The Socratic Method is a method of inquiry and conversation that gets its name from the Greek philosopher Socrates. It dates back to the second half of the 5th century B.C. when Socrates first promoted it as a method of teaching that mainly involves the use of probing questions that foster critical thinking on the parts of all people involved.
Socratic Method: who is Socrates?
We know that the Socratic method dates back centuries and is named after the great philosopher Socrates, but how much do we know about Socrates himself? Don’t worry; we’ve got you covered with a bit of a philosophy refresher.
Socrates was one of the most influential figures in Greek philosophy, known to this date for his exploration of the questions of ethics. He was born circa 470 B.C. and was a great Athenian figure who devoted himself to philosophical inquiry. Socrates is considered, to this day, the primary source of Western thought.
Accompanied by the names of two great philosophers (Plato and Aristotle) is the name of Socrates, and the three of them are the most significant figures of Greek Philosophy.
Socrates was influenced in his study by great philosophers who preceded him, such as Parmenides and Anaxagoras. While there are no direct records of his research (or even existence for that matter), there certainly exist dialogues written by his disciple Plato based on the life of Socrates.
From his encounters with the people of Athens to when he was imprisoned and finally died, philosophers such as Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes have created written accounts of the teachings and knowledge passed on by Socrates.
Socratic Method: What Does it Mean?
Also referred to as the maieutic or midwifery method, the Socratic method is a conversational means of inquiry and revolves around subject matters such as justice, virtue, knowledge, temperance, etc.
Socrates’ claimed that the knowledge of eternal ideas exists in much the same way. The alternative names (maieutic or midwifery method) have as much depth as the method itself. Socrates’ mother was a midwife, helping in the delivery of the child, which is already present in the mother’s womb.
Socrates claimed that the real knowledge of eternal ideas such as justice and virtue are already present in man, awaiting their recollection by skillful questioning. Therefore, by adopting a dialectic method of inquiry to ask these very skillful questions, Socrates drew out the views of others regarding the aforementioned eternal ideas. This is the basic functioning and reasoning behind the Socratic method.
Components of the Socratic Method
The Socratic method can be applied in all spectrums of life. It is essentially a way of carrying a dialogue among people that allows a deeper understanding of one another and oneself. For this reason, the Socratic method can be used in classroom settings, work-group discussions, or even discussions held in any colloquial setting.
The ultimate takeaway of discussions wherein this method is used is facilitated by nothing but the depth of the conversation and the open-mindedness of those involved in it.
No matter where the Socratic method may be used, there are some key components that make it distinct from regular conversations, which can be identified as stages of the Classic Socratic method.
APORIA or Uncertainty
Aporia can be called the first stage of the Socratic method. The doubt, confusion, uncertainty, and ignorance of the people involved in the discussion are expressed here so that the shared curiosity and pre-existing thoughts can be acknowledged and used to start the conversation. The uncertainty about a particular subject or a question that incites debate begins the search for an answer.
ETHICS or Moral Inquiry
In this stage, the uncertainty and curiosity that have been expressed are probed and worked upon to focus the discussion on moral matters. This allows participants of the dialogue to delve deeper into their understanding and search for answers between the thoughts that have been shared.
Assumptions are probed so that individuals are sometimes encouraged to question their thoughts and recognize strengths and shortcomings. Intriguing questions are presented in this stage that elicits insightful responses, which, in turn, guide the discussion forward towards the possibility of discovering a conclusion.
ELENCHUS or Logical Refutation
This is the stage where deductions start to be made. The beliefs and principles that are observed are ‘cross-examined’, and, sometimes, more probing questions are asked at this stage.
The purpose of ‘probing’ is to allow individuals to evaluate and reevaluate their thoughts and overall additions to the dialogue that is taking place. This provides important insight that can be used to pave the way towards a conclusion further or be discarded altogether if not deemed relevant.
Types of Socratic Questions
There are six types of Socratic questions that facilitate discovering a conclusion. The purpose of these questions is to mediate the discussion by encouraging individuals to examine their thoughts and beliefs that rids the discussion of any contradictions and invalid contributions.
Questions for Clarification
The basic aim of these questions is to get people to think more about what they are already thinking about to deepen their thought processes and prove the concepts on which they base their arguments. Such questions include:
- “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?” making the person refine their definition of what the problem is.
- “Can you give me an example?” sheds light on any situations or problems that may be associated and relevant.
- “Can you explain further?” discovering the problem about its roots.
- “Are you saying…?”, clarifying the problem by perhaps paraphrasing it or defining it differently to shed a different light on it.
- “How does this relate to our discussion?” forces one to question the very basis or reason why they may have thought of the problem.
Questions That Probe Assumptions
Simply put, these are the questions that make people question any unclear assumptions on which their argument may be based. They do the job of nitpicking any ‘unquestioned beliefs or presuppositions’ that may have been overlooked before and bring them forward to be examined by the individual.
- “What could we assume instead?” encouraging the discovery of alternative viewpoints and ultimately alternative, better solutions.
- “Are you assuming…?”, identifying your assumptions and allowing people to successfully rid the discussion of any underlying cognitive biases
- “How can you verify or disprove that assumption?” either of which can be done using information about what is assumed to be known, what one truly knows, and what the facts are.
- “Is that always the case?” once again encouraging the consideration of different outlooks on the problem to broaden the spectrum of possible solutions.
- “What would happen if…?”, allowing a lot of brainstorming to take place, which elicits creative responses from individuals. Eventually, it enables the group to consider possibilities that are likely and also nullify those that aren’t.
Questions That Probe Reason and Evidence
Questions of this kind give individuals the opportunity to base their arguments on whether or not they genuinely pave the path towards finding a solution by digging deep for evidence rather than relying on assumption.
- “What would be an example?” allowing an image of a possible solution to be created.
- “What is this analogous to?” encouraging ‘associative and metaphorical thinking,’ opening up creative channels, allowing one to consider different contexts.
- “Why?” challenging any possible superficiality or assumptions to the statements being made.
- “What evidence is there that supports…?” challenging any gathered evidence to ensure its validity and that of the thought behind the individual presenting it.
Questions Considering Alternative Perspectives and Viewpoints
The main aim behind these questions is to supportively attack the position for the individual to consider its actual validity in the face of other, existing viewpoints. Once again, narrowing down the probable solutions.
- “What would be an alternative?” simply to add other points of view to the consideration.
- “What is the other side of the argument?” allowing an understanding of the opposing side of the argument.
- “Who benefits and who would be affected by this?” ensuring that a solution is found rather than an additional set of complications.
- “What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?” literally suggests an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of a possible solution.
Questions That Probe Implications and Consequences
These questions force individuals to consider their arguments’ exact implications and consequences. Perhaps best explained by the questions that fall under this type:
- “What generalizations are being made?” attempting to shift the discussion from more assumptions and focus it on specifics as they allow details of the problem to be highlighted.
- “How does that affect…?”, the wider the effect, the more careful the consideration of the solution will be.
- “What does our experience tell us might happen?” giving a momentary spotlight to ‘intuitive insticnts’ to allow any common possibilities not to go unnoticed.
Questions About the Question
Perhaps what might seem the least productive type of questions to be asked, yet a rather fun or interesting one: turning the question on itself to challenge its validity.
- “What is the point of the question?” challenging the motive of the question being raised.
- “What does … mean?” similar to repeatedly asking “Why?”.
- “Why do you think I asked the question?”, putting the question into a whole different light by attempting to discover someone else’s perception of it.
The Socratic Method allows for some of the most captivating, deep conversations to be held that go to unprecedented depths and give individuals a sense of insight. Carried out in a healthy, respectable fashion, it can facilitate the most enthralling discoveries among individuals!