Socratic debate

Socratic method

The Socratic Method (or Method of Elenchus or Socratic Debate), named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of philosophical inquiry in which the questioner explores the implications of others' positions, to stimulate rational thinking and illuminate ideas. This dialectical method often involves an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, strengthening the inquirer's own point.

Socrates began to engage in such discussions with his fellow Athenians after his friend from youth, Chaerephon, visited the Oracle of Delphi, which confirmed Socrates to be the wisest man in Athens. Socrates saw this as a paradox, and began utilizing the Socratic method in order to answer his conundrum. Diogenes Laertius, however, wrote that Protagoras invented the “Socratic” method.

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.


Elenkhos (Greek: ἔλεγχος, a cross-examination for the purpose of refutation), more usually spelled 'elenchus', is the central technique of the Socratic method. "If you ask a question or series of questions in which your prospect can readily agree, then ask a concluding question based on those agreements, you will receive a desirable response".

In Plato's early dialogues, the elenchos 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 (Vlastos, 1983), 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 contrary 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 elenchai and typically end in aporia.

Frede (1992) insists that step #4 above makes nonsense of the aporetic nature of the early dialogues. If any claim has shown to be true then it can not 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 elenchos 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.

The Socratic method is a negative method of hypotheses elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those which lead to contradictions. The method of Socrates is a search for the underlying hypotheses, assumptions, or axioms, which may subconsciously shape one's opinion, and to make them the subject of scrutiny, 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. To the extent to which this method is designed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, it was 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. Perhaps oddly, however, Aristotle also claimed that this method is not suitable for ethics.

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. Although 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 school

The Socratic method is widely used in contemporary legal education by many 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, in order to ensure that the student has read and has a basic understanding of 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 teacher then asks whether the student agrees with the argument. The teacher 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 a few forms. Sometimes they seek to challenge the assumptions upon which the student based the previous answer until it breaks. Further questions can also 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 use the Socratic method to allow students to come to legal principles on their own through carefully worded questions that spur 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 law schools 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 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, belief, and conclusions that are the subject of legitimate argument.

Sometimes, the class ends with a quick discussion of doctrinal foundations (legal rules) to anchor the students in contemporary legal understanding of an issue. In other classes the class simply ends and students are forced 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.


The Socratic method has been adapted for psychotherapy, most prominently in Classical Adlerian psychotherapy and Cognitive therapy. It can be used to clarify meaning, feeling, and consequences, as well as to gradually unfold insight, or explore alternative actions.

Theory of Constraints

A prominent author in the area of manufacturing improvement advocates the use of Socratic questioning in resolving apparent contradictory requirements of a process. Eliyahu M. Goldratt and his series of books have a particular focus on how to use this method to avoid compromises that satisfy neither side in a situation of apparently contradictory needs. This use of the method is a key element in his Theory of Constraints.

HR, Training & Development

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

The principal trainer acts as a facilitator who uses a high percentage of open questions in order to allow the participants to reflect critically on their own way of thinking, feeling or behaving in a given context usually containing a problem or desired outcome, and guiding participants to form the conclusion or an axiom/principle/belief through their own efforts, potentially highlighting conflicts of thought and actions with outstanding questions for further discussion. The generalised 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 self-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.
  • 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, because the method encourages students to reason critically rather than appeal to authority or use other fallacies.

See also



  • Vlastos, Gregory (1983) ‘The Socratic Elenchus’, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 1: 27–58.
  • Benson, Hugh (2000) Socratic Wisdom (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991.
  • Sprague, Rosamond Kent. The Older Sophists, Hackett Publishing Company ISBN 0-87220-556-8

External links

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