Just what is the Socratic method?
Who was this guy and what did he do?
Socrates was a man who lived in Athens in the 5th century BC, during the so-called "Golden Age of Athens." He is considered one of the founders of Western thought, which is to say: he is a pretty big deal! In fact, his epoch-making stature in philosophy is so great that all of the philosophers who came before him are now lumped together under the label "pre-Socratics."
Unfortunately, Socrates did not write anything down; this guy was purely a talker. Nearly everything we know about him comes from the work of his most prominent student, Plato (also a pretty big deal). Plato depicts Socrates as a character in each one of his writings, and it is through these writings that we learn about one of Socrates' most enduring legacies: a special form of questioning called the Socratic method. (Image credit: Ian W Scott)
So Socrates asked a lot of questions?
In a word: yes! Socrates never fit the mold of what we think of today as the philosopher's life; he did not spend hours hunched over dense academic texts or writing out long treatises. Instead, he spent his time in the streets of Athens, provoking anyone who would listen into conversation about issues he considered of utmost importance: justice, bravery, self-control, and wisdom, to name a few. He preferred conversations to lengthy essays or speeches because he thought only in a dialogue would each thought be subjected to immediate and rigorous criticism. The method he developed is now often called Socratic dialectic (of which the Socratic method is a facet), and it goes something like this:
1. Socrates would begin by asking a question - usually a very broad question that seeks to define a concept. For example, "what is bravery?"
2. Socrates' friend would propose an answer. For example, he might say, "bravery is endurance, of course."
3. In order to put this definition to the test, Socrates will search for a counterexample. In our example, he might reply by saying: "Suppose a man is sick and dehydrated and is being offered water by his doctor. If he shows endurance in holding out and refusing to drink, shall we call him brave?"
4. The friend will concede that the original definition must be inadequate, because the counterexample has shown that it does not hold true in all cases. The friend will then propose a modification of the definition. In our example, suppose he offers: "Perhaps bravery is endurance paired with wisdom."
5. Socrates will then put this new definition to the test by seeing if he can produce a counterexample. This process is repeated over and over, and as the original answer is continually adjusted it becomes more difficult to refute. This, Socrates supposes, means the answer is getting closer and closer to the truth.
And the truth is what the philosopher is after, of course.
(Image credit: Revelife)
This sounds a little obnoxious...
It was obnoxious. Remember, Socrates was engaging passersby on the street in these philosophical discussions. Imagine how you would react if someone approached you on the street and bluntly asked you, "say, what do you think justice is?" And of course, you might be even more annoyed if Socrates quickly refuted your answers and demonstrated that you didn't actually have a clue what justice is.
In fact, Socrates had such a reputation for annoying the citizens of Athens that Plato coined a new term for him - he called him a "gadfly." Today we understand the term to mean someone who upsets the order of things by posing uncomfortable questions. In this way, Plato argued, Socrates was annoying and prodding Athenians just as a gadfly prods a horse into anger.
In the video below, Swiss writer Alain de Botton explores just how annoying Socrates' behavior must have been. He also gives a brief overview of Socrates' life and philosophy, with a special interest in helping the viewer apply Socratic questioning in his or her everyday life.
How does the Socratic method fit into the overall dialectical scheme?
Finally: the Socratic method. The single phrase that nearly everyone has heard or knows something about, even if they don't know anything about Socrates. Well, what we call the Socratic method is actually a pedagogical tool, meaning it is a strategy for teaching. The idea is simple: instead of simply telling your student the answer to a problem and expecting her to remember it for an exam later, you prod her into finding the answer herself by asking questions.
Socrates is most clearly shown demonstrating this method in a dialogue of Plato's called Meno. In this work, Socrates asks a slave the answer to a geometrical problem. The slave produces the wrong answer, and Socrates begins prodding him towards the correct answer by asking him questions and drawing extra lines into the geometric figure for help. In the end, the slave produces the correct answer with only the help from Socrates' questions.
The exchange proceeds as follows. Socrates draws a square in the dirt like the one below.
Socrates then asks the slave to produce a square that has exactly twice the area of the first square. The slave's initial response is to double the length of each side, like this:
Upon questioning, the slave concedes that he has actually drawn a square with four times the area of the original square. When he appears confused about how to proceed, Socrates asks him if it is possible to cut the area of each square in half by dividing it down the middle. The slave answers that it is possible, and adds the red lines below to the figure.
Socrates asks the slave for the area of the new square he has created with the red lines. After realizing that the red square contains four halves of the original square, he answers emphatically that the new square has twice the area of the original square. This is the essence of the Socratic method. The slave was prodded into producing an answer on his own, while Socrates helped lead him there only by asking the right questions. Did I mention that Socrates loved questions?
Why does it work?
The question that is now begging to be asked is, of course: why does the Socratic method of questioning work? A simple geometry problem is one thing, but I can't possibly have the answers to every question in my head already, just waiting to be prodded into my consciousness! Socrates' answer to this puzzle was a fantastical one: he claimed that you did indeed know everything already, and that all of learning is simply the process of remembering what we forgot when we were born.
What? How could I forget something the moment I was born? For that matter, how could I have known anything before I was born? Socrates thought he had the answer. Our souls are eternal, he said, and they carry the full range of knowledge with them at all times. When our souls enter our bodies at birth, we become distracted by worldly concerns and forget everything we already knew. So when we learn something - anything - we aren't really gaining new knowledge at all! We are only recollecting knowledge by becoming more in tune with our souls. So, Socrates thought his method of questioning would help students become more in touch with their own souls, whether they are solving a simple math problem or pondering the nature of justice. Nifty!
As mentioned above, most of what we know about Socrates comes from the writings of Plato. Specifically, the example presented about the nature of bravery is adapted from the Laches, which is a dialogue available in the Early Socratic Dialogues volume from Penguin Classics. The geometric problem explored above is taken from the Meno, which is packaged alongside the Protagoras by Penguin Classics. Finally, the doctrines of the eternal soul and learning as recollection are presented in the Phaedo, which is available in the Penguin Classics volume entitled The Last Days of Socrates. I hope this lens has inspired you not to be intimidated and to check out Plato's writings for yourself!
This volume contains the Laches, which discusses bravery.
The Meno gives the example of the doubled square.
This is a great volume for newcomers to Plato, and contains the doctrine of learning as recollection.
Was this guide helpful? Do you like Socrates? Hate him? Want to grab a beer with him? Let me know what you're thinking!