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The Socratic Method

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Socrates, Socratic Method

Let’s begin:

What is the Socratic Method?

The Socratic Method (named after Socrates 470-399 BC) is a dialectical method of inquiry that uses questions to clarify and unpack one’s beliefs, to understand the assumptions, evidence and reasons used to support them, and to expose any contradictions, inconsistencies and fallacies in one’s thinking.

Origin of the Socratic Method

When Socrates heard that the Oracle of Delphi (who was considered to be infallible) had said no one was wiser than he was, this confused him because “I was fully aware that I knew absolutely nothing”. So he embarked on a quest to speak with other wise men in Athens to find out what they knew “thinking that there, if anywhere, I should prove the answer wrong, and meaning to point out to the Oracle its mistake, and to say, “You said that I was the wisest of men, but this man is wiser than I am.”

However, when he began questioning these wise men he quickly discovered that they weren’t really wise at all, because they didn’t know what they thought they knew, and yet they were unwilling to admit it. Socrates concluded that what made him wiser than other men was his willingness to acknowledge the true extent of his ignorance. Socrates knew that he didn’t know anything, whereas these other wise men thought they did.

“There is this difference between us: although these people know nothing, they all believe they know something; whereas, I, if I know nothing, at least have no doubts about it” ― Socrates

Why use the Socratic Method?

The Socratic Method is a very popular and powerful method, and there are a number of reasons why you should use it:

  • It’s a highly effective way to clarify and unpack one’s beliefs, and to examine the assumptions, evidence, reasons etc. used to support them
  • It makes you active in your thinking rather than passive (e.g. when you’re listening to a lecture or watching a YouTube video)
  • Improves your critical thinking skills
  • Improves your questioning abilities
  • Determines the extent of your knowledge on a given subject, and reveals what you know and what you don’t
  • Encourages intellectual humility by making you aware of the limits of your knowledge
  • Exposes the assumptions, contradictions, inconsistencies, fallacies etc. in your thinking
  • Makes you aware of the implications and consequences of your beliefs
  • Allows the questioner and answerer to work together cooperatively in a non-confrontal way
  • If you contradict or refute someone’s beliefs, or tell them “you’re wrong”, they’re likely to become defensive. But if you ask them questions in a non-confrontational way and allow them to expose the contradictions and inconsistencies in their own thinking, they’re likely to let go or soften their grip on it

Where the Socratic method is used

The Socratic method is widely used by teachers, law professors, facilitators, consultants, coaches, therapists, psychologists and throughout schools and Universities around the world.

How to practice the Socratic Method

You can use the Socratic Method to unpack your own beliefs, the beliefs of others, or in a group discussion.

If you’re going to practice the Socratic Method with someone else, I strongly suggest picking your target carefully. Most people are intellectually lazy and aren’t interested in taking the time to unpack and explore their beliefs to find out if they have good reasons to believe what they do.

The person should be:

  • A truth seeker – someone who is genuinely curious to know if they have good reasons to believe what they do, and is willing to take the time to unpack their beliefs and to think things through – not intellectually lazy
  • Intellectually honest – someone who is willing to answer questions honestly, and to admit when they don’t have good reasons to support their beliefs, and when there is a contradiction or inconsistency in their thinking
  • Open-minded and receptive
  • Comfortable with you, and willing to open up and explore their beliefs with you

Additional things to get the most out of the session:

  • A safe space with minimal distractions where the answerer feels comfortable opening up and exploring their beliefs
  • A convenient time – ideally in the morning when the answerer is fresh and can think clearly
  • Shared expectations for the session
  • If you’re in class and the teacher is practicing the Socratic Method with someone else, pretend they’re asking you the questions and answer them in your head, and write down some notes so you’re actively engaged in the material, don’t just drift off (learning and listening should always be an active instead of a passive process)

Socratic Method steps

  1. Person A states a belief
  2. Person B asks questions to clarify and unpack the belief, to discover the assumptions, evidence and reasons used to support it, and to expose any contradictions and inconsistencies
  3. If a contradiction or inconsistency can be found, or any valid counterexample or exception to the rule, Person B asks Person A to either disregard the belief, or to restate it more precisely
  4. Both parties either accept the restated belief or repeat the process

How to ask Socratic questions

  • Ask open-ended questions respectfully with a genuine sense of curiosity, rather than acting as an interrogator, so the other person doesn’t feel like they’re being cross-examined (make it fun, not adversarial or confrontational)
  • Once you’ve asked the question be quiet and allow the other person at least 30 seconds to answer before you rephrase it. Don’t try to fill the silence or offer help or suggestions
  • Listen intently to what the other person says – and doesn’t say. Notice if they answer your question vs simply reacting to it, or if they start answering a different question, or going off on a tangent
  • Always ask follow-up questions and continue to unpack the belief deeper and deeper one layer after another, uncovering the assumptions, beliefs, evidence, reasons etc. used to support it
  • Respectfully point out any contradictions, counterexamples, exceptions to the rule, inconsistencies etc. to get their thoughts
  • Ask the other person to clarify if something isn’t clear to you, or if you don’t understand something
  • Repeat back their words so they can hear what they’re saying, either as a way to show them they’re not communicating what they want to, or as a way to let them hear their own confusion or mistakes. This is not a judgmental activity, only a report of what you hear them saying
  • Paraphrase and summarize their words out loud so you’re both on the same page
  • Summarize in writing key points that have been discussed
  • Stay neutral and supportive so the other person feels like they can safely unpack and explore their beliefs and the rationale behind them without being judged

Don’t:

  • Add anything or offer suggestions (“You could also say…”)
  • Approve (“I like it”)
  • Disapprove (“Are you sure about that?”)

Don’t ask:

  • Closed yes/no questions
  • Leading questions that suggest a particular answer or contain information you want to have confirmed
  • Loaded questions that contain a controversial or unjustified assumption
  • Questions that pose false dilemmas and present only limited alternatives to consider, when there are more options

6 types of Socratic questions

There are six types of Socratic questions you can ask someone:

  1. Questions that clarify
  2. Questions that challenge assumptions
  3. Questions that examine reasons and evidence
  4. Questions about perspectives and viewpoints
  5. Questions that explore implications and consequences
  6. Questions about the question

You can use the following questions to unpack your own beliefs, the beliefs of others, or to critically examine a text or video.

Questions for clarification

  • What is it exactly that you believe?
  • When you say you believe … what do you mean?
  • Why do you say that?
  • What do you mean by …?
  • Can you rephrase that?
  • Can you say that another way?
  • Can you expand upon that?
  • Can you unpack that?
  • Tell me more about …
  • When you say … are you saying …?
  • If I understand you correctly your belief is … is that correct? Am I missing anything? (summarize and repeat their belief back to them – don’t continue until you’re both on the same page. Clarify definitions e.g. “true”, “rational”, “God”, “Karma”, “spiritual” etc. before going forward)
  • How are … and … similar?
  • What is the difference between … and … ?
  • What is …. analogous to?
  • How does … relate to the topic?
  • What does this have to do with …?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Can you demonstrate it?
  • Can you show me?
  • How confident are you in this belief on a scale from 1-10?
  • If not 10/10, why aren’t you more confident?

Questions that challenge assumptions

  • What are you assuming here?
  • Why have you made that assumption?
  • How do you justify that assumption?
  • You seem to be assuming …? Do I understand you correctly? If so, how do you justify taking this for granted?
  • Is that always the case? Why do you think the assumption holds here? Are there any exceptions to the rule?
  • How can you verify or disprove that assumption?
  • What is the author/speaker assuming here?
  • Why would someone make this assumption?
  • Do you agree or disagree with … ?

Questions that examine reasons and evidence

  • Why do you believe … is true?
  • What led you to that conclusion?
  • What are your reasons for believing that?
  • Are these your real reasons for believing X? If all of these reasons were proven wrong, would you still continue to believe X? If yes, let’s not even worry about these reasons because they’re not the real reasons you believe X. What are the real reasons you believe X? (This great question comes from Anthony Magnabosco)
  • What evidence do you have to support this belief?
  • But, is that good enough evidence to believe that?
  • Would this evidence stand up in court?
  • Why do you think other smart people aren’t convinced by this evidence?
  • If this evidence was disproven, or if stronger counterevidence was provided, would you still continue to hold this belief? If so, why?
  • What is the evidence against these claims?
  • Is the preponderance of evidence for or against this claim?
  • What would you say to someone who said (insert counterargument)?
  • How do you know you’re right?
  • How can I be sure that what you’re saying is true?
  • What would change your mind?
  • What would convince you otherwise?
  • What would prove you wrong?
  • What do you know that I don’t?

Note: If they say they hold a belief in God, Jesus, Muhammad etc. due to a spiritual or supernatural experience, ask them:

“If a Hindu woman had a similarly powerful personal experience that convinced her that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva were real, would that be good evidence that she was correct?” – Peter Boghossian 

Questions about perspectives and viewpoints

  • You seem to be looking at the situation from (insert perspective) Is that correct? Why have you chosen to look at the situation from this perspective rather than any other perspective?
  • Which perspective is this information presented from?
  • What other perspectives/viewpoints might be equally valid, or worth considering?
  • What might be another way to look at this?
  • Why might someone see this another way?
  • Have you asked other people for their perspectives on this?
  • What perspectives/viewpoints are not represented here?
  • What would (person) say about it?
  • What would (group) say about it?
  • Is there better evidence for one perspective/viewpoint than another?
  • What haven’t we considered yet?

Questions that explore implications and consequences

  • What are you implying by that?
  • What are the implications of this belief/information?
  • If this is true… what does that mean?
  • If this is true… what else must be true?
  • What are the likely consequences of this belief/action/decision?
  • What else could happen as a result of this belief/action/decision?
  • What is the best case scenario?
  • What is the worst case scenario?
  • What is the most likely scenario?
  • What would happen if …?

Questions about the question

  • Why do you think I asked you that question?
  • Why is this person asking this question?
  • What was the point of asking that question?
  • What might be another way to ask this question?
  • What other questions do you think I might ask?
  • What else might I want to know?
  • What does this question assume?
  • How has the question been framed?
  • What would be a good follow up question?
  • Why do we need to know the answer to this question?
  • What’s the best way to answer this question?
  • Who could help us to answer this question?
  • Is the question clear? Do we understand it?
  • Can we break this question down into sub-questions?
  • To answer this question, what other questions do we need to answer first?
  • What other questions should we be asking?
  • Is this the most important question to be asking?
  • What might be a better question?

Socratic Method example

Anthony Magnabosco uses the Socratic Method to unpack Carlos belief in God

Limitations of the Socratic Method

The Socratic Method is not for everyone for the following reasons:

  • Most people are intellectually lazy and can’t be bothered taking the time to unpack and explore their beliefs, and to think things through. They simply want to be told what to think and what to believe, and resent being asked to do the hard work of unpacking their beliefs and thinking things through for themselves
  • Both the questioner and answerer need to be highly motivated and intellectually curious to get the most out of the session
  • It’s time consuming and mentally demanding for both the questioner and answerer
  • Depends a lot on the intelligence and listening skills of the questioner to pick up on contradictions, counterexamples, exceptions etc. and to hear what is implied but not said
  • Some people find it intimidating/confronting, especially in a large group setting

Conclusion

The Socratic Method is an invaluable technique that every critical thinker should know and utilize. It’s simply an exploration of one’s beliefs to find out: What do you believe and why? Do you have good reasons to believe what you do? Are there any contradictions, inconsistencies, fallacies etc. in your thinking?

If you practice the Socratic Method you’ll quickly improve your critical thinking and questioning skills, discover the limits of your knowledge on a given subject, become a deeper and more intelligent thinker, and maybe you’ll come to the same conclusion Socrates did:

“The only thing I know, is that I know nothing.” – Socrates

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