Socratic method

Socratic method

The Socratic method (also known as method of elenchus, elenctic method, Socratic irony, 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. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict him in some way, strengthening the inquirer's own point.

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.

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 Laërtius, however, wrote that Protagoras invented the “Socratic” method.[1][2]

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 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 discourse.



Elenchus (Ancient Greek: ἔλεγχος elengkhos "argument of disproof or refutation; cross-examining, testing, scrutiny esp. for purposes of refutation"[3]) is the central technique of the Socratic method. The Latin form elenchus (plural elenchi ) is used in English as the technical philosophical term.[4]

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,[5] 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 true.

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 inquiries consist of a series of elenchi and typically end in aporia.

Frede[6] 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 knowledge.

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.


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. While 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

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 professor then asks whether the student agrees with the argument. The professor 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.

Several excellent examples of the Socratic Method are portrayed in the 1973 film The Paper Chase, based on a 1970 novel by John J. Osborn, Jr., also titled The Paper Chase. Several scenes involve the interaction of members of Professor Kingsfields's first year Contracts Law course and clearly show how the Socratic method is used as a framework for presenting concepts in contract law to the students.


The Socratic method, in the form of Socratic questioning, has been adapted for psychotherapy, most prominently in Classical Adlerian Psychotherapy, Cognitive Therapy[7][8][9][10] and Reality Therapy. It can be used to clarify meaning, feeling, and consequences, as well as to gradually unfold insight, or explore alternative actions.

Human resource training and development

The method is used by modern management training companies facilitating skills, knowledge and attitudinal change; e.g. Acta Non Verba, Krauthammer, Gustav Käser Training International, Odyssey Ltd, Dynargie, Wendell Nekoranec.

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.[11]
  • 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.

See also


  1. ^ Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991., p 83.
  2. ^ Sprague, Rosamond Kent, The Older Sophists, Hackett Publishing Company (ISBN 0-87220-556-8), p. 5.
  3. ^ Liddell, Scott and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th Edition.
  4. ^ Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition; Oxford English Dictionary.
  5. ^ Gregory Vlastos, 'The Socratic Elenchus', Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy I, Oxford 1983, 27–58.
  6. ^ Michael Frede, "Plato's Arguments and the Dialogue Form", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 1992, Oxford 1992, 201–19.
  7. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1993). "Elements of the Socratic method: II. Inductive reasoning". Psychotherapy 30: 75–85. doi:10.1037/0033-3204.30.1.75. 
  8. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1994). "Elements of the Socratic method: III. Universal definitions". Psychotherapy 31 (2): 286–293. doi:10.1037/h0090222. 
  9. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1995). "Elements of the Socratic method: IV. Disavowal of knowledge". Psychotherapy 32 (2): 283–292. doi:10.1037/0033-3204.32.2.283. 
  10. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1996). "Elements of the Socratic method: V. Self-improvement". Psychotherapy 33: 283–292. 
  11. ^


  • 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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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Socratic method — n. a method of teaching or discussion, like that used by Socrates, in which by means of a series of questions and answers the logical soundness of a definition is tested, the meaning of a concept examined, etc …   English World dictionary

  • Socratic method — noun a method of teaching by question and answer; used by Socrates to elicit truths from his students • Syn: ↑maieutic method • Hypernyms: ↑teaching method, ↑pedagogics, ↑pedagogy * * * noun Usage: usually capitalized S …   Useful english dictionary

  • Socratic Method —    Socrates (c. 469 399 B.C.) was born in Athens, the son of a sculptor. The educational facilities of that day were meager, and so Socrates walked the streets to talk with people and to learn their philosophies, especially their thoughts about… …   Dictionary of eponyms

  • Socratic method — maieutic method maieutic method n. A method of teaching by question and answer; it was used by Socrates to elicit truths from his students; called also the {Socratic method} [WordNet 1.5] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Socratic method — The method of teaching in which the master imparts no information, but asks a sequence of questions, through answering which the pupil eventually comes to the desired knowledge. Socratic irony is the pose of ignorance on the part of the master,… …   Philosophy dictionary

  • SOCRATIC METHOD —    the DIALECTICAL method supposedly used by SOCRATES. It involves patient questioning by a teacher to lead the pupil to recognize the TRUTH …   Concise dictionary of Religion

  • Socratic method — the use of questions, as employed by Socrates, to develop a latent idea, as in the mind of a pupil, or to elicit admissions, as from an opponent, tending to establish a proposition. [1735 45] * * * …   Universalium

  • Socratic method — Socrat′ic meth′od n. pho the use of questions, as employed by Socrates, to develop a latent idea in the mind of a student or elicit an admission from an opponent • Etymology: 1735–45 …   From formal English to slang

  • Socratic method — /səkrætɪk ˈmɛθəd/ (say suhkratik methuhd) noun the use of questions as employed by Socrates to develop a latent idea, as in the mind of a pupil, or to elicit admissions, as from an opponent, tending to establish or to confute some proposition …   Australian-English dictionary

  • The Socratic Method (House) — House (TV series) episode episode name = The Socratic Method episode no = HOU 106 airdate = December 21, 2004 writer = John Mankiewicz director = Peter Medak guest star = season = 1 diagnosis = Vitamin K deficiency Hepatocellular carcinoma Wilson …   Wikipedia

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