Socratic Methods

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—Seeking real good by questioning beliefs

Introduction[edit]

How did Socrates teach only using questions?

Socrates was fundamentally concerned with the practical issue of helping people develop the reasoning abilities requisite to living a rational life.[1] The Socratic Method is a way to seek truths by your own lights.[2] A Socratic dialogue reveals how different our outlooks can be on concepts we use every day. It reveals how different our philosophies are, and often how tenable—or untenable, as the case may be—a range of philosophies can be. Moreover, even the most universally recognized and used concept, when subjected to Socratic scrutiny, might reveal not only that there is not universal agreement, after all, on the meaning of any given concept, but that every single person has a somewhat different take on each and every concept under the sun.[3]

Socrates used his method as a guide to help people show themselves they didn’t know what they though they knew. He exposed untrue beliefs, developed a sense of disquiet in his interlocutors, and elicited contradictions by asking pointed question in an unthreatening way. These conversations forced people to substantively evaluate, and in many cases ultimately change, their beliefs.[4]

In its purest form, questions (and only questions) are used to arouse curiosity and at the same time serve as a logical, incremental, step-wise guide that enables students (Socrates referred to the partner as the “interlocutor”) to figure out a complex topic or issue with their own thinking and insights.[5]

Objectives:

The objectives of this course are to:

  • Introduce the Socratic Method of inquiry, discovery, and learning,
  • Guide students in using the Socratic Method,
  • Provide opportunities to practice using the Socratic Method,
  • Better understand what you and others believe.

There are no specific prerequisites to this course. Students may benefit from first completing the Practicing Dialogue course.

The course contains many hyperlinks to further information. Use your judgment and these link following guidelines to decide when to follow a link, and when to skip over it.

This course is part of the Applied Wisdom curriculum.

If you wish to contact the instructor, please click here to send me an email or leave a comment or question on the discussion page.

The Method in Brief[edit]

The inquisitor asks the interlocutor questions about the hypothesis.

The basic elements of the Socratic Method are shown in the diagram to the left. Two people engage in a thoughtful and focused dialogue. The inquisitor is the teacher who poses questions. The interlocutor is the student answering those questions. In response to a question posed by the inquisitor, the interlocutor answers by forming the initial hypothesis—a tentative answer to the question. The method proceeds as a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue, called the elenchus, between the inquisitor and the interlocutor. The participants think critically, identify weaknesses in the hypothesis, the inquisitor poses the next question, the interlocutor answers, and the hypothesis is revised to reflect the new understanding. This proceeds until any identified weakness has been driven out of the hypothesis.

Stages of the Socratic Method[edit]

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The Socratic Method proceeds through several stages. Dialogue typically does not proceed in a straight path through these stages because new insight gained during the process often requires the explorers to reapply the process, beginning at an earlier stage with a greater clarity and understanding. The stages are:[6]

  1. Wonder—The process begins when curiosity and our drive for intellectual exploration leads naturally to asking questions. From wonder a hypothesis emerges.[7]
  2. Hypothesis—A speculative response to the question arising from our wonder forms the hypothesis.
  3. Elenchus—This is the central technique of the method. Elenchus is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions. It is an "argument of disproof or refutation; cross-examining, testing, scrutiny especially for purposes of refutation."[8] As originally practiced by Socrates, it has the following steps:
    1. Socrates' interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example "Courage is endurance of the soul", which Socrates considers false and targets for refutation.
    2. Socrates secures his interlocutor's agreement to further premises, for example "Courage is a fine thing" and "Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing". Often counterexamples are used to challenge the hypothesis and demonstrate why it is not correct.
    3. Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis; in this case, it leads to: "courage is not endurance of the soul".
    4. Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocutor's thesis is false and that its negation is true.
  4. Accepting or Revising the Hypothesis—If the hypothesis has withstood examination in the elenchus stage, then the hypothesis stands and the next stage can begin. Otherwise, a revised hypothesis is proposed to incorporate what was learned above, and the elenchus begins with this new hypothesis.
  5. Acting accordingly—The participants now apply what has been learned. This may entail revising a previously held belief, reflecting on the session, wondering about something in a new way, agreeing to meet again, or changing behavior.

The key tasks requiring the most skill and good judgment are: choosing the interlocutor, choosing the first question, choosing the next question, and deciding when to stop.

Choosing the Interlocutor[edit]

A particular Socratic Method session is successful if all parties feel enhanced by the experience. Gaining new insights, increasing the understating of your own beliefs, identifying hidden assumptions, correcting fallacies, exploring new viewpoints, knowing how you know, and dismissing falsehoods are often good experiences and may even be exhilarating. But the session can go badly. If the interlocutor feels pressured, embarrassed, belittled, humiliated, bullied, or otherwise feels diminished or threatened by the experience, the session may have caused harm. Although the outcome cannot be predicted with certainly, there are certain conditions that favor a beneficial outcome.

Humility is the essential prerequisite for learning. Unless both parties are open to learning from the experience, there is nothing to be gained from engaging each other.

The quotation often attributed to John Maynard Keynes[9] “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” is an example of

Wiktionary-logo.svg Look up doxastic in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

doxastic openness. Doxastic openness is a technical term related to humility that basically means “I am willing to change my beliefs based on a new or better understanding of evidence”. If the interlocutor is doxastically closed and neither evidence nor reasoning can be sufficient to change his beliefs, then the Socratic Method is futile and is likely to do more harm than good.

In Gorgias, Socrates explained it like this: “If you are a person of the same sort as myself, I should be glad to continue questioning you: If not, I can let it drop. Of what sort am I? One of those who would be glad to be refuted if I say anything untrue, and glad to refute anyone else who might speak untruly; but just as glad, mind you, to be refuted as to refute, since I regard the former as the greater benefit.”

A successful application of the Socratic Method requires the interlocutor (and perhaps the inquisitor) to change their beliefs or behavior. Therefore it is important to be able to assess the interlocutor’s readiness to change with respect to the topic at hand. The following framework can help us understand and discuss readiness for change.

The transtheoretical model of behavior change assesses an individual's readiness to act on a new healthier behavior, and provides strategies, or processes of change to guide the individual through the stages of change to Action and Maintenance.

In the transtheoretical model, change is a "process involving progress through a series of stages:"

  • Precontemplation (Not Ready)-"People are not intending to take action in the foreseeable future, and can be unaware that their behavior is problematic"
  • Contemplation (Getting Ready)-"People are beginning to recognize that their behavior is problematic, and start to look at the pros and cons of their continued actions"
  • Preparation (Ready)-"People are intending to take action in the immediate future, and may begin taking small steps toward behavior change"
  • Action – "People have made specific overt modifications in modifying their problem behavior or in acquiring new healthy behaviors"
  • Maintenance – "People have been able to sustain action for at least six months and are working to prevent relapse"
  • Termination – "Individuals have zero temptation and they are sure they will not return to their old unhealthy habit as a way of coping"

When choosing an interlocutor and preparing to use the Socratic Method, it is helpful to assess the interlocutor’s readiness for change by determining the stage they are currently in for the topic at hand. This can be done by asking about readiness to change in a variety of specific situations. For example, asking “What evidence would cause you to change your belief in X?” or “What would cause you to stop doing X?” can help judge their readiness to change. A goal of the session is to help the interlocutor move from their current readiness state to the next state.

In addition, a good relationship with the interlocutor, a convenient time and place, minimal distractions, time to devote to the method, a positive attitude, shared expectations for the session, and demonstrated respect for each other also contribute to a successful session.

Essential Socratic Temperament[edit]

While it is important the Interlocutor be receptive, it is essential the Inquisitor be prepared with a temperament suitable to the conversation.

There are four traits the Socratic Inquisitor must be aware of within her own character and living:[10]

  1. The Socratic Inquisitor loves to discover her own errors. The capacity to examine our own cherished ideas and beliefs without the fear of replacing them with something better is an essential part of the Socratic Temperament and the Socratic Method. This is humility in action.
  2. The Socratic Inquisitor is in touch with her own ignorance. Because the Socratic Teacher knows that her ignorance touches every area of life, student participation and answers are naturally treated with respect.
  3. The Socratic Inquisitor models the joy of hard work in the quest for knowledge. This is fun because it is hard.
  4. The Socratic Inquisitor experiences deep curiosity and the desire for self-improvement. We never stop learning from each other.

The purpose of living such a temperament in the presence of your students is to give them the ability to discover their own Socratic temperament.

Wondering Toward the First Question[edit]

Of course you will want to consider questions that are interesting, important, and relevant to the discussants. Not all interesting questions are suitable to considering with the Socratic Method.

Questions can be classified as one of the following three types:[11]

  1. Matters of fact. These can be answered through the correct use of evidence gathering, and reasoning. There is a generally accepted correct answer to these types of questions. These questions ask “what is” and careful researchers agree on the answer. Examples include: What is the boiling point of water? Is lead more dense than gold? What movie won the academy award for best picture last year? Do not argue matters of fact, research them.
  2. Matters of taste, preference, or opinion. Any answer is acceptable here, because the answer depends only on the preferences of the person answering. Examples include: What is your favorite color? Do you prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Was Picasso or Rembrandt the better artist? Do not argue matters or preference, enjoy them.
  3. Matters of controversy. Although these are not opinions, sincere experts often disagree on the best answer or the best course of action. These questions ask “what ought to be” or they ask about a topic that is not yet carefully explored or researched. Only questions of this type are suitable for exploring using the Socratic Methods. Examples include: What are the most pressing problems facing people today? What is the best approach to reducing gun violence? Are incarceration rates too high? Learn more about matters of controversy by exploring them with the Socratic Method.

When choosing a question to begin a Socratic Dialogue, ensure it is neither a matter of fact nor a matter of preference, but rather a matter of controversy that will require exercising reasoned judgement to explore.

Assignment[edit]

Nuvola apps ksig.png This section includes a homework assignment
  1. Read over this list of questions to classify.
  2. Identify at least five of these questions in each of the following classifications: 1) matters of fact, 2) matters of preference, or 3) matters of controversy, suitable for study using the Socratic Method.

Proposing the Hypothesis[edit]

With a question posed, the interlocutor will propose a hypothesis—a speculative response to the question.

Choosing the Next Question[edit]

The inquisitor considers the current hypothesis and chooses the next question. This is perhaps the most difficult task in the process. It requires experience and experts often make this choice intuitively. However, these are some steps to follow, or some considerations to apply, when choosing the next question.

Begin by examining the hypothesis to determine if it is clear, correct, and relevant to the topic being explored. If the hypothesis is acceptable, then the elenchus has completed successfully and the process can move on to the final stage where participants assimilate what they have learned into new actions.

In most cases, the hypothesis will not be acceptable, the inquisitor will then have to identify the most salient weakness in the hypothesis, and form the next question. Often the inquisitor will proceed by offering a counterexample to the hypothesis to demonstrate some exception the hypothesis does not properly consider. Alternatively, the inquisitor may identify some weakness in definitions proposed or relied on.

Socrates applied a strict standard for accepting a definition. When Socrates asks a question such as “What is reverence?” he has in mind a question that can be answered only in certain ways. To begin with, he will not be satisfied with an answer that points only to a certain kind of reverence, or only to an example of reverence. The answer must identify a feature that: 1) belongs to every kind of reverence (meets the generality requirement), and 2) to nothing that is not reverent (meets the exclusion requirement), and 3) has explanatory power. A definition must state the essence of the thing being defined, by contrast with a statement of that thing's non-essential attributes; such a statement could be true without qualifying as a definition.[12]

If the current hypothesis is not clear by the above standard, or it uses words that are not clear by the above standard, then pose a question for clarification. Think critically about the hypothesis. The hypothesis may be weak for a variety of reasons. Examine the hypothesis to identify any weakness it may have. Consider the types of weaknesses described in the left hand column of the table below.[13] Use the example questions to help form your next question.

Type of Weakness Example Questions[14]
Unclear Ideas or Expression
  • What do you mean by …?
  • Can you put that another way?
  • Can you provide an example?
  • Can you say more about what you mean?
  • Is that a deepity?
Unaligned Purpose
  • What is the purpose of …?
  • What are your goals?
  • What do you want to have happen?
  • What is the purpose of addressing this question at this time?
  • Is this the most important topic for us to explore?
Implicit or Faulty Assumptions
  • What are we assuming here?
  • Is that assumption well founded?
  • What happens if our assumptions are faulty?
  • Can we all accept the assumption of …?
Uncertain Factual Basis
  • Why do you think this is true?
  • What it the evidence for this?
  • What is the evidence against this?
  • What are your sources?
  • Is this based on authority or on evidence?
Narrow Viewpoint or Perspective
  • What variety of viewpoints have we considered?
  • What additional viewpoints should we consider?
  • How would the … group assess this?
  • Who would disagree?
  • What objections would other groups raise?
  • Who have we spoken to about this?
  • What would a global perspective look like?
Unexplored Implications
  • What effect will this have?
  • What do you think will happen?
  • If that happened, what would be the result?
  • What is the worst that could happen?
  • What is the best we can expect to happen?
  • What alternatives should we consider?
Unanswered Questions
  • How can we find out?
  • Can we break this into simpler questions?
  • What are we really asking here?
  • Is this a question of fact, preference, or true controversy?
  • Do we all agree this is the best question to pursue?
  • What is the problem?
  • What is the real problem?
  • What is the problem really?[15]
Unclear Concepts
  • What is the main idea we are exploring?
  • How would you define … ?
  • How is this different from …?
  • Is this the same as …?
Unexplored Inferences
  • How are you interpreting…?
  • What ambiguities do you see?
  • How is the ambiguity around … most likely resolved?

Take care to ask a sincere and open question. Avoid asking:

  • A leading question that suggests a particular answer or contains information the inquisitor seeks to have confirmed,
  • A suggestive question that implies that a certain answer should be given in response,
  • A loaded question that contains a controversial or unjustified assumption, or a
  • A question that poses a false dilemma and presents only limited alternatives to consider, when in fact there are more options.

Deciding When to End[edit]

If the process has elicited a hypothesis that is clear, correct, and relevant to the topic being explored, congratulations, the process has been successful! The process can now move on to the final stage and participants can now act in new ways according to the new insights learned.

If the process is taking more time that has been planned for, then suspend the process and agree on the next steps. Participants may agree to: 1) meet and continue the process, 2) stay in touch, 3) reflect on the session, 4) abandon the inquiry indefinitely, or 5) leave the next steps unspecified.

If the process is becoming stalled or is causing distress, then break off, work to address and remedy any lingering concerns, and work to strengthen the relationships among the participants.

Assignment[edit]

Nuvola apps ksig.png Find someone who wants to practice with you...
  1. Find someone who wants to practice with you.
  2. Choose a question from this list of prompts.
  3. Practice the Socratic Method beginning with the question you have chosen to study.
  4. Use this session to engage in meaningful conversation or explore significant concepts.

This is Not a Debate[edit]

Modern debate-oriented discussions focus on winning rather than on gaining insight. The focus of modern moral debate is so broad it can include inappropriate ad hominem attacks and misleading statements. The Socratic focus is much narrower. The discipline of Socratic conversation is in the ability to persist in questioning a single idea. This willful repetition affords us the experience of seeing a much richer variety of answers and possible views come into play. This is part of the value of the focus of the Socratic Method. It is the variety of responses that must inevitably come when we persist in questioning an idea that makes our conversation more useful. Modern debates usually offer two views that formally deny each other. This often creates a false dichotomy because most subjects that have any bearing on moral issues are more complex than a mere two sided debate can address. The Socratic method persists with a basic question and does not let go until an answer that can stand up to examination is found. This is a far more creative and fertile mode of conversation than mere debate. This is not an attack, instead it is the creativity of teamwork towards a common goal.[16]

Debates are fueled by arrogance and certainty, inquiry is fueled by humility and curiosity.

Example Dialogues[edit]

Studying the original Socratic Dialogues provides masterful yet dated examples of the method in use. Perhaps the most instructive example is Meno, one of many Socratic Dialogues written by Plato.

Assignment[edit]

Nuvola apps ksig.png This section includes a homework assignment
  1. Read about Meno,
  2. Read Meno. Notice how Socrates chooses the next question to ask throughout the dialogue.
  3. What is the most clever intellectual move Socrates makes during the dialogue?
  4. What does Meno learn? What does Socrates learn? What is the source of that new understanding?
  5. Optionally study other Socratic Dialogues.

Applications[edit]

Many variations in the use and application of the technique have evolved since the days of Socrates. One important change is the extent to which the inquisitor has an outcome in mind at the start of the session. In the classical technique, the inquisitor is ambivalent to the outcome and genuinely intends to learn along with the interlocutor as the conversation progresses. In many modern applications, the inquisitor has a specific outcome in mind from the start.[17] This is essential during teaching applications and often present when it is used to influence belief in a predetermined direction. It is disingenuous for the inquisitor to mislead an interlocutor by representing the session as unbiased if the inquisitor already has an outcome in mind.[18]

Today the Socratic Method is used in several ways. Below are some modern examples of where it is being practiced. Study any of these you find interesting.

Learning[edit]

People may wish to observe, participate, or lead sessions using the Socratic Method as a way to learn more about the method, to learn more about the topic being examined, or to enjoy more engaging interactions with other people.

  • Socrates Café are gatherings around the world where people from different backgrounds get together and exchange thoughtfully developed philosophical perspectives, based on their unique experiences, while embracing the version of the Socratic Method developed by founder Christopher Phillips. His original goals were to “create a type of dialogical inquiry group, more often than not in a public setting, that created bonds of empathy and understanding among participants.”[19]

Challenging Beliefs[edit]

Because the Socratic Method challenges assumptions, beliefs, and unclear thinking evident from the initial hypothesis, it can be used to challenge unfounded beliefs and may lead to new insights, or may cause someone to change their long-held, yet poorly examined beliefs.

  • A Modern Example of the Socratic Method, “The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith”, by Max Maxwell. In this example Socrates is the Inquisitor and the Preacher Is the Interlocutor. The Preacher begins with this hypothesis: “An atheist cannot be a moral person. Without faith in God, no human being can be moral at all. You must first have faith in God in order to have any capacity for morality. Faith in God is the only true basis of morality.”
  • Street Epistemology is a way of having more productive conversations with believers to help them re-examine the foundations of their beliefs. It examines the question “Is faith a reliable epistemology.” Many videos provide examples of street epistemology in practice.
  • Motivational Interviewing is a method that works on facilitating and engaging intrinsic motivation within the client in order to change behavior. It is a goal-oriented, client-centered counseling style for eliciting behavior change by helping clients to explore and resolve ambivalence.
  • The Socratic Method can be a useful technique in many forms of psychotherapy[20] where it is used to help a person change and overcome problems in desired ways.

Teaching[edit]

Socrates believed that the Socratic Method was the only valid path to learning. We saw in Meno how the Method elicited latent knowledge from the slave. The Method has great potential as a teaching tool. The Socratic method is a powerful tool to inspire students to take a deep interest in their own enthusiastically willful education and thriving in life.[21]

Yoda may be the most famous teacher to use the Socratic Method, and here are some other examples to learn from:

Assignment[edit]

Nuvola apps ksig.png Choose a meaningful question to explore using the Socratic Method...
  1. Choose a meaningful question to explore using the Socratic Method.
  2. Choose a partner to act as the interlocutor.
  3. Establish your Socratic Temperament.
  4. Act as the inquisitor as you use the Socratic Method to learn more about the question.

Additional Resources[edit]

Students may wish to study several of these resources used in creating this course.

Further Reading[edit]

Students interested in learning more about Socratic Methods may be interested in these materials.

References[edit]

  1. Paul, Richard; Elder, Linda (December 5, 2014). Thinker's Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning (Thinker's Guide Library),. Foundation for Critical Thinking. pp. 134. ISBN 978-0944583319. 
  2. What Is The Socratic Method?, excerpted from Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips
  3. What Is The Socratic Method?, excerpted from Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips
  4. Boghossian, Peter (November 1, 2013). A Manual for Creating Atheists. Pitchstone Publishing. pp. 280. ISBN 978-1939578099.  Chapter 5.
  5. The Socratic Method: Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling, by Rick Garlikov
  6. From Boghossian, Peter (November 1, 2013). A Manual for Creating Atheists. Pitchstone Publishing. pp. 280. ISBN 978-1939578099. , attributed to: Dye, J. (2007, February 7) Socratic method and scientific method.
  7. Boghossian, Peter (November 1, 2013). A Manual for Creating Atheists. Pitchstone Publishing. pp. 280. ISBN 978-1939578099. 
  8. See: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-ethics-shorter/#2
  9. Quote Investigator, see: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/07/22/keynes-change-mind/
  10. The Socratic Temperament by Max Maxwell
  11. Paul, Richard; Elder, Linda (December 5, 2014). Thinker's Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning (Thinker's Guide Library),. Foundation for Critical Thinking. pp. 134. ISBN 978-0944583319.  Three Kinds of Questions.
  12. Socratic Definition
  13. Adapted from: Designing Effective Projects: Questioning, The Socratic Questioning Technique, Intel Teach Program, Designing Effective Projects.
  14. Adapted from Questions for a Socratic Dialogue, adapted from Paul, Richard; Elder, Linda (December 5, 2014). Thinker's Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning (Thinker's Guide Library),. Foundation for Critical Thinking. pp. 134. ISBN 978-0944583319. . Details may be found at www.criticalthinking.org Refer to these sources for more detail.
  15. Gause, Donald C.; Weinberg, Gerald M. (March 1, 1990). Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is. Dorset House Publishing Company. pp. 176. ISBN 978-0932633163. 
  16. How to Use the Socratic Method, by Max Maxwell and Melete, The Socratic Method research portal.
  17. Introduction to the Socratic Method and its Effect on Critical Thinking, by Max Maxwell, the Socratic method research portal
  18. Street Epistemology – a curate’s egg, October 24, 2015, Psybertron Asks What, Why & How do we Know?, Ian Glendinning
  19. Socratic Inquiry For All Ages, Christopher Phillips, New York University, childhood & philosophy, rio de janeiro, v.8, n.15, jan./jun. 2012, p. 131-151. issn 1984-5987
  20. Elements of the Socratic Method: Systematic Questioning, James C. Overholser, Case Western Reserve University, Psychotherapy, Volume 30 / Spring 1993, Number 1
  21. How to Use the Socratic Method, by Max Maxwell and Melete, The Socratic Method research portal.