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Ward Farnsworth on the Socratic Method

Ward Farnsworth is the dean of the University of Texas School of Law and holds the John Jeffers Research Chair in Law. He is the author of books on law, rhetoric, and philosophy, including The Practising Stoic.

“…the Socratic style of thought is what our culture needs right now. It’s an antidote to social media and to the toxic state of our politics.”

Ward Farnsworth

You’ve written a book called The Socratic Method. Why?

Two reasons. First, the Socratic style of thought is what our culture needs right now. It’s an antidote to social media and to the toxic state of our politics. Despite the fame of Socrates, though, most people nowadays don’t have a very clear idea of what his method was. It deserves better. It’s one of the great legacies of the classical world, and it’s useful for everyone. The book explains how it works.

What are the aspects of the Socratic Method that you think the culture needs so much?

For one thing, humility. The Socratic Method is a process of asking hard questions but also of welcoming disagreement. Socrates wasn’t said to be the wisest person in Athens because he had answers to the big questions. He was the wisest because he knew he didn’t have them.

Socrates also gives us helpful rules for good dialogue—things like saying what you really think, trying not to give offense but also not taking offense, and showing charity when you interpret what others say. I’ve proposed twelve Socratic rules of engagement, which you can download and read.

Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method
Ward Farnsworth, The Socratic Method

You said there were two reasons for writing The Socratic Method. What’s the other?

A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Practicing Stoic. It’s about the practical teachings that Stoicism has to offer and what the different ancient philosophers said about them. This book is a prequel to that one. It tells the origin story of Stoicism.

The approach that Socrates took to reasoning, and the conclusions he reached, are the start of Stoic philosophy. So, if you like Stoicism, learning about Socrates will help you understand it better. It takes you back to the roots.

Socratic dialogue is mostly an effort to test your consistency—to see if your surface reactions to things can be squared with what else you know and think.

Ward Farnsworth

What are some examples of how Socrates influenced the Stoics?

Socrates was a hero and model to the Stoics. They viewed his attitude toward his death and other attacks as examples of one of their key ideas—that things are made good or bad by how we think about them and handle them.

The idea that virtue is the only really good thing is another that they got from Socrates. And Socratic dialogue is mostly an effort to test your consistency—to see if your surface reactions to things can be squared with what else you know and think. That was the approach Epictetus used in his classroom, too. Epictetus was a great teacher, and he regarded Socrates as his teacher.

Do you see the Socratic Method as useful apart from teaching?

Yes, its real use for most of us isn’t for teaching or putting questions to other people. It’s a way to think. That’s the spirit in which Plato offered it. Socrates says in the dialogues that thinking—at least good thinking—is like an internal conversation. You have a skeptical dialogue with yourself.

That’s the best way to look at the Socratic method. It’s a discipline for the mind and a path toward wisdom, even if it also helps us see that we’ll never get all the way there.

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