Wednesday, July 22, 2009


It is assumed that maieutics was created by the historical Socrates, because Socrates discusses it in Plato’s Symposium and Thaetetus. But the method may well have evolved out of Orphic practice, to which the idea of reminiscence and the practice of catharsis are central; it was certainly a technique characteristic of the Socratic School.

However, it does differ from what is more typically called the Socratic method, a.k.a. elenchus (elengkhos, "refutation," "testing"), which aims to help the interlocutor understand that what they think is a true idea is really a false prejudice
it aims to correct—or, at least, understand—error (= looking for assumptions, including fumble-rules and leaping/stumbling logic, i.e. enthymemes [a.k.a. “rhetorical syllogisms,” with missing warrants and backings], in their thinking about a question or problem
This is Socrates as gadfly.

Maieutics aims to draw some innate idea from the interlocutor
it aims to elicit truth (= using their experience and expertise to understand their question or problem)
This is Socrates as midwife.

Elenchus works on those who think they know something, but really don’t; maieutics works on those who know something, but don’t know that they do.

Alternatively, the two methods can be understood as parts of a process.

The basic elements of the Socratic dialogue are the question and answer [elenchus—aporia], the debate [maieutics—anamnesis] and the conclusion [aletheia].

So there are three phases:
  1. elenchus: The student responds to the teacher’s question, (hopefully or faithfully) assuming that what they say is true. The philosopher asks further questions until the student comes to the conclusion that what they took to be true was mistaken or a mistaken assumption [= a negative, a.k.a. privative, method or method of doubt—aporia].
  2. maieutics: Now freed from prejudice, the student is invited to continue the dialogue in pursuit of a truth (assumed to be [!]) innate in them [= a positive method or method of invention—anamnesis].
  3. aletheia [“truth”]: Truth, what was hidden [-letheia], is what is revealed [a-letheia] in the process.

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