Socrates’ elenctic method: an addition to “Paideia, progress, puzzlement”.

photo by:

Herbert Hrachovec has recently published a paper (Hrachovec 2018) about the notion of Paideia – with special regard to the allegory of the cave – in Plato’s republic, which is argued to be a quite hegemonic endeavor. Hrachovec, in the last section of his paper, contrasts Plato’s views with a „paideia-free story of self-fulfillment“ by introducing thoughts of Wittgenstein. The thread at hand tries to add something to this discussion by pointing to the difference between a maieutic and an elenctic kind of Paideia, which can be associated with the earlier and the later Platonic dialogues.

Plato’s concept of Paideia is being invoked to an increasing degree recently by those who strive to provide a counterbalance to the alarming preponderance of mere vocational training in order to obviate a too eceónomically driven version of pedagogy. Thus, the concept seems to be at least noteworthy in the field of – if not essential to – pedagogy. But, according to the author (Hrachovec 2018), Plato’s concept of Peideia has the considerable flaw of being inherently organized in a hegemonic manner, in that an upwardly-mobile protagonist is seen to be liberated from the darkness of the cave by being kicked upstairs towards the brightness of the sun by an accomplished ascent, i. e., an expert, who prevents the ascendee from getting stuck in an aporious mess. The right to existence of pedagogy seems to be intrinsically tied to the (forced) progress set as a basis in this context. The author, then, shows an alternative to this view in Wittgenstein, who emphazises that the place one really has to go can only be the one that one must actually be at already – a story of self-fulfillemnt without climbing, as it where. For this, Wittgenstein changes the picture from untaught cave dwellers sitting in dark holes, more or less eager to being moved and consequently exposed to the sun, to mobile explorers being located (by chance) in an overall plane landscape. The quest, then, is not that of climbing out of a cave – a intrinsically predetermined endeavor – but that of finding a way back to a certain point of departure, which is accessible independently from the whereabouts in the plane landscape. From this perspective, nothing can be said to be a mere surrogate for truth, which for Plato is gleaming in the sunlight (except, according to Wittgenstein, trying to transcend the given).

The point where Wittgenstein can be opposed to Plato seems to be quite similar to the opposition intrinsic to the earlier and the later Platonic dialogues. Whereas later Plato puts the focus on his theory of ideas, which is associated with maieutics, in the earlier dialogues (Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Protagoras) the elenctic method is of greater importance to the author. „Elenchos“ means a method of testing assertions by regarding the principles of consitency and noncontradiction, which typically leads to aporia and hence to starting over the test, including the recent assumptions. This method is one of gaining truth ex negativo, which means that it is possible to find episteme, but not compulsory. Whereas in a maieutical concept of paideia, episteme is the (necessary and preassumed) goal of the method, an elenctic concept of paideia does not necessarily have such a goal.

Rancière’s illustration of the method of Jopseh Jacotot (Rancière 1991) shows the difference of thought concerning these concepts of paideia very well by pointing out that French can be taught and learned even if the teacher and the pupils don’t speak the same language. Another good example is the pedagogical concept of Whitehead, who in his so-titled essay (Whitehead 1967) even calls this deconstructivist method the intrinsic aim of education. Whitehead, as commonly known the co-author of Principia Mathematica, tries to show in this essay how mathematical education can be conducted by teaching proof and test at once, without having to kick pupils upstairs, as it were.

Musical education seems to be one instance of such a plane landscape of pedagogy where everything is already there and the eclenctic method seems adequate, too. Noticeably, Plato despised the arts as merely mimicing the truth and suggesting deceptive illusions, which implies that it can be asked what could be gained from teaching them. The flatness is due to what Philip Alperson (paraphrasing Danto) calls the „musicworld“ (Alperson 1991 218), by which he means the set of practices related to the making, understanding, and valuation of music and the social, insitutional, and theoretical contexts in which such practices have their place. It is quite obvious that music’s relentless affordance belongs to everyday life as well as the interested or disinterested (meaning: without purpose) perception in the manner of listening (and even the infamous non-appreciative mere hearing music, denounced as „Muzak“) in all artefactual environments inhabited by people (given that music is conceived as intentionally or unintentionally but always organized sound – confined within the limits of aesthetic properties perceived or experiences made by an audience; for further reading: From this perspective, it seems quite devious to imagine a – silent or cacophonic, it does not matter – cave from which one should ascend to celestial soundscapes. Of course, potentially mastership is achievable, but it is not obligatory for occupying oneself with music, because even someone who does not understand it, can feel what it affords (in some instances even when the willingness to do so cannot be presupposed).This apporach has two goals: a very distinct one in the appropriation of mastership in music for a certain clientele (which is not obligatory) and an overall goal in gathering pupils and arriving with them where everything is already there, with enhanced sensitivity for the topos at these recurring arrivals. Contrary to Plato’s maieutic model, where pupils have to fulfill some kind of „amphibic“ transition from dry land to water by learning how to swim, music education and the eclenctic method can said to be marine endeavors from the start. The question, then, is not that about swimming or not swimming, but rather that of the style of swimming. From the start, nobody is being left ashore.


– Alperson, Philip (1991). What Should One Expect From a Philosophy of Music Education? In: The Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 25/3, 215-242

– Hrachovec, Herbert (2018). Paideia, progress, puzzlement. Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 50/6-7, 712-718

– Rancière, Jacques (1991). The ignorant schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press

– Talisse, Robert (2002). Missunderstanding Socrates. In: Arion, Vol. 9/3, 111-121

– Whitehead, Alfred N. (1967). Aims of education and other essays. Free Press

One thought on “Socrates’ elenctic method: an addition to “Paideia, progress, puzzlement”.

  1. Bernd Gutmannsbauer is right in pointing out that the straight upward line suggested by Plato’s cave allegory is only one part of his oeuvre, even though it has been gladly appropriated by the upwardly mobile segment of civil society and its educational system. Distinguishing an elenctic from a maieutic strand is a useful move to make this point. The limits of maieutics can, actually, be recognised within Plato’s narrative of the cave. Like many commentators I skipped its calamitous ending. Individual enlightenment is not the final outcome of this story. Once a person has achieved true knowledge her urge is to return back to the cave to liberate her former companions. This can be considered to be the core of the maieutic strategy. It does, however, prove to be fatal. Instead of initiating new life, existing prejudices engulf the messenger, who is killed. Enlightenment, in this case, turns out to lead to a lethal outcome.
    It is widely assumed that this turn of the narrative alludes to the fate of Socrates, the very practitioner of the elenctic method. There is a puzzle here. It seems that Socrates was making enemies with his tentative, often aporetic, approach. He did not suffer fools lightly and frequently provoked his fellow citizens. This, obviously, was not the kind of non-offensive (music) pedagogy Bernd is writing about, but rather a pretty serious offense against common sense and a source of anger and resentment. If this is right, the elenchos did in fact trigger the backlash against Socrates “the gadfly”, and the analogy of the cave, minus its unhappy ending, served to ensure philosophers of their unique, exalted status.
    P.S.: Christianity supplemented this pattern by a suggestive and highly successful feature. God himself descended from heaven, got killed and rose from the death.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.