Socratic Dialogue as Collegial Reasoning, Stan Van Hooft


There has been a great deal of work in the last few years in which philosophers have sought to make their expertise as philosophers available to the world of business and of the professions. The most notable example would be bioethics but business, policing, social work, nursing, and the public sector are just some of the other areas to which philosophy has sought to make itself relevant in recent times.

With due allowance for many exceptions, it would be true to say that the predominant way in which philosophy has sought to contribute to these fields is by seeking to research, discover, and apply principles of one kind or another. Once again, the best illustration comes from bioethics in which the four principles of respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence and justice are the backbone of the approach to ethical dilemmas that have been taught in most schools and applied in most clinics. Textbooks in other fields of applied ethics are similarly based upon the strategy of defining and then applying principles to practice. “Principlism” in ethics seems to be the paradigm position in the field of applied philosophy.

One consequence of this is that, insofar as they are in the profession of defining and clarifying principles, philosophers can claim expertise which they can then apply to various professional fields as paid consultants. The relationship between the philosopher and the professional becomes one of expert to client and the professional is placed into the role of one who does not know what he needs to know in order to make the ethically sound decisions that a situation might call for, while the philosopher is the one who has the expertise and who offers guidance. While most philosophical practitioners will be sensitive to their own lack of knowledge in relation to the profession to which they are being asked to contribute and will be suitably humble, the assumptions that the paradigm brings with it, places them into a situation where they are seen as an expert. It follows from this that the practical knowledge of the client-professional is devalued and often ignored. As a result, the gap between theory and practice is as difficult to bridge in the principlist paradigm as it ever was.

The form of thinking which principlism brings with it is deductive. Principles are seen as general statements from which particular decision are to be drawn by a process of deduction. In its extreme form, principlism proposes universal norms from which particular action decisions are to be drawn in the light of particular circumstances, while in more applied forms the principles that play the role of major premises in practical syllogisms might be guidelines for a particular organisation or codes of ethics for a particular profession. In either case, the course of action to be embarked upon or the decision to be made in particular circumstances is an application of the general rule to that specific circumstance. While a certain amount of skill or practical wisdom in understanding the exigencies of the situation is required, the major skill that such a decision procedure calls for is that of clear thinking and the avoidance of inconsistencies.

But principlism is under threat today. Many people are recognising that philosophers’ debates about principles and their bases seem to be intractable. We will all have to wait a very long time before we resolve the issue of whether the basis of ethical norms is the principle of utility or the pure exercise of reason directing a good will. Philosophers seem not to have resolved the question of whether caring or justice are the fundamental considerations in health care. Philosophers who advise managers of private enterprises are still not agreed as to whether the primary values in business are profit or social responsibility. Moreover, more positively, many moral theorists have come to see that virtue is as important an ethical concept as principle and have gone on to explore the range of character traits that are requisite for the making of sound decisions in a range of applied fields. Foremost among these virtues is practical wisdom or, as Aristotle called it, phronesis. This is the virtue that allows an agent to discern the most ethically salient features of a situation and the appropriate course of action for which it calls. In Aristotle’s conception such a virtue does not depend upon a theoretically based knowledge of principles. One key idea in virtue ethics is that decisions are made with reference to the particular. General knowledge, including knowledge of principles or the human good, is generally tacit in the practical life of a virtuous person.

And yet the new stress on virtue theory can leave us uneasy. If all we can do to ensure that ethically sound decisions are made is to rely upon the personal virtue of decision makers, then what guarantee can be offered that good will result? Evil is often done by persons who think themselves virtuous and consider that they are acting on their own best lights. If principles are too general and uncertain a guide, and if personal virtue is too idiosyncratic, what basis can there be for responsible and ethical decision making? Today I want to explore the notion that group decisions or collegial decisions can have this quality and I want to explore a particular format for making such decisions: namely, that of Socratic Dialogue.

Group decisions

I had occasion recently to visit the Palliative care unit at the Monash Medical Centre as the guest of Professor Michael Ashby, its director. I was invited to participate in the ward rounds on a particular morning and to attend the preceding meeting in which treatment decisions and prognoses were discussed. I was struck by something that professionals in the field would have taken for granted: namely, that all the decisions were taken collegially. Moreover, the group that was making the decisions consisted not only of medical officers of various levels of standing ranging from a professor of palliative care to a trainee intern, but also nurses, social workers and counsellors. This group did the ward round together and discussed each case together in the preliminary meeting. Whatever the degree of practical wisdom each professional might have brought to that decision making process from their own professional background, the collective wisdom of that group was clearly greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it is only to a philosopher accustomed to working in solitary confinement in a private study that this observation should not be obvious, but however that may be, it triggers an interesting line of inquiry. What is it about groups that often make collegial decisions superior to individual ones? And what forms of collegial decision making ensure that group decisions or group thinking processes conduce to good results? It may be that what the philosopher can contribute to applied ethics is a form that will ensure such an outcome.

It would seem that the virtue of group decision making arises from its being drawn from the best of the particular perspectives of its participants and combined by the structure of the group discussion into the making of sound decisions and the achieving of sound insights. As opposed to the individualist picture of most traditional philosophy where the solitary scholar sits and muses and things of deep significance and universal application, group decisions on the part of professionals combines their individual qualities of practical wisdom with a group dynamic which, at its best, ensures sound reasoning and ethical decision making.

Socratic Dialogue

Today, I would like to propose one form of such collegial reasoning and decision making: namely, that of Socratic Dialogue. Based on the ideas of German philosopher Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) and his pupil Gustav Heckmann (1898-1996), and developed by the Philosophical-Political Academy in Germany, the Society for the Furtherance of Critical Philosophy in the UK, and by Jos Kessels and the Dutch Association for Philosophical Practice, Socratic Dialogue is a powerful method for doing philosophy in a group.

I participated in my first Socratic Dialogue while on study leave in the Netherlands in 1991 and have attended a series of training seminars in the Netherlands during 1998. I have facilitated Socratic Dialogues in Melbourne with tertiary and secondary students and with groups drawn from the general public.

While the Socratic Dialogue derives its name from Socrates, it is not an imitation of a Platonic dialogue and it is not simply a teaching strategy using questions and answers. It uses the technical strategy of ‘regressive abstraction’ and develops a syllogistic structure of thought as a method of rigorous inquiry into the ideas, concepts and values that we hold. The Socratic Dialogue is a cooperative investigation into the assumptions which underlie our everyday actions and judgements and the tacit knowledge that we bring to bear in our decision making.

A Socratic Dialogue is a collective attempt to find the answer to a fundamental question. The question is the centre of the dialogue. Although these questions are general in their nature, they are not discussed with reference to philosophical theory. Rather, the question is applied to a concrete experience of one or more of the participants that is accessible to all other participants. Systematic reflection upon this experience is accompanied by a search for shared judgements and reasons.

The dialogue aims at consensus. It is not a simple or easy task to achieve consensus. Effort, discipline and perseverance are required. Everyone’s thoughts need to be clarified in such a manner that participants understand each other fully. The discourse moves slowly and systematically, so that all participants gain insight into the substance of the dialogue. Participants can also engage in metadialogue, which is about the process and strategies of the dialogue.

Each Socratic Dialogue focuses on one topic. Examples of suitable topics include:
· What is of fundamental importance in life?
· What can we know?
· What is human dignity?
· Are there any fundamental human rights?
· What is the significance of death to the living?
· What is interpersonal love?
· What do we understand by ‘Education’?
· What (in a caring profession) is ‘caring’?

In professional contexts a group may have a preliminary meeting with the facilitator in order to define a topic most relevant to its own concerns. Some sample topics from Jos Kessels’ 1997 book, “Socrates op de markt” include:
· What degree of flexibility can you require from your workers?
· Can we, as an organisation take a position in social-political debates?
· When is corporate expansion desirable?
· How can we align individual goals with the goals of the organisation?
· For what kind of wellbeing of others are we responsible?
· What is it to be pragmatic?
· Where are the limits of tolerance?
· Is it important to oblige people to retrain in the context of organisational change?
· To what extent are we responsible for the consequences of our actions?
· When does uncertainty become positive?
· When should be, as a bank, refuse credit?
· When does our flexibility jeopardise our integrity?
· What are the limits of trust between competitors?

Although the practice in Europe is mostly to run dialogues over a weekend or even a week, a useful dialogue can be conducted in one day or over several evenings. Dialogue groups should be no larger than ten and no smaller than six.

The most obvious outcome from participating in a Socratic Dialogue is deeper insight into the topic that was discussed. By drawing upon the experiences and insights of the group, an understanding can be achieved which is deeper and more authentically one’s own than is usually gained from more theoretical approaches. Apart from the pleasure of conceptual understanding for its own sake, such insight can also be of importance in reflecting upon one’s own life and values.

Moreover, the value of the Socratic Dialogue arises as much from its processes as from its outcomes. The painstaking process of inquiry which it engenders develops one’s skills in intellectual discussion and broadens one’s experience of human life. It is an experience of what philosophy at its best can be. This is an especially valuable experience for students of philosophy at all levels, as well as for anyone with an interest in philosophy.

In a professional or corporate context, Socratic Dialogue can be of value to individuals in that it leads to reflection upon professional experience and goals and the consolidation of commitment, and it can be of value to both public sector and private sector organisations in that it can lead to a finer definition of institutional missions and to the enhancement of professional collegiality. The exploration of ethical dilemmas in professional contexts is another area in which Socratic Dialogue is especially effective.

An example

In order to see how a Socratic Dialogue works let us discuss one which I conducted recently on the question, ‘What is Human Dignity?’

How might philosophers typically approach such a question? They would turn to theory and seek to clarify what it offers. For example, they might discuss what it means to suggest that all people are made in the image of God, or they might explore what Kant meant when he said that we should never treat one another as means to our ends. But in a Socratic Dialogue, after the question is posed, the first move is to ask participants for examples from their own lives which seem to them to illustrate the theme. One is then chosen for further exploration. The following example, offered by a teacher called Lynn, was selected:

I gave a student (in an unruly class) a detention. This student had been one of the better students in the class but I had felt the need to assert my authority as a teacher by making an example of this more malleable student. When he lost his temper and swore at me I talked with him outside the classroom, sitting on the floor together. (This last was a risky action and a departure from what was required of the teacher’s role. It was a personal gesture but made me vulnerable.) We resolved the situation (withdrawal of the detention and arrangement for the student to see the school counsellor) despite the setting. There was a mutual recognition of dignity.

The strategy of the Socratic Dialogue is to allow everyone to know the example well enough in order to allow them to see it as a case of human dignity from the inside, as it were; as if they were all wearing Lynne’s shoes. There is, therefore, a lot of factual questioning about what actually happened before the group turns to an exploration of how what happens illustrates human dignity. In answer to the question: How does the example illustrate the theme? the following was offered:
A1 — Lynn took the student’s concerns seriously
A2 — For the first time, Lynn saw the student as vulnerable.

It was observed that the question of what human dignity was in the example could be answered from three perspectives: that of the boy, that of the teacher, and that of the dignity proper to the situation as a whole. But the rules of the Socratic Dialogue insist that the focus be on the point of view of the example giver since it is this which is immediately available to the group. Further, the group needs to explore the intuition of the example giver that the example illustrates human dignity.

Accordingly, the group proposed the following:
A3 — For both teacher and student, dignity consisted in the opportunity to situate themselves in (or create) a context that permitted them to define themselves.

And this led the group to ask:
Q1 — Does human dignity depend on one’s potential as a human being? In discussing this point, the group suggested that despite any degradation or immorality, and despite illnesses that reduce dignity like Alzheimers, everyone seems to have a fundamental level of human dignity. This raised such questions as:
Q2 — Is human dignity a priori or innate?
Q3 — Is ‘dignity’ a moral category?

While discussing this, one participant distinguished a descriptive use of the term from an evaluative use (including aesthetic evaluations where speaking of someone with dignity is like saying that they are graceful) and a moral use, where we accord moral approval to someone when we say of them that they have dignity. Later on in the discussion it was also suggested that saying of someone that they have dignity has a different moral meaning: namely, that others ought to treat that person fairly. On this reading, to have dignity is to be the object of certain moral obligations.

Gradually as the group strove for consensus as to what human dignity at this most basic level was, it arrived at:
A4 — Human dignity is the need to be considered an equal.

As with all of the suggested answers the proposal is tested against the example. Does it make sense of Lynn’s experience and of the experience of all participants imagining themselves in Lynn’s shoes? It was also explored further as to its moral implications: that human dignity is a demand on others to treat me in certain ways. The dialogue had to finish at this point before further ideas could be explored because time had run out.

Logical structure

What we see in this very truncated description of the dialogue is a movement from the particular to the general. As opposed to a general statement or principle, the dialogue begins with a concrete example and moves to a general statement which is constantly referred back to the example. This is called ‘regressive abstraction’. Its logical structure is as follows:

step one — The example is offered as one in which teacher and student treat each other with dignity.

step two — Inquiry into the example reveals that Lynn responded to the student’s need to be treated as an equal.

Conclusion — Human dignity is the need to be considered an equal.

This conclusion is derived from the inquiry by a process of abstracting from the concreteness of the example so as to uncover the assumptions about dignity which are contained in it. It is called regressive because the group works back, as it were, from the concrete example to the general answer to its opening question.

That this process has a valid logical structure can be seen when we notice that it takes the form of an inverted syllogism. If we rearrange the steps of the discussion, we find that the logical structure can be turned into a traditional syllogism as follows:

Major premise: Human dignity is the need to be considered an equal.

Minor premise: The example is offered as one in which teacher and student treat each other with dignity.

Conclusion: In the example Lynn treated (or should treat) the student as an equal.

With this reconstruction we see that the general answer to the initial question operates as a hidden major premise while the example is the minor premise. From this it follows that the example should contain treating the other as an equal. The major premise is the tacit sense of what human dignity is in general while the example applies this to the particular. A principlist approach would correspond to this form of the traditional syllogism and would yield the practical imperative which I have signalled with the word ‘should’ in the conclusion.

But in the Socratic dialogue the order of discovery went in the opposite direction. The minor premise was offered as the example. This was then explored so that the conclusion of the syllogism: that Lynn treated the student as an equal, was discerned, and then, when everyone in the discussion felt that they could understand why Lynn did this and how it illustrated what human dignity was, they came to see that human dignity is the need to be considered an equal. This is the general conclusion which answers the question derived by regressive abstraction from consideration of the example. The process is logically valid because it accords with the structure of the syllogism, albeit in inverted form.

However, it must not be thought that the conclusion is binding across all examples. Were the group to have chosen a different example, it might have concluded that dignity consists in a certain form of inalienable decorum which no humiliation, insult, or decadence can destroy. In this sense, Socratic Dialogue, in depending on the particularity of real life examples generates a range of answers to general questions which have a validity specific to those examples. Perhaps this reflects the fact that our most profound general concepts are far from univocal.

If we look more closely at the structure of the Socratic Dialogue we will find that it is somewhat more complex than an inverted traditional syllogism. It has been illustrated by Jos Kessels as an hourglass, with “Judgement” alongside the narrowest part of the hourglass.

Question — What is human dignity?

Example — The Incident

Judgement — I treated the student as an equal

Rules — Treat everyone equally

Policy/Principles — Human dignity is the need to be considered equal.

Although this diagram shows the logical structure of the dialogue, there is no suggestion that participants need be aware of this or that the facilitator should impose this structure. On the contrary, the structure will obtain if the rules of the dialogue are adhered to. These rules are the following:


The Socratic Dialogue normally uses the following procedures:
1. A well formulated, general question, or a statement, is set by the facilitator (sometimes in consultation with participants) before the discourse commences.
2. The first step is to collect concrete examples experienced by participants in which the given topic plays a key role.
3. One example is chosen by the group which will usually be the basis of the analysis and argumentation throughout the dialogue.
4. Crucial statements made by participants are written down on a flip chart or board, so that all can have an overview and be clear about the sequence of the discourse.

Criteria for suitable examples
1. The example has been derived from the participant’s own experience; hypothetical or ‘generalised’ examples (‘quite often it happens to me that . . . ‘) are not suitable.
2. Examples should not be very complicated ones; simple ones are often the best. Where a sequence of events has been presented, it would be best for the group to concentrate on one aspect of one event.
3. The example has to be relevant for the topic of the dialogue and of interest to the other participants. Furthermore, all participants must be able to put themselves into the shoes of the person giving the example.
4. The example should deal with an experience that has already come to an end. If the participant is still immersed in the experience it is not suitable. For example, if decisions are still to be taken, there is a risk that group members might be judgmental or offer advice; and if there is still an emotional involvement, the discussion might re-open emotional wounds.
5. The participant giving the example has to be willing to present it fully and provide all the relevant actual information and answer questions so that the other participants are able to understand the example and its relevance to the central question.
6. Positive examples: i.e., examples that affirm the question or statements are preferred.

Rules for Participants

1. Each participant’s contribution is based upon what s/he has experienced, not upon what s/he has read or heard.
2. The thinking and questioning is honest. This means that all and only genuine doubts about what has been said should be expressed.
3. It is the responsibility of all participants to express their thoughts as clearly and concisely as possible, so that everyone is able to build on the ideas contributed by others earlier in the dialogue.
4. Participants should not concentrate exclusively on their own thoughts but should make every effort to understand those of other participants. To assist with this, the facilitator may ask one participant to express in their own words what another participant has said.
5. Anyone who has lost sight of the question or of the thread of the discussion should seek the help of others to clarify where the group stands.
6. Abstract statements should be grounded in concrete experience or in the example which is central to the discussion in order to illuminate such statements.
7. Inquiry into relevant questions continues as long as participants either hold conflicting views or have not yet reached clarity.
8. It is important and rewarding to participate in the whole of a dialogue even if there is disagreement. No one should leave early or cease participating before consensus is reached.


It is permissible at any time within the dialogue for the facilitator or for any participant to call a kind of ‘time out’ in order to direct the attention of the group to any problems that may have arisen. It may be that a participant has lost track of the discussion, is unable to understand what others are saying, or feels excluded. Or it may be that one or more participants have become upset with the way the dialogue has developed. Or it may be that the group has lost its way and needs to review the structure or content of the dialogue. Or the group may want to discuss the strategies it is using to seek a consensus on the question.

Whatever the reason, a discussion about the dialogue, or a ‘metadialogue’, can be called for at any time. If it is thought appropriate, someone from the group other than the facilitator may be asked to chair the metadialogue.

The group should not return to the content dialogue until all the difficulties that led to the calling of a metadialogue have been resolved or until strategies for proceeding with the content dialogue have been formulated.

Wider applications

Up to now, the Socratic Dialogues that I have conducted have been in the context of student groups or the Adult Education community. As a result the topics have been of a general philosophical nature. However, as the list of topics given by Jos Kessels shows, there is no reason why topics should not arise in the context of professional, industrial, or private enterprise contexts. All organisations, whether private or public, have missions which may need articulating or encapsulate values which are implicit in practice. By exploring actual examples from life as lived in these organisations, these values and goals can be made explicit. Disagreements on policy are often based upon implicit disagreements on values. Policy discussions are not always based on the question of what should be done, but often on implicit questions of what values should be pursued or what matters are ultimately important. Socratic Dialogue is a uniquely powerful means of uncovering these deeper levels of policy. It has this power because it is not based on abstract principles but on the inherent practical wisdom of each of the participants, be they managers, doctors, teachers or students. It is this concreteness and specificity which ensures that Socratic Dialogue can never retreat back into the ivory tower of philosophical abstraction. In this context the philosopher is not an expert but, like Socrates himself, a midwife allowing the deeper convictions and practical wisdom of ordinary people into the light of day.


1. Paper read at the 5th National Conference on Reasoning and Decision Making held at Charles Sturt University – Riverina, December 2-5, 1998.

2. Leonard Nelson, ‘The Socratic Method’ in his Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, translated by Thomas K. Brown III, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1940.

3. For an interesting discussion, see Dries Boele, ‘The “Benefits” of a Socratic Dialogue, Or: Which Results Can We Promise?’, Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, Spring, 1997. Vol. XVII, no 3, pp. 48-70.

4. Jos Kessels, Socrates op de Markt: Filosofie in Bedrijf, Amsterdam, Boom, 1997, p 142.


Associate Professor Stan van Hooft

School of Social and International Studies – Philosophy

Faculty of Arts

Deakin University

221 Burwood Highway

Burwood, Vic 3125


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This article appeared in Practical Philosophy 2.2 July 1999, to whom copyright is acknowledged.