The Socratic Method:

Socrates Mural

In today’s post, I am looking at the Socratic Method. Socrates was one of the early founders of Western Philosophy. Marcus Cicero (106–43 BCE), a Roman politician, wrote that it was Socrates who brought philosophy down from heaven to earth.

“Socrates however (was the) first (who) called philosophy down from heaven, and placed it in cities, and introduced it even in homes, and drove (it) to inquire about life and customs and things good and evil.”

I have always been curious about the Socratic Method. I have heard it mentioned in many books as the method to teach by asking. In my mind, I drew the analogy of guiding a horse to the pond so that it can drink water. The “guiding” is done through the questions so that the teacher does not provide the answer to the student directly. Instead, the student comes up with the answer.  This is not the same as the normal teaching in schools (“lecturing”), where the teacher will give the answers, while the students remain passive. Socrates used the analogy of a midwife who helps others to deliver their thoughts in a clear and meaningful manner.

There are three terms commonly seen to describe the Socrates Method.

  • Elenchos
  • Dialectic
  • Aporia

Elenchos is a Greek term, which can be translated as “cross-examination”. There is a negative connotation to this term. Socrates’ method has been described as an Elenctic method. The negative connotation comes from pointing out to the interlocutor that he does not have the knowledge that he thought he did, puncturing the conceit of wisdom. Socrates would start out by saying that he does not know about something, for example, the concept of virtue. Then he would ask for help from the person of interest to define what virtue is. From that point onwards, once the person of interest commits to a definition, Socrates will continue to ask questions, and each question will point out a weakness that refutes the definition. After a round of questions, the person of interest gets very confused and recognizes that he did not understand the subject as he thought he did and feels that he embarrassed himself.

 Dialectic is another Greek term that can be translated as “discussion”. Dialectic does not have the negative connotation that Elenchos has. Any complex idea contains contradictions, inconsistencies and even portions of ignorance. The Dialectic method is a way to reveal the contradictions or inconsistencies, to go back and forth between contrasting ideas to refine the topic on hand.

What Socrates is trying to achieve from his questions is “Aporia”. Aporia is another Greek term that can be translated as “perplexity” or “impasse”. Once the interlocutor realizes that he does not know as much as he thought he did, he achieves aporia. He feels the discomfort cognitively because he was sure that he knew about the subject. The interlocutor is outside of his comfort zone. However, Socrates was able to find fault with his knowledge. Aporia is the starting point for the interlocutor to examine himself and reflect so that new knowledge can be gained.

Combining the three ideas above, we can loosely explain the Socratic Method as follows:

  1. Make the person of interest (POI) at ease, and ask the question in the form of “what is X?”
  2. If POI defines “X” as “Y”, find examples where “X” is not “Y”
  3. Ask questions to further define “X” in light of the new information. Repeat (2) and (3).
  4. Each round of questions must move the POI further away from their first definition.
  5. POI achieves aporia.

Socrates would plead ignorance and ask for specific definitions when asking questions. The questions can also be in other forms such as “what is the purpose of X” or “How does one obtain X” etc. The first question forces the POI to define the boundary of his conception of the idea. This can be thought of as a box. However, with each refutation, the POI realizes that the boundary he first drew is not enough, and that he has to redefine the boundary – perhaps make it larger or smaller, or draw the boundary in a whole other area.

One of the best examples I have seen to explain this is that of a chair. How would one define a chair? One possible definition is that a chair is something for a person to sit upon.

chair 1

However, there are many other things that people sit on, for example – a step on a stair.

With this refutation, the definition may now be changed to “a chair is something designed for a person to sit.”

chair 2

The new refutation might be that a bench is something that is designed for a person to sit, and so is a stool. These are not chairs.

Perhaps, the chair can be now defined as “piece of furniture designed for only one person with a back and four legs”. This is similar to the definition in Merriam Webster dictionary.

Even with the new definition, there are still inconsistencies. There are chairs such as decorative chairs that are not supposed to be sat on. There are chairs like a bean bag chair that do not have a back or legs.

chair 3

Compared to defining a chair, it is harder to define ideas that are not tangible. There are many phrases in Lean like “Respect for People” and “flow” that are thrown around. How would you define “Respect for People”? Would you define it as being nice to your workers? How would you define “flow”? Would you define it as production with one-piece at a time?

On a side note, you can use the Socratic Method on yourself. This can be compared to Hansei in Toyota Production System. What are your beliefs and worldviews? Can you identify any contradictions or inconsistencies that might refute this? Actively seeking out to disprove your belief system helps you in your pursuit for wisdom. Seek out aporia!

Final words:

Socrates did not write any books. Plato, his disciple, wrote about Socrates a lot in his books. Most of what we know about Socrates came from Plato’s books. Socrates never defined or explained his method, nor did Plato write it down as a method. What we have come to know as the Socratic Method is from reading Plato’s books and noting the patterns of dialogues that Socrates engaged in. In Plato’s book, “Apology”, Socrates talks about the reason for going around and asking questions. Socrates’ friend, Chaerephon went to Delphi and asked the Pythian priestess Is there anybody wiser than Socrates?” The Pythian priestess responded that there was no one wiser. This really confused Socrates, and he took this to mean that the Gods are commanding him to examine himself as well as others. He came to the realization that while others were pretending to possess knowledge, he knows nothing, and this knowledge is what sets him apart from others. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The pursuit of knowledge starts with questions.

I will finish with a story of Diogenes and Plato. Diogenes was one of the founders of Cynic Philosophy. Diogenes asked Plato for a definition of man. Knowing Diogenes’ cynical nature, Plato gave the tongue-in-cheek definition from Socrates – “Man is a featherless biped.” Diogenes went outside, and bought a chicken. He then plucked all of its feathers, brought it to Plato, and said, “Behold. Here is a man.”

Plato then ordered his academy to add “with broad flat nails” to the definition.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Which Way You Should Go Depends on Where You Are:

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5 thoughts on “The Socratic Method:

    • Thank you Rob for your kind words and the link! I enjoyed reading your post on the Socratic Method. Do you mind sharing the name of the book? Is it Worthless Discussions that you mentioned at the end of your post?
      -Harish

      Like

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