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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: January 30, 2000
Latest update: January 31, 2006
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Index of Topics on Site Socrates to Psychoanalysis to Teaching
  • Socrates as Analyst and Teacher
  • An Excerpt for Analysis
  • Basic Concepts of Passage and Their Implications for Teaching
  • Links to Plato's Symposium

    Socrates as Analyst and Teacher

    The Socratic dialog has played a major role in our understanding of teaching. Socrates was model, leader, guide, and "knower," who chose to lead others to growth by making them aware of their contradictions, of their unstated assumptions, and by reflecting these contradictions back to them, or as psychoanlysts say, "by interpreting" their ideas and behaviors to them.

    An Excerpt for Analysis

    Words and phrases are underlined to indicate that they are "tagged" for the discussion which follows. We added the underline so that when you link back to this excerpt you will be able to identify quickly the word or phrase we wanted to indicate. Taken from p. 162, Lear's Open Minded.

    "SOCRATES IS OFTEN TREATED as a proto-psychoanalyst. And there certainly are resonances between Socratic and psychoanalytic technique. First, his method of cross-examination is designed to elicit contradictory beliefs which had remained hidden inside the interlocutor. In that sense, Socrates, like an analyst, is engaged in an effort to make the unconscious conscious. Second, Socrates has a fundamental question---"How shall I live?"---which, I believe, is also the fundamental question of psychoanalysis. Humans are the unique animals who can pose that question to themselves and take steps to shape their lives as an answer. Indeed, for Socrates, humans constitute themselves as distinctively human by their efforts to ask and answer this questions that is why, for him, the unexamined life is not worth living. The point of Socratic inquiry is to ask and answer that question well. Analysis is itself a manifestation of the analysand's fundamental question; it is also an inquiry into the ways the attempt to answer the question have been distorted , as well as a therapeutic attempt to undo those distortions. Third, Socrates has a fundamental rule---state only what you believe---which bears a family resemblance to the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis. Although the fundamental rule of analysis enjoins the analysand to state whatever comes into his mind without censorship, the rationale for this rule is that free association reveals one's psychic commitments. That is the point of the Socratic rule: the interlocutor must be committed to what he says. It is precisely because he is committed that if he becomes aware that he is in a contradictory position, he will be changed by that awareness. The real difference between the Socratic and psychoanalytic versions of the fundamental rule is that psychoanalysis has a broader conception of what constitutes a psychic commitment. It is not concerned merely with the commitment of belief, but also with the commitments of wish and phantasy. Finally, for both Socratic and psychoanalytic practice, the fundamental task is the improvement of one's psyche. For Socrates, it is the only truly important task; it is a regulative principle of psychoanalysis. Should anything be shown not to contribute to psychic improvement, it must thereby be excluded from psychoanalytic technique.

    But there the resemblance ends. . . .

    Basic Concepts of Passage and Their Implications for Teaching

    These basic concepts are linked into the excerpt above. We suggest that you take the time to return to Lear's passage so that you can form your own opinions about whether you agree with our extension of his thoughts and analyses to teaching.

    elicit contradictory beliefs

    The Socratic dialog leads the student to try to make sense of jumbled ideas. With each statement elicited the Socratic teacher poses questions that make the student aware of basic contradictions in her position. One of the unstated assumptions underlying this process is that the teacher has a broad grasp of the theoretical issues, and can thus see the conflicts more easily, and point them out.

    • Sample contradiction in Plato's Symposium. Diotima asks Socrates why he believes that if all men seek their own happiness and that happiness is promoted by the possession of the good, and if all men love to possess the good, then why is it said that only some men love? Diotima answers her own questions by referring to the splitting of man, so that he is no longer whole, as punishment for his attempt to achieve divinity.

    • Note that the teacher is assumed to be more "cosmopolitan," the student more "local."

      One of Lear's principal themes in Open Minded is that Western culture is enamored of "knowingness," of believing that we have the "right" answers. He sees the importance of Socrates' eliciting contradictory beliefs as a means of making us realize that we do not have all the "right" answers, that in many instances we do not "know."

      unconscious conscious

      Awareness, or the making of the unconscious conscious, is one of the primary concerns of "talk" therapy or psychoanalysis. Lear here affirms the psychoanalytical goal of bringing beliefs and behavior to awareness so that we may alter them to live more fully. Since psychoanalysis is aimed at neurotic behavior which diminishes our full satisfaction, it makes common sense that both awareness and change are necessary if we are to have the freedom to realize our wishes and phantasies.

      Diotima's questioning in Symposium is much like Socrates' questioning (surprise!), designed to move the questioner (interlocutor) towards an ever narrowing focus. This pattern of teaching (Socratic) is that used in legal reasoning and interpretation:

      Sample questioning:

      What then is Love?
      Socrates questions Diotima.
      What is he, Diotima?
      And what is his power?
      And what is the use of him to men?
      When a man loves the beautiful, what does he desire?
      Diotima begins to question Socrates.
      What is given by the possession of beauty?
      If he loves good, what is it then that he loves?
      And what does he gain who possesses the good?
      Do all men always desire their own good, or only some men?
      Why, then are not all men said to love, but only some of them?

      In a courtroom we would call this "leading the witness." You need only read the sequence of questions to see how controlling the technique is. When using the Socratic technique, it sometimes appears that the professor is not controlling, because she is not lecturing. She allows the student's statements to lead. But well placed questions control more subtly than a lecture the topics and issues allowed to surface.

      Recall that Bales' classic Interaction Process Analysis recognizes questioning as a measure of leadership. Can you see why in the above example? Can you also see why it might be difficult to take such a dialog in a direction not espoused by the professor? That speaks to good faith listening and a willingness to consider the student's input as creative wish and phantasy, rather than thinking of the student as a less than fully human creature who must be led to the "right" conclusions.

    • How shall I live?

      This fundamental question is the one that Socrates believed we must all ask. Freud agreed. He saw psychoanlysis as a way of freeing the individual to alter her behavior if she so chose. We extend that analysis to teaching.

      Nota bene. Freud focussed on the area of neuroses, or distortions that prevented people from enjoying their freedom to live fully. But Socrates considered this coming to awareness essential for all humans. Note that Socrates' conversation is with adults, who converse with their drinks, rather than drinking from thirst:

      "Eryximachus said "What is this Alcibiades? Are we to have neither conversation nor singing over our cups; but simply to drink as if we were thirsty?"

      Our interest, too, turns to adults, who choose to let their psyches grow and improve. For that reason, Lear's explication of Socrates' behavior matters to us in our attempt to interpret our own position in this matter of learning.

      unexamined life

      Socrates finds the unexamined life not worth living because that is what he perceives as the unique ability of humans: to examine their lives and to discover how to live to more fully realize that life. To ascend, not to get distracted by erotic human love, as does Alcibiades.

      the analysand's fundamental question

      The analysand's fundamental question is "How shall I live?" For the analyst, neurosis deprives the analysand of the freedom to live his life fully, for neurosis interferes with irrational and/or obsessive behaviors. The purpose of analysis is to bring the neurotic behaviors to conscious awareness, so that the analysand will have the freedom to deal with them rationally and to alter them, should he so choose.

      Nota bene. Analysis, as represented here by Lear, does not consist of getting the analysand to adapt to some preconceived notion of normative behavior, but of enabling the analysand, through awareness and a bringing to consciousness, to alter that behavior should he so choose. This point was well made by Seymour L. Halleck in Politics of Therapy, in the seventies.


      Rewards are one of the distortions or distractions, according to Alfie Kohn, who describes grades as rewards, like M&Ms, in Rewards as Punishment. Explore the articles on Alfie Kohn's page, and on Ain't Us. Be sure not to miss Covaleskie's article, Power Goes to School: Teachers, Students, and Discipline.

      Note that Socrates considers love a distraction. Let's trace that back to his primary value of ascending to higher levels towards the divine perspective. Lear translates this as "using people," as not valuing humans as humans (at p. 163):

      "In Diotima's tale of ascent [through love of the beautiful], a person leaves his particularity behind. . . .He moves from a love of one beautiful body to a love of all eautiful bodies, from a love of bodies to a love of souls, from that to a love of laws, and then on to a love of wisdom. (Lear, at p. 163.) Lear then give this excerpt from Plato:
      "The beautiful will not appear to him in the guise of a face or hands or anything else that belongs to the body. It will not appear to him as one idea or one kind of knowledge. It is not anywhere in another thing, as in an animal, or in earth, or in heaven, or in anything else, but itself by itself, with itself. . . . This is what it is to go aright, or be led by another, into the mystery of love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs . . . so that in the end he comes know just what it is to be beautiful."

      Compare the account above, quoted on p. 163 of Lear's Open Minded, with that on the MIT Classics Server. Note the dissimilarities of language. This is why scholars are so careful to give you the manuscript from which they are quoting, so that you can find the passage in whatever manuscript you are using. Do not forget that these are translations from the Greek, from many centuries ago.

      Statements like those on using each object as a means to understand the next higher level of beauty led Lear to speak of Socrates' attitude as one of "using people," to step over them on his way to higher levels of awareness. That is one plausible interpretation. I am not a classical scholar. So I accept Lear's far greater knowledge in this area. But I wonder if we could not consider how Robert K. Merton sounds when he speaks of standing on the shoulders of giants. Certainly he means for us to use the creativity of those who have gone before us, and uses a metaphor similar to that of stairs ascending. Yet, I have never felt that Merton meant for us to "use" the people who have traveled these paths before us. I think perhaps that Lear's interpretation here reflects his need to not give up on those who do not rise so quickly to the task. I think Lear would have liked Socrates to care more about Alcibiades, as Lear would care about a patient, or we would care about a student. I find that reflected in his statement of Socrates' attitude as: "But insofar as Alcibiades is trapped in the human-erotic, he can, from Socrates' perspective, go f*** himself." If the question of how far we must go in the help of those in our spiritual and cognitive guidance, perhaps you should take the time to anlyze Socrates' response to Alcibiades in more detail. But even if you are not intrigued enough to pore over th Symposium, we all need to consider at what point we say, "Aah, f*** it," and for how long we will endure to lead a recalcitrant pupil to the discipline necessary to go more deeply into awareness.

      without censorship

      Socrates emphasized the need of commitment to the position one takes in discourse. In this, his dialogs were very close to academic discourse. Only through close attention and commitment will the speaker be likely to recognize her contradictions and so be able to ascend toward the calm and peace of what she imagines to be divinity.

      Psychoanalysis emphasizes commitment that includes, in addition to the commitment to the belief expressed, the commitment to explore wishes and phantasies as well as rational argument, for psychoanalysis wishes to free the creative aspect of the psyche as well as give it the awareness needed for freedom of choice.

      Teaching, equally, seeks to free the learner. Not all teachers share this perspective. But it is the perspective represented on this site. Because the greatest rewards will come to the learner as creativity is released, as she experiences at a conscious level her uniqueness, there should be no censorship in the dialog. Perhaps we would be justified in assuming that Socrates still had relatively small classes and so could justifiably assume that all those who took part in his dialogs had already made a commitment to learning for its own sake, or for the sake of growth of the psyche. I have never heard of Socrates finding himself in a situation where grades became the object of education. The stakes in his world, as for Alcibiades, were higher, indeed.

      fundamental rule

      wish and phantasy

      only truly important task

      Chapter 7: Eros and Unknowing

      • Socrates as Teacher

        • Modeling

          Socrates led an exemplary life. Bandura and Walters, Confucius

        • Aspiration towards divinity as ultimate achievement. Nirvana, calm, immortality (take the quote from symposium - towards an ideal

          From lover of another to ideal love to eventually love of law. Link to symposium.

        • Responsibility and choice of individual.

          Believes in enabling, not in helping. Alcibiades permitted to preen, and take love to lowest level. Socrates indifferent. Lear more concerned with helping. So are we. Aspiration is for individual, with respect to love, as reflected in Symposium, it's like Kohlberg's stage theory

      • Socrates and Academic Discourse

        • Wants discourse; sees questioning as way to tighten reasoning
        • Stays in control;
        • Role of praise, they do a lot of it in Symposium. "By falling in love with beauty itself, one comes to see human flesh and colors as a pollution, a "great nonsense of mortality." (p. 163) Are ascendance in a sense of aspiration towards Nirvana, for want of a better word, and love of humans qua humans always in conflict? Is this one of the tensions of human life? Lear uses very strong language. "they are to be used" p. 163. But are they? I think Lear is right about Socrates here taking the divine perspective. But I think that Plato's understanding of that perspective as tragic for humans is right. I like Lear's interpretation that we must regain the comedic. But I really wish he would give much more detailed evidence on which he is basing the allegation that Socrates is using people. I think there may be alternative explanations.

      • Some Derivative Thoughts on Academic Discourse

        • Academic discourse is different from cocktail conversation because it is about something that matters to us. Socrates' fundamental rule is that the interlocutor must say what he believe, and that he be committed to what he says. We are rarely committed to cocktail conversation. It's more like Alcibiades' tomfoolery.

        • At its best, academic discourse should elicit contradictions. This should be the battleground in which our creativity is tested. Consensus is not the goal. Who would have agreed with Einstein on the theory of relativity? Academic discourse is about adversarial argument: the best arguments colleagues can come up with to test our theories as they are shaped. "I love you, Mrs Murgatroid," is important praise to have; praise matters; support matters. But what is needed from academic discourse is a wall against which you can resist. The resistance offers the provocation needed to change, to grow.

          Lear says that Socrates saw love only as a "divine source of ascent." (p. 166) When one, like Alcibiades, is distracted by erotic human love, and not disciplined enough to move closer to divinity, assuming arguendo that moving closer to divinity would allow us to realize our full potential as humans, Socrates essentially loses interest. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, sees ascent as moving away from the uniqueness of the individual towards the universal ideal, and encourages the very human individuation that typifies Alcibiades. The "erotic distraction needs to be worked with and worked through if human life is to be afforded a comic restoration." The difference of perspective amounts to whether Alcibiades falls outside our concern because he is erotically distracted (Socrates' position), or whether we need be more concerned to guide him in working that erotic distraction through (Lear's position), that he may freely choose his path.

          The "comic restoration" is a term Lear uses to explain why Plato said that a writer must be able to write both tragdy and comedy. Lear sees tragedy as the divine perspective, which he believes Socrates shared; he sees comedy as presenting the human perspective. Lear suggests that Plato meant that a writer should be able to write from both the divine and the human perspective. And it is precisely this that Lear sees as Socrates' fatal flaw: that his perspective did not take into acount the human in all of us. In an age of postmodernism that does not seem so far fetched in meaning. And Socrates' privileging of the divine perspective did, in fact, cause him to write Alcibiades off as a lost cause. Psychoanalysis would have taken the human perspective, and worked it through.

          What about the university? And what about academic discourse at the level that undergraduate students are introduced to such discourse? Both the position Lear ascribes to Socrates, and the position Lear himself takes, can be found on most campuses in the infant 21st Century. The conservative scholars seem to have taken the Socratic perspective. Keep the curriculum rigorous and demand discipline. Those who can will, and those who can't are of little interest to such scholars. This is also called upholding standards. The attitude of those who hold this position is pretty much like that Lear ascribes to Socrates: "But insofar as Alcibiades is trapped in the human-erotic, he can, from Socrates' perspective, go f*** himself." (at p. 164)

          Those who share the psychoanalytic perspective are more concerned that Alcibiades represents the human side of us with the normative distractions most of us face. We may even see his distraction as a distortion, and recognize that we want to enable him to freely choose between the human-erotic distraction and the more disciplined ascent possible. Particularly in the state universities, where we are increasingly pressed to educate the "average citizen" with ever more cost-efficient budgets, the Alcibiades are our students. To simply dismiss them for their lack of "discipline" does call to mind Lear's description that like Socrates, we have essentially said that the Alcibiades of our campuses should go f*** themselves. Not a pretty picture for peacemaking!

          Cite also Hal Pepinsky's statement that we need to express the frustration. Add that is all the more so because the Socrates position is tempting, though structurally violent.

      Links to Online Resources