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Journal of the APPA
Volume 5 Number 3 November 2010

Special Issue on Socratic Dialogue

Editor Editorial
Lou Marinoff Lou Marinoff

Guest Editor Introduction

Horst Gronke Horst Gronke

Reviews Editor Articles

Nancy Matchett
Can We Put into Words What a Socratic Dialogue Really Is?
Managing Editor Dieter Krohn & Jos Kessels
Kate Mehuron
Ten Years of Socratic Dialogue in Prisons: Its Scope and Limits
Jens Peter Brune & Horst Gronke
Technical Consultant
Greg Goode Neo-Socratic Dialogue in Practice
Beate Littig
Legal Consultant
Thomas Griffith Dissolving Insolubilia
Paolo Dordoni


Le Courage de la Vrit
John McSweeney

Conversations on Ethics
Lauren Tillinghast

The Mindful Therapist

Leslie Miller

The Conscience of the Campus

Robert Parmach

Biographies of Contributors Nemo Veritatem Regit
ISSN 1742-8181 Nobody Governs Truth
Philosophical Practice, November 2010, 5.3: 674-84 674

Ten Years of Socratic Dialogue in Prisons

Its Scope and Limits*





This essay is an account of the Socratic dialogue as a form of philosophical practice in an unusual
setting, in prison. It conveys an overall picture of how in Tegel Penal Institution (JVA Tegel) Socratic
dialogue proceeds, and the kind of application for it in that setting. Among important aspects handled here
are the characteristics through which Socratic dialogue demarcates itself from those customarily practiced
techniques of psychological and therapeutic dialogue in prisons. The focus is on the question, whether any,
and which kinds of, effects can be hoped for through Socratic dialogue in prisons.

Keywords: academic philosophy, popular philosophy, therapeutic dialogue, psychological-peda-

gogical behavioral training, phases of Socratic Dialogue, abstractive regression, Socratic question,
will, insight, knowledge.

In Berlins world of practical philosophy and philosophical practice, not an atypical day: 9 AM. Jens
Peter brings his two kids to the kindergarten. Horst is on his way to a Socratic coaching of a department
manager. 11 AM. Jens Peter is doing his final corrections on the proof sheets of his new book on Philoso-
phy of Law of Habermas. By that time Horst arrives at the Institute of Philosophy of Free University. In
about 15 minutes his classes on philosophy and public affairs will begin. 2 PM. Jens Peter gives an
interview for a regional radio station of Berlin on the topic Responsibility ethics of Hans Jonas und Karl-
Otto Apel. In the meantime, his routine shopping done, Horst is preparing for the next days sessions of a
continuing education course for ethics teachers on the theme Utopia in our contemporary society.

4:30 PM. We meet at the underground station Grlitzer Bahnhof. Together we travel to Tegel, a city
district located in north Berlin. On the train we go through the minutes of the previous Socratic dialogue in
the Tegel Penal Institution (Justizvollzugsanstalt TegelJVA Tegel).

5.30 PM. We stand in front of the gate of the JVA Tegel: This prison, with 1,700 to 1,800 inmates
lodged in seven wards, is the biggest prison for males in Germany. We press the bell; the fully automated
door opens. Behind a thick glass counter there sits a female officer. We hand over our identity papers and
letter of authorization as external employees. After around 5 minutes we receive the passage cards for
entrance. We step into the waiting room. Crowded within a small area we find there some 15 persons
sitting and standing, wanting to visit a detainee, perhaps a relative or a buddy. A minute later another
automated door opens, and a call for group trainers blares out. We deposit our purses, mobiles and key
bunches in a locker. Our bags are checked by a prison officer. Then yet another door opens. We pass
through the inner courtyard where still another officer comes across asking us Are you the Socratists?
Yes, we reply. Today, we want to go to ward 5. As the officer takes us along, the doors open and shut
behind us. Roughly after ten minutes, we are in the 5th ward (TA 5). At the office we receive our folders
with a list of the participants. Without delay we move into the group meeting hall. It is a bare room with

ISSN 17428181 online 2010 APPA

Jens Peter Brune & Horst Gronke 675

brown tables and with thick rail-barred windows. There Rainer is already waiting with tea and coffee
prepared for us. For almost 5 years now Rainer is with our group. Serving life imprisonment for a robbery-
murder, he has little chance of seeing freedom again.

One by one other participants step into the hall. They form a colorful mixture: Germans, Turks, Arabs;
right extremists; intellectuals and school drop outs; lean men with soft demeanor and tough men with
muscular bodies; young and old ranging in age between 25 and 70 years. Some are participants only for
weeks and others for more than 6 months. We chit-chat, and with one or the other carry on conversation
of a more personal nature. Now we are left to ourselves with the prisoners; no prison officer to watch
behind the shoulders, either inside or outside at the door. At 6 PM sharp the Socratic session begins, with
10 to 12 participants. Where is Ahmad? He is down today; he is not stepping out of his cell. And what
about Frank? He will come a bit later, he had his leave to go out and has just arrived back inside. Our
Socratic dialogue runs for 8 to 12 sessions, at a 14 days rhythm, around 4 to 6 months per theme. Every
session is of 2 to 3 hours duration. The whole time we spend working on a single theme. Anyone absent
for more than twice is debarred from the remaining sessions. He can join again only when we begin another
round on another theme.

It is now 10 years since we began offering Socratic dialogues in JVA Tegel. The participation is on an
optional basis. Back then when started, Uwe Nitsch and Horst Gronke began by forming the smallest
possible group, with a participation of only two inmates. Three more joined after 6 months. From there on
the interest in our group has only grown bigger and bigger, culminating at present with the Berlin Socratics1
offering their services for three groups in separate wards of the JVA. The Socratic dialogue has achieved
in Germany both a name and certain fame, with regional and national press now and then reporting on it.
Even a movie on our dialogue exists.2

The inmates of TA 5 serve, as a rule, prison terms ranging from 10 years to life-terms. TA 5e has young
men serving at a range between 3 to 7 years. The group in TA 4, the ward housing people for social
therapy, consists mainly of sexual offenders; their terms range from 2 years to life-term.

In TA 5 our present theme is friendship. In the previous session, Horst took up the task of writing
minutes and Jens Peter that of moderation. The current session begins and Horst, with the help of the
written minutes, gives a resume of what the group had worked out together in the previous meeting.
Unusually, today he gives a title to his minutes, Hegel in Tegel. The title stems from what occurred to a
relatively new participant, Jrgen, who in his life outside prison earlier was a journalist and has always a
rhyme ready at his lips. For we had talked about the spirit of friendship, and the participants reached a
consensus after a long and arduous discussion: Friendship is not merely a relationship of immediacy be-
tween an I and a you, but it can also attain an independent status, subsuming the individuals as partaking
agents, making them find an orientation, which by themselves, singly, they would not have discovered at all.
The relationship of friendship is thus, as Hegel would say, a supportive carrier, an Objective Spirit. We
had put this down on our flow-chart: The Objective Spirit (the spirit of friendship) unfolds in the life of the
community and develops into an independent reality, which then guides the subjective spirit, the subjective
ideas (of others and oneself as good friend).

It is a rare exception, however, that a name of a philosopher gets dropped at all. The philosophers of
fame, their texts, or their wise dictums hardly play any role in our exchanges. We do not come to the JVA
Tegel in order dispense the wisdom of Aristotle, Epicurus, Martin Buber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin
Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martha Nussbaum, Rainer Maria Rilke, Michel Foucault, and such other
thinkers and writers, from whom the philosophical practitioners in Europe love to dish out generously. In
Ten Years of Socratic Dialogue in Prisons 676

our case, what is spoken and written down comes out of the activity of reflection of the participants
themselves. Now and then the Socratic facilitators only indicate that the ideas developing in discussion
here are also the topics of disquisition in academic philosophy. This is just for an additional benefit of
securing the self-confidence of the participants in their own ability to reason.

In a fresh round of Socratic discussion with some additional fresh participants, we do begin by talking
about the meaning and procedures of the Socratic dialogue. We request those participants with longer
duration with us to report on how our discussion normally proceeds. At once Vasili emphasizes that what-
ever is said remains confidential within the group. It is of paramount importance that everyone feels free to
express what he thinks, without being inhibited or afraid that what is spoken would reach the ears of the
prison officers, social workers or the therapists. And, Frank who has arrived in the mean time adds, We
allow each one to finish speaking and listen to one another attentively. Silvio says, It is incumbent on us
to agree on a theme and that itself may take up two sessions. Then we recollect and narrate the situations
from the experience we ourselves had, and which have a bearing on the chosen theme. That takes another
two sessions. Only then do we start discussing our thoughts on the theme. Yes indeed says Rainer, in the
beginning this slow pace can be weary and get on our nerves, but subsequently one would be glad, for one
has something tangible to relate the discussion, a clear question and an experience of a real life situation.
And how does it proceed subsequently? asks Jens Peter. Utter silence; articulating what happens in a
Socratic dialogue does not come easily to our participants. Sure, one talks to each other, remains focused
on a topic, gets stuck with a concept or a formulation, stretches and turns it around in different directions.
But, is there a method behind all this? What distinguishes our talk from those in a pub conversing on day-
to-day matters, where indeed philosophical themes of day-to-day experience such as happiness, justice,
love, etc. crop up? Or, from a therapeutic talk in a self-help group, where people attempt at expressing
their personal experience and feelings, and get feedback on them? At long last Frank ventures an attempt.
We talk, for example, very elaborately on a sentence, that we have written on a flow chart. We illuminate
the sentence from all angles. Somewhere along the line it dawns on us that the sentence which we in the
beginning believed to have understood, in fact eludes our comprehension. Often we called it Socratic
confusion. We make further efforts to achieve clarity. But, apparently, we move in circles. We still persist,
however. Again and again Socratic facilitators bring us back to the sentence in question. And then, sud-
denly, clarity can arise, as if a happening, as if a light has been switched on. Yes says Bernd Our
discussion delves deeply, we dip deep in our thoughts till it is understood by all. Not only understood,
interjects Mark, but also subjected to scrutiny. What comes out then should attain consent from each one
of us.

In the early years of our offering Socratic dialogue in JVA Tegel, we used to give more detailed
explanations of our method. As time passed, we noticed that it was not of much help to the participants: In
fact some were even scared off. It sounded too academic. We had to learn and practice our participants
ways of speaking and thinking. While conducting Socratic dialogue in an enterprise, we have to present
exactly how we proceed, i.e., we have to literally sell the offer of Socratic dialogue as a supply for a
demand. As a rule, the demands are the problem situations at handthe teams could not agree on the
division of tasks; there is break down of communication within, and between, the departments; the struc-
tures newly introduced fail to evoke acceptance by the workers; and similar things. Here people expect
(often, after the failure to achieve a sustainable solution through intervention by a customary consultancy)
that the Socratic dialogue goes to the root of the problem and contributes to the solution of the problems
at hand.
Jens Peter Brune & Horst Gronke 677

In prisons the situation is different. The participants land in our groups from many different, and often,
diffuse motivations. Some simply desire to do something meaningful for a change. Others want to learn
how to assert themselves in a group. In such a context, proclaiming the benefits accruing from participation
in our dialogue by peppering it with explanation on method is entirely useless. The participants simply want
to concretely experience what we do. A fuss on methodology sounds an empty chatter, or even worse, a
handing down of a pedagogical measure. Which adult would like to be an object of pedagogical mea-
sures? In the meantime, therefore, we only draw attention to a few aspects when a new round of discussion
starts. Detailed explaination of the method takes place during the main body of discussion itself, always
then, when some confusion prevails regarding exactly what is going on.

What features single out Socratic dialogue from other approaches of philosophical, or mixed forms of
philosophical-psychological, practice? A significant difference is in the very goals we set: As a rule a
consultancy situation between two persons (consultant-client dyad) aims at uncovering the internal incon-
sistencies of orientation systems of particular individuals. Our claim is not merely a Socratic manner of
doing this, but also aiming to uncover contradictions in the very communally formed and shared climate of
opinion within which the thinking of the individuals takes place. It is not enough for us when a particular
person is clean within himself, that there are no contradictions within her own value system; she must also
be in a position to put across to others her opinions in a consistent manner. This forms the ground as to
why Socratic dialogue needs to be conducted preferably as a group discussion. For, listening to each
other attentively, comprehending other exactly, restating elegantly in ones own words what others said, all
these are looked upon by Socratic dialogue as constituting the very essential aspect of inter-subjectively
attainable knowledge, and not merely characterizing a separate instrument of communication for that
knowledge. Those activities are not merely instruments to secure a good communication, but elements
constituting the very core of the knowledge process aimed at. Through a contrarian conversation with
philosophies of others the participants scrutinize and rearrange their respective philosophies. In our
opinion, that is what philosophy in a real sense is. This also makes for a clear criterion of demarcation of
Socratic dialogue from those psychotherapeutically-oriented consultancy discourses, such as cognitive
behavioral therapy or rational-emotive therapy. Misleadingly, these latter are sometimes characterized as
philosophical and Socratic.

To conduct Socratic dialogue in a prison we also need to have a basic scheme arranging the steps of
reflection in a consecutive order. Though flexible while applying it, nevertheless, underlying how our dis-
cussion proceeds there is a plan. This bears certain similarities to a methodology in Lou Marinoffs
consultancy practice, the PEACE-process3 . But in some aspects our focus differs, and we especially
dispense with the claim to (possibly once and for for all) solve a problem as such.

(1) The dialogue begins by developing a Socratic Question, formulated by the participants as a group
by drawing on the problems of their own lives through a process of intensive reflection. A majority of these
problems feed on three domains of prisoners horizon of experience. First, there is the daily prison routine,
which provides enough material for complaints regarding one or the other details of penal regime. Then,
there is the inevitable looking back and brooding over the circumstances of ones detention, trial and
sentence. Finally, as the years in imprisonment roll on, ones relationships with relatives and friends suffer.
The Socratic questions arising out of these circumstances often hover around respect or disdain of dignity,
trust and betrayal, being free or compelled, responsibility and guilt, friendship and love, attaining success or
ending in failure: What is the nature of our laws, what obligations and entitlements do they confer on us?
How to earn the trust of fellow human beings? What do I owe to others? Do we act on our own free will?
When am I justified in compelling others? To what do I owe responsibility? What is friendship? How to
come out of a vicious circle one is entrapped in? What makes life meaningful?
Ten Years of Socratic Dialogue in Prisons 678

(2) The next step is that of perceiving ones own life: This consists of, as a rule, recalling those
situations in ones past having a bearing on the Socratic question. We call this the phenomenological
phase of the Socratic dialogue. Repeatedly we are struck by wonder at how difficult it feels (including to
ourselves) when it comes to connecting those questions we recognize as basic with some instances of
ones own concrete experiences in life. That trademark of Socrates struggling to articulate a philosophical
question is in fact the challenge faced in connecting a question with our concrete experience or practice.
Socratic dialogue is not discussion at a pure abstract level. One may repeat a thousand times that one finds
oneself with a life-long problem of taking decisions. But if he cannot corroborate it with a specific experi-
ence he has undergone, he hasnt got the problem at hand; probably he suffers from some other problem,
or he suffers from a selective deficiency of perception regarding his life, such that those important instances
in life of taking decisions do not fall within his purview.

In the case of our prison participants we have noticed a particular perception deficiency. Their ability
to recall and narrate situations in their life is alright where it pertains to asserting oneself and forcing ones
will against others, but their narrations are remarkably weak in cases pertaining to positive sides of life,
self-realization and shaping of a good life. When pondered a bit, this is not surprising. For many of these
people had a difficult childhoodtheir parents were glued to the TV all day, taking little interest in their
children, were alcohol addicts, were beating or abusing their children, were probably criminals them-
selvesin other words, many prisoners grew up in such a condition that their main concern as children
was naked survival. They hardly had a chance to become familiar with the questions of refined pleasures,
or of quality of life beyond that of a pecuniary nature. Having noticed this perception deficiency in the
course of the last few years of Socratic dialogue in prison, we now often try to draw their attention to the
questions of quality of life, but without much success. Perception habits are perhaps even more difficult to
change than the habits of action. To give an example, in one of the discussions, Rainer had reported how
proud he was back then when he succeeded getting out of the ghetto, having got to reside on his own in a
home outside. To our question, What felt beautiful in that home? What did you like in that home? How did
you spend your evenings in that home? Rainer just could not say anything concrete. It appeared that for
him, getting a home of his own is a step of simple self-assertion. It was just a matter of his having done it.

There is another perception deficiency widely prevalent in prison and, in our opinion, it is the result of
those social pedagogical measures to which the prisoners are continually subjected. In the discussion with
social workers and therapists, the main focus is on the criminal acts of the prisoners. Progressively this
narrows down their horizon of thinking to their own past. The whole life would appear as if it were just a
succession of penal acts and horrible experiences. Only after participating in our Socratic dialogue for
sufficiently longer periods, slowly, some of them get to conceptualize other aspects of their life. In our
opinion, the so called holistic perception of human beings begins only when all aspects of life fall within the
ken of ones apprehension.

(3) As Socratics we believe philosophy to be mainly an exploration and scrutiny of the conditions of
possibility that make our ways of life meaningful and justifiable. Therefore it is incumbent on us to under-
stand the way of life well, to interpret it adequately, to transpose ourselves onto the emotions of those
participating in it. After the phase of narrating the personal life experiences, therefore, we next direct our
attention to understanding the intentions and attitudes of the participating persons. In this hermeneutic
phase of the dialogue, above all, an ability to come out of the egocentric perspective is schooled, making
one capable of observing the situations also through others eyes. In many of the Socratic dialogues, not
merely those in prisons, we are happy if we reach this stage at all. Many methods, such as the dialogue
method of David Bohm, appear to be satisfied with setting this as the main goal.
Jens Peter Brune & Horst Gronke 679

There are, however, Socratic dialogues where we go very much further than this phase, either because
the dialogue endures for a longer period, or because there are participants with considerable competence
of understanding, who then positively influence others. Also, as moderators we dont hesitate to push the
group towards working itself into the next phase.

(4) This next phase we call analytical phase. The task here is to evaluate and conceptualize the
concrete actions and events in a situation. For instance, what judgment underlies the opinion of Ahmad,
who terminated the friendship with his companion Fred, because the latter failed to inform him about his
girlfriend having an affair with another person? Apparently, as Ahmad formulates, Fred ought to be sin-
cere with me. Is this what Ahmad holds most important for this friendship? When pressed further a few
times, he makes an outburst: Fred ought to stay always on my side. What does it mean here to be on
my side? Does it mean, Fred should support everything that Ahmad wants to do? asks Mehmet. A
majority of the Socratic dialogue in the advanced phase, say after 6 or 7 sessions, consist of such clarifica-
tions of the concrete judgments. Judgments that appear clear at first sight are subjected to more exacting
scrutiny, giving them at lastto the extent humanly possiblea form that is clear and distinct for every-

(5) Finally, and how can it be otherwise, there is the dialectical phase which in Plato too is the final
phase of the whole liberal education (Bildung), the paideia. Which Ideas underpin our concrete judg-
ments, and make them true? Whereas Platos thinking formulates the question in terms of Ideas, today
one speaks rather of criteriastandards, principles, values, general premises, and pre-suppositions that
contribute to the meaning and justification of the concrete propositions. The founder of the neo-Socratic
method of dialogue, Leonard Nelson, designates this phase as abstractive regression. By that expression
he meant a philosophisation, aiming to connect the concrete experiences and judgments with general
convictions. The main task of philosophical practice, in our opinion, is to make these connections transpar-
ent and investigate how they hold together coherently. Academic philosophy, whether epistemic or practi-
cal, on the other hand, focuses predominantly on abstract spheres of thought. The results of that publicized
in a simplified form, along with a praise of this simplification (Simplify your life ) as a special achieve-
ment, constitutes the material of popular philosophy, e.g. in the self-help books that flood the market
(How to become happy in ten days). This is often sold under the title of philosophical practice and is
quite different than what we practice. This popular practical philosophy is practical philosophy only in
name but hardly touches the stuff of daily thought and speech, the domain of concrete experience. In fact
daily life is predominantly a domain of dealings only with tasks at hand; speech there has generally the form:
Tell me what should I do, A or B? Indulging in reflection on the foundations is alien to it. When, once in
a while, a good intention of examining basic attitudes is announced, it ends up almost always in a blowing
of hot air.

The objective of the Socratic philosophical practice, on the other hand, is that of undertaking a
clarification of the general convictions through a methodical dialectical process of continuously relating
them to the judgments and experience of the dialogue partners in the concrete situations. In its essence, this
process can be divided into two parts, which however, continuously and necessarily overlap: the maieutic
and the elenctic part. The former, Platos maieutic, we call creative search for those basic attitudes and
principles underpinning our judgments in concrete situations. In terms of logic, using Charles S. Peirce,
one can talk of abductive inferences, or of inferences to the best explanation. It is important to notice,
however, that seeking the universal foundations of ones own construction of judgments is not just indul-
gence in a theoretical game. What counts is finding a general that guides the particular judgments in ones
heart, in ones intimate personal moments. Socratic dialogue is meant to grip the inner life of persons who
think along. Otherwise ones conversations just splash around having no focus, owing no relevance to life,
Ten Years of Socratic Dialogue in Prisons 680

which lacks eros.Above all, the central axis of the search process is to distance oneself from a preformed
opinion handed down from a long lineage in the history of ideas (Husserl calls it bracketing). For human
beings take over and get accustomed very fast to what is commonly thoughtto use Heideggers words
what one thinks. For instance, our commonsense notions of friendship find nurture from an idealized
concept of friendship which has percolated into our daily milieu from the philosophical tradition. In Aristo-
tle for example, the true friends are also highly virtuous beings. Montaigne refers to unmistakable and
unique (and rarely available) kinship of souls.

Thus in a discussion between Bernd, Mark, Jrgen and Sebastian, an opinion got expressed first that
puts very high demands on friendship. Friends so goes the conversation in Tegel very often, they do not
exist here. Here everyone cares for himself alone. Indeed, if one sets the scale so high, then naturally one
doesnt have friends! Or,what is not unusual in the case of prisoners with strained or broken relation-
shipsevery potential friendship is burdened with fear and procedures of precaution, that is, with those
feelings and manners of actions that endanger that very apprehensively sought after friendship. A different
thought occurred to Bernd one day: What does make us eligible for friendship? Do we and can we
ourselves satisfy these heavy demands we put on others? This suggestion to look at things from the
perspective of the other changed the course of discussion completely. We are everything but virtuous
persons: Nevertheless we believe, at any rate I believe myself, to be able to be good friends to others. So
said Jrgen. Aha, when that is so, then it is possible for friendship to arise between persons with specific
weaknesses (and certain strengths). It follows: There must be different friendships with emphasis on differ-
ent things. In one case it is the fact of wanting to undertake something together, and in another it is the fact
of everything being told to each other, and in still another, friendship is underpinned by the fact that one can
rely on each other. The group does not wholly succeed in catching this insight in a pregnant formulation.
Nor do the Socratic facilitators arrogate to themselves that task. We venture a suggestion for trial: Friend-
ships arise in definite situations in the web of life. The more one gets to know a person, the more one learns
to assess the element that holds the ties of friendship in that case. Surely, one has criteria to which this
friendship ought to conform, but those are not ideally suited once and for all. They are criteria which are
based on our life-experience that we hold appropriate in the respective contexts.

In this account of a short episode of discussion, one can already discern how the maieutic phase glides
automatically into the next phase, the elenctic phase. In the latter, those basic general principles formu-
lated in the former phase are scrutinized with regard to whether they are free from self-contradiction.
However, entrance to this phase is very rare, irrespective of whether it is Socratic dialogue in prison for 12
sessions, or one week long intensive sessions, the Socratic weeks, that we hold under the auspices of the
Society of Socratic Facilitators (GSPGesellschaft fr Sokratisches Philosophieren). Many things re-
quire suitable duration of time to mature, or perhaps, a happy coincidence of extraordinarily suitable
participants coming together. In the absence of either of them, what is left to us is only an attempt to grope
forward provisionally. Or, sometimes, especially in the programs in business enterprises where achieving
results is paramount, the Socratic facilitators have to push towards elenctic phase, inevitably through
stronger input of contents. In this latter case, i.e., when we speed up the Socratic dialogue, we explicitly
restrain ourselves from using the term Socratic dialogue; Instead we call our activity the Socratic-
oriented dialogue.4 In our dialogue on friendship, at least towards the end, we touched on the problem of
how an idealised concept of friendship has the opposite consequence of reducing friendship in real con-
texts. It gives rise to a contradictory behavior and ensues in problems of delimiting other forms of human
relationships. Indeed, at one time, even differentiating friend from fiend appeared very difficult for us. Most
of the dialogues on other themes too end similarly.
Jens Peter Brune & Horst Gronke 681

Perhaps, one is left with wondering, what does all this amount to?

Very often we are asked, what we really intend to achieve through Socratic dialogue in prisons? JVA
Tegel offers a whole series of socio-pedagogical measures meant to lessen the ill effects of prison routine:
Theater groups, chorus, group for handicraft, literature groups, painting groups, groups to improve social
competence, etc. Is ours one among the many offerings bringing a slice of normal life into the precincts of
prison? For example, is it a group, as a participant formulated once, where one can have something
beside the prison language, where one can conduct a higher level of exchange? No doubt, our group
caters also to this need. Why not? Many human activities have unintended positive (sometimes, also
negative) effects. Ironically, the intended effects themselves are often better achieved through indirect
rather than by direct methods. For example, those therapeutic effects such as better access to ones own
feelings, strengthening self-confidence etc. can perhaps be brought about more easily through an indirect
method such as philosophical reflective conversation than through a therapeutic intervention which sets
those effects as the main target. At any rate, we are pleased if the offer of Socratic dialogue is taken up as
a sensible leisure-activity; the accompanying experiences would then happen to the participants.

As for the effects of our discussion, there arises in the first place a question for us: How to use for
ourselves this dialogue in the prison? The following would be a possible answer: We are, on the one hand,
philosophical researchers and academic teachers, working in university and research projects. On the
other hand, we are the philosophical practitioners, attempting to get out of the academic heights of the
philosophical ivory tower, bringing to bear philosophy to the societal domain. In doing this we deliberately
forbear our academic competence and adjust ourselves to the ways of action and thinking of our custom-
ers. Doing philosophy in social contexts means indeed rendering the difficult philosophy easy, so that
people somewhat understand. In Germany, one uses the word herunterbrechen, which means so much
as to simplify things considerably so that even the stupid and uneducated understand something. But that
is not our answer, and not how we see. For us, the Socratic dialogue with normal people is a special
intellectual (and emotional) challenge. What is gained from it flows much more strongly into our academic
and other philosophical practice, rather than the reverse. This, in our opinion, is Socratic attitudethe
attitude of learning to think in better ways about basic orientations of human life. Is it not what Platos
Socrates attempted anew and repeatedly in the Athenian market place in his discussion with the citizens of
Athens? It is about catching hold of thoughts, of ones own as well as of others, and leading them to clarity.
Our aim is not that of pondering ever-newer facets of what academic philosophy has already thought
about. As facilitators of Socratic dialogue our competence consists of an ability and readiness to support
the endeavor of our participants to articulate, to clarify, and to scrutinize thoughts, and this in a methodical
way. Profound and innovative ideas can come to light through this process.

An exemplary episode perhaps can bring out clearly the strongly communal character of this thinking
process: Once, in the Socratic group in the social therapeutic ward of the penal house, Bernd advocated
the opinion that surveillance is a feature belonging to friendship. Intuitively all of us held this opinion to be
wrong. Friendship and surveillance appeared to us as somehow not compatible. It is the general view that
friendship presupposes trust without any reservation. As soon as surveillance comes into picture, friend-
ship ceases to exist. OK, says Horst, We find Bernds opinion not very convincing. But let us look at it
a bit closer. We have two opinions apparently contradicting each other, a classical Socratic situation of
aporia: Bernd holds, No friendship without surveillance, Mark and Jrgen hold: No friendship without
unreserved trust. In order to investigate this contradiction, let us remind ourselves of the example Mark
brought forward in the last meeting. He had a friend from his younger days. The friendship arose because
they used to play with each other regularly. They had got acquainted with each other very slowly. Was the
friendship grounded in trust without reservations, or on mutual surveillance? Mark himself was hesitant.
Ten Years of Socratic Dialogue in Prisons 682

His friend of younger days came from a completely different social stratum. It was improbable that he
would have trusted him without reservations. Is it not the case that this friendship developed as time passed
by, because mutual expectations were met time and again? Apparently so. But should one call the wariness
as to whether each others expectations would be met or not the surveillance? Boris does not think so;
what took place is somehow something other than surveillance. We require an idea in order to solve this
discrepancy. Bernd agrees to give up the concept surveillance completely, and constructs a new sen-
tence: Friendship should not base itself on blind trust, but rather should be based on trust with open eyes.
This appears more plausible to us. Mark thinks: A friendship ought not to be tested; surveillance of this
sort is not suitable for a friendship, but one ought not shut ones eyes to what happens in a relationship of
friendship. This appears plausible to Jrgen. In spite of it, however, he believes to have a friend whom he
trusts with eyes shut. Is it a mere fantasy? Does Jrgen just delude himself? How to understand meaning-
fully a friendship like the one Jrgen has? After a long deliberation we come finally to an agreed view:
Friendship develops in that two persons encounter each other with open eyes; at some juncture in this
process, however, a deep mutual understanding can set in so that both trust each other without any reser-
vations. Jrgen formulates it thus: When a friendship is matured in a long and mutually attentive experi-
ence, it must be possible for me to close my eyes and yet trust.

Such thoughts are significant even for our philosophisation in academic contexts. In the history of
philosophical ideas thoughts went astray often, because, in our opinion, they lost the living touch with day-
to-day practice. At any rate, a philosophical theory that does take account of the small results of our
Socratic dialogue, would take leave of the idealistic concepts of friendship, that set everything on the
unique kinship of souls.

Naturally, of course, the query regarding the goals of Socratic Dialogue in prisons is meant differently.
One wants to know whether our dialogue contributes to the convicts rehabilitation, their desisting from
punishable acts. Can a method which relies on the gaining of insights and ones own knowledge bring a
change in the way of life of convicts? Perhaps, we can hope for better results from therapeutic dialogue, or
psychological-pedagogical behavioral training. Further, to a certain extent at least, there is also the possi-
bility of steering the behavior through medication.

By way of an answer to the query, we begin with the question, what kind of effects result from which
different methods? On the one hand we have to recognize that providing an answer thereto necessitates
empirical research of a variety that is quite difficult to conceive in terms of methods. Up until now such
investigations have been carried out by The Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna only with regard to
Socratic dialogue on medical themes.5 But on the other hand, we do have something to offer from our own
observations during our Socratic dialogues. It is not surprising that the communicative behaviors, e.g., the
capacity to articulate ones thoughts, or the ability to understand and develop the thoughts of others, etc.,
improve through Socratic dialogue. But something more significant has come to our notice. As in normal
life, the men in prisons too have a limited and superficial contact with each other. A participant once
formulated it thus: In prison we happen to meet people at bus stops. One sees each other, speaks a word
or two occasionally, but at bus stopsor on a prison flooreven when one meets for years one remains
stranger to one another. In the Socratic group it is different: Here we speak intensively with persons with
whom otherwise we speak superficially. We get to know each other more closely. We would like to make
this even more pointed: In Socratic dialogue, one gets access to how the other thinks, and thereby one also
gets access to ones own thoughts. Different horizons of thinking reach out and get hold of each other.
Sure, we talk to each other constantly, with bakery women when we buy bread, with tax officers when we
hand over income tax returns, with our buddy when we ask for a cigarette. We do thereby get to know the
other in a certain manner. On the whole, however, such acquaintanceship does not reach any depth. Thus,
Jens Peter Brune & Horst Gronke 683

others remain strangers to us. Different cultures, or, in our opinion even more important, different social
milieus unintentionally delimit themselves against each other. Put together as they are from different back-
grounds, our dialogue groups in prison provide a condensed mirror image of our social reality. In many of
our Socratic groups we could observe the following phenomenon: Persons who held that understanding
with each other would be difficult, were surprised that an in-depth conversationthe ones directed to-
wards taking the thoughts of others seriouslycarried out with a support from Socratic facilitators, has the
effect of making it easy to achieve an understanding.

We have observed these and other effects being produced by Socratic dialogues in general. These
results can therefore also be expected for the participants in our dialogues in prison. A good thing, we find!
However, this is not yet an answer to the question, what distinguishes the contribution of our Socratic
dialogue in making the participants abstain from criminal acts in future, say, in contradistinction to the
therapeutic conversation?

Even wanting to answer this question would be an act lacking in seriousness. What makes one subject
to the temptation of quick money, to putting out his aggressive feelings or lust in the exercise of power?
Completely different factors may be responsible for these phenomena.

To conclude this essay, therefore, we want put forward a very different considerationa basic one,
that singles out the characteristic feature of philosophisation.

For a long time in the history of Western philosophy and religion, a quarrel has been fought regarding
the primacy of two sources of actions in human beings. The question in dispute runs: Whether it is Reason
or Will that makes for the good or right action? For the philosophising Greeks, above all to Socrates, Plato
and Aristotle, the answer is clear: First comes knowledge of the truth or the good through reason. This
knowledge, then, also makes a human being do the good. This is the way Socrates saw. Even when the
succeeding thinkers weakened the Socrates automatism of the virtuous actions to the virtuous knowing,
still the weak or strong will has to follow the insight. The good or bad actions are not result of good or bad
will but that of good or bad knowledge. That means also, that the issue of free will is in fact an issue
concerning freedom of judgment and freedom of knowledge. With Christianity an opposing movement
gained ground. Here it is not a question of coming to know what is good and follow only that which one has
seen as good, but rather to follow what is Gods will. The sin does not lie primarily in ignorance but in a
freely exercised will of disobedience to Gods will. It is not the wise who does rightly, but the one who has
a pure heart. Apostle Paul has held this view, especially in his Epistle to the Romans. According to him,
what is reasonable is only that which happens in accordance with Gods will. From St. Augustine and Duns
Scotus to the Middle Ages this tendency grew ever strongerin spite of intermittent movement in the
opposite direction, which found its important representative in St. Thomas Aquinas in the high Middle

In modern times this quarrel continuesnow also as a quarrel between philosophy and psychology. In
spite of the lip service to the Enlightenment, the tendency has grown further to set everything on the card of
influencing the will (power). Motivation, control of impulses, self-control, stabilisation of social bonds
these are today the main points of orientation for the psychological-pedagogical social work.

In this essay, we do not arrogate ourselves to offer a resolution of this quarrel. However, if we take the
thought of the Enlightenment seriously, then, it appears to us as logically compelling to concede the primacy
to the insights of reason in providing the orientation to human actions. Self-determination or autonomy
presumes the widest possible distancing from heteronomy or determination by others, through an
Ten Years of Socratic Dialogue in Prisons 684

unscrutinized will, whether the will of God or the will of ones own nature.6 The will is good only then,
when it is in accordance with the demands of reason. Only this will scrutinized through reason earns the
epithet good (Kants guter Wille). Naturally, one cannot dispute the fact that the human will does not
always, or rather seldom follows the good will. And surely, in this domain we can achieve some progress
through pedagogical training, through psychological consultancy and therapy, through threatening sanc-
tions, etc. But, without insight into the good will, it appears to us, these measures are of second choice.
Therefore the question should be posed differently: Under what conditions can a reasoned knowledge
guide the will? In answering this question too we cannot support ourselves by drawing on empirical studies;
we must rather rely on or reach back to our own experience with ourselves and with the participants. We
believe that the strongest and the most enduring motivation for change of behavior stems from the insight
that one has worked out for himself in dialogue with others. In contrast to the second hand insights
availing oneself through mere reception from others, the insights resulting from ones own engaged and
persistent thinking would be experienced as personally owned property. One cannot simply shake off such
insights. This brings a consequence: The possible dissonance between what one has seen and what one is
doing is then experienced as unpleasant, and even painful. Similarly, on the reverse side too, the harmony
between thoughts and deeds is experienced as pleasant and fulfilling. We want the participants of dialogue
in prisons to be self-defining persons who direct their actions in accordance with their insights. For enabling
this, we think, the philosophical method of Socratic dialogue provides a suitable opportunity.

8.30 PM. We are again out from the prison. 12 PM. For more than 2 hours we are sitting in our pet
pub, Caf Kreuzberg. In fact we ought to have gone to our homes long before, since we have to leave
early in the morning for a seminar. But this evening it is simply nice here. The beer tastes good, the wine
tickles the tongue. So, home can wait. Socratic reasonableness we will pick up again tomorrow.


* Translation by Dr. Narahari Rao.

1. Till now six Socratic facilitators took part in the dialogues in the JVA Tegel: Brbel Jnicke, Volker
Rendez, Uwe Nitsch, Sabir Ycesoy, Jens Peter Brune und Horst Gronke.

2. The conquest of inner freedom, see:


3. Problems Emotions Analysis Contemplation Equilibrium. Cf. L. Marinoff (1999), Plato, Not
Prozac. New York: HarperCollins.

4. Cf. Gronke, Socratic Dialogue or Para-Socratic Dialogue? Socratic-Oriented Dialogues as the Third
Way of a Responsible Consulting and Counseling Practice, in J. P. Brune, D. Krohn (eds. 2005), Socratic
Dialogue and Ethics. Mnster, pp. 24-35.

5. Cf. the paper by Beate Littig in this volume.

6. Our philosophical practice therefore does not orient itself to Nietzschean condemnation of reason in
favor of natural will (whether to live, to power or to anything of the kind).


Journal of the APPA
Volume 5 Number 3 November 2010

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