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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.