-greece/plato/plato-symposium-2.asp?pg=11

(8) A fortunate thing for many reasons, but not least among them is that, for every system of axioms, there will always be some things which cannot be derived from the axioms but are still true. While I personally have yet to work my way through Godel’s proof, for all of us it is there, systematically proving that systemicity can never part us from existential choice. Reviews of it, at least, are recommended reading.

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