Socratic method

Socratic method - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
1/30/11 12:08 AM
Socratic method
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Socratic method (or method of elenchus or Socratic debate),
named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of
inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints
based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical
thinking and to illuminate ideas.[1] It is a dialectical method, often
involving an oppositional discussion in which the defence of one
point of view is pitted against the defence of another; one participant
may lead another to contradict him in some way, strengthening the
inquirer's own point. (Think about the question before you speak.)
The Socratic method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination,
in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and
eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method
searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion, and
scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs.
The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic
and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs
about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos),
seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various
particular instances. The extent to which this method is employed to
bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help
them further their understanding, is called the method of maieutics.
Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of
definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the
scientific method. Perhaps oddly, however, Aristotle also claimed
that this method is not suitable for ethics.[citation needed]
Socrates began to engage in such discussions with his fellow
Athenians after his friend from youth, Chaerephon, visited the
Oracle of Delphi, which confirmed that no man in Greece was
wiser than Socrates. Socrates saw this as a paradox, and began
using the Socratic method to answer his conundrum. Diogenes
Laertius, however, wrote that Protagoras invented the “Socratic”
Plato famously formalized the Socratic elenctic style in prose—
presenting Socrates as the curious questioner of some prominent
Athenian interlocutor—in some of his early dialogues, such as
Euthyphro and Ion, and the method is most commonly found
within the so-called "Socratic dialogues", which generally portray
Socrates engaging in the method and questioning his fellow
citizens about moral and epistemological issues.
The term Socratic questioning is used to describe a kind of
Part of a series on
"I know that I know nothing"
Social gadfly · Trial of Socrates
Eponymous concepts
Socratic dialogue · Socratic method
Socratic problem · Socratic paradox
Plato · Xenophon
Antisthenes · Aristippus
Related topics
Platonism · Stoicism
Cynics · Cyrenaics
The Clouds
Part of a series on
Early life · Works · Platonism
Epistemology · Idealism / Realism
Theory of Forms
Form of the Good
Third man argument
Euthyphro dilemma · Five regimes
Philosopher king
Allegories and metaphors
Ring of Gyges · The cave
The divided line · The sun
Ship of state · Myth of Er
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Socratic method - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
questioning in which an original question is responded to as
though it were an answer. This in turn forces the first questioner
to reformulate a new question in light of the progress of the
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Ship of state · Myth of Er
The chariot
Related articles
The Academy in Athens
Socratic problem
Commentaries on Plato
Middle Platonism · Neoplatonism
Neoplatonism and Christianity
1 Method
2 Application
2.1 Law schools
2.2 Psychotherapy
2.3 Human resource training and development
2.4 Lesson plan elements for teachers in
2.4.1 Planning methodology
2.4.2 Methodology in operation
3 See also
4 Notes
5 References
6 External links
Elenchus (Ancient Greek: ἔλεγχος elengkhos "argument of disproof or refutation; cross-examining,
testing, scrutiny esp. for purposes of refutation"[4] ) is the central technique of the Socratic method. The
Latin form elenchus (plural elenchi ) is used in English as the technical philosophical term. [5]
"If you ask a question or series of questions in which your respondent can readily agree, then ask a
concluding question based on those agreements, you will receive a desirable response". [citation needed]
In Plato's early dialogues, the elenchus is the technique Socrates uses to investigate, for example, the nature
or definition of ethical concepts such as justice or virtue. According to one general characterization, [6] 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".
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
One elenctic examination can lead to a new, more refined, examination of the concept being considered, in
this case it invites an examination of the claim: "Courage is wise endurance of the soul". Most Socratic
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inquiries consist of a series of elenchi and typically end in aporia.
Frede [7] insists that step #4 above makes nonsense of the aporetic nature of the early dialogues. If any
claim has been shown to be true then it cannot be the case that the interlocutors are in aporia, a state where
they no longer know what to say about the subject under discussion.
The exact nature of the elenchus is subject to a great deal of debate, in particular concerning whether it is a
positive method, leading to knowledge, or a negative method used solely to refute false claims to
According to W. K. C. Guthrie's The Greek Philosophers, while sometimes erroneously believed to be a
method by which one seeks the answer to a problem, or knowledge, the Socratic method was actually
intended to demonstrate one's ignorance. Socrates, unlike the Sophists, did believe that knowledge was
possible, but believed that the first step to knowledge was recognition of one's ignorance. Guthrie writes,
"[Socrates] was accustomed to say that he did not himself know anything, and that the only way in which
he was wiser than other men was that he was conscious of his own ignorance, while they were not. The
essence of the Socratic method is to convince the interlocutor that whereas he thought he knew something,
in fact he does not. The unexamined life is not worth living
Socrates generally applied his method of examination to concepts that seem to lack any concrete definition;
e.g., the key moral concepts at the time, the virtues of piety, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice.
Such an examination challenged the implicit moral beliefs of the interlocutors, bringing out inadequacies
and inconsistencies in their beliefs, and usually resulting in puzzlement known as aporia. In view of such
inadequacies, Socrates himself professed his ignorance, but others still claimed to have knowledge.
Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who, though ignorant, still
claimed knowledge. Although this belief seems paradoxical at first glance, it in fact allowed Socrates to
discover his own errors where others might assume they were correct. This claim was known by the
anecdote of the Delphic oracular pronouncement that Socrates was the wisest of all men. (Or, rather, that no
man was wiser than Socrates.)
Socrates used this claim of wisdom as the basis of his moral exhortation. Accordingly, 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 "life without examination [dialogue] is not worth living". It is with this
in mind that the Socratic method is employed.
The motive for the modern usage of this method and Socrates' use are not necessarily equivalent. Socrates
rarely used the method to actually develop consistent theories, instead using myth to explain them. The
Parmenides shows Parmenides using the Socratic method to point out the flaws in the Platonic theory of the
Forms, as presented by Socrates; it is not the only dialogue in which theories normally expounded by
Plato/Socrates are broken down through dialectic. Instead of arriving at answers, the method was used to
break down the theories we hold, to go "beyond" the axioms and postulates we take for granted. Therefore,
myth and the Socratic method are not meant by Plato to be incompatible; they have different purposes, and
are often described as the "left hand" and "right hand" paths to the good and wisdom.
Law schools
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See also: Casebook method
The Socratic method is widely used in contemporary legal education by most law schools in the United
States. In a typical class setting, the professor asks a question and calls on a student who may or may not
have volunteered an answer. The professor either then continues to ask the student questions or moves on
to another student.
The employment of the Socratic method has some uniform features but can also be heavily influenced by
the temperament of the teacher. The method begins by calling on a student at random, and asking about a
central argument put forth by one of the judges (typically on the side of the majority) in an assigned case.
The first step is to ask the student to paraphrase the argument to ensure they read and basically understand
the case. (Students who have not read the case, for whatever reason, must take the opportunity to "pass,"
which most professors allow as a matter of course a few times per term.) Assuming the student has read the
case and can articulate the court's argument, the teacher then asks whether the student agrees with the
argument. The teacher then typically plays Devil's advocate, trying to force the student to defend his or her
position by rebutting arguments against it.
These subsequent questions can take several forms. Sometimes they seek to challenge the assumptions
upon which the student based the previous answer until it can no longer be defended. Further questions can
be designed to move a student toward greater specificity, either in understanding a rule of law or a
particular case. The teacher may attempt to propose a hypothetical situation in which the student's assertion
would seem to demand an exception. Finally professors can use the Socratic method to allow students to
come to legal principles on their own through carefully-worded questions that encourage a particular train
of thought.
One hallmark of Socratic questioning is that typically there is more than one "correct" answer, and more
often, no clear answer at all. The primary goal of the Socratic method in the law school setting is not to
answer usually unanswerable questions, but to explore the contours of often difficult legal issues and to
teach students the critical thinking skills they will need as lawyers. This is often done by altering the facts
of a particular case to tease out how the result might be different. This method encourages students to go
beyond memorizing the facts of a case and instead to focus on application of legal rules to tangible fact
patterns. As the assigned texts are typically case law, the Socratic method, if properly used, can display that
judges' decisions are usually conscientiously made but are based on certain premises, beliefs, and
conclusions that are the subject of legitimate argument.
Sometimes, the class ends with a discussion of doctrinal foundations (legal rules) to anchor the students in
contemporary legal understanding of an issue. At other times the class ends without such discussion leaving
students to figure out for themselves the legal rules or principles that were at issue. For this method to
work, the students are expected to be prepared for class in advance by reading the assigned materials (case
opinions, notes, law review articles, etc.) and by familiarizing themselves with the general outlines of the
subject matter.
The Socratic method has been adapted for psychotherapy, most prominently in Classical Adlerian
Psychotherapy, Cognitive Therapy [8][9][10][11] and Reality Therapy. It can be used to clarify meaning,
feeling, and consequences, as well as to gradually unfold insight, or explore alternative actions.
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Human resource training and development
The method is used by modern management training companies facilitating skills, knowledge and attitudinal
change; e.g. Krauthammer, Gustav Käser Training International, Odyssey Ltd, Dynargie, Wendell
The principal trainer acts as a facilitator who uses a high percentage of open questions to allow the
participants to reflect critically on their own way of thinking, feeling, or behaving in a given context usually involving a problem or desired outcome - and guiding participants to form the conclusion or an
axiom/principle/belief through their own efforts, potentially highlighting dissonance, conflicts of thought
and actions with questions for further discussion.
The generalized form may then be elaborated with more specific detail through an example, e.g. a case
study led by the trainer.
Lesson plan elements for teachers in classrooms
This is a classical method of teaching that was designed to create autonomous thinkers.
There are some crucial lesson plan elements to this form of teaching:
Planning methodology
Plan and build the main course of thought through the material.
Build in potential fallacies (errors) for discovery and discussion.
Know common fallacies.
It may help to start or check with the conclusion and work backwards.
Methodology in operation
The teacher and student agree on the topic of instruction.
The student agrees to attempt to answer questions from the teacher.
The teacher and student are willing to accept any correctly-reasoned answer. That is, the reasoning
process must be considered more important than pre-conceived facts or beliefs.[12]
The teacher's questions should expose errors in the students' reasoning or beliefs, then formulate
questions that the students cannot answer except by a correct reasoning process. The teacher has prior
knowledge about the classical fallacies (errors) in reasoning.
Where the teacher makes an error of logic or fact, it is acceptable for a student to draw attention to
the error.
An informal discussion or similar vehicle of communication may not strictly be a (Socratic) dialogue.
Therefore it is only suitable as a medium for the Socratic method where the principles are known by
teachers and likely to be known by students. Additionally, the teacher is knowledgeable and proficient
enough to spontaneously ask questions in order to draw conclusions and principles etc. from the students.
Within such a discussion it is preferable pedagogically,[citation needed] because the method encourages
students to reason critically rather than appeal to authority or use other fallacies.
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See also
Institutional memory
Marva Collins
Rote learning
W. Clement Stone
1. ^ "Frameworks Glossary, Nebraska Dept of Education"
( .
2. ^ Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern
Illinois University Press, 1991., p 83.
3. ^ Sprague, Rosamond Kent, The Older Sophists, Hackett Publishing Company (ISBN 0-87220-556-8), p. 5.
4. ^ Liddell, Scott and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th Edition.
5. ^ Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition; Oxford English Dictionary.
6. ^ Gregory Vlastos, 'The Socratic Elenchus', Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy I, Oxford 1983, 27–58.
7. ^ Michael Frede, "Plato's Arguments and the Dialogue Form", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy,
Supplementary Volume 1992, Oxford 1992, 201–19.
8. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1993). "Elements of the Socratic method: II. Inductive reasoning". Psychotherapy 30: 75–85.
9. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1994). "Elements of the Socratic method: III. Universal definitions". Psychotherapy 31: 286–
10. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1995). "Elements of the Socratic method: IV. Disavowal of knowledge". Psychotherapy 32:
11. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1996). "Elements of the Socratic method: V. Self-improvement". Psychotherapy 33: 283–292.
12. ^
PE Areeda, 'The Socratic Method' (1996) 109(5) Harvard Law Review 911-922
Benson, Hugh (2000) Socratic Wisdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Frede, Michael (1992) 'Plato's Arguments and the Dialogue Form' in Oxford Studies in Ancient
Philosophy, Supplementary Volume, 201-19.
Guthrie, W. K. C. (1968) The Greek Philosophers from Thales to Aristotle. London: Routledge.
Jarratt, Susan C. (1991) Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and
Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.
Sprague, Rosamond Kent (1972) The Older Sophists. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company
ISBN 0-87220-556-8.
Gregory; Vlastos (1983). "The Socratic Elenchus". Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 1: 27–58.
External links
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Robinson, Richard, Plato's Earlier Dialectic, 2nd edition (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1953).
Ch. 2: Elenchus ( ;
Ch. 3: Elenchus: Direct and Indirect ( ( - 'Tips on Starting your own Socrates Cafe',
Christopher Phillips, Cecilia Phillips ( Socratic Method Research Portal ( - 'The Socratic Method',
Elizabeth Garrett (1998)
Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling ( , an example
from Rick Garlikov
Project Gutenberg: Works by Plato (
Project Gutenberg: Works by Xenophon ( (includes
some Socratic works)
Project Gutenberg: Works by Cicero ( (includes
some works in the "Socratic dialogue" format)
The Socratic Club (
Retrieved from ""
Categories: Socrates | Debate types | Education in ancient Greece | Educational psychology | History of
education | Philosophical terminology | Inquiry
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