What is a Socratic Seminar?

By Katie King

What is a Socratic Seminar?

Here at OGB, members are given an average of three hours of Great Book reading to complete on their own each week. They aren’t just left high and dry though. At the end of the month, our members come together in a Socratic Seminar on Zoom ready to discuss their assigned reading. You can expect anywhere from 10-20 people in a Socratic Seminar, all armed with their book, their opinions, and a drink of choice.

You may be asking yourself– what does this seminar experience look like?

In each 2-hour seminar, we ask each other the hard questions and clarify our thoughts on what we’ve read. The seminar is the first step in putting what you’ve read to action in your own life.

What’s the difference between a Socratic Seminar and formal education?

In a classroom setting, you have a professor who is trying to lead you somewhere. it’s not exploratory to you; instead, the point is for the student to become an advocate of whatever position is being presented. What does this translate to? You end up taking notes on the professor’s notes. Instead of using a teacher, we have what is called an Interlocutor to facilitate discussion of the original text, not the SparkNotes version.

What is an Interlocutor?

Interlocutor translates to interloqui in Latin, meaning “to speak between.” An interlocutor is a facilitator of discussion, not a teacher. In fact, teaching is not allowed at Online Great Books. Our members come to us because they are investing in themselves. They learn from the Great Books and take out of it what they want in order to become better wives and husbands, better travelers, and better citizens.

A good interlocutor will help you form your thoughts and ideas through investigative questioning. This is what Socrates called “midwifing” ideas.

In Plato’s Theaetetus, Socrates compares himself to a midwife, who can establish whether a woman is pregnant, induce labor, calm its pain, and bring about the delivery of a healthy child. He exclaims to the young philosopher Theaetetus,

These are the pangs of labour, my dear Theaetetus; you have something within you which you are bringing forth.

In this analogy, the pangs of labor are the pains of achieving wisdom. The truth can hurt! The midwife can also determine if a person is barren – not of children, but of wisdom.

In his time, Socrates would wander around Athens, accosting people at the agora, or marketplace. He’d walk up to citizens and ask questions like, “what is justice?” He would then commence by asking a slew of clarifying questions to drill down the poor smuck’s opinion of justice.

Questions you might hear in a Socratic Seminar:

  1. Why do we continue to read this book?
  2. What does the book have to say about X theme?
  3. Why was this book written?
  4. Can we learn anything about human nature by reading this book?
  5. Has human nature changed since this book was written?
  6. How did this book change the course of thought in history?
  7. Are there aspects of this work that can speak to a person living in the 21st century?

Seminar is an intimate experience and you will gain lifelong friends with other members in your group. Answering these questions for yourself honestly will lead to wonderful means of personal discovery. The Socratic model relies upon honest engagement in conversation, and learning to become vulnerable in voicing your thoughts and opinions is an important aspect of discovery and learning.

If you aren’t comfortable with speaking your mind in a seminar-style discussion, you might give this article a read, “8 Theories Explaining Why I Won’t Speak Up in Seminar.”

Even if it doesn’t come naturally to us, being able to engage in these discussions is a life skill worthy of our pursuit. Something our more seasoned members have learned is that it’s not enough anymore to just retain information and think critically about it on your own. Engaging in a Socratic Seminar with your peers and an honest interlocutor will lead you down rabbit holes of discovery you never knew existed. If that’s not worth your time and energy, I don’t know what is.


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