How Socrates Can Help Psychotherapists

When two minds meet like steel striking flint

As the field of psychotherapy focuses more on treatment manuals and the regimented nature of clinical research, the practice risks losing the subtle nuances that guide the interactive fluidity of therapy sessions. Can clinicians combat this loss by incorporating ideals from ancient philosophy into contemporary psychotherapy? In The Socratic Method of Psychotherapy , James Overholser approaches cognitive therapy through the interactive dialogues of Socrates, aiming to reduce the gap between theory and practice. Read an excerpt from chapter 2,“Psychotherapy as Therapy for the Mind,” below.

Psychotherapy as Therapy for the Mind

The life and philosophy of Socrates underlies the Socratic method. Socrates (469 BC–399 BC) was a philosopher who lived a modest existence in ancient Greece. He enjoyed talking with the people of Athens, where he lived his entire life, engaging them in thoughtful conversation about the perennial metaphysical topics that provide the foundation for philosophy and ethics in society.

Socrates’s father, Sophronicus, worked as a sculptor or stonemason. Socrates too was a sculptor of sorts, a sculptor of the mind. He used his questions and dialogue to chip away at the surface to reveal the true image, the essence of an idea. Socrates’s mother, Phaenarete, worked as a midwife, and Socrates likened himself to his mother, as he served as a midwife to the mind (Theaetetus 157). The midwife metaphor captures the Socratic view of teaching (Hansen, 1988). Like a midwife, Socrates was not pregnant with ideas but was helping others, often younger and less experienced people, give birth to their own ideas (Reale, 1987). Just as the midwife induces labor through the use of drugs, the Socratic method first induces confusion, instigating a search via questions that expose the person’s ignorance (Versenyi, 1963). Elenchus refers to an interactive dialogue that explores an abstract topic and reveals gaps in logical reasoning. The goal of the Socratic elenchus is to deliver a new idea into the awareness of the client’s conscious mind (Scraper, 2000).

Socrates valued the life of a philosopher. He denied ever being a teacher and even opposed being described as such. According to Socrates, a teacher held certain bases of knowledge and shared that information with students. Instead, Socrates viewed himself as lacking knowledge but interested in learning. He saw himself as a fellow explorer, searching for knowledge that could be trusted. Socrates never wrote down his ideas, because he did not trust the written word (Seeskin, 1987), and he distrusted the written word because he believed that reading encourages one to memorize ideas that then become “carved in stone.” A written document cannot be customized to fit the level of the student or adapted to the unique interests of each person (Kraut, 1992a), and it cannot clarify any misinterpretations or misunderstandings in the reader (Howland, 1993). A written exposition is like a longwinded monologue (Seeskin, 1987). There can be no question-and-answer exchange with a book (Despland, 1985). Socrates argued: “Writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches andonce they have been written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them” (Phaedrus 275). Because it is not possible to cross-examine a book (White, 1976), the reader assumes a passive role.

There is a bit of irony here. I am writing a book about a historical figure who opposed books and using words attributed to Socrates, written in an ancient text, to explain why spoken dialogue is so valuable. A lively exchange of questions and answers can force a person to defend or cast aside his or her beliefs and encourage true understanding (Kraut, 1992a). In the Phaedrus (275d–e), Socrates complained that an idea put into written form can be distributed inappropriately and used in ways unintended by the author. In contrast, Socrates believed that useful ideas were generated through the contact between two minds, like steel striking flint. I hope to do the same, to stimulate ideas in a field that is falling flat in the age of documentation and repetition.

Throughout his adult life, Socrates spent time in the agora, the open marketplace of Athens, where he would engage locals in thoughtful dialogue. The dialogues focused on the person’s understanding of abstract concepts. Protagoras was a popular instructor in the Sophist style, which employed persuasive lectures that relied on uncritical acceptance by a passive learner. In contrast, Socrates preferred a more interactive style, one guided by lively exchange and a rational exploration of ideas (Versenyi, 1963). For this he was accused of and tried for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens.

Socrates was considered impious because he opposed the Greek views of the gods and goddesses, believing that they must be entirely good, with no anger, lust, spite, or jealousy, unlike the typical characterization of the ancient Greek gods of mythology (Irwin, 1992), who had supernatural powers but often used them in harsh and harmful ways. These radical views went against the mainstream thoughts of Socrates’s day. He was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens because some of the young men who listened to his dialogues later imitated his style of questioning people in authority. Such rebellion angered the leaders of the city, and they directed their anger toward Socrates, punishing him as their scapegoat (Waterfield, 2009). In short, Socrates was unpopular because he distrusted popular opinion and had offended local leaders and damaged their pride (Tredennick, 1969).

Socrates was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death, and, despite opportunities for an easy escape, he remained incarcerated until the time came for him to drink hemlock poison and suffer a quiet death. During his final moments, Socrates was surrounded by his friends, and he accepted his execution with dignity.

Plato, a friend, follower, and colleague (not a student) of Socrates, took on the role of biographer and recorder of Socrates’s dialogues. Almost everything we know about Socrates has been filtered through the writings of Plato (with some additional insights shared by Xenophon). Plato was born in 428 BC into a wealthy family. Over his lifetime, he developed wide-ranging interests in philosophy, politics, and government. After the execution of Socrates, Plato wanted to capture his memory of the dialogues and preserve the legacy of Socrates.

The dialogues were written in reverse chronological order, beginning with the trial and execution of Socrates, depicted in the Apology. It is commonly believed that among the dialogues, the Apology is most historically accurate, describing the events taking place during the last month of Socrates’s life. As the dialogues proceed backward in time and Socrates gets younger, the writings become less dependent on Plato’s memory of actual events and most likely are more products of Plato’s imagination. However, the ideas of Socrates and Plato have become intermingled, and there is little value in searching for the original author behind them. Nonetheless, the dialogues of Plato are often regarded as a semihistorical record of the life and lessons of Socrates.

Generally speaking, Plato’s writings are collectively called “dialogues” because at the center of each is a dialogue between Socrates and one or more citizens of Athens. (There are, however, two of Plato’s dialogues, Laws and Sophist, in which Socrates does not appear and one, Statesman, in which he plays only a minor role.) Although there is some debate as to the order (Allen, 1984), the early dialogues were written sometime between 399 and 388 BC (including Apology,CritoLachesIonCharmidesEuthyphro, and Protagoras). The middle dialogues were written around 388 or 387 BC (including MenoGorgiasPhaedoParmenidesPhaedrusSymposiumCritias, and Republic). The late dialogues were written between 367 and 361 BC (including SophistStatesmanPhilebus, and Laws). There are several other dialogues whose authorship has not been adequately verified (including EryxiasMenexenusLesser Hippias, and Alcibiades I and II). Because of the time spent recreating each story, over time they most likely became more about Plato’s ideas and less about Socrates’s dialogues (Rogers, 1933). Thus, it is generally considered that the Republic captures views held more by Plato than were ever expressed by Socrates. However, Socrates’s search for knowledge as captured in the dialogues of Plato are considered much more historically accurate than anything found in the writings of Xenophon (Godley, 1896).

After Socrates’s death, Plato was able to purchase a plot of land on the eastern edge of Athens. Sometime between 388 and 385 BC, he established the basis for a school of sorts, in a park that had been dedicated to Athens’s hero Academus. This land became a community where other scholars could gather and share their experiences in philosophy, mathematics, law, and geometry. The area became known as the Academy, and it is generally considered to be the first university. Plato lived and worked at the Academy until his death in 348 or 347 BC. The Academy remained in existence as an educational institution until 529 AD; it is now an empty field on the outskirts of Athens.

“The Socratic method” is the general term used to capture the type of discussion used during Socrates’s inquiries, which were often aimed at identifying clear definitions of ethical terms (Hackforth, 1933). The form of a Socratic dialogue is often referred to as a dialectic or the elenchus, although there are subtle differences between the two (Matthews, 1972). In the elenchus, Socrates uses a series of questions to examine all of the ramifications of a person’s statement, often in the process detecting and refuting the invalid and unsupported beliefs underlying that statement (McKinney, 1983). The examination and refutation of erroneous beliefs plays a central role in the elenchus (Renaud, 2002). Questions often aid the search for a valid definition of key abstract terms (Matthews, 1972). A series of questions examines the meaning and likely truth of the client’s beliefs (Robinson, 1971a). The removal of mistaken beliefs, created along with a state of ignorance, sets the stage for a new search for valid information (McKinney, 1983). In a dialectic, the discussion aims to explore ideas, confront different views, and eliminate false beliefs.

During the time that Plato organized and led the scholarship at the Academy, Aristotle came for eighteen years of study. Aristotle went on to write his own important works and to tutor Alexander the Great. For our purposes, we will not discuss his encyclopedic overview of ethics so as to remain true to the ideals of Socrates (and Plato). Throughout the present book on the Socratic method, we will maintain a clear and dominant focus on the ideology espoused by Socrates and captured by Plato. Other important scholars in philosophy, logic, and ethics will also be largely ignored in an attempt to remain true to Socrates as the eponymous originator of the Socratic method.

Moving from Ancient Dialogue to Contemporary Psychotherapy

This book hopes to explore contemporary psychotherapy, both its strengths and weaknesses. As a researcher and clinician, I have more than thirty years’ experience struggling to balance the importance of science and practice in clinical psychology. The book will be grounded in cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is considered an effective and well-documented form of psychotherapy today. At an even more essential level, effective psychotherapy highlights the psychology of the mind or, even better, the treatment of the mind. In all schools of psychotherapy, there is a clear emphasis or an implicit focus on the client’s cognitive processes. Cognitive therapy focuses on confronting and modifying the client’s interpretations, attributions, and expectations. However, other aspects of the Socratic method appear compatible with an array of theoretical models. The therapist may attempt to modify the client’s beliefs, promoting insight and self-awareness about personal motives and neglected past events. Therapy promotes a balance of energy within the individual and aims to increase a person’s interest in others. The therapist remains genuine, honest, and self-motivated while nonetheless addressing and challenging different facets of the client’s personality. Finally, the discussions may confront broad issues related to life goals and a person’s sense of meaning in life.

Throughout the Socratic dialogue, two or more people exchange ideas, challenge beliefs, and remain open to new perspectives. Whether confronting, for example, political views, religious beliefs, or opinions about drug use, the goal is to analyze the validity and utility of one’s preexisting beliefs while keeping an open mind to new learning opportunities. The Socratic method aims to promote new insights and shifts in perspective in everyone involved in the dialogue. This type of dialogue can be useful in a classroom setting, and I have found it especially central to my career as a clinical psychologist and a psychotherapist.

The Socratic method is closely aligned with cognitive forms of psychotherapy, especially cognitive therapy (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979), rational-emotive behavior therapy (Ellis, 1962, 1994), narrative therapy (Meichenbaum, 2003), and constructive therapy (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992). Clearly, cognitive therapy as developed by Beck has a strong foundation in the Socratic method (Moss, 1992). A Socratic dialogue is a primary tool in cognitive therapy, providing an elegant method of conveying empathy, fostering collaborative relationships with the client, and aiding the process of guided discovery (Rutter & Friedberg, 1999).

To read the complete chapter click here.

Purchase a copy of The Socratic Method of Psychotherapy on The Columbia University Press website here, or on Amazon here.

Professor James Overholser’s areas of interest and specialization include anxiety, depression, suicide, and the personality disorders. He has published empirical studies, theoretical papers, and treatment guidelines for these problems. His approach to treatment primarily relies on cognitive-behavioral strategies with a special emphasis on the Socratic method.

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