235. ChatGPT and Socrates

“The unexamined life is not worth living for humans” – Socrates in Plato’s Apology

What role should ChatGPT (for an overview of Chat go here) play in education? Many people are currently debating answers to this question. I very often come across two camps: those who emphasize prevention and punishment and those who call for creative integration. I suppose I think both approaches have their place. It is important to monitor student work for authenticity. But incorporating it into our lessons seems promising as well – perhaps as a means to research, outlines, production of drafts, material to critique, and so on. I am particularly interested in the ways in which ChatGPT, far from being a threat, might help return us to more handwriting, thinking, group discussion, presentations, oral communication, debate, collaboration, etc. After all, it is our cliché-ridden world that Chat feeds upon. What it finds elusive is the unique expression of unique people. Perhaps if we find new ways to emphasize individual expression in education then we need not worry so much about ChatGPT in particular and AI in general.

This makes me think of Socrates. In his dialogue The Republic, Plato has his character Socrates tell us that education is not “putting sight in a blind eye.” Rather, it is a matter of getting people to “recollect” or, as he puts it in his dialogue Meno, “find knowledge within themselves.” The task of education is to use questions to draw out an individual’s justified responses rather than generic responses without individual content and backing reasons. The method named after Socrates does just this.

We see this in Meno when Meno, a well-born, rich, and good looking sophist from Thessaly, asks Socrates a question: “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?” Meno has come to Socrates to be told something about virtue. Socrates immediately admits that he doesn’t know whether virtue can be taught because he has no idea what virtue itself is. And surely we need to know the nature of something before we can go on to ask what properties it has. But Meno quickly reveals his lack of interest in genuine inquiry when he threatens Socrates: “But Socrates, do you really not know what virtue is? Is this what I should tell the people back home about you?” Meno hopes his threat will elicit an unexamined answer. But why? Why would someone seek an answer from someone who has just admitted ignorance? Perhaps to refute Socrates in order to improve his reputation as a clever man who, for a price, can help others become clever as well. Socrates, however, is interested in the truth, not the preservation of an image of knowing the truth. So he doesn’t feel compelled by Meno’s threat to offer some unexamined view of virtue. He admits his ignorance, is comfortable with it, and tells Meno he has never met anyone who did know what virtue is. 


Meno is surprised. After all, his teacher, the famous sophist Gorgias, had visited Athens and answered every question people asked of him! Surely, Socrates would remember what Gorgias said on the topic of virtue. But Socrates’ response shows how little interest he has in reciting what other people say: “I do not altogether remember, Meno, so that I cannot tell you now what I thought then. Perhaps he does know; you know what he used to say, so you remind me of what he said. You tell me yourself, if you are willing, for surely you share his views.” Meno enthusiastically agrees: “I do.” Here we see Socrates identifying Meno with Gorgias. Rather than thinking for himself, Meno simply recapitulates the views of his teacher. This identification is emphasized again when Socrates says, “Since then the virtue of all is the same, try to tell me and to remember what Gorgias, and you with him, said that that same thing is.” But despite this identification, Socrates offers Meno an opportunity to engage in shared inquiry and to offer his own definition of virtue rather than simply receive and recapitulate one from someone else

After Meno fails four times to give an adequate definition of virtue he feels as if he has been stung by “a stingray”: he is paralyzed and, despite having given speeches about virtue on over a hundred occasions, can’t even say what it is. In the wake of this blow to his ego, he puts up resistance and engages in various efforts to sabotage the inquiry. But with Socrates’ patient and perceptive guidance he eventually comes to think for himself and, as a result, becomes more of an individual and indeed a better person – more wise, friendly, open minded, and courageous.

ChatGPT offers everyone a wonderful opportunity to be more like Meno the sophist. It offers us plenty of easy ways to appear wise, to negate our individual voices, and to go on thinking we know when we don’t. But Socrates’ shared inquiry as a means to recollection also offers us a great deal despite its challenges: the ability to be self-examined, know what we believe and why, and enjoy the liberations of shared inquiry that prioritizes discovery over regurgitation. This Socratic pedagogical approach might do more than just remove the very framework that makes Chat such a threat; it might also take steps to removing the very desire to cheat – really cheat oneself out of many opportunities to express one’s own voice – in the first place. And it just might, as Socrates suggests in the final line of Meno, allow us to more effectively participate in a genuine deliberative democracy.

Read Plato’s Meno here.

Go here for my post on Meno and philosophy as the practice of death.

Go here for my many other posts on Plato.

Go here for my posts on education.

One reply on “235. ChatGPT and Socrates”

  1. William Solomon on


    I am in a philosophy class with Dr. Elise Crull at CCNY, and 3 days ago she switched all the remaining handwritten homework assignments into 20 minute in-class handwritten essays. Our class has no tests, just 6 in-class handwritten essays on our opinions concerning the reading homework. And we have a final paper that’s only worth 20%.

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