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Just what is the Socratic method?

Updated on August 1, 2012

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!

Further reading.

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!

Early Socratic Dialogues (Penguin Classics)
Early Socratic Dialogues (Penguin Classics)

This volume contains the Laches, which discusses bravery.

 
Protagoras and Meno (Penguin Classics)
Protagoras and Meno (Penguin Classics)

The Meno gives the example of the doubled square.

 
The Last Days of Socrates (Penguin Classics)
The Last Days of Socrates (Penguin Classics)

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!

Comments and questions welcome!

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    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      A very clear and succinct explanation. Thank you!

    • AstroGremlin profile image

      AstroGremlin 4 years ago

      The idea of remembering as discovery is fascinating. I remember reading that the Norse believed that nothing was invented, but everything was discovered. I think we accept this about mathematics, which is considered somehow eternal and always existing, but not something new and innovated, like a light bulb. Thank goodness for Plato capturing this annoying fellow's method. The guy in the video doesn't press his victims enough, of course, about the consequences of their definition of justice, for example. It takes a real gadfly to do that.

    • KReneeC profile image

      KReneeC 5 years ago

      Another superb lens you have written. I am blown away by your writing and cannot wait to read more of your masters!

    • profile image

      sybil watson 5 years ago

      Wow, I wish I'd had you for a philosophy professor in college - I would have spent a lot more time learning and a lot less time looking out the window! You have a very fluid and easy to understand way of writing. I look forward to reading more.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Once again, another easy to understand stellar article. I'm inclined to believe Socrates entire view under your section, "Why Does it Work?". I have always wondered why there can't be more than one truth concerning one thing. Seems like everyone is always looking for the "truth" as if the answer to any given problem is singular. I believe truth is prismatic and may even shapeshift. oh, who knows. but you definitely got me thinking so early in the morning ... and I haven't even finished my first cup of coffee!!!

    • Thrinsdream profile image

      Thrinsdream 5 years ago

      . . another one totally enjoyed! Mainly because it would seem I employ this method too without even realising it had a history! Hmmmm, does this mean I am obnoxious . . probably! Really enjoyed this too. With thanks and appreciation (again) Cathi x

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 5 years ago

      "Squid Angel blessed."

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 5 years ago

      Socrates was pretty good. But what does pretty good mean?

    • Rosaquid profile image

      Rosaquid 5 years ago

      This is interesting. I have seen the Socratic teaching method work without know that is what it was. Thanks for the lens. As you would say, "Nifty!"

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      thanks for the informative lens

    • JoyfulPamela2 profile image

      JoyfulPamela2 5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      I studied about the Socratic Method in some of my education classes years ago. Very interesting!

    • YsisHb profile image

      YsisHb 5 years ago

      In Greek the word truth is ALITHIA. This comes from the letter A, which gives the word the meaning of lack and the word LITHI, which means oblivion. So ALITHIA, truth, lacks oblivion, therefore it is remembrance (of something already known).

    • esvoytko lm profile image
      Author

      esvoytko lm 5 years ago

      @YsisHb: Indeed! The very fact that the Greeks defined truth in the negative as "not concealed" or "not forgotten" (or "lacking oblivion" as you put it) says a lot about how they approached the concept.

      However, Plato tended to privilege episteme as the highest form of thought, and he actually used aletheia most often when referring to unfounded opinions that just happened to be true - doxa alethes.

    • YsisHb profile image

      YsisHb 5 years ago

      Very nice indeed! Your lens has provoked a discussion about Socrates between me and my husband of almost an hour.

      It's very nice to see things from a different perspective. I think that we are living under a massive illusion (the media have contributed a lot to that). We receive a lot of information without processing it.

      Thanks for presenting the Socratic method in such a simple way, illustrated with the beautiful film. It's time to start thinking.....(I prefer coffee)

    • dahlia369 profile image

      dahlia369 5 years ago

      Wonderful lens, very informative in a fun way, congratulations! :)

    • jstarley profile image

      jstarley 5 years ago

      I love your lens! No fluff, just the nitty gritty, sprinkled with humor. I tend to use the Socrates Method when talking to my son, not even realizing it was a method. I not sure what that makes me. Great stuff!

    • TTMall profile image

      TTMall 5 years ago

      Thank you for such an informative lens.

    • esvoytko lm profile image
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      esvoytko lm 5 years ago

      @KathyMcGraw2: Well, the Greeks mostly drank wine. But mankind has been keeping beer chilled in cellars for centuries!

    • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

      Kathy McGraw 5 years ago from California

      Interesting and easy to follow. I like Socrates but not sure I would want a hot beer...as I don't think they refrigerated them back then :)

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 5 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      It would certainly be interesting to grab a beer with Socrates, but you would want to stay mentally alert so you wouldn't want to have too many.

    • oxfordian profile image

      oxfordian 5 years ago

      Very nice, concise intro/overview! I studied philosophy in college and liked it so mucn, I almost changed my major! Here's an angel blessing for you!

    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 5 years ago from New York City

      Well done for a topic that has lost a lot of impact. I always like Socrates and his method and appreciate your time in explaining it so clearly. You're new here, but off to a great start. Good luck!

    • Faye Rutledge profile image

      Faye Rutledge 5 years ago from Concord VA

      Thanks for this interesting information.

    • esvoytko lm profile image
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      esvoytko lm 5 years ago

      @NoYouAreNot: Knew the word, didn't know it owed its origin to midwifery. Great bit of info!

    • esvoytko lm profile image
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      esvoytko lm 5 years ago

      @Zut Moon: Much appreciated!

    • NoYouAreNot profile image

      NoYouAreNot 5 years ago

      Trivia:

      In Greek language, the socratic method is called "maieutics" ("maia" or "maea" in Greek is the midwife), for it was used to bring forth knowledge through questions.

      This was also in honor to Socrates' mother, who was a midwife.

      Congratulations, Eric -- your writing is clear and tight, and brings wonderfully your subject into life.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Thank you for this very logical explanation of the Socratic method. I didn't know what it was but had heard of it. When you mentioned that he stopped people on the street and asked them questions, if reminded me of Jay Walking (the Jay Leno schtick). :o)

    • esvoytko lm profile image
      Author

      esvoytko lm 5 years ago

      @reasonablerobby: I have a Montaigne lens in the works actually! Thanks for reading.

    • profile image

      reasonablerobby 5 years ago

      Fabulous lens, I'm reading Michel de Montaigne at the minute and he has some great references to Socrates.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I enjoyed learning about this method. Your lens are always the most thoughtful.

    • Zut Moon profile image

      Zut Moon 5 years ago

      Well written and has received an Angel Blessing !!!

    • profile image

      ohcaroline 5 years ago

      Socrates would frustrate me...then I would leave trying to come to my own answers. :(

    • teamunited12 profile image

      teamunited12 5 years ago

      Very interesting....gives reader a lot to think about..

    • top101 profile image

      top101 5 years ago

      amazing! i enjoyed reading this.

    • hsschulte profile image

      hsschulte 5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge of the Socrates method.

    • A RovingReporter profile image

      A RovingReporter 5 years ago

      Greats lens. Am glad to learn this thing called the Socrates method. I enjoyed reading every word of your lens. Your lens set me thinking - and asking questions.

    • Aquavel profile image

      Aquavel 5 years ago

      Fascinating lens on the socratic method. Loved the example of how Socrates guided the slave to the correct answer and the video with the example of the scientist/physicist standing up for his own beliefs and thereby going against the majority and what that meant in a larger sense. Excellent writing and great examples!