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What Socrates Can Tell Us about What Constitutes Dialogue

Mar 19 2012 Adam Davis
Socrates statuette
If Socrates' interactions do model dialogue, his example gives rise to a number of questions. Is dialogue’s chief goal good learning? Or might it be the case that dialogue is good not for what it produces but for what it is?

Dialogue is what this piece is not. Dialogue is an exchange, a back and forth. You say something, I say something, you say something, I say something, and then we, together, find ourselves in a better place than we were before. Formally speaking, dialogue is conversation rather than speech. But dialogue, as it is generally invoked, seems to be the highest form of conversation, and its height is due not simply to its formal character but to its substance.

Dialogue, as often invoked, refers to exchange, yes, but also more than that: it refers to meaningful exchange. If you and I have an exchange about the nice breeze today and the prospect of rain tomorrow, this would be banter, not dialogue. And if you and I have a contentious exchange in which you listen to me only in order to trap me, this is not dialogue either, but CNN. And if you tell me my momma wears combat boots, and I tell you your momma wears combat boots in the shower, this is not dialogue but dated and mysterious shit-talk.

So what kind of conversational exchange is meaningful or substantive enough to warrant the name dialogue? At the very least, the exchange must concern something of importance to both (or all) speakers. Socrates is the obvious figure here, Socrates whose verbal exchanges, as Plato has it, concern such important things as justice, courage, love, piety and truth. [Why do we have to go back 2500 years to find the representative dialogue figure? Dialogue rarely calls attention to the individuals involved – it doesn’t make them celebrities… but this is another piece, or post, or something.] That is, Socrates seems to engage in dialogue in order to move closer, with his interlocutors, to reliable understanding of important things. Socrates would, with the help of his changing cast of companions, get to the bottom of the most important matters.

We might want to disagree with Socrates about the content of these things or even about their importance, but still his example might help us. Plato’s Republic – that 300 page exchange between Cephalus and Polemarchus and Thrasymachus and Adeimantus and Glaucon and Socrates, the whopper of a conversation in which back and forth about justice ends up replacing dinner – that’s dialogue. Or that’s what we generally hear – you want dialogue, see Socrates.

That Socrates seems to dissemble much of the time; that he often leads those he talks with in some apparently foreordained direction; that almost every ending consists in a declaration of the need to start over; that, whatever he’s talking about, he’s basically talking about the same thing; that he is a kind of elitist; that philosophy for a few may be more important than justice, whatever it is, for the many; that at least a few of his interlocutors go on to be associated with questionable causes; that he himself is not finally able to convince his audience that his life should be spared – these details seem somehow not to get in the way of the general sense that Socrates lives what dialogue should be. Why might this be so?

For one, Socrates seems to think that we ought to be able to speak clearly about whatever it is we do. This expectation implies a kind of optimism about us – we can, Socrates assumes, give an account of our actions; we can choose to do one thing and not another, and we can give reasons for our choice. Socratic dialogues (as assembled by Plato) thus prove to be a kind of distillation of selves into words – consider so many of the dialogues’ titles (Meno, Charmides, Gorgias). This alone is refreshing and hopeful. We are what we say, or we can say what we are.

Socrates comes to seem even more hopeful when we consider the motivating reasons he examines – justice, truth, a few other lofty words. And Socrates makes persuasive arguments that if we understood ourselves well, we would see that we are committed to justice and the rest, and that we can’t help being so. It’s not only that we can talk about why we do what we do, it’s that what we talk about has a certain luster, and we become admirable in our own eyes, even if our actions don’t usually live up to the high underlying commitments they reveal.        

So Socrates becomes a strange sort of motivator, one who inspires even as he complicates. On the one hand, these dialogues teach us that we know less than we thought we knew, everything is more complicated than it seemed, but, mysteriously, on the other hand, we’re drawn forward – toward more talk, more thought, more exchange.  

If Socrates’ interactions indeed do model dialogue as we understand the word, his example gives rise to a number of questions. Do those who speak with Socrates learn anything? If so, what do they learn and would they be able to give an account of what they’ve learned? Is dialogue’s chief goal good learning? If so, is it more important to learn about the subject being discussed or about the people discussing it? Is greater wisdom the goal, or greater friendship, or greater understanding (of oneself or the others involved)? Is dialogue good because of its intellectual or its interpersonal achievements? Or might it be the case that dialogue is good not for what it produces but for what it is, in itself (dialogue as a good experience with questionable outcomes)? A more restricted set of questions concerns Socrates specifically: Does Socrates himself learn anything from these exchanges?  Does he benefit in some other way from these exchanges? Can Socrates give a satisfying account of his commitment to dialogue? Are we right, to return to the larger question here, to call whatever Socrates is engaged in ‘dialogue’?

Perhaps I’ve waited too long to say this: those who claim to appreciate democracy almost have to claim to appreciate dialogue. If democracy is good, dialogue is good. And I ought to say that democracy is good.

If, however, democracy means that everyone, or most folks, can vote for office-holders, it’s not entirely clear why praise of democracy implies praise of dialogue. Voting itself is not, strictly speaking, conversational, and preparation for voting, on both sides, rarely seems to require dialogue so much as pandering, advertising, packaged performances. If, on the other hand, democracy is more than a set of rules regarding voting, if it is rather a set of beliefs about what people are – namely, fundamentally equal in dignity and worth – then the ubiquitous praise of dialogue starts to make more sense. But here dialogue begins to seem good because of its procedural fealty to a foreordained principle: equality. Dialogue, as a shared activity, illustrates and vindicates democracy; we attest to our understanding of democracy by talking and listening in equal measure to each other.

And if dialogue refers specifically to meaningful exchange, then we find ourselves vindicating not just equality but also dignity – the back and forth concerns meaningful things and therefore demonstrates that we are ourselves meaningful. The high good dialogue begets is born chiefly of this implicit message: we can talk to each other and rise…


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