What is the Socratic Method?

It is time I described in depth the style of education called the Socratic method, which I have referred to at intervals over these last months and intend to continue referencing in the future.  The Socratic method formed the base of my recent education and influences my approach to literature and writing on this blog.  It is a style of education relatively rare in this era because of how far our century and society has removed itself from a classical approach to learning.  The method still survives, but mainly in those colleges, universities, and private schools whose primary focus is the liberal arts.

The Socratic method is named for the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who was born around 470 BC.  The details of his life and character are largely disputed, but he is generally portrayed as spending the greater part of his latter years frequenting the Athenian agora, where he questioned and debated with any who would listen.

Socrates claimed to be searching for truth and he did this by asking questions of those supposedly more knowledgeable than himself.  Often, however, his questions revealed the ignorance, rather than the wisdom, of his opponent.  Socrates’ method of teaching was as unique in ancient Greece as it is today.  Instead of lecturing on a topic or quizzing his listeners, he let them describe their views and arguments and then challenged them with questions to see how well they could support their argument.  Socrates’ goal was not to play devil’s advocate, nor did he claim to be more knowledgeable than his opponent, but to learn for himself what truth and wisdom were. 

For example, in Book I of Plato’s Republic1 (which is the most delightful Platonic dialogue I have yet read), Socrates askes young Polemarchus what he thinks is the “definition of doing right.”2  Polemarchus answers, “That it is right to give every man his due.”3  “But,” pursues Socrates, “what is his due?”  And so the conversation continues:  Socrates asking, Polemarchus answering, clarifying his argument, and realising its loopholes.

Today, scholars use the Socratic method for a variety of subjects.  I have used it mainly in studying literature and history and a little for science and politics.  The structure used now follows Socrates’ method exactly.  For example, suppose we have both read The Hobbit and have got together to discuss it.  I would not begin the discussion by asking Who is the author of The Hobbit? or Where does Bilbo live?  No indeed!  The Socratic method does not debate facts, but ideas.  Instead, I might ask Why do you think Gandalf chose Bilbo as the fourteenth member of Thorin’s Company? or Is the dwarves’ quest a worthy one?  These questions do not necessarily have one answer; they may not even have a “right” answer.  The same method can be used for history:  Was Julius Caesar right to cross the Rubicon?  Or for politics:  Is democracy the best form of government?  And so on and so forth.

The goal of the Socratic method is to teach students how to think logically and develop the ability to support their arguments with reason.  It challenges them to consider the logic, reason, and truth of the ideas and philosophies presented in literature, history, music, science, and government.  The benefits of using the Socratic method seep from the classroom into daily life:  communication, open-mindedness, proper use of grammar, public speaking, and the ability to remain unswayed by poor logic and propaganda.  However, perhaps the greatest virtue taught by the Socratic method is humility, for not only must the student be able to support his own arguments with reason, he must be able to listen to and accept his opponent’s arguments, should they seem to reflect truth.

Recommended reading:  Plato recorded many Socratic dialogues, however Apology and Crito are approachable works with which to begin.  Book I of The Republic, which I referenced above, is also worth exploring if you are new to Plato’s works of philosophy.

Notes:

1Plato was also an ancient Greek philosopher and has many great works of philosophy to his name.  But what many people do not know is that Socrates was Plato’s teacher, and although Plato gets the credit for many books of philosophy, many of those books are records of conversations Socrates had with various people.  It is because of Plato that we have access to and knowledge of Socrates’ method.  That being said, some scholars debate the accuracy of Plato’s works as precise records of Socrates’ conversations.

2Plato, The Republic, Book I

3Ibid.

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