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How to Ask Socratic Questions

Updated on November 4, 2014
Cats are just smarter than us, you will understand this one day.
Cats are just smarter than us, you will understand this one day.

Okay, big surprise. I think most people walk around not knowing what they are doing or talking about. I think most people at the age of 14 think they have it all figured out, and don"t need to bother asking anyones opinion, or listening to everyones stories. I don't think most ever really grow out of it either. They just learn that they have to be patient for their turn to speak. That's one of the reasons I write about these things. Chances are, if you're here and actually reading, you don't think like this. Your here because (hopefully) you find my writings entertaining and insightful. So I figured today I would take a little time and talk about something I do all the time.

I do it to make other people think, and I get no greater reward than seeing the light bulb in someone else's head go off. When they realize that I wasn't asking because I didn't know, but was asking because I want them to realize they don"t either, it's great. Or often times, I will answer questions I am asked with questions, and people realize that they knew the answer all along. I am very Socratic in my philosophy into the truth of knowledge, and it permeates into almost all aspects of my life. So lets look at some Socratic questions, and see if we can't get some more people asking them on a daily basis!

It is generally agreed that there are 6 types of Socratic questions. I feel the most important is:

Questions about the Question

Or questioning the validity of the question's merit. When discussing things, people will tend to ask pointless questions in an attempt to derail the subject, or because they really don't understand the subject being discussed to begin with. A couple examples of this include:

  • What does this mean?
  • Are you sure this question is asked correctly?
  • What was the point of asking that question?

Some of those may seem rude, but questioning a question is just as valid, if not more valid, than questioning an answer.

Conceptual Clarification

This deals with making people think deeper into the concepts behind their question. Sometimes you can help people realize they knew the answer all along. If you make people think deeper, you can also avoid giving the incorrect answer by making them refine their question. Vagueness can be a teachers worst enemy. Here are a few example:

  • What do we already know about this?
  • Can you rephrase that?
  • What is another way of asking that question?
  • Are you saying (this) or (that)?

Challenging Assumptions

This one can get dangerous if you are worried about offending. Assumptions tend to be tied to beliefs, and people don't like thinking they believed the wrong thing their whole lives. These questions are very very powerful, but don't use them unless you think the person is really ready to be asked them.

  • What else could we assume?
  • You seem to be assuming ... ?
  • How did you choose those assumptions?
  • Please explain why/how ... ?
  • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
  • Do you agree or disagree with ... ?
  • How do you know this?

Probing Evidence

People will often provide evidence on why they know what they know. These questions are intended to make certain that the evidence is both relevant, and accurate. There is no point in considering evidence if it is not both of these. Any arguments based on evidence such as this are not well thought out, and weak in nature.

  • Are these reasons good enough?
  • How might it be refuted?
  • How can I be sure of what you are saying?
  • What evidence is there to support what you are saying?
  • On what authority are you basing your argument?
  • Do you have the ability to verify this evidence yourself? If not, who does?

We all do it, don't act like you don't
We all do it, don't act like you don't | Source

Asking for alternate viewpoints

Any argument is an argument because there are more than one viewpoint. If there wasn't, there would be no conflict. When you ask someone for the alternate viewpoints, you make them drop their own viewpoint for a few minutes. Sometimes this is enough to give them better insight. It can make them change their mind, or give them revelations as to why their own argument is superior. Sometimes they are not willing to see it from another point of view. In my experience, at this point you are not having a discussion, but banging your head against a wall. If people are unwilling to see from another perspective, it can indicate that there beliefs are indoctrinated by fear. At that point you are no longer dealing with a discussion of intellectual pursuits. That's a different matter entirely.

  • Another way of looking at this is (Viewpoint B), does this seem reasonable?
  • What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
  • Who benefits from this?
  • What is the difference between (Viewpoint A) and (Viewpoint B)?
  • Why is it better than (Viewpoint B)?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of (Either viewpoint)?
  • How could you look another way at this?

Ask about Implications and Consequences

When someone has a particular viewpoint on something, far reaching effects can be applicable. Especially in politics. But no one ever seems to ask what will happen. People will most definitely bring up what they can happen if its good. They will also replace "can" with "will". So its important to ask what can happen if it goes right, and what can happen if it goes wrong. Apply a little risk management, then make a well informed decision, with the risk properly calculated.

  • Then what would happen?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • How could (this) be used to ... ?
  • What are the implications of ... ?
  • How does (this) affect ... ?
  • How does this fit with what we learned before?
  • Can any other possibilities be foreseen?

Socratic questioning is the start of critical thinking. Read over this a little, and sometime during the next week use them when discussing something with someone. If you do please let me know in the comments below or contact me via the contact button on hubpages!


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