What Philosophical Counselling takes from the Socratic Method

Socrates is an inspiration amongst most pedagogues for his audacious yet engaging style. Today he would likely be called up on charges of harassment since his manner was caustic, and his use of irony unmistakably derogatory.  Some, in fact, have favored implementing only what they perceive to be integral to his teaching method. Instead I shall focus on two distinct and seemingly discordant approaches to the Socratic teaching method: the one objective and the other subjective. This is an important and pertinent point for philosophical counseling both because Socrates is often times criticized for his moral intellectualism and because of the empirical-scientific bias that favors an objectivist stance.

Socrates’s method consisted in engaging his interlocutors in a process of questions and answers, typically on some moral issue, which he would invariably reveal to suffer from inconsistencies. The law of noncontradiction holds that a belief and its opposite cannot both be true at the same time and in the same respect. When the beliefs of the interlocutor are shown to be inconsistent such that at least two of his existing beliefs are in contradiction, the implication is that their combined truth-value is one of falsehood. This person clearly cannot know what he claims or thinks he knows. His professed expertise is thereby undermined.

This approach to Socratic dialogue identifies the teaching method with a structure that speaks to the logical form of the belief systems advocated by an interlocutor. It would therefore seem to suggest that Socrates aims to conduct something of a doxastic inventory where the aim is to figure out which beliefs can consistently be matched and which ones must be discarded.

But what would be the lesson in that? This process would place the interlocutor in high cerebral alert where a detached evaluative attitude would be adopted towards the scrutiny of his beliefs. This may go some way to helping an interlocutor clarify thought processes. Indeed, philosophical counselors will sometimes assist clients or counselees in this process especially where ameliorating fallacious forms of thinking can clarify thought patterns which inform dysfunctional habits of behavior. Sometimes individuals suffering from panic disorder will fallaciously identify some object or event as the cause of his/her attack, so that s/he will cultivate methods of avoidance. Of course, when the object or experience of some object as an event, say traveling over a bridge, is explicitly considered as panic-worthy, invariably the counselee recognizes it is not. Indeed, the physical presence of a bridge itself has no power to affect one’s psyche as it does in the case of panic attacks; i.e. there is no causally connection.

The bridge as it turns out is not the cause of the attacks; it is rather the trigger mechanism for these attacks. The actual cause is the fear of the attack itself which is something that the client comes to realize once he moves from this objective evaluation of his thought processing, to the internal events and the experience of one’s understanding of those events. This is a subjective, or self-conscious reflective process whereby one comes to address one’s experiences of oneself and gain self-understanding. It is this process that Kierkegaard identified and admired in Socrates which he described as “Subjective”.

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