Sunday, 28 September 2014

Why dialectical methods are important to cultivating critical thinking skills

As an amateur philosopher I'm a firm believer in striving for excellence, and (though some of my readers would be hard-pressed to believe) clarity and elegance of thought. When I first read Socrates' insistence on beauty and goodness as final arbiters of truth, something stirred deep within me: something that compelled me to look beyond the sometimes frustrating lines of questioning that Socrates employed to challenge his interlocutors to dig deeper than their presumptions and assumptions.

It was not (particular) conclusions and certainty (nor was it striking down his students) he sought but goodness and beauty that is inherent in G*d's creation that is immediately obvious to anyone who'd but reflect upon it. -In his less guarded moments he betrays his belief in a monotheistic G*d, and, right to the end, tries to emulate that beauty, goodness, humility and integrity in all that he does.

The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. The extent to which this method is employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, is called the method of maieutics. Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method. (

If Socrates had any "enemies" it was the so-called sophists who—like the modern day militant right-wing demagogues (religious and political)—were teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to entertain or impress or persuade an audience to accept the speaker's point of view. Socrates promoted an alternative method of teaching which came to be called the Socratic method. (ibid)

At the heart of Socrates' method is the notion of aporia (usually translated as "doubt") which seems to have reached its maturity in Aristotle's works:

In Aristotle's Metaphysics aporia plays a role in his method of inquiry. In contrast [my emphasis] to a rationalist inquiry that begins from a priori principles, or an empiricist inquiry that begins from a tabula rasa, he begins the Metaphysics by surveying the various aporiai that exist, drawing in particular on what puzzled his predecessors: "with a view to the science we are seeking [i.e., metaphysics], it is necessary that we should first review the things about which we need, from the outset, to be puzzled" (995a24). (

Doubt, then, is not a concept—as employed by Socrates—merely to flummox (ie, to perplex and confuse) the interlocutor into silence and frustration but prods them to further seek to clarify and rationally defend their positions (as far as possible) rather than fall back into dogma, prejudice and unexamined chauvinism.

To paraphrase Nicholas Rescher: assertions stemming from certainty have a way of coming back and biting us because taken in isolation that which is utterly believable is often (psychologically and socially) untenable in light of even our own prototypical (ie, unexamined) notions of justice and equity.

The Harper Government and the Tea Party movement in the US, being "rock[s] standing out in an ocean of doubt and compromise" (to quote Roger Waters), seem especially prone to dissonance and spectacular failures of consistency with their own espoused political and ideological principles:

Harper's vitriolic public statements on Putin and the need for imposing economic sanctions on Russia are demonstrably inconsistent with the exceptions he's quietly but unilateral defined for the oil and gas industries of Russia; China and communism were once evil, and, though communism is still evil, China is economically important never mind that its state-owned corporations are its chosen vehicles for trade: Harper's foreign policy has always been about not "going along to get along" but recently he's become seemingly committed to using the Canadian military to fight ISIL while at the same time de-emphasizing the opposition parties' desire for Canada's expressed role in providing humanitarian aid to the internally-displaced and the ever-growing refugee crisis in the Middle East.

As a younger me, I was always so quick to display false intellectual bravado and always had such "strong and certain" political and philosophical positions on anything and everything. Though I still revert back into that certainty at times, I have begun to realize that there is only humble pie to eat, and realize as well that it is there for a simple reason that it is the only spiritually and intellectually nourishing fare.*

There are other forms of dialectical methods. Hegelian dialectics, for example, seem more advanced and sophisticated than the Socratic method but I'll leave that for my readers to explore. It is the basic principles of dialectical method I want to outline here, one based on intellectual honesty and humility that formed and informed the method.


*for those interested in the notion of humility and grace of G*d, I'd recommend highly, Humility by Andrew Murray (

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