What is the Socratic Method?


Many historians and philosophers will claim that of all the Ancient Greek philosophers Socrates (468-399 BC) is the most recognizable. He stands in as the symbolic figure of the philosopher (the ‘lover of wisdom’), admittedly a remarkable reputation given that his life is quite elusive in that he penned nothing of his own. One of his legacies is what has became known as the Socratic Method.

We learn from Diogenes Laertius (c. 200-250 AD) that a friend and follower of Socrates, Chaerephon, asked the Oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi whether anyone is wiser than Socrates. The Oracle declared that there is no-one wiser than Socrates. Informed of this, Socrates was greatly surprised and wondered deeply what the Oracle could have meant, because he was convinced that he possessed no wisdom or expertise of his own. This motivated Socrates to go around engaging people considered experts in their fields with the goal of finding someone wiser than himself. The only way to discover such a person would be to question experts about what they were supposed to understand and be experts in. He questioned them on their topics but always succeeded in showing that they lacked understanding. They could produce no adequate account of what they were supposed to be experts in, often their expertise was far less important than what they thought it was, and they failed to explain satisfactorily what they did and why they did it. However, Socrates never posited his own position or perspective on the topics he was questioning them about. He did not want to put himself into the discussion, and it was the person he was questioning who was supposed to display an understanding of what he claimed to know. Socrates then concluded that what the Oracle and the god Apollo must have meant was that the wisest person is the person most aware of his own ignorance.

Although Socrates denied that he possessed knowledge and that he was in fact ignorant, this was never understood to suggest that he did not know ordinary facts. It appears that he was aware of many such facts, and he sometimes claimed to know quite a bit of moral knowledge. What he did deny was having knowledge in the sense of wisdom or understanding beyond isolated facts. He believed that wisdom is not just knowing individual facts but is the ability to relate them to one another in a unified and structured way, which typically involves an intimate understanding of a field or area of knowledge.

Although Socrates did not himself invent a method per se, the approach he lived out and which can be emulated by anyone, is the desire to exercise reason, logic, and critical thinking when evaluating proposed opinions, hypotheses, and theories. It is the ability to probe into topics and subjects using thought provoking questions, being able evaluate assumptions, offer critiques and alternatives, as well as summarize important information succinctly. As such, the Socratic Method has become a valuable approach to thinking often used within many disciplines, from the political and philosophy faculties to the law class.



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