What Is The “Socratic Method”?

One of the more interesting concepts found in Philosophy is the Socratic Method, a teaching method typically utilized by professors in American law schools, as well as in some undergraduate philosophy courses. The Socratic Method is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions. In college classes that employ the Socratic method, a professor usually ask a student a series of questions about a particular topic that are designed to stimulate critical thought. At times, the result of the questioning is to demonstrate that a rule cannot be applied in a uniform manner to all situations or to reveal the judicial challenge in crafting appropriate rules and legal decisions. Through this process, the student gains a deeper understanding of the material and the nuances involved.

History of the Socratic Method

Masters of oratory and persuasion known as Sophists were prevalent in Greek society during the 5th Century BCE.

The concept of the Socratic Method originated with the Greek Philosopher Socrates (469-399 BCE), who (along with Plato and Aristotle) is considered one of the founders of Western philosophical thought. During his youth, Socrates studied music, gymnastics, and grammar and worked as a sculptor alongside his father.  Additionally, Socrates served with distinction in the army and saved the life of the General Alcibiades during the Battle of Potidaea. During the period in which Socrates completed his formal education, orators known as Sophists, who specialized in using the tools of rhetoric to entertain, impress, or persuade an audience to accept the speaker’s point of view, gained prominence throughout Greek society. The use of such tactics in Greek society negatively impacted critical thinking, as well as encouraging the spread of cultural biases and ignorance regarding even the most basic facts.

During one heated exchange, Socrates’ friend Chaerephon asked a sophist based in the Oracle at Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The sophist then answered that there was no one wiser than Socrates. Bewildered by this answer and hoping to prove that the sophist used logical fallacies to inform his opinion, Socrates went about questioning people who considered themselves to have a high level of intelligence, as well as ordinary people. Much to his dismay, Socrates found that people who were viewed by society as intellectual giants and as having much wisdom most often lacked both traits. On the contrary, Socrates found that people who were looked down upon as common people were typically far more intelligent and wise.  The youth of Athens delighted in watching Socrates question their elders and soon, he had a following of young people who would go on to abandon their early aspirations and devote themselves to philosophy due to his example and teachings. Among Socrates’ most notable followers were Antisthenes, AristippusXenophon, and Plato. Additionally, many of the major philosophical school mentioned by ancient writers following Socrates’ death were founded by his followers.

How Does Socratic Dialogue Work?

In a typical Socratic dialogue, Socrates will ask a person to define a generalized and ambiguous concept. After the answer is given, Socrates will follow up with another question meant to reveal a logical fallacy in the individual’s response. The questioning and answering then continue until one has the impression that there are no clear answers.

Socrates usually applied this method of examination to concepts that seem to lack any concrete definition. Such an examination challenged the moral beliefs of the sophists, bringing out inadequacies and inconsistencies in their beliefs, and usually resulting in an expression of doubt. In view of such inadequacies, Socrates professed ignorance, but others still claimed to have knowledge about every imaginable subject. Socrates believed that his awareness of his own ignorance made him wiser than individuals who still claimed knowledge. While this belief seems paradoxical at first glance, it allowed Socrates to discover his own errors where others might assume he was correct. Socrates used this claim of wisdom as the basis of his moral persuasion. 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 a “life without examination is not worth living”. It is with this in mind that the Socratic method is employed.

the author

Matt is a student at Seton Hall Law School and graduated from Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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