Brendan’s Socratic Dialogue Game

Last week, while working on the second edition of my logic textbook, it occurred to me that Socratic Dialogue, the method of philosophical reasoning used by Socrates, is a kind of game. Or, it could be turned into one.

Insert obligatory image of classical Greek philosophers doing their thing.

Of course, Socrates didn’t write down any of his philosophy at all; everything we know about him, we know from the writings of others, especially from his student Plato. Still it’s possible to infer his method by studying how he did things. So, this game is based on my interpretation of Socrates’ method as it is represented in some of Plato’s early books.

I’m going to include it in the logic textbook. But I’m terribly excited about it and my students appeared to have a fun time playing it. So I will share it here on my blog for you now.

Bren’s Socratic Dialogue Game, Agora Variation

  • Find a partner. Choose one of you to play the role of “Socrates” and the other to play “The Expert”. Socrates will ask all the questions; The Expert will answer them.
  • The person playing the role of Socrates asks The Expert a philosophical question, chosen by a random draw from the “Deck of Many Questions”. The Expert answers.
  • If the Expert’s answer is something evasive (a description or an example instead of a definition, or a weasel-word answer, etc.), then Socrates may gently ask for a more direct answer.
  • When the Expert gives a direct answer, Socrates thanks her for it. Then Socrates asks the Expert to clarify any undefined or poorly-defined terms. Raise counter-examples or analogies, if necessary, to show that a term is too broad, or too narrow, or circular, or in some other way unsatisfactory. The Expert can also object to a question if it appears vague or irrelevant.
  • When the Expert has clarified everything that needs clarification, Socrates can ask questions which explore some of the likely consequences and implications, especially those which seem to lead to contradictions. If you can do so respectfully, then explore any implications which the Expert may find uncomfortable.
  • Continue this back-and-forth, question-and-answer exchange, until 1) you both agree you have a satisfying answer to the original question, or 2) Socrates runs out of questions, or 3) The Expert admits to having no idea how to answer the original question. Then switch roles, and start again with a different question.

The game requires at least two players, and in experimenting with this game in my classroom I found that it can work in small groups of no more than five members. Apart from the rules noted above, I also asked my students to observe the principles of informal logic which we had covered in some previous classes: good v bad types of questions, good v bad thinking habits. (See chapters 1 and 2 of Clear & Present Thinking, 1st edition, if you’re curious.)

Bren’s Socratic Dialogue Game, Symposium Variation

Players choose a card from the “Deck of Many Questions”. Each player writes a one-page speech to answer the question. Then everyone swaps their speech pages around: giving their answer to another player, receiving an answer (to a different question!) from a third player. Each player then writes a one-page counter-argument. Players then take turns reading their answers aloud, and hearing the counter-arguments read aloud; then a chance is offered for players to reply to the counter-arguments. This variation can be used as a classroom assessment technique. It also makes for a fun dinner party activity among friends, especially when the “answers” are prepared in advance, and the “counter-arguments” are off the cuff. In fact, I think I might like to host a symposium dinner party here at my house, some time this fall.

Some further remarks:

I like games. I used to write my own video games on my family’s old Commodore 128, using its BASIC 7.0 programming language. I played Dungeons & Dragons all through high school, then played White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” games (Vampire, Werewolf, Mage) through my undergrad years. I’m especially fond of chess even though I don’t know anything about strategy and all I can do is push the pieces around according to the rules; I haven’t won a game of chess in probably twenty years. But in general I think that games are good for us, and that’s one of the reasons I invent games for use in my classroom.

The Socratic Dialogue Game does not need winners or losers. The point is to practice reasoning skills, perhaps learn something about the complexity of simple questions, perhaps learn something about yourself (when for instance you are forced to acknowledge that you don’t know all the answers), and to enjoy the use of our own minds. It’s a game that does not require any specialized knowledge of philosophy as a discipline, nor any specialized knowledge of logic apart from what’s described in the rules. It’s a game in which it’s okay to ask for a moment of quiet to think, and it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” It’s foundational philosophy for the people; it’s the common heritage of all humanity.

But if The Expert ends up feeling embarrassed or upset by the questions or by the exposure of her ignorance, it’s not okay for that player to make Socrates drink the hemlock.

Appendix: “The Deck of Many Questions”

I bought a stack of index cards and wrote an open-ended philosophical question on them; a different question on each card. If you can think of more questions to add, feel free to add them.

    What is love?
    What is justice?
    What is courage?
    What does it take to live a worthwhile life?
    What does it mean to be a woman? Or a man?
    What is friendship?
    What is the significance of death?
    What is the best kind of government?
    What is education?
    What is greatness?
    What is truth?
    What is the significance of sex?
    What is civilization?
    What is a family?
    What is the point of sports and games?
    What is our moral responsibility to the Earth?
    Should people always obey the law?
    What does it mean to be an “authentic” individual?
    What is God?
    What is our duty to the community?
    What is reality?
    What is art and beauty?
    What is wisdom?
    Do we human beings have a soul?
    Where does knowledge come from?
    What kind of people should we be?
    Do we human beings have free will?
    What are the best kinds of stories?
    What is the true value of money?
    What is health?
    What is fairness?
    What is the significance of history?
    What is happiness?
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