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Elements of the Socratic Method - IV - Disavowal of Knowledge

Elements of the Socratic Method - IV - Disavowal of Knowledge

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Volume 32/Summer 1995/Number 2
Case Western Reserve University
The Socratic method can be used incombination with most forms ofpsychotherapy. Previous reports havedescribed the Socratic method as comprisedof three basic elements: systematicquestioning, inductive reasoning, anduniversal definitions. The present articledescribes a disavowal of knowledge as ageneral attitude that underlies the effectiveuse of the Socratic
Disavowal ofknowledge refers to a tendency to view mostinformation as comprised of tentative beliefsand personal opinions rather than objectivefacts. Disavowal of knowledge by the clientreduces inadequately justified beliefs,stimulates a search or new information, andfacilitates critical thinking by the client.Likewise, disavowal of knowledge by thetherapist promotes intellectual modesty insessions, ensures a genuine desire forlearning by the therapist, and encouragescollaborative empiricism throughouttherapy. Each aspect is discussed as relatedto the use of the Socratic method inpsychotherapy.
I am indebted to Mark Fine, Abe
Dalia Adams, RobinCautin, Dave Brinkman, Kim Lehnert, Rick Cirillo, Brian Car-penter, Scott Mizes, Stacy Freiheit, Maty Breen,
Patti Wat-
for valuable comments
I would like to express a special thanks to Albert Ellisfor his critical review of an earlier draft of this manuscript.Finally, I would like to thank my clients, my students, and mychildren for continually showing me how little I know.Correspondence regarding this article should be addressedto James C. Overholser, Department of Psychology, CaseWestern Reserve University, 10900 Euclid Avenue, Cleve-land, OH 44106-7123.
Hie Socratic method is a type of dialogue thatuses a series of questions to help people thinkthrough different problems and derive satisfactorysolutions. The Socratic method plays an importantrole in many forms of psychotherapy; it is centralto cognitive therapy developed by Aaron Beck(Beck & Emery, 1985; Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Em-ergy, 1979; Beck, Wright, Newman, & Liese,1993) and rational-emotive therapy developed byAlbert Ellis (Ellis, 1962, 1977). Psychodynamicapproaches also incorporate aspects of the Socraticmethod (Rychlak, 1968; Stein, 1991). The Socraticmethod includes three basic elements: systematicquestioning (Overholser, 1993a), inductive reason-ing (Overholser, 19936), and universal definitions(Overholser, 1994). In many cases, systematicquestioning and inductive reasoning are used jointlyto help the client derive a universal definition. Auniversal definition refers to the process of helpingclients learn to see their problems from a broaderperspective by defining relevant terms (e.g., suc-cess) in a manner that goes beyond the specifics oftheir current life circumstances.In addition to these elements, the Socraticmethod also requires that the therapist maintaina general attitude involving a disavowal of knowl-edge, often referred to as Socratic ignorance. Ig-norance occurs when people falsely believe theyknow things that they do not know (Taran, 1985).The disavowal of knowledge refers to the tend-ency to remain skeptical about what informationis viewed as objective knowledge. It involveslearning to accept that one typically lacks knowl-edge with absolute certainty, and instead viewsmost cognitive processing as based on tentativebeliefs and personal opinions.There is considerable overlap among termssuch as knowledge, beliefs, opinions, and igno-rance. Knowledge refers to an understanding ofinformation that has been strongly verified by ob-jective evidence (Gambrill, 1993). Knowledgedoes not refer to the memorization of isolatedpieces of information (Versenyi, 1963), but is
James C. Overholser
based on a general understanding of how thingsfunction. Many philosophers (e.g., Klein, 1981;Unger, 1975) believe knowledge requires abso-lute certainty that the information is true. How-ever, this is difficult because there is usually addi-tional evidence the client does not have and thatcould possibly refute the claim (Swain, 1978).Thus, whereas knowledge refers to informationthat has been well justified, beliefs are typicallyunsupported claims that may be accurate or inac-curate. Opinions are even less objective becausethey can be accepted without effort or evidence.Although beliefs can be shown to be true or false,opinions refer to personal preferences and thuscannot be proven true (Gambrill, 1993). A Socra-tic dialogue often reveals that many instances ofsupposed knowledge are merely beliefs or opin-ions (Lesher, 1987; Taran, 1985).The disavowal of knowledge can play an im-portant role in the general attitude held by thetherapist, and it can be beneficial to cultivate inthe client. The disavowal of knowledge encour-ages both therapist and client to remain open tonew experiences, helping them learn about theetiology, variability, and modification of mal-adaptive behaviors. Therefore, the disavowal ofknowledge emphasizes learning as central to thetherapeutic process. The disavowal of knowledgeunderlies the effective use of the other elementsof the Socratic method. This disavowal of knowl-edge is compatible with contemporary cognitivetherapy but has not been previously discussed inthe literature as it relates to the use of the Socraticmethod in psychotherapy.Traditionally, many proponents of cognitive ther-apy have described attitudes held by the therapistthat appear to conflict with a disavowal of knowl-edge by the therapist. For example, cognitive ther-apy has been described as involving an active, di-rective, structured approach (Harrison & Beck,1982) in which the therapist serves as an expertguide (Beck et al., 1979). Cognitive therapy hasbeen described as a process conducted by the thera-pist who formulates the treatment plan and devisesthe strategy and objectives of therapy, and coachesthe patient to make specific changes (Beck, 1970;Bedrosian & Beck, 1980). Cognitive therapy en-dorses an educational model and the use of didacticpresentations to re-educate the client (Beck &Emery,
Kovacs, 1980). Only in more recentwritings (Beck et al., 1993) has cognitive therapy
to emphasize therapist modesty and a ten-• to avoid the role of expert. Thus, many as-pects of the Socratic method are compatible withrecent approaches to cognitive therapy.Although the Socratic method can be useful inpromoting a self-guided discovery process, the ther-apist does not always emphasize a disavowal ofknowledge. The therapist is not always a skeptic,but always remains cautious and modest. Also, theSocratic method is not appropriate for all clients.The Socratic method requires that clients are honestenough to say what they really believe, reasonableenough to adinit their areas of
and braveenough to continue the exploration process(Seeskin, 1987). If these conditions are not met,the client may not be appropriate for a Socraticapproach that encourages autonomy and self-explo-ration. For clients who have a clearly defined focalproblem for which effective treatments are avail-able, therapy may benefit from more directive, in-terpretive, or educational approaches. Also, clientswho are
a therapeutic relation-ship may feel rebuffed by a therapist who avoidstaking a more directive stance. The Socratic methodworks best with intelligent, motivated clients whoneed assistance clarifying their problems, identi-fying potential solutions, and understanding them-selves better. Many clients obtain more lasting ben-efits from the autonomy that is encouraged by theSocratic approach.
Disavowal of Knowledge by the Client
A basic goal of the Socratic method is to helpclients begin their own rational, reflective searchfor knowledge through critical thinking (Versenyi,1963). The client's disavowal of knowledge servesthree purposes: it reduces the client's faith in unsup-ported beliefs, it stimulates a desire to leam, andit enhances the ch'ent's critical thinking abilities.
Reduce Client's Faith in Unsupported Beliefs
Many psychological problems are caused byunsupported beliefs that clients hold about them-selves and their life events (Beck et al., 1979;Ellis & Dryden, 1987). When clients use (or im-ply) the phrase "I know . . .", the therapist shouldwatch for potentially erroneous claims of knowl-edge. For example, a client may say "I knowhe won't like it," or "I know she'll be mad."Knowledge of future events is not possible. Thetherapist can explore the client's hopes, fears, andexpectations surrounding possible future events.Clients can learn to view their expectations asrough estimates of the likelihood an event willoccur (Kirsch, 1990). Likewise, memory of past
Disavowal of Knowledge
events may not provide an accurate basis forknowledge. Many past events are reinterpreteddifferently as people fill in gaps in their memory(Ross & McFarland, 1988).When pushed for evidence to support theirclaims, many clients will admit they cannot sup-port their beliefs with absolute certainty (Vlastos,1985).The Socratic method can be used to helpeliminate false beliefs (Popper, 1989)
prepareclients for learning by helping them to accepttheir areas of ignorance. However, the proper useof the Socratic method does not involve usingquestions
to put clients
defensive or humili-ating clients into admitting their ignorance. In-stead, the therapist helps clients see the limita-tions of any one view. Because it can be anunpleasant experience for clients to recognizetheir areas of bias, the Socratic method will failunless it is laced with compassion (Guthrie,1971). For example, an adult female client wasfeeling overworked and stressed. However, shewas afraid to tell
boss she was struggling withthe heavy work demands because she "knew" herboss would be disappointed in her and he wouldprobably consider firing her. When she finallytold her boss she was feeling overworked, heapologized, said how
he relied
her, prob-ably too much, and began to distribute the workload mote evenly across the other employees.Thus,this client initially reported a belief thatwas disruptive to her life. When she attemptedto verify her
she found it was unsupportedand she needed to re-evaluate her appraisal ofthe situation.The therapist can help clients improve theirability to learn from experience. Some clientsneed to distance themselves from their view ofevents and become willing to examine the accu-racy of their beliefs without being blocked bypride, fear, or hope (Schmid, 1983). For exam-ple,habits and emotions may tempt clients toaccept their beliefs without evaluating them criti-cally (Larrabee, 1945). The therapist can bringprofessional objectivity
emotional distance toa discussion of the client's problems, helping toincrease the client's ability to evaluate the situa-tion objectively (Beck et al., 1979).
example,an adult male client had difficulty keeping jobs.Despite having attended college for three years,he was often fired from menial positions due todisagreements with different supervisors. At hiscurrent job as a waiter, he had many difficultieswith his boss, whom he described as irritable,picky, and critical of
workers. In therapy, theclient was helped to see the situation
work fromseveral different perspectives, including that ofseveral coworkers and the boss
Also, tobegin evaluating the role the client played in thenegative interactions, he tried to observe his bossdealing with customers and coworkers. The clientalso tried shifting his view of the job to see it asan opportunity to learn new ways of dealing withpeople, especially difficult people.
time, theclient learned that his boss was best viewed as aparticular type of person, a boss who pushed hisworkers by close inspection and criticism, notnecessarily intending to pick on the client. Later,he ran into a previous boss while out shopping
and the
client was able
boss as
person,not as someone who was deliberately critical ofthe client. Thus, he had distanced himself fromhis feelings and was able to view these peoplemore objectively. He began to view people differ-ently, becoming more open to the role he playedin various social interactions.While attempting to challenge unsupported be-liefs,the Socratic method may produce a tempo-rary state of confusion when clients realize theyhave only beliefs and opinions instead of knowl-edge (Taran, 1985). Confusion often indicates theclient is puzzled and ready to begin clarifying theconfusion (Clarke, 1989). Then, the therapist canemphasize
that the
has the
developnew perspectives for understanding and copingwith the situation. It is often essential to eliminate
answer to more
clearly see
correctanswer. The Socratic dialogue can help clientsreduce their reliance
unsupported beliefs (West& West, 1984). For example, a female collegestudent described her childhood sexual abuse by
older brothers, but she took full responsibilityfor what happened. She blamed herself and wasoften depressed and withdrawn because of theseevents. It was important for
to realize that shewas not to blame. She was too young to knowit was wrong, too small to fight back, and toofrightened to call for help. Thus, ignorance doesnot always imply a lack of information but mayinvolve a misunderstanding or misattribution ofevents. After discussing these problems with hertherapist, the client
to shift
views of whathad happened and no longer accepted blame forthese traumatic acts. The therapist helped the clientsee that her view of the events from her childhooddid not correspond to her general views of justiceand abuse and therefore needed to be changed.

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