Intent Blog

The Merits of the Schuitema Thematic

The work done by Schuitema Human Excellence Group reminds me very much of the Socratic ideal of wisdom. The Socratic ideal of wisdom appears to me to be somewhat paradoxical. Anyone who is slightly familiar with the figure of Socrates, the Ancient Greek philosopher, should be familiar with his quote “the only true wisdom is to know that you know nothing”. This seems to be a bizarre statement to come from a person who has pursued knowledge for the entirety of his life. But if we familiarize ourselves with the theoretical background which provides the context for this statement we will realize that the statement is not in fact so bizarre and is in fact deeply insightful.

The ideal of Socratic wisdom is based in a certain epistemic humility. Socrates is wise, not because he has many true opinions about the world, Socrates is wise because his perception of the world is not distorted by opinions that fail to accurately capture their objects. Sitting in the background of this way of thinking is what is called the theory of recollection. Without going into detail, the theory of recollection makes the assumption that true knowledge comes in the form of fundamental, innate understanding. Fundamental concepts such a virtue, justice, knowledge, number, shape, etc. are innately understood and it is through this understanding that we can make sense of the world. These concepts allow us to categorize things and construct theories to described the world. The knowledge of these things is not however contained in any definition we could wish to give of them, these are what one might call fundamental and transcendent concepts. Transcendent in the sense that they cannot be defined but they are known independently of definition. Any attempted definition will fail to capture their true nature and hence will misrepresent them.

The Socratic method, at least as it is depicted in the Platonic dialogues, puts this understanding of what knowledge involves to work. We see Socrates in the dialogues engaging people about central concepts and asking them to give a definition. Whenever a definition is given Socrates will show the person that their definition fails to capture the nature of the thing they are seeking to define. It always appears at first that Socrates is a nasty bastard who takes delight in the destruction of the theories of others. We must be careful to understand however that the destructive nature of the Socratic method is in fact immensely constructive. What Socrates is doing is getting people to reconsider the assumptions they make about key concepts so that they may overcome dangerous misrepresentations. Whenever Socrates is getting people to accept that their own definitions are false, he is in fact putting them in contact with their own fundamental understanding. It is in fact wrong to say that Socrates refutes a definition. Rather he gets people to refute their own definitions by showing them that what they are saying about the thing (virtue, happiness, or whatever) does not actually, once they have thought enough about it, capture what they actually know to be true about it.

Socrates shows us that these central concepts can’t be known by possessing a definition of them. In fact our ability to define thee key concepts presuppose an innate understanding of them. Incidentally, it is the possibility of this sort of knowledge which grounds the Schuitemapossibility of philosophy. When instructing a person, then, Socrates does not try to put knowledge that he has into their heads. This is impossible because to do so would involve giving a definition. Instead what he tries to do is to help them draw out their own innate understanding. Socrates in fact described himself as an intellectual midwife. He does not teach, he helps birth the knowledge of his students, knowledge that he knows they possess, even though they do not know they possess it.

It is this aspect in particular of the Socratic ideal that I see put to work in the work of Schuitema Human Excellence Group. I have always found that the delivery of the core set of ideas that form the backbone of Schuitema Human Excellence Group aligns itself with the Socratic method.  If you have had the pleasure of attending one of the various courses offered here, you will surely be familiar with the experience that the course did not teach you anything new. Rather the course opened you eyes to aspects of leadership, team excellence, or personal excellence that, though you knew to be true, you neglected to incorporate into you conceptual framework regarding these issues.

A typical example of this is found in the 2 day Care and Growth workshop in which leaders are engaged around the topic of leadership. Though it is changing and evolving more these days, any typical answer to the question “what doe leadership involve?” given by leaders could be accurately reduced to the definition: “Leadership involves producing results through people.” You in fact see this in much of the literature about leadership as well. Of course in a sense this is correct, leaders are responsible for ensuring that their direct reports achieve some goal or other. It is not however the full story and the stuff it leaves out is immensely significant. In the course of the program leaders will be led to a position where they in fact deem the direct inverse of the initial definition to be true. Instead of claiming that “leadership involves producing a result through people”, they are more comfortable with the claim: “leadership involves producing people through results.”

The experience many leaders have is that the way they normally thought about their role as leaders, as being about producing results through people, neglects a whole host of other things they know to be true about leadership. The program leads them through a process in which they are reminded of the things they are leaving out. Once they have been reminded they will reject their initial definition and in fact start to reframe their role. It is through this reframing that change occurs and they become better leaders. They become better leaders because they become more sensitive to the entirety of what leadership involves, which is only possible once they have rejected their restricted conceptualization of leadership.

In this lies the merit of the work done by Schuitema Human Excellence Group. Our courses are an invitation for self examination. Not self examination in this sense of self inflicted lashings. Self examination in the Socratic sense where delegates are invited to walk through a process in which their own understanding of core issues is brought to the surface and freed from the many oversimplifications and gross misrepresentations of the age.

Assad holds a Masters in Philosophy from the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently a PhD candidate. He is the editor of the Schuitema blog and is a regular facilitator of the company's Care and Growth and Mentoring for Mastery programs. He also has 5 years experience lecturing and tutoring Philosophy at Wits.