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Socratic method (or method of elenchos or Socratic debate) is a dialectic method of inquiry, largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts and first described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues. For this, Socrates is customarily regarded as the father and fountainhead for ethics or moral philosophy.
It is a form of philosophical enquiry. It involves two or more speakers, usually with one as the master (or wise one) and the others as students or fools. The method is credited to Socrates, who began to engage in such discussion with his fellow Athenians after a visit to the Oracle of Delphi.
The practice involves asking a series of questions surrounding a central issue, and answering questions of the others involved. Generally this involves the defense of one point of view against another and is oppositional. The best way to 'win' is to make the opponent contradict themselves in some way that proves the inquirer's own point.
Plato famously formalised the Socratic debate in prose - positing Socrates as one of the principal interlocutors - in some of his early dialogues, such as Euthyphro or Theaetetus, and the method is most commonly found within the Socratic dialogues, which generally portray Socrates engaging in the method and questioning his fellow citizens about moral and epistemological issues.
Method[edit | edit source]
Elenchos (Greek: ἔλεγχος, a cross-examination for the purpose of refutation), sometimes spelt 'elenchus', is the central technique of the Socratic method.
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 characterisation (Vlastos, 1983), it has the following steps:
- Socrates' interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example 'Courage is endurance of the soul', which Socrates considers false and targets for refutation.
- Socrates secures his interlocutor's agreement to further premises, for example 'Courage is a fine thing' and 'Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing'.
- 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'.
- 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.
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 characterise 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. Oddly, however, Aristotle also claimed that this method is not suitable for ethics.
Application[edit | edit source]
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.
Psychotherapy[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Socratic questioning in therapy
The Socratic method has been adapted for psychotherapy, most prominantly 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.
Lesson plan elements for teachers in classrooms[edit | edit source]
A skillful teacher can teach students to think for themselves using this method. This is the only classic method of teaching that was designed to create genuinely autonomous thinkers. There are some crucial lesson plan elements to this form of teaching:
- The teacher and student must agree on the topic of instruction.
- The student must agree to attempt to answer questions from the teacher.
- The teacher and student must be willing to accept any correctly-reasoned answer. That is, the reasoning process must be considered more important than facts.
- The teacher's questions must expose errors in the students' reasoning or beliefs. That is, the teacher must reason more quickly and correctly than the student, and discover errors in the students' reasoning, and then formulate a question that the students cannot answer except by a correct reasoning process. To perform this service, the teacher must be very quick-thinking about the classic errors in reasoning.
- If the teacher makes an error of logic or fact, it is acceptable for a student to correct the teacher.
Since a discussion is not a dialogue, it is not a proper medium for the Socratic method. However, it is helpful -- if second best -- if the teacher is able to lead a group of students in a discussion. This is not always possible in situations that require the teacher to evaluate students, but it is preferable pedagogically, because it encourages the students to reason rather than appeal to authority.
More loosely, one can label any process of thorough-going questioning in a dialogue as an instance of the Socratic method.
See also[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
- Vlastos, Gregory (1983) ‘The Socratic Elenchus’, in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 1: 27-58.
- Benson, Hugh (2000) Socratic Wisdom (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
[edit | edit source]
- Discourse.net - 'Be Socratic In Class -- Get Sued' (March 24, 2005)
- Philosopher.org - 'Tips on Starting your own Socrates Cafe', Christopher Phillips, Cecilia Phillips
- UChicago.edu - 'The Socratic Method', Elizabeth Garrett (1998)
- AAINW 'Adler and Socrates: Similarities and Differences', Henry Stein
- Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling, and example from Rick Garlikov
- Project Gutenberg: Works by Plato
- Project Gutenberg: Works by Xenophon (includes some Socratic works)
- Project Gutenberg: Works by Cicero (includes some works in the "Socratic dialogue" format)
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