Socratic irony in the classroom: Clouseau or Columbo?

Peter Worley

Peter Worley is the CEO and co-founder of registered charity The Philosophy Foundation, president of SOPHIA and a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London. He has been working in classrooms doing philosophy since 2002, and is an award-winning author of many books on the subject including The If Machine, and his latest, 40 Lessons to Get Children Thinking, both from Bloomsbury.

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Year 6 child: ‘Miss, do you think God is real?’
Year 4 child: ‘Miss, what is the answer?’

Among the many useful pedagogical skills we can learn from the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, one of the most interesting is that of Socratic irony.

The Chambers dictionary says that Socratic irony is "a means by which a questioner pretends to know less than a respondent, when actually he knows more."

[Source: Wikipedia]

Zoe Williams, of the Guardian, says that "The technique [of Socratic irony], demonstrated in the Platonic dialogues, was to pretend ignorance and, more sneakily, to feign credence in your opponent's power of thought, in order to tie him in knots."

[Source: Wikipedia]

Good Practice?

It doesn’t sound like this is particularly good pedagogy. It seems disingenuous and designed to trap an opponent - perhaps not what you should be doing with your pupils. However, I think there is more to Socratic irony than a sophisticated rhetorical device used to win arguments. Socrates would have baulked at that idea given his disapproval of precisely these sorts of tricks employed by his contemporaries, The Sophists.

Let’s assume, for now, that there are indeed examples of his using irony in this way. There are nevertheless, I will argue, other ways that he uses so-called Socratic irony that are not only appropriate in the classroom but, I suggest, are excellent examples of good teaching practice.

I know that I don’t know

Socrates is not thought to have had many positive doctrines of his own. Often the doctrines in the Platonic dialogues through which we best know Socrates are ascribed to Plato. However, many scholars agree that there are a small handful of central beliefs that are genuinely Socratic. Among them is his disavowel of knowledge:

‘Wisest is he who knows that, in respect of knowledge, he knows nothing.’ (Apology)

Now, if it is indeed the case that Socrates claims that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing then it would be wrong to say that Socratic irony means that Socrates ‘…pretends to know less than a respondent… when actually he knows more’. Note: unless the ‘more’ that he knows is that Socrates knows that the respondent doesn’t really know what he claims to know. This certainly isn’t ‘knowing more about the subject’ as is implied in the Wikipedia examples above.

Wikipedia also compares the Socratic irony of Socrates to that of the television detective character Lieutenant Columbo, who has the appearance of incompetence when in fact he often knows much more than he lets on to his quarry. Now compare the incompetence of Columbo - which is feigned - to that of the film detective Inspector Clouseau, whose incompetence is genuine.

If we think of Socratic irony in these two ways there is something we can learn with respect to how we approach our pupils that is empowering, motivating, and that fosters a collaborative relationship between teacher and pupil(s).

Fountain of all knowledge?

Teachers often feel that they should fulfil the role of ‘fountain of all knowledge’ for their pupils. For instance: the embarrassment a teacher feels when they make a factual, or calculation, error. But Socrates asks us not only to acknowledge our fallibility but to embrace it as a pedagogical tool. This is the position that best sets up the right kind of relationship for the teacher to then enter their role as ‘guide’ rather than ‘fountain of all knowledge’. If a teacher says ‘I don’t know,’ this motivates students to seek the information the teacher doesn’t know. So not only is it sometimes helpful to recognise what you don’t know ‘in full view’ of the students, it can be even more fruitful to adopt a position of ‘not knowing’ even when you do know.

Isn’t that disingenuous though?

If you understand Socrates to be analogous to Columbo then yes this is disingenuous and although dissembling to a criminal may be justifiable, doing so to children may not be. But here the subtler point that we learn from Socrates’ disavowel of knowledge comes to the fore. If indeed it is the case that Socrates asks us to recognise that we really know nothing (or at least very little) then perhaps our Socratic irony isn’t so ironic after all. In this respect Socrates could be more ‘Clouseau’ than ‘Columbo’. Not in that he is incompetent but that he is sincere.

The position of defeasibility

Something is ‘defeasible’ if it is open to being wrong or to correction. I am going to ask you to entertain that Socrates is really asking us to adopt a position of defeasibility. This is not to say ‘I don’t know’ when in fact you do, it is to recognise that what it is you think you know is open to being wrong or to correction. An example of this is ‘the fact’ that there are nine planets in the solar system. This might have been considered by many teachers, and for many years, to be a pretty solid fact. But, first of all, there was a time, in the middle ages, when there were thought to be only seven planets, including the sun and the moon. And, secondly the status of the nine planets now known is under further dispute with the recent relegation of Pluto to ‘minor planet’.

It may seem to you that though some facts - such as the number of planets in the solar system - are open to revision, not all facts are of this nature; ‘there are some things I do know for sure,’ you may say to yourself. But, Socrates is asking us, out of deference to humility, to entertain that even the most solid of facts could one day be shown to be false or at least inaccurate, as the science of Newton was shown to be. If you recognise this request as having any power at all then you will have adopted a form of Socratic irony that is not disingenuous.

This doesn’t mean that you can tell the children no facts but when you do, you should do so tentatively. Phrases like ‘as far as I know…’ or ‘scientists tell us that…’ are to be preferred to phrases like ‘it is true that…’ or ‘it is a fact that…’

So you're not being Colombo, but adopting a Clouseau-like honesty. You need not be an agnostic or a sceptic about your textbooks to entertain the defeasibility of the facts you are teaching.

You are now in a position to answer the questions at the top of the page from the Year 4 and 6 children more tentatively and thereby encourage the children to think about it for themselves without, firstly, telling them what to think, and secondly, without being disingenuous. That is, if you adopt the cloak of Socratic irony in the right pedagogical spirit:

Year 6 child: ‘Miss, do you think God is real?’
Teacher: ‘Well, I’m really not sure because it’s not an easy question to answer. What do you think?’
Year 4 child: ‘Miss, what is the answer?’
Teacher: ‘The answer in the back of the book is X. Do you agree with that? Why or why not?’

Apology by Plato. Many editions. 4th century BCE
Columbo: long-running television series starring Peter Falk as Columbo created by William Link and Richard Levinson in 1960.
Inspector Clouseau is a fictional French police detective in The Pink Panther series of films by Blake Edwards beginning in 1963.
For more on the number of planets in the solar system see:

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