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
  • Aparia

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 “Aparia”. Aparia is another Greek term that can be translated as “Cognitive discomfort”. Once the interlocutor realizes that he does not know as much as he thought he did, he achieves aparia. 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. Aparia 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 aparia.

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 aparia!

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:


Clause for Santa – A Look at Bounded Rationality:


It is Christmas time in 2016. My kids, ages 6 and 9, believe in Santa Claus. It bothers me that they believe in Santa Claus; mainly because it is not logical to believe in a magical being bringing materialistic presents and also because we, their parents, do not get credit for the presents they receive.

From my children’s perspective though, Santa does make sense. Think of it as a black box; they write what they want in a list, believe in Santa, and on Christmas day they find their toys under the Christmas tree. The output matches the input, repeatedly over the years. This passes the scientific evidence based sniff tests’ criteria. They also find additional evidence in the form of stories, movies, songs etc. of Santa Clause and his magical flying reindeers. From their standpoint, they have empirical evidence for making a decision to believe in Santa.

This line of thinking led me to reflect on “Bounded Rationality”. Bounded Rationality is a concept that was created by the great American thinker Herbert Simon. Herbert Simon won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978 for his contributions.

According to the famous German Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, in the 1950s and 60s, the enlightenment notion of reasonableness reemerged in the form of the concept of “rationality”. Rationality refers to the optimization of some function. The optimization can be maximization or minimization. Simon determined that there is a limit to the “rationality” of humans, and his views were against the ideas of a fully rational man in neoclassical economics. Simon believed that we cannot be fully rational while making decisions, and that our rationality is bounded by our mental capabilities and mental models. In his words;

Bounded rationality refers to the individual collective rational choice that takes into account “the limits of human capability to calculate, the severe deficiencies of human knowledge about the consequences of choice, and the limits of human ability to adjudicate among multiple goals”.

 Bounded rationality does not, therefore, argue that decisions and the people taking them are inherently irrational, but that there are realistic limits on the ability of people to weigh complex options in a fully logical and objective way. Bounded rationality therefore concerns itself with the interaction between the human mind (with its prior knowledge, competing value systems and finite cognitive resources) and the social environment – the processes by which decisions are made and how these processes are shaped by the individual and their wider circumstances.


Thus, we do not make the best choices because; we do not have all the information, we do not understand the consequences of all the options or because we do not take time to evaluate all the alternatives. Furthermore we do not always understand that our decision was based on an imperfect model. This leads to the next idea that Herb Simon created – “satisficing”. Satisficing is a word created from two words – satisfy and suffice. In other words, satisficing is the tendency for us to latch on to “good enough for now” solutions. Simon introduced a “stop rule” as part of satisficing criterion: “Stop searching as soon as you have found an alternative that meets your aspiration level.” He later modified it to be a dynamical rule such that the aspiration level or the current criterion is raised or lowered based on previous failures or successes. Gerd Gigerenzer strongly reminds us that Bounded Rationality does not mean optimizing under constraints (finding the best option under the constraints set by the situation) or irrationality (total absence of reasonableness).

In the 2001 book, “Bounded Rationality – The Adaptive Toolbox; edited by Gerd Gigerenzer and Reinhard Selten, there is a chapter dedicated to the role of culture in bounded rationality. This chapter discusses how sociocultural processes produce bounded rational algorithms. Both ethnographic data and computer modeling suggest that innate, individually adaptive processes, such as prestige-biased transmission and conformist transmission, will accumulate and stabilize cultural-evolutionary products that act as effective decision-making algorithms, without the individual participants understanding how or why the particular system works. Systems of divination provide interesting examples of how culture provides adaptive solutions.

One of the examples they cite is the complex system of bird omens amongst the Kantu of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) swidden farmers. Swidden agriculture is a technique of rotational farming. Each Kantu farmer relies on the type of bird and the type of call that the bird makes to choose the agricultural site. This creates a random distribution of the agricultural sites and ultimately helps the Kantu farmers, thus keeping their tradition alive. As a quick and thrifty heuristic, this cultural system suppresses errors that farmers make in judging the chances of a flood, and substitutes an operationally simple means for individuals to randomize their garden site selection. In addition, by randomizing each farmer’s decision independently, this belief system also reduces the chance of catastrophic failures across the entire group — it decreases the probability that many farmers will fail at the same time. All this only works because the Kantu believe that birds actually supply supernatural information that foretells the future and that they would be punished for not listening to it. How many of these cultural traditions do we still carry on in our work lives?

I found this quite interesting and maybe because it is Christmas time I could not help but draw comparisons to how we try to keep the idea of Santa alive for our kids. I thought I would dig into this deeper with my kids. I wanted to push my kids to go beyond their biases and heuristics and try to give them an opportunity to look for more information with regard to their belief in Santa. I started asking them questions in the hope that it would make them reevaluate their current decision to believe in Santa. With enough probing questions, surely they should be able to reevaluate their thinking.

I first asked them “Why do you believe in Santa?”

My youngest responded, “Believing in Santa makes him real”.

My middle child responded, “We saw him at the shopping mall parking lot loading presents in his car.”

My oldest responded with the following facts, “We get presents every year from him. We put out cookies and milk, and they are gone by Christmas day.”

Not giving up, I pushed, “If Santa gives presents to all the kids in the world, I never got any presents when I was a kid in India. Why is that?”

“You were a naughty child”, my youngest responded giggling.

“It takes a long time to get to India”, my middle child also gave her reasoning.

I thought I would give some stats with my questions, “There are about 1.9 billion kids in the world. How can Santa have toys for all of them?”

“That’s easy. Santa is super rich and can buy all the toys he wants” was the response.

“OK. How can he go around world giving toys to all the kids?”, I asked.

“He has magical reindeers” was the response.

Finally, I gave up. My attempts to crack their belief in Santa were failing. I then realized that perhaps it is not bad after all, and that my kids being kids is the most important thing of all. And it makes Christmas more magical for them.

There is always next year to try again!

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping in Systems?