dialectic method of inquiry, largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts and first described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues. For this, Socrates is customarily regarded as the father of Western ethics or moral philosophy.
It is a form of philosophical inquiry. It typically involves two speakers at any one time, with one leading the discussion and the other agreeing to certain assumptions put forward for his acceptance or rejection. The method is credited to Socrates, who began to engage in such discussions with his fellow Athenians after Socrates' friend from youth, Chaerephon, visited the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle of Delphi confirmed Socrates to be the wisest man in Athens. Socrates interpreted this as a paradox, and began utilizing the Socratic method in order to get his conundrum answered. Diogenes Laertius, however, wrote that Protagoras invented the “Socratic” method.
The practice involves asking a series of questions surrounding a central issue, and answering questions of the others involved. Generally, this involves the defense of one point of view against another and is oppositional. The best way to 'win' is to make the opponent contradict themselves in some way that proves the inquirer's own point.
Plato famously formalized the Socratic Elenctic style in prose — presenting Socrates as the curious questioner of some prominent Athenian interlocutor — in some of his early dialogues, such as Euthyphro or Ion, and the method is most commonly found within the so-called "Socratic dialogues", which generally portray Socrates engaging in the method and questioning his fellow citizens about moral and epistemological issues.
The term Socratic Questioning is used to describe a kind of questioning in which an original question is responded to as though it were an answer. This in turn forces the first questioner to reformulate a new question in light of the progress of the discourse.
MethodElenkhos (Greek: , a cross-examination for the purpose of refutation), more usually spelled 'elenchus', is the central technique of the Socratic method. "If you ask a question or series of questions in which your prospect can readily agree, then ask a concluding question based on those agreements, you will receive a desirable response".
In Plato's early dialogues, the elenchos is the technique Socrates uses to investigate, for example, the nature or definition of ethical concepts such as justice or virtue. According to one general characterization (Vlastos, 1983), it has the following steps:
- Socrates' interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example 'Courage is endurance of the soul', which Socrates considers false and targets for refutation.
- Socrates secures his interlocutor's agreement to further premises, for example 'Courage is a fine thing' and 'Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing'.
- Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis, in this case it leads to: 'courage is not endurance of the soul'.
- Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocutor's thesis is false and that its contrary is true.
One elenctic examination can lead to a new, more refined, examination of the concept being considered, in this case it invites an examination of the claim: 'Courage is wise endurance of the soul'. Most Socratic inquiries consist of a series of elenchai and typically end in aporia.
Frede (1992) insists that step #4 above makes nonsense of the aporetic nature of the early dialogues. If any claim has shown to be true then it can not be the case that the interlocutors are in aporia, a state where they no longer know what to say about the subject under discussion.
The exact nature of the elenchos is subject to a great deal of debate, in particular concerning whether it is a positive method, leading to knowledge, or a negative method used solely to refute false claims to knowledge.
The Socratic method is a negative method of hypotheses elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those which lead to contradictions. The method of Socrates is a search for the underlying hypotheses, assumptions, or axioms, which may subconsciously shape one's opinion, and to make them the subject of scrutiny, to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. To the extent to which this method is designed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, it was called the method of maieutics. Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method. Perhaps oddly, however, Aristotle also claimed that this method is not suitable for ethics.
ApplicationSocrates generally applied his method of examination to concepts that seem to lack any concrete definition; e.g., the key moral concepts at the time, the virtues of piety, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. Such an examination challenged the implicit moral beliefs of the interlocutors, bringing out inadequacies and inconsistencies in their beliefs, and usually resulting in puzzlement known as aporia. In view of such inadequacies, Socrates himself professed his ignorance, but others still claimed to have knowledge. Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who, though ignorant, still claimed knowledge. Although this belief seems paradoxical at first glance, it in fact allowed Socrates to discover his own errors where others might assume they were correct. This claim was known by the anecdote of the Delphic oracular pronouncement that Socrates was the wisest of all men. (Or, rather, that no man was wiser than Socrates.)
Socrates used this claim of wisdom as the basis of his moral exhortation. Accordingly, he claimed that the chief goodness consists in the caring of the soul concerned with moral truth and moral understanding, that "wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state", and that "life without examination [dialogue] is not worth living". It is with this in mind that the Socratic Method is employed.
The motive for the modern usage of this method and Socrates' use are not necessarily equivalent. Socrates rarely used the method to actually develop consistent theories, instead using myth to explain them. The Parmenides shows Parmenides using the Socratic method to point out the flaws in the Platonic theory of the Forms, as presented by Socrates; it is not the only dialogue in which theories normally expounded by Plato/Socrates are broken down through dialectic. Instead of arriving at answers, the method was used to break down the theories we hold, to go "beyond" the axioms and postulates we take for granted. Therefore, myth and the Socratic method are not meant by Plato to be incompatible; they have different purposes, and are often described as the "left hand" and "right hand" paths to the good and wisdom.
Law schoolsee also Casebook method
The Socratic method is widely used in contemporary legal education by many law schools in the United States. In a typical class setting, the professor asks a question and calls on a student who may or may not have volunteered an answer. The professor either then continues to ask the student questions or moves on to another student.
The employment of the Socratic method has some uniform features but can also be heavily influenced by the temperament of the teacher. The method begins by calling on a student at random, and asking about a central argument put forth by one of the judges (typically on the side of the majority) in an assigned case. The first step is to ask the student to paraphrase the argument, in order to ensure that the student has read and has a basic understanding of the case. (Students who have not read the case, for whatever reason, must take the opportunity to "pass," which most professors allow as a matter of course a few times per term.) Assuming the student has read the case and can articulate the court's argument, the teacher then asks whether the student agrees with the argument. The teacher then typically plays Devil's advocate, trying to force the student to defend his or her position by rebutting arguments against it.
These subsequent questions can take a few forms. Sometimes they seek to challenge the assumptions upon which the student based the previous answer until it breaks. Further questions can also be designed to move a student toward greater specificity, either in understanding a rule of law or a particular case. The teacher may attempt to propose a hypothetical situation in which the student's assertion would seem to demand an exception. Finally professors use the Socratic method to allow students to come to legal principles on their own through carefully worded questions that spur a particular train of thought.
One hallmark of Socratic questioning is that typically there is more than one "correct" answer, and more often, no clear answer at all. The primary goal of the Socratic method in law schools is not to answer usually unanswerable questions, but to explore the contours of often difficult legal issues and to teach students the critical thinking skills they will need as lawyers. This is often done by altering the facts of a particular case to tease out how the result might be different. This method encourages students to go beyond memorizing the facts of a case and instead focus on application of legal rules to tangible fact patterns. As the assigned texts are typically case law, the Socratic method, if properly used, can display that judges' decisions are usually conscientiously made but are based on certain premises, belief, and conclusions that are the subject of legitimate argument.
Sometimes, the class ends with a quick discussion of doctrinal foundations (legal rules) to anchor the students in contemporary legal understanding of an issue. In other classes the class simply ends and students are forced to figure out for themselves the legal rules or principles that were at issue. For this method to work, the students are expected to be prepared for class in advance by reading the assigned materials (case opinions, notes, law review articles, etc.) and by familiarizing themselves with the general outlines of the subject matter.
PsychotherapyThe Socratic method has been adapted for psychotherapy, most prominently in Classical Adlerian psychotherapy and Cognitive therapy. It can be used to clarify meaning, feeling, and consequences, as well as to gradually unfold insight, or explore alternative actions.
Theory of Constraints
A prominent author in the area of manufacturing improvement advocates the use of Socratic questioning in resolving apparent contradictory requirements of a process. Eliyahu M. Goldratt and his series of books have a particular focus on how to use this method to avoid compromises that satisfy neither side in a situation of apparently contradictory needs. This use of the method is a key element in his Theory of Constraints.
The method is used by modern management training companies focusing on behaviour change, e.g. Krauthammer, Gustav Käser Training International, Dynargie. In this case the trainer acts as a facilitator who uses open questions to allow the participants to reflect on their way of thinking and behaviour, and then using closed questions to force them to make a decision towards a change in their thinking and/or behaviour. In sales communication training it is often referred to as the funnel concept. The open questions help to discover the needs of the client and the closed questions pin the client down and get to the 'Yes' to close the deal.
Lesson plan elements for teachers in classrooms
A skilled teacher can teach students to think for themselves using this method. This is the only classic method of teaching that was designed to create genuinely autonomous thinkers. There are some crucial lesson plan elements to this form of teaching:
- The teacher and student must agree on the topic of instruction.
- The student must agree to attempt to answer questions from the teacher.
- The teacher and student must be willing to accept any correctly-reasoned answer. That is, the reasoning process must be considered more important than pre-conceived facts or beliefs.
- The teacher's questions must expose errors in the students' reasoning or beliefs. That is, the teacher must reason more quickly and correctly than the student, and discover errors in the students' reasoning, and then formulate a question that the students cannot answer except by a correct reasoning process. To perform this service, the teacher must be very quick-thinking about the classic errors in reasoning.
- If the teacher makes an error of logic or fact, it is acceptable for a student to correct the teacher.
Since a discussion is not a dialogue, it is not a proper medium for the Socratic method. However, it is helpful — if second best — if the teacher is able to lead a group of students in a discussion. This is not always possible in situations that require the teacher to evaluate students, but it is preferable pedagogically, because it encourages the students to reason rather than appeal to authority.
More loosely, one can label any process of thorough-going questioning in a dialogue as an instance of the Socratic method.
Popular fictionIn an episode of House, MD, aptly titled The Socratic Method, the titular character House postulates that "without Socrates, we wouldn't have the Socratic Method, the greatest way of teaching things known to man, apart from juggling chainsaws".
- Vlastos, Gregory (1983) ‘The Socratic Elenchus’, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 1: 27–58.
- Benson, Hugh (2000) Socratic Wisdom (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
- Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
- Sprague, Rosamond Kent, The Older Sophists, Hackett Publishing Company ISBN 0-87220-556-8
- Robinson, Richard, Plato's Earlier Dialectic, 2nd edition (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1953).
- Philosopher.org - 'Tips on Starting your own Socrates Cafe', Christopher Phillips, Cecilia Phillips
- UChicago.edu - 'The Socratic Method', Elizabeth Garrett (1998)
- Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington 'Adler and Socrates: Similarities and Differences', Henry Stein
- SocraticMethod.net - A Socratic Method Research Portal
- Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling, an example from Rick Garlikov
- Project Gutenberg: Works by Plato
- Project Gutenberg: Works by Xenophon (includes some Socratic works)
- Project Gutenberg: Works by Cicero (includes some works in the "Socratic dialogue" format)
- The Socratic Club
elenchus in German: Sokratische Methode
elenchus in Estonian: Sokraatiline meetod
elenchus in Hebrew: השיטה הסוקרטית
elenchus in Italian: Metodo socratico
elenchus in Dutch: Socratische methode
elenchus in Portuguese: Método Socrático
elenchus in Latin: Elenchus
elenchus in Slovak: Elenchos
elenchus in Finnish: Sokraattinen menetelmä
elenchus in Chinese: 蘇格拉底反詰法