Alain de Botton on Socratic thinking

From The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton:

The philosopher does not only help us conceive that others may be wrong, he offers us a simple method by which we can ourselves determine what is right. Few philosophers [than Socrates] have had a more minimal sense of what is needed to begin a thinking life. We do not need years of formal education and a leisured existence. Anyone with a curious and well-ordered mind who seeks to evaluate a common-sense belief can start a conversation with a friend in a city street and, by following a Socratic method, may arrive at one or two ground-breaking ideas in under half an hour.

Socrates’ method of examining common sense is observable in all Plato’s early and middle dialogues and, because it follows consistent steps, may without injustice be presented in the language of a recipe book or manual, and applied to any belief one is asked to accept or feels inclined to rebel against. The correctness of a statement cannot, the method suggests, be determined by whether it is held by a majority or has been believed for a long time by important people. A correct statement is one incapable of being rationally contradicted. A statement is true if it cannot be disproved. If it can, however many believe it, however grand they may be, it must be false and we are right to doubt it.

The Socratic method for thinking

1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.

Acting courageously involves not retreating in battle.

Being virtuous requires money.

2. Imagine for a moment that, despite the confidence of the person proposing it, the statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where the statement would not be true.

Could one ever be courageous and yet retreat in battle?
Could one ever stay firm in battle and yet not be courageous?

Could one ever have money and not be virtuous?
Could one ever have no money and be virtuous?

3. If an exception is found, the definition must be false or at least imprecise.

It is possible to be courageous and retreat.
It is possible to stay firm in battle yet not be courageous.

It is possible to have money and be a crook.
It is possible to be poor and virtuous.

4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.

Acting courageously can involve both retreat and advance in battle.

People who have money can be described as virtuous only if the have acquired it in a virtuous way, and some people with no money can be virtuous when they have lived through situations where it was impossible to be virtuous and make money.

5. If one subsequently finds exceptions to the improved statements, the process should be repeated. The truth, in so far as a human being is able to attain such a thing, lies in a statement which it seems impossible to disprove. It is by finding out what something is not that one comes closer to understanding what it is. (pp. 23-4)


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