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Socrates is well known for engaging in philosophical dialogues with ordinary people, craftsmen, politicians, poets, members of the clergy, and other philosophers; many of those dialogues were written down afterwards by Plato, and represent a philosophical method of inquiry named after Socrates. Here we use the term "Socratic Dialogue" more narrowly to refer to a group-dialogue-based, knowledge-seeking process, modeled on Socratic inquiry, where participants form a collective understanding of the nature of a central philosophical concept, such as fairness, friendship, art, purpose, etc., by extracting it from participants' individual experiences of that concept and exposing their emerging definition to Socratic inquiry.

  • How does this work?


Groups of individuals elect to collaborate to do deep analysis of a concept they wish to more fully understand, for example, fairness and/or unfairness. Each person prepares in advance, writing a brief narrative of some event in their own personal and direct experience with the concept that they are comfortable sharing and which is not likely to overwhelm their emotions. One by one, each member then relates their experience with, say, unfairness, while the facilitator takes notes. Subsequently, the facilitator provides a summary that reminds the group of each person’s story, and then the group votes on each person’s story in terms of how the group thinks each story best reflects the concept.


The story with the most votes then becomes the focal point for the next phase, in which that person whose story it is goes on to give a more detailed account of their experience of unfairness, adding what element or elements of the story more specifically illustrate the feature of it that was unfair. The group as a whole tries to help that person to then formulate a criterion or criteria of injustice as reflected in the story. This serves as the initial, tentative working definition of injustice.


At this point, the tentative definition is then applied to each other member’s story, to see whether it applies exactly to that story. If so, the group proceeds to the next member’s story. If not, the group discusses whether the story simply fails to actually embody some element of unfairness, or, whether the story involves some other element of fairness. If the story does not involve another element of unfairness, the group moves onto the next story. If it does contain another element of unfairness, then the group discusses and decides how to alter the working definition of unfairness.


Once there is a new working definition of unfairness, that is applied to the remaining stories, and so on, until all stories have been either rejected as not actually reflecting any element of unfairness or they have been incorporated into the revised definition. The next phase only occurs if there is a consensually-arrived-at definition of the concept under study, and involves a group cross-examination of the definition, bringing in any and all real or hypothetical counter-examples to the definition, and applying the same algorithmic process of deciding whether to reject the alleged example of unfairness or revise the definition.


The process completes in one of three ways: (1) there is no common element of unfairness in all the stories, actual or hypothetical, and thus no final consensual definition of unfairness, in which case the concept remains philosophically uncertain; (2) there is an element of unfairness in common in all the stories, actual and hypothetical, and thus there is a final consensual definition of unfairness formed by all the stories, and thus there is a significant philosophical insight into the nature of unfairness; or (3) there is some combination of both of the above—a partial definition but with unresolved elements and thus no consensus, and thus partial philosophical uncertainty.


  • How long does it take?


The shortest time I have experienced with this process was about three hours, but, depending on the size and interest of the group as well as the complexity of the concept under analysis, it could take an entire day or even an entire weekend.


  • Who decides the topic, theme, or focus?


This varies flexibly and depends. Sometimes the facilitator offers the topic concept; sometimes the group discusses topic concepts and decides collectively, depending on the nature of the group electing to experience this process.


  • Who can benefit from this?


Anyone can benefit from this, so long as they are sincerely—authentic motivation matters—interested in deepening their understanding of any one of a number of concepts that are generally important from the perspective of what it means to be human, such as justice, love, truth, friendship, purpose, meaning, value, and so on. While any group of individuals can benefit from this, even in the absence of any other factor that constitutes the group apart from its interest in Socratic Dialogues for their own sake, Socratic Dialogues can be particularly useful for groups constituted by some shared factor(s) apart from any interest in Socratic Dialogues for their own sake.


For example, if the group is defined by a common intellectual commitment, for example, libertarianism, Buddhism, or Stoicism, then the concept will likely be one of interest to members of each of those groups, such as autonomy, the self/no-self distinction, or the control/non-control distinction, respectively. If the group is defined by a particular profession, business, or occupation, the topic concept might reflect those interests. For example, mental health professionals might want to challenge something in the DSM (the American Psychological Association’s “Diagnostic Statistical Manual”, its metaphorical bible of insurance-company-recognizing diagnoses), say ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). A business might want to target a concept central to its mission statement, such as what constitutes excellent service. And nurses might want to explore the concept of “moral distress”, the distress they often experience when their personal ethics conflicts with their professional ethics.


Simply engaging in Socratic Dialogues is enlightening for its own sake, for the sake of the topic of the Dialogue, and for the sake of the bonding that such deep collaborative team work generates, in which case it can be particularly useful for any groups in need of deepening team spirit. Also, anyone interested in experimenting with the idea of consulting a philosophical practitioner/counselor for some individual issue or problem can get a good sense of what a particular philosophical counselor is like and whether they sense the likelihood of developing a synergy with that counselor in private sessions by engaging with that practitioner in his or her role as facilitator of a Socratic Dialogue.

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