On Leonard Nelson’s “The Socratic Method.”
By Robert Hanna
You can also download a .pdf version of this essay, HERE.
The Socratic method … is the art of teaching not philosophy but philosophizing, the art of teaching not about philosophers but of making philosophers of the students…. If there is such a thing at all as instruction in philosophy, it can only be instruction in doing one’s own thinking…. [T]he end of education is rational self-determination, i.e., a condition in which the individual does not allow his behavior [and beliefs] to be determined by outside influences but judges and acts according to his own insight….
[Therefore, t]he essential thing is the skill with which the teacher puts the students on their own responsibility at the very beginning by teaching them to go by themselves … and by so developing this independence that one day they may be able to venture forth alone, self-guidance having replaced the teacher’s supervision.[i]
It is regrettable that there is no Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy article on Leonard Nelson, the early 20th century German neo-Kantian philosopher.
Here is the terse introductory summary for the Wikipedia article on Nelson:
Leonard Nelson (July 11, 1882, Berlin — October 29, 1927, Göttingen) was a German mathematician, philosopher, and socialist. He was part of the neo-Friesian[ii] school of neo-Kantianism and a friend of the mathematician David Hilbert, and devised the Grelling–Nelson paradox and the related idea of autological words with Kurt Grelling.[iii]
Far more revealing, however, is what Brand Blanshard and Julius Kraft write in their respective Forward and Introduction to the (I think) only even fairly representative collection of Nelson’s writings so far published in English:[iv]
All Nelson’s pupils who remained in Germany were engaged, as long as they were not imprisoned, in underground or other illegal work against Nazism.[v]
A future political history of Germany will have to record how, out of [Nelson’s] Academy and the youth groups connected to it, came a number of heroic men and women who fought against the National Socialist regime, and who, since the downfall of that regime, have borne with equal courage their share in the struggle for a new and better order in Germany.[vi]
Correspondingly, Nelson’s 1929 essay, “The Socratic Method,” based on a lecture presented in 1922, is not only philosophically fascinating but also truly metaphilosophically important.
At the same time, and curiously, given Nelson’s own neo-Kantian rigoristic commitment to truth-seeking and logical consistency in thinking, it has several significant prima facie flaws.
Nelson’s main claims are
(i) that the basic purpose of the Socratic method, as implemented in teacher-student dialogues, is to make it really possible for students to dare to think for themselves (pp. 1, 11, and 22),
(ii) that the characteristic inferential process of real (i.e., authentic, serious) philosophical thinking is the regress from individual things or actual facts, as initially described by true judgments, to non-empirical general concepts that express both semantic presuppositions of those judgments and also the causally or metaphysically necessary conditions of those individual things or actual facts (aka “abduction,” or “inference-to-the-best-explanation”), thereby making the meaning and truth of those initial judgments really possible (aka “transcendental explanation”) (pp. 9–11), and
(iii) that the primary mental capacity exercised in real philosophy is the will (pp. 29–30).
I fully agree with all three of those theses.
But at the same time, Nelson also claims
(iv) that the Socratic teacher of philosophy, via teacher-student dialogues, must never lecture or even explicitly ask questions, but only ever raise deep difficulties or doubts (aporiae) about what is being proposed by the students (pp. 21–25),
(v) that students, by means of this aporetic discursive strategy, must be forced to think for themselves (p. 15),
(vi) that philosophy is exclusively conceptual, propositional, and linguistic in nature (pp. 30–33),
(vii) that philosophy is exclusively a science (pp. 7–8), consisting of
the sum total of those universal rational truths that become clear only through reflection…. to philosophize, then, is simply to isolate these rational judgments with our intellect and to express them in general judgments (p. 10),
(viii) that the paradigm of scientific cognitive activity for philosophy is the formal science of mathematics (pp. 39–40).
One striking problem with thesis (iv) is that Nelson himself, as a Socratic teacher, thereby purports, by means of lecturing and the raising of explicit questions, both presented in an essay, to argue conclusively that the Socratic teacher of philosophy must never lecture, raise explicit questions, or present philosophy in a written format, whether essay or systematic treatise.
Moreover, Nelson himself was the author of a three-volume systematic treatise entitled Lectures on the Foundations of Ethics (Vorlesungen über die Grundlagen der Ethik: 1917, 1924, 1932), and another unpublished three-part treatise entitled Lectures on the History of Metaphysics (Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Metaphysik).
Therefore (iv), as it stands, must be mistaken, and on the contrary the following revised thesis must be true:
(iv*) the Socratic method consists of aporetic discourse, together with lecturing and the raising of explicit questions, and also together with other non-aporetic philosophical activities, especially including non-dialogical individual philosophical thinking and creation that yield written or spoken lectures and other written texts not only including Plato’s dialogues, but also including essays and systematic treatises like those written by Kant, Fries, and Nelson himself.
An equally striking problem with (v) is that since the goal of Socratic method is to make it really possible for students to dare to think for themselves, which is an expression of their free agency, hence also of their free will, and since according to (iii) the primary capacity that’s exercised in philosophy is the will, this cannot possibly be coerced or compelled, since that is a subjection of one’s free will to someone else’s will, or slavery (whether physical slavery to authoritarianism and physical coercion, or mental slavery to hegemonic ideology, false belief, and fallacy, as in Willam Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles”[vii]) and heteronomy.
Therefore (v), as it stands, must be mistaken, and on the contrary the following revised thesis must be true:
(v*) the Socratic method must always and only help and scaffold the students into daring freely to think, feel, and act for themselves.
Another way of putting (v*) is that the Socratic method must always and only help and scaffold the students into being autonomous thinkers, as opposed to their being either heteronomous physical or mental slaves or monsters of rigoristic will-power.
Moreover, if the the primary capacity that’s exercised in real philosophy is the will, then it cannot possibly be the case, as (vi) asserts, that philosophy is exclusively conceptual, propositional, and linguistic.
Relatedly, Nelson explicitly says that Socratic method in the sense he is describing is as much Kantian and/or Friesian as it is Socratic and/or Platonic (p. 17).
Therefore, again, although this time for different reasons, it cannot possibly be the case, as (vi) asserts, that philosophy is exclusively conceptual, propositional, and linguistic in nature, since a fundamental Kantian thesis, fully supported by Fries, is that human cognition is inherently dual, both capacity-dualist and content-dualist, insofar as our innate cognitive capacities, aka faculties, or powers are fundamentally divided into
(a) the non-discursive faculty or power of sensibility, which yields intuitions and images/imaginational content, which are essentially non-conceptual,[viii] and
(b) the discursive faculty or power of understanding, which yields concepts and conceptual content.
So, contrary to thesis (vi) as it stands, the following revised thesis must be true:
(vi*) philosophical cognition and philosophical reasoning must be every bit as much sensible and essentially non-conceptual as they are discursive and conceptual, propositional, and linguistic.
Moreover, since the capacity for sensibility yields intuitions and images/imaginational content, and since, by (ii), the starting points of all characteristically philosophical inferences, the individual things or actual facts, are represented only by means of intuition, then it follows that the starting points of all philosophy are yielded only by means of intuition, and that intuitional cognition and intuition-based reasoning are necessary elements of philosophy.
Indeed, since philosophy characteristically generates synthetic a priori truths, that state non-analytically (i.e., non-logically) necessary connections between the non-empirical general concepts that are the semantic presuppositions of true empirical judgments about actual facts and individual things, and that also thereby express the causally or metaphysically necessary conditions of those actual facts and individual things, and since for Kant a proposition is synthetic if and only if its meaning and truth are partially determined by empirical intuition (synthetic a posteriori truths) or pure intuition (synthetic a priori truths),[ix] then intuitional cognition and intuition-based reasoning are not only necessary elements of philosophy but also partially constitutive elements of philosophy.
Nelson’s essay is strikingly short on examples of the Socratic method in action; but one of the few examples, used twice, is the famous “Grand Inquisitor” section in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (pp. 2 and 13).
This in turn is a vivid and indeed self-evident counterexample to (vii): philosophy cannot possibly be exclusively a science, if one of the best examples of Socratic method is to be found in Dostoevsky’s brilliant novel.
Moreover, in an earlier essay published in 1918, Nelson explicitly says that philosophizing is an “art” (Kunst).[x]
Contrary to what (vii) states, then, the following revised thesis must be true:
(vii*) philosophy must contain not only an irreducibly scientific component but also an irreducibly artistic component.
Now as Kant points out in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, artistic activity requires the cognitive production of aesthetic ideas, and by an “aesthetic idea” he means,
[a] representation of the imagination that occasions much thinking though without it being possible for any determinate thought, i.e., concept, to be adequate to it, which, consequently, no language fully attains or can make intelligible…, [and] one readily sees that it is the counterpart (pendant) of an idea of reason, which is, conversely, a concept to which no intuition (representation of the imagination) can be adequate. (CPJ 5: 314, boldfacing in the original)
In this way, aesthetic ideas are at least trans-conceptual, in inherently going beyond the content of concepts, even if not strictly speaking essentially non-conceptual.
This in turn entails that philosophical cognition and philosophical reasoning must include not only the essentially non-conceptual content of intuition or imagination, but also the trans-conceptual content of aesthetic ideas of imagination as necessary and indeed partially constitutive elements.
And from this it directly follows that (viii) cannot possibly be correct, because if philosophy must contain an irreducibly artistic component, and thereby must also contain the trans-conceptual content of aesthetic ideas of imagination, then the formal science of mathematics cannot be the (i.e., one and only) paradigm of philosophical cognitive activity, even if, as Kant holds, mathematics is also grounded on the essentially non-conceptual content of our pure forms of intuition, the representations of space and time.[xi]
Correspondingly, on the contrary, the following revised thesis must be correct:
(viii*) not only is the formal science of mathematics a paradigm for philosophical cognition, but also at least some art-forms (e.g., novels or poetry) must be at least as paradigmatic for philosophical cognitive activity as mathematics.
This revised thesis, in turn, is partially captured, for example, by Novalis’s profound remark that “poetry is the hero of philosophy.”[xii]
Relatedly, one of the most important features of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, explicitly pointed out especially by Plato-interpreters in the Straussian tradition, e.g., Drew Hyland,[xiii] is that the dialogues themselves are as much works of art as they are philosophical investigations, and that they contain many layers of meaning.
Very frequently, in fact, a Socratic dialogue will include various features that help and scaffold the fully attentive, sensitive, and imaginative philosophical reader into critically digging and exploring deep beneath the surface-structure or surface-content of the dialogue, and daring to recognize that this structure and content in fact to some extent undermines itself, and thereby yields more profound philosophical insights that are at least implicitly available to all of us, if we resolutely do the required work.
Finally then, in view of Nelson’s serious regard for and study of the Socratic dialogues, and also in view of his explicitly stated thesis (i), to the effect that the basic purpose of the Socratic method, as implemented in teacher-student dialogues, is to make it really possible for students to dare to think for themselves, one might indeed wonder about the curious fact of Nelson’s apparent commitment to the obviously (or even blatantly) flawed theses (iv) through (viii).
More precisely, one might indeed wonder whether Nelson’s apparent commitment to those theses was quite intentionally only superficial,and also whether this intentionally superficial commitment was actually more profoundly intended to help and scaffold the fully attentive, sensitive, and imaginative philosophical reader into recognizing that these theses are not only all false as stated, but also that they all need to be creatively reformulated along the lines I’ve proposed above, as theses (iv*) through (viii*), in order to understand the nature of real philosophy.
Given Nelson’s brilliance as a Socratic and neo-Kantian philosopher and teacher, I’m prepared to grant him that more profound intention.
That being granted, then what Nelson is really saying in “The Socratic Method” is
(1) that real philosophy is the smooth fusion of the deepest insights of Socrates and Kant, and
(2) that we cannot become real philosophers until, as free agents, we’ve actually and resolutely gone through the intellectually, perceptually, imaginatively, emotionally, morally, and politically arduous life-process of daring to think this very thought for ourselves.
[i] L. Nelson, “The Socratic Method,” in L. Nelson, Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, trans. T.K. Brown (New York: Dover, 1949), pp. 1–43, at pp. 1, 11, 19, and 20, also available online at URL = <http://www.friesian.com/method.htm>. Henceforth, citations of “The Socratic Method” will be internal to the text of my essay.
[ii] That is, Nelson was significantly influenced by the philosophy of Jacob Friedrich Fries, who was a proto-neo-Kantian of the early 19th century. For a good account of Fries’s views, see F. Beiser, The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), ch. 1. Again regrettably, there’s no SEP article on Fries, but the Wikipedia article is available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakob_Friedrich_Fries>, and in fact there’s still a “Friesian school” outside professional academic philosophy, whose website is online at URL = <http://www.friesian.com/#contents>.
[iii] Wikipedia, “Leonard Nelson” (2019), available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Nelson>.
[iv] There was, however, a translation of the second volume of Nelson’s Lectures on the Foundations of Ethics, System der philosophischen Ethik und Pädogogik, published by Yale University Press in 1956, under the title System of Ethics.
[v] B. Blanshard, “Forward,” in Nelson, Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, p. vi.
[vi] J. Kraft, “Introduction,” in Nelson, Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, pp. ix-x.
[vii] See W. Blake, “London,” in Blake’s Songs of Experience (1794), lines 5–8:
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
[viii] See R. Hanna, Kant and the Foundations of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon/OUP, 2001); R. Hanna, “Kant and Nonconceptual Content,” European Journal of Philosophy 13 (2005): 247–290; R. Hanna, “Kantian Non-Conceptualism,” Philosophical Studies 137 (2008): 41–64; R. Hanna, “Beyond the Myth of the Myth: A Kantian Theory of Non-Conceptual Content,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 19 (2011): 321–396; R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), ch. 2; R. Hanna, “Directions in Space, Non-Conceptual Form, and the Foundations of Transcendental Idealism,” in D. Schulting (ed.), Kantian Nonconceptualism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 99–115; and R. Hanna, “The Essential Non-Conceptuality of the Imagination” (June 2019 version), available online HERE.
[ix] See R. Hanna, Kant and the Foundations of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), esp. chs. 4–5, also available online HERE; and R. Hanna, “On Kant’s Term ‘Synthetic A Priori’,” in J. Wuerth (ed.), The Cambridge Kant Lexicon, 2016, available online at URL = <http://cambridgekantlexicon.com/>, and also available online HERE.
[x] Nelson, “The Art of Philosophizing,” in Nelson, Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, pp. 83–104.
[xi] See R. Hanna, Kant, Science, and Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), ch. 6, also available online HERE.
[xii] See, e.g., H. Reginald, “How Poetry is the Hero of Philosophy, Or, Why I Translated Rilke’s Herbst for Borderless Philosophy,” Borderless Philosophy 1 (2018), available online HERE.
[xiii] See D. Hyland, “Why Plato Wrote Dialogues,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 1 (1968): 38–50.
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