I wrote the following piece as part of an assignment for online course on Kierkegaard from Coursera.
Kierkegaard believes from his study that Socrates has a distinct methodology for teaching his audiences through his dialogues. This method of Socrates has a profound wisdom where it focuses on preparing his interlocutor for accepting and realizing the truth, rather than directly confronting him with it.
Socrates uses Irony to show contradictions in beliefs of his contemporaries. As Socrates engages in dialogue with a person, he praises his interlocutor and acknowledges his wisdom and social stature. He expresses the desire and willingness to learn from him and claims that he ignorant on the subject. The dialogue starts with Socrates asking questions and getting involved in an argument. As Socrates asks deeper questions or points out contradictions, the interlocutor finds him at a loss to answer. This bring about a realization that some of our deeply held beliefs cannot be defended so easily and may be questioned.
At this point, when the interlocutor cannot defend his position, Socrates doesn’t offer his own position on the subject. Instead, he leaves the dialogue without any conclusion, in a state of Aporia. It is a state of puzzlement where a person actively engaged with a riddle is left on his own to solve it.
Socrates don’t confront his interlocutors with truth. Instead, he felt that the real task is to direct one towards a path where he can find the truth for himself. This is important as we already have the truth within ourselves, just it is needed to be brought out. In this sense, Socrates believed that his role was like a midwife whose only assists in bringing out. This characteristic of Socratic Method is called Maieutics (midwifery).
Socratic Method takes into account the subjective aspect of truth i.e. an individual should have an inward realization of truth to really grasp it. It requires an effort, a journey on part of the seeker. Truth, rather than just being told or accepted based on some authority, should also be internalized. This does not mean that Socrates was a relativist, he was against Sophist who were the relativist of his time. He believed in the objectivity of truth but also acknowledged that it has a subjective aspect.
Socrates’s teachings are negative in the sense that they tear apart arguments and beliefs of his interlocutors. In this regard, Kierkegaard argues that Socrates’s teaching are completely negative and he doesn’t offer anything positive at all. For Kierkegaard, as opposed to Hegel, this shall not be taken as a deficiency in Socrates’s approach. It is due to the wisdom of Socrates that he never offers any positive doctrine but instead plays the role of a midwife. He assists the person in his journey to bring out the truth which he already have within himself.
Kierkegaard is deeply influenced by this Socratic Method and tries to follow this model throughout his scholarly career. This theme can be seen in all his works where Socrates and his wisdom props up from time to time.
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Kierkegaard has influenced many later philosophers and thinkers, especially in our times. His ideas have been part of, and a source of inspiration for leading philosophical movements of 20th century like existentialism and post-modernism. His philosophy is still relevant as he was a highly original thinker and was one of first to perceive and predict the problems of modern era. It is difficult to classify him as being part of any of the modern philosophical movements, because he never attempted a systematic exposition of his views. Rather his writings shake and stimulate the reader to look for the truth which he can appropriate and which can become the purpose of his life.
Modern man suffers from the loss of moral innocence and a lack of meaning. There is a widespread feeling of alienation as old social structures give way to the modern way of life. Kierkegaard with his Socratic teaching is pertinent to this modern condition, it encourages us to question the excesses of our times and emphasizes the need to understand and appropriate truth for one’s self. The value of truth is not in the cogent set of arguments which prove its validity, its power lies in the giving us a purpose and making our life meaningful.
Kierkegaard died in 1855 but his ideas are still with us with the power to strike a chord within our heart and make our existence worth it.