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IV. The Place of Dialectic in Education

The final working out of the educational theory of Socrates is thus to be found in the first and second schemes of education elaborated in the Republic. The early training of the guardians (which is all the training given to those who are not fitted for higher study) produces right opinion, or ability and willingness to follow the dictates of those who have knowledge, but does not produce knowledge. Or, to employ the distinction drawn in the Phaedo, it cannot give true or “philosophic” goodness, but only “popular” (or civic) goodness. “The former”, as Burnet puts it, “depends on intellect, the latter on habit. It is the former alone that is teachable; for it alone is knowledge, and nothing can be taught but knowledge. The latter is only good at all in so far as it participates in the former. Apart from that it is a shifting and uncertain thing.” That is to say, the early education must be directed by those who have had the later education, and not by those who can themselves lay claim to no more than opinion. There is a logical difficulty in that, if the goodness acquired


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in the early training really “participates in” (i.e., partakes of the nature of) true goodness, it cannot be a mere matter of habituation but must partake of critical activity as well. The concessions which Socrates makes to “opinion” are really due to his anti-historical bias, and weaken, instead of strengthening, his critical case. What should be recognised (as Socrates himself has enabled us more clearly to do) are the different factors of guidance and originality, but these should both be present at any stage in the process of education.

The unhistorical character of the theory of early training in right habits appears in the complementary assumptions of a purely imitative faculty in the pupils, their original tendencies being neglected, and of the existence of “wise and good” educators, whose simple business it is to set up proper models of behaviour, and who are not themselves learning in the educative process. The Ethics of Aristotle is based on the same assumptions (being largely derived from the Republic), and thus passes over the critical problems of ethics and education. “Conditions of soul”, Aristotle says, “arise from activities of like character to the conditions.” We become good by doing the right thing, i.e., the thing the good man would do under the same circumstances; and therefore he must be there in the first place to tell us what to do, so that we may acquire the habit.

The alternative to this guidance is that we should be subject to the misguiding influence of pleasures and pains. “It is pleasure that makes us do what is bad, and pain that makes us abstain from what is right. That is why we require to be trained from our earliest youth, as Plato has it, to feel pleasure and pain at the right things. True education is just that.” In his “Aristotle on Education” Burnet goes so far as to say of this that it “is the best account of the training of character that has ever been given and should be engraved on the heart of every educator”. What it lacks, however, is any explanation of how the training takes place, how the affection comes to be transferred from one thing to another — unless the assumption of a general tendency to demand what we have become accustomed to (by having it constantly thrust upon us) is to pass for an explanation. Whereas Plato, in the Laws, goes on to take the child's spontaneous activities as of fundamental importance for any training he is to receive, the more rationalistic Socrates and Aristotle appear to regard him as a mere seeking and avoiding mechanism, whose development is determined by what he is allowed to get (or compelled to take).

The theory of habituation, then, is defective precisely in that it neglects the spontaneity of thought which had been emphasised by Socrates in his criticism of opinion or “what is accepted by all right-thinking men”. We may therefore expect to find a correlative defect in his account of that spontaneity or of higher education. We have seen that the fundamental weakness of his philosophy is its unhistorical character, and this finds its logical expression in the attribution of true reality to certain unchanging “forms”, or ideals, everything changeable being relatively unreal. It is in terms of these forms, Socrates holds, that it is possible to “give an account” of things. This raises the question of what account can


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be given of the forms themselves. They cannot each be self-explanatory, or they would be quite unrelated and would not form a system of reality. Accordingly the system itself, or, more precisely, its principle of organisation, has to be taken as the one self-explanatory entity; and this is what Socrates calls “the form of the Good”. It is the one self-sustaining or truly spontaneous thing; and what we call spontaneity in ourselves or in other things is dependent upon it, and exhibits the degree of our or their harmony with it.

But when Socrates is asked to give an account of this “Good” itself, he can do so only in vague metaphor. This must be so; for if it is explained only by itself, clearly we cannot explain it. But in that case all that we are saying, when we postulate its existence, is that there is “something, we know not what”, which is the ultimate explanation of reality. Obviously, in assuming that there is such a thing, we are not entitled to call it good, nor can we derive from what is unknown to us any assurance that some historical thing is good or is better than another. Hence in making his moral distinctions, in saying what should be studied and what should not, Socrates, just like the Sophists, is falling back on opinion. He, too, gives an “explanation” which is no explanation; he, too, has to depend upon “what is accepted by all right-thinking men” — only, his right-thinkers are not the same as those of Protagoras and other Sophists.

To show that Socrates was also infected by the Sophistry he criticised is not, however, to take away all value from his criticism or from his theory of higher education. It more especially explains the weakness of his scheme of early education, its moralistic character — particularly exemplified in the unaesthetic treatment of art, which is considered to be purely imitative and to have its value, positive or negative, solely according as it is or is not a good model for the pupils in turn to imitate. This view of art and education is typical of the mechanical, or “external”, conceptions which Socrates elsewhere condemned, and which are condemned in the working out of that Dialectic which he regarded as the culmination of higher education.

The theory of Dialectic itself implies that there can be no set of habits which are entirely in accordance with sound thinking and living, and therefore that habituation cannot be a sound method by itself; for Dialectic requires the unlearning of much that has been previously learned. It may be said, in fact, that there is an element of unlearning in all learning; we acquire new reactions to things by developing and altering old ones. The mind is never a tabula rasa, and therefore never merely imitative; but, as Plato recognised in the Laws, we have certain tendencies to begin with, and it is only by their exercise that we learn. We learn, that is, by trial and error, or, as in the Socratic theory of criticism expounded in the Phaedo, by the formation and testing of hypotheses.

What makes guidance necessary is our tendency to stick to established modes of reaction, in spite of confusions and errors. As education advances, the process of removing confusions becomes more of a deliberate


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act on the part of the learner. But, whatever be the degree of assistance rendered, the process of clarification involves the breaking up of fixed ideas, the rejection of hypotheses which have hardened into prejudices. Thus “clearing the mind of cant” is a characteristic of the educative process in general; and Dialectic is simply the theory of the kind of hypotheses it is necessary to reject — those, namely, which would make the prosecution of inquiry impossible, being set above our scrutiny. The most prevalent form of this cant is the “disabling” of criticism, the treatment of the critic as an ill-disposed person, one who is not worth attending to, because he criticises. Such evasion of the issue is described by the educated as “illogical”, but the pointing out of fallacies of this kind is a very small part of what is involved in Logic or Dialectic. Its full import can be grasped only when we consider it in relation to the most advanced studies, i.e., to the sciences.

The special scientist, Socrates contends, uses hypotheses which he does not criticise and of which, in fact, he cannot “give an account”. They are taken as defining his field of study, and within that field, or using those assumptions, he prosecutes his inquiries and arrives at his conclusions. Thus the mathematician arrives at “mathematical truths”. But actually there is no mathematical truth, any more than there is an Athenian truth. Fields of study are not cut off from one another but mingle just as peoples do. And to treat each as a separate “world” is to fall into contradictions. It is the business of Dialectic to show that the supposed “indemonstrables” and “indefinables” of the sciences are not indemonstrable or indefinable, but are subject to investigation. Thus all hypotheses implying a division in reality require to be “destroyed” (or removed).

What this involves is that there is a single logic which applies to all the sciences, a single way of being which all their objects have; we cannot divide reality into higher and lower orders, for the difference and the relation between them would alike be indefinable and indemonstrable. Thus any “science” which affects to discover powers or faculties which “make things what they are”, or to apply “laws” to “phenomena”, is guilty of logical error. The Socratic theory of forms itself calls for dialectic criticism. And though Socrates maintains the possibility of finding the “reason” of these forms in a single ultimate principle, the very assumption of this principle involves a separation (between the ultimate and the relative) which requires to be removed. The application of logic to “reasons” leads to the conclusion, already obscurely apprehended by the first Ionian philosophers, that any explanation must be on the same level as the thing explained, so that the former in turn can be explained in a similar way.

But the discovery of the illogicalities in the theory of Socrates does not affect the fact that he has given a valuable account of the conditions of scientific inquiry. And on this basis we get an important development of his criticism of specialisation. Every scientist should be a dialectician, critical of hypotheses and recognising the continuity of things, since otherwise he will make mistakes in his science and be unable to correct


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them. In the same way, such activities as teaching and politics should not be regarded as trades or specialities. Every teacher should be an investigator, every politician a thinker. And, since the distinction between the different types of goodness falls to the ground along with the supposition of an unchanging reality behind history, the logical extension of the argument is, as already indicated, that every citizen should be a politician. No one else can do his thinking for him; and the least thinking will lead him to reject the political and social guidance of “experts” who have no social or political theory. It will readily be seen, for example, that such Sophistic cures for social ills as the encouragement of the “efficient” and the elimination of the “unfit” are based on no coordinated or logical view of society, and thus are merely prejudices to be removed.

But this is because society is viewed unhistorically, as a mere field for personal agreements and disagreements, and not as a developing thing. Socrates is wrong in assuming that social issues can be decided on the basis of a general principle of consistency or coordination, and his democratic opponents could rightly say that his proposals must really have had a more special source, must have arisen, that is, from a definite attitude on particular social questions. In general, we can criticise only by reference to beliefs which we definitely hold; otherwise there would be nothing to say for or against any disputed view. And unless this feature of logical criticism is recognised, the Socratic insistence on logic, the setting of criticism against instruction, is misleading. So long as we do not set anything above criticism, we can make progress; but we do so not by having any kind of higher knowledge, but by having opinions and acting on them, that is, by reacting on things which are as historical as ourselves. To have an opinion or belief is to hold something to be true, to be an actual fact, and we cannot make more of it than that; so that there is no place for the Socratic “knowledge”. When this necessary correction is borne in mind, the position of Socrates can still be seen to be of real value in pointing the way to the discovery of educational and political truths — namely, by critical activity in science and politics.

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