About Group Facilitation Events and
Organizing a Socratic
To participate in a socratic dialogue, you should:
1. Gather a group of
6-12 interested people.
a philosopher who
is trained to facilitate a socratic dialogue
To find an APPA-Certified Facilitator, see "practitioners".
To become an APPA-Certified group facilitator
1. be an adjunct member of
here to join)
in 2 full (2-day) socratic dialogues.
The Structure and
Function of a Socratic Dialogue
by Lou Marinoff
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 Dialogue?
Socratic dialogue is a formal method by
which a small group (5-10 people), guided by a 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 (or
elenchic) method, developed in Plato's writings, by which
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.
back to questions
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 attained by consensus. 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 clear to all who labor under their imperfections.
A debate may serve to exercise quick wit, rhetorical skill
and persuasive power, but the debaters are engaged in
a contest whose winner may have defended a deleterious
position. A ballot-box may serve to measure the opinion
of a majority, but the voters rarely 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 flawed, and prone
to engender dissatisfaction. By contrast, Socratic dialogue
anticipates dissent, 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 free to deliberate at length. Jury members 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 judgment 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.
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 simplest examples can 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.
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, toward the 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.
4. How to Prepare for a Dialogue
You need not be a philosopher, nor have philosophical
qualifications, to participate in a Socratic dialogue.
An appealing presupposition of the dialogue is that universal
truths are grounded in our particular experiences. The
purpose of the dialogue is to reach 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. In the realm of philosophical
arts, the synthesis of plural experience can capture more
truth – and therefore greater universality –
than that of the ruminations of any single intellect,
no matter how great in stature. The dialogue is a symphony,
not a solo. So the best preparation is an open mind, and
a good example (if the question is known beforehand).
Questions of the form "What is X?" tend to
work best. Thus "What is integrity?", "What
is happiness?", "What is liberty?", and
“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 imperiled. It should be as brief
and simple as possible. It should be a first-person example,
about which the exemplar is willing to answer detailed
questions from the group. Participants are encouraged
to think of their examples beforehand.
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. Express your doubts.
2. Be attentive to others.
3. Refrain from monologues.
4. Ask no hypothetical questions.
5. Make no references to published works.
6. Strive for consensus.
Criteria of a Good Example:
1. Should be a first-person experience.
2. Should be closed in time.
3. Should not be too emotional.
4. Should be brief.
5. Should be simple.
5. Exemplar should be willing to answer questions.