Discover more from Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life
The Wisdom of Talking to Yourself
Was Socrates using a Psychological Trick to Gain Wisdom?
We could be forgiven for thinking that the philosophical ideas of Socrates, or at least those attributed to him, have already been studied quite exhaustively. Indeed, the scholarship began with Plato, Xenophon, and the other Socratics, carried on throughout many centuries, and still continues in universities today. Almost all of this research has been philosophical, however, and virtually none of it is psychological. Perhaps because of my interdisciplinary background, in philosophy and psychotherapy, it struck me that some of the most important lessons we might learn from Socrates relate to what we might describe as the psychology of philosophy.
Many psychological observations can be made about the peculiar way that Socrates is portrayed doing philosophy, and his use of the Socratic Method. The first thing we might notice, however, is simply that he believes philosophy, the love of wisdom, can best be pursued by examining some of the most important assumptions held by other people. Socrates believed that he could learn more about the nature of wisdom by using the Socratic Method in dialogue with his interlocutors, than by quietly applying philosophy to his own life in solitude.
Recent research by social psychologists has, indeed, provided some fascinating support for Socrates’ approach to wisdom. Prof. Igor Grossmann is the head of a centre at the University of Waterloo in Canada, called the Wisdom and Culture Lab, which carries out psychological research studying wisdom. Wisdom has already been shown to be related to wellbeing. One of Grossmann’s initial insights was that we typically exhibit greater wisdom when considering other people’s problems than we do when considering our own.
We chose the term Solomon’s Paradox to identify the contradiction between thinking about other people’s problems wisely, but failing to do so for ourselves. The Biblical King Solomon, known for his keen intellect and unmatched wisdom in guiding others, failed to apply wisdom in his own life, which ultimately led to the demise of his kingdom. — Grossmann, ‘Why We Give Great Advice To Others But Can't Take it Ourselves’, Forbes Magazine, Apr 7, 2015
Experiments carried out by Grossmann and his colleagues appeared to confirm that our judgment becomes better, or wiser, when we are examining other people’s lives. For example, they gave experimental subjects the same relationship problem to discuss, but whereas one group were asked to imagine it was a friend’s problem the other group viewed it as if it were their own problem.
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Wisdom was defined by the researchers in terms of measures of intellectual humility, such as being willing to search for additional information that could inform their judgment; open-mindedness, such as being more likely to look at the situation from the perspectives of others involved; and compromise, or being willing to combine alternative perspectives to find a solution. The group examining the problem as if it happened to a friend turned out to score 22% better on ratings of intellectual humility, 31% better on open-mindedness, and 15% better on compromise. These and other experiments therefore confirm, to put it simply, that we’re better at giving other people advice than giving it to ourselves.
So far, this might seem like bad news. There may, however, be ways to protect ourselves from the psychological limitations caused by Solomon’s Paradox. What if we can examine our own beliefs as if they belonged to other people? Socrates makes it clear that he can imagine being in his interlocutor’s shoes, sharing some of their assumptions, and making similar errors to the ones they make. Through his method of questioning, in fact, he uses the other person as a mirror, of sorts, in which he may examine his own reflection. They reflect back the image not of his face but his intellect. The other person becomes a philosophical laboratory in which Socrates may examine his own beliefs, and mistakes he might potentially make, with greater detachment and objectivity than if doing so alone.
The dialogue format adopted by Plato and the other Socratics brings this to life for us. From our perspective, Socrates and his interlocutor provide mirrors capable of reflecting our own assumptions about important questions such as the nature of justice, or wisdom itself. When we read philosophical dialogues, or engage in a similar sort of dialogue with a real person, we gain a broader perspective from which to consider our beliefs. We can more easily imagine the consequences of holding a particular belief, its wider impact on our relationships, how it might influence one’s character and actions, whether it conflicts with other beliefs, and how it might relate to a variety of different situations.
There are signs, moreover, that Socrates adapted the philosophical method he used in the dialogues for solitary use. When someone asked Antisthenes, for instance, what benefit he had obtained from studying philosophy with Socrates, he replied “The ability to hold conversations with myself.” We don’t have any explanation of what he meant by that, however, we do find several intriguing references to Socrates having philosophical conversations with himself.
In Plato’s Hippias Major, for example, Socrates keeps referring to a mysterious man who relentlessly pesters him with questions, as though trying to refute him. Socrates describes him as a very close relative, who even shares his home. He waits there to challenge Socrates when he comes home from speaking about such things as wisdom and justice with the Sophists.
So whenever I go home to my own house, and he hears me saying these things, he asks me if I am not ashamed that I have the face to talk about beautiful practices, when it is so plainly shown, to my confusion, that I do not even know what the beautiful itself is. “And yet how are you to know,” he will say, “either who produced a discourse, or anything else whatsoever, beautifully, or not, when you are ignorant of the beautiful?
Socrates appears to let slip that the man in question is none other than “Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus, who would no more permit me to say these things carelessly without investigation than to say I know what I do not know.”
The strange man is therefore Socrates himself, viewed as if he were another person. In other words, even after Socrates had finished having a dialogue with one of his friends about philosophy he would continue by having an imaginary dialogue with himself in private. This other (second) Socrates, the stranger, was imagined pointing out the limitations of the real (first) Socrates’ perspective, challenging his biases, by questioning the definitions he took for granted of important concepts.
Likewise, in Plato’s Crito, Socrates says that he is going to imagine being interrogated by the Laws of Athens. According to him they say: “Tell us, Socrates, what you are about?” and later “Answer Socrates, instead of acting astonished — you are in the habit of asking and answering questions!” He then proceeds to conduct an imaginary dialogue between himself and these Laws. By engaging in dialogue with others, Socrates therefore learned how to engage in imaginary dialogue with himself.
We can achieve greater objectivity with regard to our own thinking by imagining someone else challenging our beliefs, as Socrates describes doing. A related, and perhaps easier, method, however, consists in referring to our own thoughts and actions as if we were talking about those of someone else. Third-person self-talk is actually known as “illeism”, from the Latin ille meaning “he” (the third-person pronoun). For example, rather than thinking “I’m really upset and I don’t know whether I should stay or go!” (first person), I might say to myself “Donald is really upset and he doesn’t know whether he should stay or go” (third person).
In another research study, Grossmann and his colleagues examined whether it makes any difference to talk about our own problems in the first-person or third-person. They compared two groups of subjects, again discussing a hypothetical relationship problem. The results showed that simply by phrasing things differently, talking about their own problem as if they were talking about someone else’s, participants were 35% more likely to employ a “wiser” style of reasoning than normal, as if giving advice to a friend. This is, more or less, what Socrates is portrayed as doing when he pretends that an imaginary stranger, or the Laws of Athens, are criticizing his thinking and pointing out his errors.
More recently, a pair of studies on illeism, which the researchers call “distanced self-reflection”, asked a total of 555 participants to record their thoughts in a journal for four weeks. In order to test whether wise reasoning could be cultivated in daily life, participants were to write about various pleasant or troubling social experience that happened each day, one group using first-person and the other third-person language. Those employing illeism were found to have improved their “wisdom” as measured by ratings of intellectual humility, acknowledging others’ perspectives, and conflict resolution. The study also found some evidence that those employing illeism experienced less negative emotion, such as anger or frustration, in their relationships.
Illeism in Cognitive Therapy
There’s good evidence that illeism can not only help wisdom and problem-solving but that it may be therapeutic when it comes to negative emotions. In a recent systematic review, Wallace-Hadrill and Kamboj (2016) identified no less than 38 studies in which the effect on emotion of deliberately adopting a third-person perspective was measured, including with regard to anxiety, sadness, anger, and guilt. Across the board, evidence was found that the intensity of emotion was reduced, and the meaning of events was viewed differently.
Indeed, similar verbal techniques are already widely-used in cognitive psychotherapy. For example in their 1985 manual for the treatment of anxiety disorders, Aaron T. Beck, and his colleagues, describe referring to our thoughts in the third-person as a technique for emotional self-regulation. Someone might describe his own worries by saying “Bill is feeling anxious, he’s worried others are judging him negatively…” as if he were observing the thoughts of another person (Beck, Emery, & Greenberg, 2005, p. 194).
In conclusion, there’s good reason to view certain aspects of the Socratic Method as having measurable psychological benefits. Socrates is portrayed using dialogue as a means of developing his self-awareness by treating the other person as a mirror for his own intellect. He also explicitly uses illeism in several places, referring to himself in the third-person by engaging in imaginary dialogue with a second Socrates or with the personified Laws of Athens, and so on, in order to examine his own beliefs and biases from a more objective point of view.
Wallace-Hadrill SMA and Kamboj SK (2016) The Impact of Perspective Change As a Cognitive Reappraisal Strategy on Affect: A Systematic Review. Front. Psychol. 7:1715. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01715