Philosophers work with groups mainly in
two kinds of ways: informally, and formally.
usually takes place in a Cafe-Philo, or Philosopher's
Forum. All the rage in Europe, they are now spreading
across North America. Every couple of weeks or so, people
gather in a local bookstore or cafe, and take part in
a public discussion moderated by a philosopher. It's not
a philosophy lecture: the facilitator or moderator merely
tries to maintain the discussion on a philosophical footing.
Sometimes a particular topic is chosen in advance, and
sometimes topics are proposed on the spot. Either way,
the group pursues what it wants. Typical topics range
from "What is education?" or "Should human
beings be cloned?" to "Is America a tolerant
society?" or "Is God a woman?"
These informal public discussions are very lively and
interesting. People from all walks of life exchange all
points of view. Participants have to think for themselves,
defend their opinions, and challenge the opinions of others.
There is bound to be passionnate disagreement, but there
is also attentiveness and civility.
Cafe-Philos, or Philosopher's Forums, serve a very important
purpose. In our age of increasingly mindless sloganeering,
they provide a public forum for an open, examined and
candid exchange of views. You don't get much of that on
radio or TV, or even in the universities these days. It's
the kind of thing Socrates and his friends used to practice
in the Athenian agora. The ancient Greeks called it "love
of wisdom, or "Philosophy."
Formal facilitation usually
takes place with small groups of 5-10 people, who engage
in an activity called "Socratic Dialogue." This
is not the stuff that Plato recorded; it's a method developed
by the 20th-century German philosopher Leonard Nelson.
By following this method under the guidance of a trained
facilitator, a group of ordinary but thoughtul people
can answer a question like "What is Love?",
or "What is Liberty?", or "What is Hope?"
It usually takes a couple of days to arrive at an answer.
It's an amazing process--an exercise in living, breathing
Any group of people willing to be real philosophers for
a weekend can experience a Socratic Dialogue. You can
find a trained facilitator through the APPA.
If you want to learn more about Socratic Dialogue right
now, there's an expanded and fairly technical description
About Socratic Dialogue
1. What is a Socratic Dialogue?
2. The Method of the Dialogue
3. The Structure of the Dialogue
4. How to Prepare for a Dialogue
1. What is a Socratic
Socratic dialogue is a formal method by which a small
group (5-10 people), guided by a trained facilitator,
finds a precise answer to a universal question (e.g. "What
is happiness?", "What is integrity?", "Can
conflict be fruitful?", etc.). Socratic dialogue
is not to be confused with the so-called Socratic method,
developed in Plato's writings, by which Socrates often
helped people discover contradictions in their attempted
definitions of universals. By contrast, Socratic dialogue
helps a group to discover what something is, as opposed
to what it isn't. Since both Socrates and Plato believed
that ordinary people can understand and articulate the
essence of a universal, the name "Socratic dialogue"
is not inappropriate, only a bit confusing at first blush.
While the practice of formal Socratic dialogue has its
metaphysical roots in Plato, its methodological origins
are recent. They are found in the twentieth-century works
of Leonard Nelson, a German philosopher not widely translated
into English. Nelson spelled out the possibilities for
this practice, and a subsequent generation of German and
Dutch practitioners brought the exercise to fruition.
It is, above all, an empirical activity. The Dutch learned
it from the Germans, and adapted it to their particular
ethos. We Americans have learned it from the Dutch, and
are adapting it to ours.
In Germany, people literally go on retreat every summer
and during holiday breaks, to engage in Socratic dialogues
that last from one to two weeks. The rules governing German
Socratic dialogue are numerous and complex, and can take
a very long time to master. These rules have been developed
empirically, and as such are neither singular nor unique.
Different styles of Socratic dialogue use different sets
of rules. All styles lay claim to efficacy, albeit by
differing routes. As empirical rule development and modification
are ongoing, there is a corresponding literature and meta-discussion
at the systemic level.
In the Netherlands, there is much less emphasis on systemic
complexity, and much more on practical simplicity. Thus
the Dutch have "boiled down" the German method
of Socratic dialogue, and are able to complete a successful
dialogue in one or two days (as opposed to weeks). The
rules and guidelines governing the dialogue are accordingly
reduced, without in any way compromising the efficacy
of the process. On the contrary: by observing a minimalist
set of effective rules, one clearly illuminates the path
to the dialogue's successful completion, and one more
swiftly and surely traverses that path.
Moreover, the Dutch have even further abbreviated their
own reduced form of Socratic dialogue, in order to implement
some of its salient aspects in public and private sector
organizations. Again, this further abbreviated form has
far-reaching applications in Anglo-America.
2. The Method of the Dialogue
The method of the Socratic dialogue is as rewarding as
its goal. It involves group decision-making by consensus,
which is distinctly unlike most other modalities of group
function. To begin with, since the Socratic dialogue is
neither a debate nor any other kind of competition, there
are no winners and losers. While the group as a whole
will either succeed or fail to reach the conclusion of
the dialogue in the allotted time, every stage in that
process is either attained by consensus, or not attained
at all. No stage of the dialogue is itself subject to
a temporal constraint-thus every relevant question, doubt,
insight, observation or objection offered by a participant
is considered by the group as a whole, until everyone
is satisfied by the deliberation.
The method of decision-making by consensus stands in
obvious and sharp contrast to other group modalities,
whose failings are abundantly clear to all who labor under
their imperfections. A debate may serve to exercise quick
wit, rhetorical skill and persuasive power, but the debaters
resolve nothing in substantive terms. A ballot-box may
serve to measure the opinion of a majority, but the voters
never touch on the essence of the issues at stake. A hierarchical
chain-of-command serves to have orders carried out, but
these cannot usually be questioned or discussed. And the
bane of academic and political life is surely the committee,
a group constituted to make decisions, yet notoriously
characterized by divisiveness, acrimony, third-man scenarios,
and other unsatisfactory or unwholesome compromises. Small
wonder that received methods of group decision-making
tend to produce discord rather than accord. They factionalize
rather than universalize. Truth is sacrificed to expediency;
consensus is dispatched by timekeeping. Such methodologies
are deeply flawed, and dissatisfaction with them runs
just as deep. By contrast, Socratic dialogue anticipates
descensus, and transforms it into consensus.
The method of consensus debars gross imperfections from
a Socratic dialogue. The virtues of patience, tolerance,
attentiveness, thoughtfulness and civility prevail. There
is also time for emotion to ebb and flow, to wax and wane
in the context of larger group dynamics. As the participants
in a Socratic dialogue engage in its process, they begin
to realize that it is neither a debate, nor an election,
nor a hierarchy, nor a committee meeting. It is a cooperative
search for a universal truth, which will be discovered--if
at all--by the group. The closest equivalent to this method
is jury deliberation. A jury also strives for consensus,
and is (at least in theory) free to deliberate at length.
Jury members (again in theory) must entertain and overcome
any reasonable doubt before expressing a conviction; so
too must participants in a Socratic dialogue, before articulating
a universal definition. Yet differences are also plain.
No person is on trial in a Socratic dialogue; rather,
an impersonal truth is the subject of a quest. The participants
are bound by wholly different rules-not rules of law,
but rules of rational discourse. The group itself will
offer evidence, will decide what evidence it wishes to
weigh, and will produce and examine all its witnesses
from within. In contrast to the jury, which passively
submits to a trial then delivers its verdict, the Socratic
dialogue actively produces both the equivalent of a trial
and a verdict. The Socratic dialogue is entirely self-contained.
There are three levels (or orders) of discourse in a
Socratic dialogue: first, the discourse of the dialogue
itself; second, strategic discourse about the direction
or shape of the dialogue as it unfolds; third, meta-discourse
about the rules governing the dialogue. The facilitator
plays no contributory role in the actual first-order discourse;
he simply transcribes the proceedings at each stage, according
to the prescribed structure (see next section). The facilitator
plays a minimal role in second-order strategic discourse;
but he may (if asked) offer some suggestions about viable
strategies. The facilitator does play a role in third-order
meta-dialogue. A meta-dialogue may be requested at any
time, by any group member who seeks clarification about
a rule or any other matter governing the dialogue as a
whole. The facilitator is responsible for answering meta-dialogical
questions. The facilitator may also initiate a meta-dialogue
at any time, if in his judgement some procedural point
requires clarification. Thus the facilitator of a Socratic
dialogue is like the conductor of an orchestra: he has
no explicit voice in the score, but has a meta-voice in
conducting the performance.
Periodically (typically every few hours), a brief meta-dialogue
is held, wherein everyone, including the facilitator,
offer their impressions of how the dialogue is proceeding.
3. The Structure of the Dialogue
The Socratic dialogue has a very specific symmetric structure,
which may be likened to the shape of an hourglass. It
is widest at the top and bottom, and narrowest at the
waist. One begins at the top, with the universal question
under consideration (e.g. "What is integrity").
Each member of the group is then asked to summarize an
example from his or her own experience, which purports
to embody or otherwise to illustrate the universal in
question. The group may freely question each person's
example, to further its understanding of that particular
experience. Examples should be first-person accounts,
closed in time, not too emotional, and as simple as possible.
(Even the most simple examples lead to considerable complexity
under dialogical analysis.)
The group then chooses one of the examples as the focus
of the dialogue. The chosen example becomes the principal
vehicle for the process. An example having been chosen,
the person who offered it then gives as detailed an account
as possible, which is subject at each step to questions
by the group, which seeks to elaborate and understand
the example in as much detail as necessary. The facilitator
transcribes, numbers, and displays each step of the example,
so that the group has a written "history" that
it can continuously consult.
The group must then determine exactly where in the example
the universal is manifest. E.g. If the question is "What
is integrity?", then the group must determine where
lies the integrity in this example. At what step or steps
does it occur? Between or among which steps does it occur?.
And so forth.
Following this, the group must decide on a definition
of integrity that adequately describes the thing they
have located in the example. The consensual articulation
of this definition brings the group to the narrow waist
of the hourglass. The universal under consideration has
now been particularized. This is the mid-point of the
conceptual structure (and roughly the mid-point of the
temporal structure) of the dialogue. It may require two
days of dialogue to reach this point.
From here the dialogue begins to broaden. The working
definition is re-applied to each of the other examples,
which were not elaborated but which have been summarized,
transcribed and displayed. If the definition is truly
universal, then it will suit each example; if not, then
it must be modified accordingly.
At the final stage, the toward bottom of the hourglass,
the group will then offer counter-examples, trying to
undermine or falsify their definition. Modifications are
again made if necessary; if not, then the group will have
succeeded in its quest. At this stage, the minimalist
path will have been traversed.
4. How to Prepare for a Dialogue
You need not be a philosopher, or have philosophical
qualifications, to participate in a Socratic dialogue.
In fact, just the opposite tends to be true. Academic
philosophers can be among the least desirable participants
in a Socratic dialogue, not only because they are unaccustomed
to consensual methods but also because they sometimes
suffer from professional conceits. An appealing presupposition
of the dialogue is that universal truths are grounded
in our particular experiences. The purpose of the dialogue
is to tease the universal from the particular. There is
never any reference made, nor need there be any reference
made, to philosophical literature. The chosen question
is answered not by citing what Plato or Nietzsche thought
about it, but by discussing what the members of the group
experienced of it. We all have experiences, and we can
all think for ourselves. Reference to published works
is not admissible in a Socratic dialogue; reference to
concrete personal experience is what counts and suffices
for the purpose.
Questions of the form "What is X?" tend to
work best. Thus "What is integrity?", "What
is happiness?", "What is liberty?", "What
is justice?" are all good candidates for a Socratic
dialogue. The group is encouraged to select its question
beforehand if possible, in consultation with the facilitator
if need be.
The question having been chosen, each group member should
think of an example from his or her own life which illustrates
or embodies the sought-after universal. Again, a viable
example will have the following properties. It should
be closed in time-that is, its ramifications should have
settled. It should not be too emotional--otherwise, reasoned
discourse may be imperilled. It should be as brief and
simple as possible--even the briefest and simplest example
becomes subject to enormous dialogical complexity. It
should be a first-person example, about which the exemplar
is willing to answer detailed questions posed by the group.
Participants are encouraged to think of their examples
The General Rules:
While the facilitator is responsible for guiding the
group through the dialogue, each participant is asked
to abide by the following rules, which if followed conduce
to a rewarding experience.
1. Think for yourself.
2. Express your doubts.
3. Be attentive to others.
4. Refrain from monologues.
5. Ask no hypothetical questions.
6. Make no references to published works.
7. Strive for consensus.