The Perils of the Socratic Method in Modern Times


When I went to a small liberal arts college, Marlboro College, in southern Vermont in the eighties, a “Great Books” program and various other study choices immersed me in the Socratic method more so than I had ever realized. In fact only recently, over forty years later, taking a massively open online course (MOOC) on Søren Kierkegaard, much to remind me how invested I was in his method, habit of challenging conventional wisdom, the status quo, and established opinion.

For example, I read Nietzsche way back then and remembered and believed ever since in his declaration that “It’s not a matter of having the strength of one’s convictions, but the courage to attack one’s convections.” How Socratic is that? It became one of my mottos.

But in my long career as an engineer in the technology sector, it made me a little bit weird and suspicious to my colleagues. It made me willing to reverse my position or “nominal” opinion on a dime, sometimes in the middle of a meeting. For some, I imagine, it made me look uncertain (I was) and wishy-washy. Like Socrates, I didn’t always put much stock in defending a point of view. I preferred to challenge points of view. It was my brand of what Hegel and Kierkegaard recognized as “negativity”.

Needless to say that “negativity” however well intended didn’t and doesn’t go over well in a corporate environment or in modern, American business culture. It is an instinct I am proud of and suffer from simultaneously. The seductive properties of the Socratic Method need to be approached with caution (if by then it is not too late :-)).


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