Neo-Socratic Dialogues in School

Neo-Kantian German philosopher Leonard Nelson (1882-1927) believed that, unlike empirical knowledge (that can be derived from sensory experiences), philosophical wisdom is insight gained through the use of reason. Socratic dialogues in the Leonard Nelson tradition, start with people’s own experiences and proceed through a process of regressive abstraction. In 1924, Nelson founded the Philosophisch Politische Akademie and an experimental school the Landeserziehungsheim Walkemuehle.

The aims of both were to educate children in a love of truth, and to encourage self esteem. It was a radical attempt to change education at a time of many other educational pioneers for mainly primary education: Montessori, Dewey, Petersen, Freinet, who had roughly the following characteristics in common:

  • emphasis on the needs and the individuality of the child;
  • emphasis on activities and skills, rather than purely passive learning;
  • attention to social skills and a sense of community; 
  • attempt to integrate traditional subjects to a more project-based curriculum.

After his death, Nelson’s educational and political work was carried on by his pupils, Minna Specht and Gustav Heckmann. Philosophy, says Nelson, is about insight, not knowledge. This insight can be achieved only by:

  • thinking for oneself with the help of one’s own judgments;
  • working systematically;
  • defining concepts clearly;
  • concentrating on real, important problems that help us to understand reality better and or not just formal problems;
  • expressing oneself in clear, everyday language. This is achieved through Socratic Method, which forces participants to express thoughts clearly, to systematise judgments, and to test their own beliefs during the thinking process itself. There is no exchange of ‘facts’.

The benefits of these dialogues include the acquisition of various philosophical skills – e.g., different discussion techniques, the practice of concept analysis, practice in formulating definitions, working with relations such as cause/effect, appearance/reality, part/whole; use of examples, counter examples, etc. The main advantage is the practice of autonomous thinking with the help of one’s own judgement.

Gustav Heckmann practised the Socratic Method before World War Two in Nelson’s experimental school – a boarding school and training college for children and adults. It was closed down by the Nazis in 1933. He practised after the war in Hannover Teacher’s Training College.

Heckmann taught philosophy by discussing and jointly reasoning about possible solutions to philosophical problems, and not by studying a philosophical text. His lessons – lasting ninety minutes – were accessible to all, but he did insist upon continuous and regular attendance. Socratic Method, Nelson/Heckmann style, is exceptional in the way in which a fundamental question is answered (e.g., can you change the meaning of words?) – via the examples and experiences of the participants (e.g., can I change the meaning of ‘is’, in ‘George is a slow thinker’?). This is central to the method itself. Examples must be a concrete reflection of the basic question under discussion. It is only through concrete examples, which are in principle accessible to all participants, that insight into the general, abstract is possible. After each lesson the results of the discourse are written down by students and the facilitator. This gives students an opportunity for quiet reflection, and the freedom to follow their own train of thought. It also clarifies for the facilitator whether everyone was able to follow the dialogue, and whether there were any misunderstandings. These results are used as minutes for the starting point of the next lesson. They are read out aloud to provide an effective summary of the previous lesson’s discussion, or to introduce a new line of thought, or extend the line of reasoning. The only ‘technique’ admissible in Socratic discourse is that of reflection on experiences common to all participants.

Role of the teacher

The facilitator of a Socratic dialogue has a role which is, in a sense, more ‘Spartan’ than the ‘midwife’ typical of Socrates. Although facilitators are well acquainted with finer points of the subject under discussion, they remain completely outside the argument itself. They have the task only of ensuring the reasonable conduct of the discussion.


The rules of Socratic dialogue currently used in Socratic Method workshops have been developed mostly by Heckmann. The rules are as follows:

  • Participants think about their own experiences, and not what they have merely read about or experienced second hand. No ‘outside’ authorities are allowed.
  • This thinking is a ‘sincere self examination’. There is no pretence of doubt – e.g., Cartesian doubt. No hypothetical discussions are permissible.
  • Participants have to do their utmost to express themselves simply and clearly and, therefore, avoid monologues.
  • Participants should reflect, not only on their own thoughts, but do their utmost to understand those of others.
  • The facilitator should ensure that consensus is reached at a levelk which is ‘deeper’ than ‘superficial’.
  • Every general, abstract statement should be tested by giving concrete examples accessible to all participants.
  • The dialogue is finished only once consensus is reached between all participants. Consensus has been reached when there are no participants within the group who hold contradictory points of view. It is possible, however, to temporarily postpone the dialogue.

It follows from these rules that there can be no reference in the discussion to experiments, empirical surveys, historical studies, and psycho analysis.

What we regard as knowledge, according to Socrates, is often nothing more than prejudice. The ability to get one’s own opinions in perspective in the light of someone else’s sound counter arguments is the main aim of a Socratic dialogue. If it is successful, the participants learn and experience the meaning of an ‘open’ discussion. They learn to be receptive to the arguments of their discussion partners.