The Socratic Method
THE SOCRATIC METHOD (with thanks to Ray Linn, LAUSD)
The key teaching method used in this class is called the “dialectic” or “the Socratic method.” This approach consists of a continual
dialogue including questions, answers, and criticisms/clarifications of answers. It is one way of pursuing truth, and it can be used
directly in conversation or indirectly in discussing literature that has been read in class. The method is so simple that at first it
doesn’t seem like much of a “method” at all. It is, however, and I think it is the best method for pursuing truths about human
beings and their assumptions about reality and abstractions such as values, culture, and the social foundations of education. The
dialogue which follows illustrates how the Socratic method was used in a high school class to explore the topic of status as a
possible goal of human existence. The dialogue is rearranged and idealized, but it provides an idea of how the Socratic method
works and where it took participants in their discussion of a widely held value of modern society. As you read it, consider your own
private desire to be held in high esteem by others and, by imagining yourself in the role of Student, ask yourself how you would
answer the questions in the dialectic.
Teacher: Is there anyone in this room who is not greatly concerned with achieving high status? Is it worth living for?
Student: What else am I to live for? I sure don’t want to be a loser, and I know that when I make it I’ll be happy.
Teacher: Don’t all desires make you unhappy with your present situation in the world? If you want to be big, you must now feel
small, and thus you aren’t happy.
Student: Perhaps, but when I make it...
Teacher: Make what? Just what are you going to “make,” and how will it make you happy? Society might give you some sort of
symbolic prize for your efforts, but you are essentially a body with desires. How can a symbol satisfy a desiring body?
Student: But after I’m rich and famous, I’ll have lots of fine bodies to choose from!
Teacher: Perhaps, but as Philip Slater says, you’ll do without them while striving for that carrot, and how long will it take? And
even if you’re right about what will happen after you hit the big time, what makes you think you’ll be loved for who you are? If it’s
money that brings you to her attention, perhaps it’s money that she loves.Besides, the problem with status-lovers is that they’re
always trying to show that they are superior to the people around them. To have status is to act superior. Do you truly love people
who think they’re superior to you? Do status-conscious people produce the impulse of love, or the desire to tear them down?
Student: So? (This student is not “superior”)
Teacher: Isn’t it inevitable that status-seeking separates you from other human beings? Since status is a self-centered goal, it
focuses your attention on what’s going to happen to you—which automatically separates you from the people around you. Do you
prefer the feeling of loneliness?
Student: No, but nobody wants to be close to a loser either.
Teacher: Why not try to meet the Other as an equal? And if you persist in defining yourself as the “superior,” are you different
from the slime that joins the Klan in order to establish a sense of superiority in the world? As long as the desire to be high
dominates your consciousness, don’t you have to look down on the Other? Isn’t it logically impossible to define yourself as
superior without defining someone else as inferior? And isn’t this what you, just like the Klansman, are doing all the time?
Student: Maybe so, but I’m not a loser.
Teacher: What are you, essentially?
Student: As Descartes said, “I am a thing that thinks.” To be presently aware of these thoughts, I must exist as an unchanging
Teacher: Are you such a “thing?” As Hume says, look again: can you find an unchanging thing, in addition to your changing
thoughts and feelings? When I introspect all I find is a bunch of changing thoughts and feelings and impulses—are you so
Student: OK, I can only be certain of the changing thoughts and feelings.
Teacher: But is this the reality you pay attention to when you try to rise up and be the best thing around? Or do you ignore this
changing internal reality when you act like you’re the top rat in the rat race? Is Tolstoy right when he says that the great thing that
you want to be is merely a pretense, and that in attempting to become it you must ignore the real life that is within you? Since
society only gives status to fixed positions like “judge” or “executive,” doesn’t the status-seeker have to ignore the real, changing
feelings and impulses that are within? If so, is Tolstoy right in saying that status-seeking leads to death?
Student: What else should I do with my life?
Teacher: Why not return to the “living” by ignoring your desire to be superior, and instead focusing your consciousness on the
reality of human needs and feelings? Why not focus on meeting the needs of people around you?
Student: I don’t care what you say, achieving a high position is important to me.
Teacher: Look around the room. Would your status with your peers still be as important if you knew you were going to die
The actual classroom dialogue went way beyond this brief and condensed version, and it contained twists and turns not mentioned
here, but these are some of the questions, answers, and criticisms of answers which were expressed in class. In analyzing the
Socratic method of pursuing truth, several things may be stated: first, it is essentially a negative method. People using it are often
trying to tear down the ideas they hear; they listen to others’ propositions, usually with one ear turned toward what is wrong with
it. If they don’t listen in this critical way, if they aren’t willing to think negatively, the method cannot exist.
The Socratic method works best when its practitioners have developed a sensitivity to logic and semantics—specifically, to what
makes a good argument and what doesn’t (logistical fallacies), and to language that is vague, misleading or meaningless. Asking
clarifying questions such as, “What do you mean?” is essential to the Socratic method. In Preface to Plato Havelock argues that this
question marks beginning of this particular approach to the search for truth. Questioning the meaning of the key terms in an
argument is especially important in using this method. So is an awareness of the vague clichés of the day, e.g., “He’s making it…”
“This idea sucks…” “That’s sick…” “It’s awesome…” etc. Again, for the Socratic method to work practitioners must be willing to
think negatively, to look for and identify instances of insufficient evidence, and for sloppy use of language.
In attempting to justify this negative approach to education, we can begin by noting that the Socratic method first grew out of a
particular way of thinking about knowledge that surfaced in 5th century Greece. For Socrates, a great many knowledge claims and
value claims seemed empty, meaningless, and even destructive. The traditional Homeric view of things was still a major part of
Greek education in the 5th century, even though it had little to offer the world in Socrates’ day. In addition, the Sophists had
revealed the apparent relativity of all answers about what is real and what is good—so that what might be true in Athens wouldn’t
necessarily be true somewhere else. Given this social situation, it was difficult to accept the traditional idea that knowledge was
simply the collective memory of the community. In other words, knowledge was no longer thought of as a set of established truths
which an older person knows and simply pours into the head of a younger person. In an era of competing answers, cultural
relativism, and skepticism, the “lecture method” no longer seemed adequate. When one way of seeing things gives rise to many, it’s
difficult to believe that memory alone produces knowledge. Thus Socrates began to think of knowledge in a different way: as
something achieved by individuals actively searching for the truth through constant questioning and criticism. Active, critical
questioning, rather than the acceptance of secondhand opinion, became the key to knowledge. Thus Socrates tells us that, “The life
without criticism is meaningless.” Since we too live in an era of competing answers, cultural relativism, and skepticism, Socrates’
method seems well-suited to today’s classroom. When there are many competing answers about what human beings are like and
what they should do, all answers become questionable, and at this point so does a straight lecture approach to education. It seems
more sensible to survey the competing answers with a critical mind, actively investigating for ourselves what has meaning for us
and what does not.
In addition to providing an ideal method for this skeptical era, there are other advantages to the Socratic method: first, it takes the
subject off the page and places it in the student’s life. One problem with a straight lecture/reading approach to education is that it
often fails to bring the abstractions into the student’s experience. For example, in some epistemology classes students are simply
asked to read and listen to lectures on Descartes, Locke, and Hume; they are asked to get the issues straight, to think about the
problem of skepticism, etc.—but they are not asked to relate the issues to their own lives. The problem is that when this relation is
ignored education becomes a meaningless, formal exercise. The value of Socratic questions like, “What do you actually observe
when you think one event causes another?” and “Do you know more than my dog Brewster?” is that they force students to consider
how epistemological issues relate to their own lives. Thinking about this relation is important even when studying something as
removed from students’ lives as epistemology; for example, one of the great values of skeptical arguments such as Hume’s is that
they tend to discourage rashness (“because I know I might be wrong”) and encourage tolerance/appreciation (“because I know
that even foreigners might be right”). But this kind of influence is possible only if the student relates the abstract issue to his own
situation in the world.
In connection with this point, it seems that nothing enters a student’s life as much as the concept of “no.” A nonchallenging
comment like, “That’s an interesting answer’’ encourages complacency rather than critical thought. “No, you’re wrong” or “Your
sentence is meaningless” or “You have no evidence for that,” on the other hand, are challenges to the mind that demand action.
“No” is something that must be dealt with, something that must be taken into account rather than ignored. If a teacher referred to
your self-centered love of status as “interesting” or as “one of the many things that human beings live for,” would you have thought
much about it? Such tepid niceness might allow an extremely self-centered student to feel good about himself, but it evokes little
serious thought about what the student is living for. Pragmatists are basically right in asserting that we don’t reflect on our
experience until we have a problem. “No” presents the problem in clear relief.
Another advantage of the Socratic method is that it fosters critical thinking skills—skills that remain long after the particular
subject matter is forgotten. By “critical thinking skills” I mean the ability to separate what is valid and true and significant from
what is nonsense. After prolonged exposure to the Socratic method, students tend to internalize it—so that even in their private
thinking when they run a proposition through their mind they simultaneously search for its weakness, e.g., “The teacher’s
statement might be right, but where is the evidence?... And what does he mean by…?” This critical way of thinking about one’s
private thoughts is not natural, and it is one of the main consequences of exposure to the Socratic method. In an era dominated by
the media, modern politics and so much nonsense, developing critical thinking abilities is important. One problem with the lecture
approach to education is that it doesn’t encourage the student to constantly think critically, but when he leaves the lecture and
faces the modern world he will be better off if he does.
The Socratic method has great value for another reason: it sharpens the teacher’s mind, and leads her to constantly delve deeper
into her subject. This is because it forces her to constantly think of the key questions and issues related to the subject she is
teaching. The most important questions, key terms, and relations within a particular subject area are not obvious, and more than a
few teachers have trouble writing up essay questions because they haven’t thought out the general questions which relate to their
subject. If they use the Socratic method, they have no choice: they must search for the key assumptions, terms and issues in order
to raise the right questions.
The Socratic method forces the teacher to pay close attention to students. One problem with a lecture/reading-based course is that
allows the teacher to ignore student feedback until exam time (and in many college/graduate courses, not even then). In using the
Socratic method teachers are forced to consider student responses daily. Specifically, student feedback provides a formative
assessment that identifies intellectual blind spots, false reasoning, clichés and unexamined language, inane values, and other
needs for improved reasoning. Of course such intimate intellectual contact can be repulsive, but it does enable teachers to think
more realistically about how to communicate and relate the lesson to individual students.
Granted: the Socratic method sometimes evokes too much disrespect for authority, particularly in misguided or dimwitted
students, because the method tends to assume that authority is meaningless. Granted: the method sometimes evokes such strong
emotions that defenses impair or prevent learning. Granted: the method can often be bruising to a student’s ego. However,
without bruising the childhood ego would never be left behind, and the typical delusions of ego about one’s self-importance
constitute baggage far too heavy to carry in the search for truth. The Socratic method, by subjecting the ego to constant criticism,
is helpful in eliminating the ego from discussions of truth. In evaluating this method, consider the alternatives: would students
learn more that is important in their lives during the same limited time period if teachers relied on lecture and reading, or
Descartes’ introspection (searching within one’s own consciousness for ideas that are clear and certain), or on Buddhist
meditation? Would these or any other approach to the search for truth cause you to think as deeply about your own desire to be
Please come to class prepared to defend your answer.
Let’s try it out….