Socratic method

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The Socratic Method (or Method of Elenchus or Socratic Debate), is named after the Greek philosopher Socrates. It is a form of philosophical questioning.

The central technique of the Socratic method is called an elenchus.[1] It means argument to disprove or refute (prove wrong).[2]

Socrates in Plato's dialogues[change | change source]

Our knowledge of Socrates comes mainly from Plato, who was one of his students. No writing by Socrates survives.

Socrates was famous for not answering questions in a direct manner. "I know that I know nothing", he said. Socrates's opinion (at least in Plato's dialogues) was that the other person already knew the answer to a question and that Socrates only drew out what was already in the other's mind.

In Plato's early dialogues, the elenchus is the technique Socrates uses to learn about ethical concepts, such as justice or virtue. According to one scholar,[3] it has the following steps:

  1. Socrates' student or partner asserts a thesis, for example "Courage is endurance of the soul".
  2. Socrates secures his 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 partner agrees, that these further premises imply the opposite 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 partner's thesis is false and that its opposite is true.

The exact nature of the elenchus is subject to a great deal of debate. In particular, whether it is a positive method leading to knowledge, or a negative method used solely to refute false claims to knowledge.

According to W.K.C. Guthrie, the Socratic method was 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".[4]

References[change | change source]

  1. Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition; Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. Liddell, Scott and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th edition.
  3. Vlastos, Gregory 1983. The Socratic Elenchus. Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy I, Oxford 1983 27–58.
  4. Guthrie W.K.C. 1968. The Greek philosophers from Thales to Aristotle. London: Routledge.