HOW TO USE THE SOCRATIC METHOD
Listen to the audio book:
The Fundamentals of Education:
A Socratic Perspective on the Cultivation of Humanity
Introduction to the Socratic Method
and its Effect on Critical Thinking
by Max Maxwell
All Rights Reserved.
PART I: Introduction to the Socratic Method
The Socratic method is one of the most famous, least used, and least understood teaching and conversation practices. The Socratic method of questioning is named after the Greek philosopher Socrates (469 BC–399 BC), who lived in Athens Greece. His father was Sophroniscus, a stone cutter, and his mother was Phaenarete, a midwife. His mother’s profession of midwife is how Socrates' would later characterize his own profession. Socrates believed that the highest benefit of his art was to help people do their own thinking in a way that lead to the birth of their own new ideas. In Socratic dialogues, the primary focus is on the original thinking of the respondent as they try to answer Socrates' questions. A new idea, once it was delivered through Socrates philosophical midwife practice of limiting himself to asking questions, was then examined to determine if the idea is a "false phantom or an instinct with life and truth" (Theaetetus). This examination involved Socrates asking more questions, which help the respondents think critically about their previous answers.
The subjects of Socrates' conversations often revolved around defining ideas such as, justice, virtue, beauty, courage, temperance, and friendship. The search for a definition focused on the true nature of the subject under question and not just on how the word is used correctly in a sentence. Socrates style of conversation involved his own denial of knowledge (Socratic irony). In these conversations, Socrates became the student and made those he questioned the teacher. Socrates rejected any attempts to pass off another person's ideas or the beliefs of the majority as truth. Socrates was not interested in the talk of others. He only wanted to focus on the respondents own thinking. Through the respondent's process of answering Socrates' questions, they experienced their own original thinking in the context of examining their own ideas and themselves. The brilliance of the Socratic method is in the character developing power it has through the exercise of a person's love of asking and answering questions in the pursuit of knowledge.
The Socratic method, with its focus on a person's original and critical thinking in the context of life's important questions, is foundational to human moral development. Vlastos and Graham offer an important insight into the value of the Socratic method:
"Why rank that method among the great achievements of humanity? Because it makes moral inquiry a common human enterprise, open to everyone. Its practice calls for no adherence to a philosophical system, or mastery of a specialized technique, or acquisition of a technical vocabulary. It calls for common sense and common speech. And this is as it should be, for how a human being should live is everyone's business." 
In the first sentence in this essay, I said that the Socratic method is not commonly understood and used. This seems to be contradicted by the quote from Vlastos and Graham. It is the purpose of the research on this website to make the powerful truth of the Vlastos and Graham quote a commonly accessible, living reality for anyone wanting to actually use the Socratic method. If actually using the Socratic method is your interest, the fastest way to access the ideas on this website is my essay "How to Use the Socratic Method" at the top of this page. That essay serves as a conceptual site map to over 200 pages of my writing on this topic.
Socratic Method Definitions:
What is the Socratic method? A single, consistent definition of the Socratic method is not possible due to the diversity with which 'the method' has been used in history. There are many styles of question oriented dialogue that claim the name Socratic method. However, just asking a lot of questions does not automatically constitute a use of the Socratic method. Even in the dialogues of Plato, which are the most significant and detailed historical references to Socrates, there is not just one Socratic method. The exact style and methodology of the Platonic Socrates changes significantly throughout the dialogues. If there is a 'classic' Socratic method, this designation must refer to the style of the Socratic method found primarily in the early dialogues (also called the ‘Socratic Dialogues’) and some other dialogues of Plato. In these dialogues, Socrates claims to have no knowledge of even the most fundamental principles, such as justice, holiness, friendship or virtue. In the Socratic dialogues, Socrates only wants short answers that address very specific points and refuses to move on to more advanced or complicated topics until an adequate understanding of basic principles is achieved. This means that the conversation is often stuck in the attempt to answer what appears to be an unanswerable basic question. This image of Socrates' conversations, with their typical failure to find an answer, is the most widely recognized portrait of Socrates and his method. In the dialogues of Plato, the portrayal of Socrates and his method were diverse and ranged from the portrait of Socrates in the early dialogues to a richer diversity of conversational styles and ideas in latter dialogues. This diversity in the dialogues was so great that Plato even decided to drop both Socrates and his method in some of his writing. In a later Platonic dialogue ‘The Laws’, there is still conversation but Socrates is replaced with ‘the stranger’ and his method is gone as well. Socrates and his method are most vividly seen in the early and middle dialogues.
A Definition of the Classic Socratic Method:
The Classic Socratic method uses creative questioning to dismantle and discard preexisting ideas and thereby allows the respondent to rethink the primary question under discussion (such as 'What is virtue?'). This deconstructive style of the Socratic method is ‘Socratic’ precisely to the extent that the weight of the actual deconstruction of a definition rests in the respondent’s own answers to more questions, which refute the respondent's previously stated answer to the primary question. The result of the Classic Socratic method is, by definition, a failure to find a satisfactory answer to the primary question in a conversation. This failure produces a realization of ignorance in the respondent (Socratic Effect) which can, it is hoped, inspire the respondent to dig deep and think about the question with a new freedom that is obtained from discarding a previously held belief. If a satisfactory answer is found, this represents a transition to the ‘Modern Socratic method.’
The ultimate goal of the Socratic method is to increase understanding through inquiry. Obtaining an enhanced freedom to think through discarding preexisting bad ideas is the penultimate goal of the classic style of the Socratic method. The only person who cannot think is the one who thinks she already knows. Through the deconstruction of existing ideas, the classic style of the Socratic method frees people to think about basic principles and ideas with an enhanced sense of necessity and clarity. In this style of the Socratic method, for example, there is no point in getting deeply into complicated theories of particular applications of justice in society until one can answer a much simpler question like, “What is justice?” In this case, the Classic Socratic method functions to tear down existing ideas of justice. This works by exposing unknown or unacknowledged ambiguity and complexity, which makes the respondent realize she has more thinking to do. The ‘Socratic Effect’ provides the respondent with the opportunity to rethink justice, or whatever other quality or idea is in focus, after having their previously existing ideas discarded with their full agreement on the basis of their own answers to questions. This classic style of the Socratic method is described in detail below and is referred to as the ‘Two-Phase Freestyle.' The classic style of the Socratic method is notoriously difficult to achieve in real conversation. It is impossible to not notice that Plato had the benefit of being able to write the answers as well as the questions. The full dynamics of how Socrates was able to handle the wide diversity of possible responses to his questions is lost to history. The high level of difficulty in using the Classic Socratic method explains why this style is almost never used. This difficulty of usage gave rise to the popularity of what I call the ‘Modern Socratic method.’
A Definition of the Modern Socratic Method:
The Modern Socratic method is a process of questioning used to successfully lead a person to knowledge through small steps. This knowledge can be specific data, training in approaches to problem solving, or leading one to embrace a specific belief. The type of knowledge is not as important as the fact that, with the Modern Socratic method, the knowledge gained is specifically anticipated by the Socratic questioner. This stands in contrast to the Classic Socratic method in which the actual outcomes are unknown by all parties.
The modern style is not deconstructive, but constructive. This is the most widely used style today because it is the easiest to employ. It is much easier to lead a person, by baby steps, to specific knowledge through a series of questions than it is to force a person to abandon a cherished idea and rethink an important or controversial issue just by asking creative questions. The Modern Socratic method is not called modern because it was invented recently, but because it is the most popular usage in modern times. The Modern Socratic method has historical precedent in the dialogues of Plato. The most famous example is the geometry experiment with the slave boy in a dialogue called Meno. The Modern Socratic method is discussed below and is referred to as 'The Constructive Agenda' style of the Socratic method.
The "Socratic Method" in Law School
Although there is nothing genuinely Socratic about the violently contentious law school version of the method, the fact that a law student’s exposure to this very intense type of questioning will often break her down and force her to dig deep and perform better does have something of the flavor of the Classic Socratic Method. The purpose of this style of questioning in law school is to prepare students for the extremely rough environment of courtroom litigation. Even though the law school form has the flavor of the deconstructive nature of the Classic Socratic Method (see "The Deconstructive Phase" below), the actual structure of Socratic Dialogue and the nurturing gentleness, which was characteristic of Socrates and his method, are absent. The law school form of their so called "Socratic method" is not what will be discussed in my writings, nor is it appropriate in most educational contexts. If you want to see a balanced presentation of law student’s reactions to the “Socratic Method” used in law school, check out this video.
Two Styles of of the Socratic Method
In spite of their differences, both styles of the Socratic method have some common aspects. Both can inspire people to increase their love of good questions. Both can draw people into a more thoughtful mode of thinking. The Modern Socratic method can be used to good effect for leading a person to work out their own understanding of static knowledge such as mathematics. The Classic Socratic method is a profoundly useful tool to facilitate improvements in critical thinking and to elevate the quality of human discourse regarding difficult and controversial issues. A contemporary example of the Classic Socratic method is the dialogue, The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith, where the Classic Socratic method is used to demonstrate the necessity of caution when making overly broad statements about morality. The more difficult, ambiguous or controversial the issue, the more powerful the usefulness of the Classic Socratic method will be in our conversations. This is because the need to think critically increases with the complexity and ambiguity of the issue or problem under discussion. Although some commonly shared level of problem solving and evaluative ability, which sometimes passes for critical thinking is used in our daily lives, the full and rich depth of the human capacity to think critically is much greater than ordinarily realized. Many people's ability to think with some measure of critical quality serves them fine in solving some practical problems. If, however, a problem has complex ethical dimensions or otherwise ambiguous qualities, the average ability to think critically is often not adequate. This inadequacy is especially evident when we are required to think critically about our own cherished beliefs and ideas. Although the Classic Socratic method is superior with regard to its impact on developing critical thinking, the Modern Socratic method has a valuable influence on the development of critical thinking to the extent that it makes people comfortable questioning their own ideas. The good news about the Socratic method is that some of its most powerful benefits are delivered to people in a way that does not require great philosophical prowess or teaching skill (Modern Socratic method). A cup of open mindedness, a pinch of humble servility and a passion to explore makes up most of the recipe for putting the Modern Socratic method to productive use. However, the most powerful aspect of the Socratic method (the classic style) is very difficult to employ. Both styles of the Socratic method are described below.
The Classic Socratic Method:
The Two-Phase Freestyle
There are two phases in the Classic Socratic method. I refer to the Classic Socratic method as a Two-Phase Freestyle form of dialectic. The Modern Socratic method is often constrained to a pre-designed set of questions that are known to generate a range of predictable answers and elicit knowable facts. The Classic Socratic method is freestyle because, due to the nature of the questions, it cannot predict the responses to questions, anticipate the flow of the conversation or even know if a satisfactory answer is possible. The main portrait of how Socrates functioned in the classic style is in the early Dialogues of Plato (and some later dialogues). Plato wrote in the form of dialogues. In these dialogues Socrates would talk to people that had a reputation for having some knowledge of, or some interest in, the subject of the dialogue. In the classic style, Socrates would ask the primary question of the dialogue in the form of “What is X?”. (e.g. What is justice?) The respondents would answer. Socrates would then ask more questions and the respondent’s answers would end up refuting the definition to the question "What is X?", which they had originally given. Once the respondent realized that the definition was not valid she would be asked again, “What is X?”. This process would often repeat until the end of the dialogue. With each new definition the respondent is subjected to more questions and continues to fail to define X. The conclusion of the dialogue would be an admission of failure to find a proper definition of X. Apparently this Socratic questioning had quite an effect on the respondents.
In the Socratic dialogue called Meno, Socrates is asked by Meno if he believes that virtue can be taught. Meno was shocked and could scarcely believe it when Socrates tells him that he not only does not know if virtue can be taught, but does not understand the nature of virtue. Furthermore, Socrates tells Meno that he never knew anyone else who had an understanding of virtue. Meno’s reluctance to believe Socrates never knew anyone who understood what virtue is was based on his belief that any grown and properly educated man would have some knowledge of virtue. Meno believed that he understood the nature of virtue. Meno is then exposed to Socratic questioning. Plato gives us a description of the effect this questioning had on Meno when Meno tells Socrates,
“O Socrates, I used to be told, before I knew you, that you were always doubting yourself and making others doubt; and now you are casting your spells over me, and I am simply getting bewitched and enchanted, and am at my wits' end. And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish, who torpifies (makes numb) those who come near him and touch him, as you have now torpified me, I think. For my soul and my tongue are really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you; and though I have been delivered of an infinite variety of speeches about virtue before now, and to many persons-and very good ones they were, as I thought. At this moment I cannot even say what virtue is. And I think that you are very wise in not voyaging and going away from home, for if you did in other places as do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a magician.” - from Meno
Meno had been moved from a sense of security over his knowledge about virtue to the uncomfortable realization that he cannot even define virtue. With Meno’s words above we see the effect of the Classic Socratic method. This effect has two main possibilities. Either a person will be inspired to better and more vigorous thinking about a question or they will get discouraged by having their perspective challenged.
The Deconstructive Phase
The purpose of the first phase of the Classic Socratic method is that it prepares people to think. The only people who are incapable of thinking about an issue are those who are already convinced they have “the” understanding of an issue. There are no “Socratic teachings”, but there is a Socratic goal. The goal inherent in any method of questioning worthy of the name “Socratic” is the improvement of a human being through increased understanding. The first phase of the Classic Socratic method deconstructs people’s previous understanding using their own words and leaves them with the experience of being less sure of what they previously knew with greater certainty. This is its value.
Convictions, when held too tightly, blind us in a way that traps us within our own opinions. Although this protects us from uncomfortable ambiguities and troublesome contradictions, it also makes us comfortable with stagnation and blocks the path to improved understanding. In other words, without the capacity to question ourselves the possibility of real thinking ceases. If people are not able to question their own ideas they cannot be thoughtful at all. When unacknowledged or unquestioned assumptions dominate the mind, thoughtfulness becomes a danger and the human aspiration to improve and grow in understanding becomes a slave to fear. The goal of the Classic Socratic method is to help people by freeing their desire for understanding from the harmful limitations that come through clinging to the false securities of their current knowing. People who experience the effect, which arises from being a recipient of the first phase of the Socratic method are freed from the shackles of confidence in their knowing. This affords them the optional freedom of thinking about an issue with a greater quality of thoughtfulness. Reactions to this effect can be diverse. They range from embracing the experience with zeal to seeking to remove oneself from the situation.
When stripped of their usual surety, a person may become sensitive and anxious. The advantage of the Classic Socratic method over the more common forms of discussion or debate is that the Socratic questioner may abandon the burdensome pretense of knowing and take the more subordinate and conversationally effective role as a seeker of understanding. This has the effect of flying under the defensive radar, particularly on controversial issues, and provides a measure of comfort that can move the conversation to a more productive level. Instead of trading contrary propositions and defending mutually exclusive arguments, the Classic Socratic method functions by keeping the conversation focused on common goals that are shared by both sides. Instead of being an opponent, the person being questioned becomes a teacher and helper.
A function of Socratic irony in the context of the first phase is to increase the level of psychological comfort while at the same time placing all the burden for finding answers upon the respondent. This ensures that communication is more effective and helps a person’s aspiration to increase their understanding to have the best chance of responding positively to the conversation. This is critical as the deconstructive phase can be distressing. With reference to the deconstructive sting his method was capable of, while on trial for his life Socrates said that he was:
“sort of a gadfly, given to the state by the god; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which the god has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.” - from the Apology
This Socratic gadfly was put to death because the distress his method was thought to have brought to the city of Athens. This distress was particularly heavy when some of Socrates young conversation partners, who had ambitions in politics, would go home to their powerful families and to other prominent persons and ply this method to tearing down existing beliefs with much less servility and grace than Socrates. It seemed to some of the people of Athens that the effect of Socrates' questioning was to make the young question things they should not. When some of Socrates' students (Charmides and Critias) became part of a ruthless group of tyrant's, who overthrew democracy in Athens, the reality of questioning and tearing down existing things took on a horrific aspect. Socrates was thought to be partially responsible since he had a role as an educator in the lives of some of the tyrants. Another of his students, Alcibiades, joined the Spartan side during wartime. Socrates status as an unofficial teacher of these three was an important element that insured the outcome of his trial. Having been sentenced to death, Socrates had the opportunity to escape prison and live in exile but refused. He spent his last month in prison the same way he spent his life as a free man. He explored life questioning those around him. On his last day he drank the deadly hemlock because his fellow Athenians believed he was a failure as a teacher. At the time of his death, he was looked at by many Athenians as a man who made his students worse instead of improving them. In the face of such spectacular failures as Critias, Alcibiades and Charmides, Socrates never thought less of his style of seeking and teaching. He valued it until the end. Seeking understanding and using questions in that pursuit have more worth than any failures can can ever do to discredit. If Socrates' student/tyrants had ever learned to really question themselves, they might have lived differently. If Socrates had not demonstrated such a gentle, graceful and sincerely helpful manner in his questioning activities, he probably would not have lived as long as he did.
One of the most “Socratic” aspects of Socrates’ method has nothing to do with conversational techniques, philosophical principles, or pedagogical perspectives. It is all about a genuine attitude of humility and service towards the person being questioned. This Socratic irony, with its characteristic humble grace, goes a long way to giving people the interest, determination and patience to endure what can be trying experience. Without true Socratic irony, the deconstructive phase becomes an exercise in shallow manipulation that lacks the power to inspire.
The Constructive Phase
When a person who has been exposed to Socratic questioning admits to themselves that an idea they held was wrong or inadequate in some way, that person is freed from the constraints of previous understanding and has been brought to a place within themselves which brings to life new ideas and understandings. This bringing to birth of new ideas is the constructive second phase of the two-phase freestyle of the Classic Socratic method. Here the respondent, stripped of previous ideas and convictions, brings to birth new ones. It is this bringing to birth of new ideas and understandings that Socrates related to his mother’s profession as a midwife. Socrates assists in this birth by clearing away ideas that cannot stand up to questioning. This allows the respondent to do their own work in the second phase through her creation of new ideas.
The Cyclic Structure of Phases
There is a division of labor in the Classic Socratic method between the Socratic questioner and the respondent. This division of labor can be described within the framework of the two phases. The first phase (deconstructive) is primarily the work of the Socratic questioner. The second phase (constructive) is entirely the work of the respondent. An illustration of the relationship between these two phases and the labor they involve can be seen in Socrates’ description of his work from the dialogue Theaetetus:
“...the highest point of my art is the power to prove by every test whether the offspring of a young man's thought is a false phantom or an instinct with life and truth. I am so far like the midwife, that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom; and the common reproach is true that, though I question others, I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me. The reason is this: heaven constrains me to serve as a midwife, but has debarred me from giving birth. So of myself I have no sort of wisdom, nor has any discovery ever been born to me as the child of my soul. Those who frequent my company at first appear, some of them, quite unintelligent; but, as we go further with our discussions, all who are favored by heaven make progress at a rate that seems surprising to others as well as to themselves, although it is clear that they have never learned anything from me; the many admirable truths they bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within. But the delivery is heaven's work and mine.”
From this description it can be seen that the Platonic Socrates viewed his work as taking place in the deconstructive first phase. As Socrates says in the Theaetetus, “the many admirable truths they (the respondents) bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within. But the delivery is heaven's work and mine.” Socrates role is to “test whether the offspring of a young man’s thought is a false phantom or instinct with life and truth.” This testing is the deconstructive first phase where ideas that do not stand up to testing are discarded. The respondent takes command in the constructive second phase. The second phase involves a birth of ideas that the respondents discover “by themselves from within.” Here in the constructive second phase Socrates usually does not assist at all. The respondents are entirely responsible for their own creation. In the deconstructive first phase, Socrates tests a definition or idea with the help of the respondent and the definition or idea collapses. After the collapse we enter the constructive second phase where the respondent creates a new definition or idea all on her own. Upon this act of second phase creation we enter again into the deconstructive first phase and Socrates tests again if this new idea is, "a false phantom or an instinct with life and truth." Grouping the Classic Socratic method into two phases is defined by this process of creation and destruction. The cycle can take place any number of times during an application of the Socratic method. The goal is to seek ideas and definitions that will stand up to testing and show themselves to be full of “life and truth.” The Classic Socratic method, as described by the two phases is characteristic in the early dialogues of Plato (and some later dialogues).
The Modern Socratic Method:
The Constructive Agenda
When people speak today of using the Socratic method in conversation, it is almost always the Modern Socratic method of which they speak. I call this style the Constructive Agenda. This second style of the Socratic method is also found in Plato. In the Meno dialogue, for example, the first part of the dialogue is an illustration of the Two-Phase Freestyle of the Classic Socratic method. Then in response to Meno’s claim that one cannot ever inquire into anything (known as Meno’s paradox), Socrates is made to introduce Plato’s idea of knowledge as recollection. This theory is illustrated by a dialogue with a one of Meno’s slaves. The subject is a geometry question. There are still wrong answers and clarifying questions but the clear Two-Phase cycle is gone. In its place is a constant progression of knowledge in which the slave is lead to correct answers that build upon each other until the original question is correctly answered. This constant progression of knowledge is also part of the character of Plato’s Republic (after the initial focus on justice). In the Republic the task is not just to answer a geometry question, but to build the ideal city state. Achieving such a lofty goal is beyond the capabilities of endless cycles of not being able to answer a single question. The progress of knowledge in the Republic, however, is not dependent on the classic style of the Socratic method. After book one, Plato changes Socrates' style in order to advance his agenda. Plato believed that what Socrates' did best was not suitable to advance knowledge in a way that Plato thought was necessary. In this style of the Socratic method, the Socratic questioner adopts his/her own constructive agenda and sets out to bring that agenda to life in the minds of the respondents.
Differences Between The Classic
and the Modern Socratic Method
With the Classic Socratic method there is no guarantee of a correct answer. The typical result in Socratic dialogue employing the classic style is to not find an answer to the main question. At that point the benefit of the Classic Socratic method is to help the respondent to, in true Socratic fashion, know what they do not know. This becomes the whole value of the Classic Socratic method in the absence of viable answers. In the Modern Socratic method, a correct answer can be known by the Socratic questioner. The Classic Socratic method places the Socratic questioner in the position of being totally ignorant, and by necessity a student of the respondent. The Modern Socratic method puts the Socratic questioner in the position of a teacher who knows the answer (as in the case of the geometry experiment) or at least has a constructive agenda of his/her own (as in Plato’s Republic). It is an open question whether the historical Socrates went beyond the Two-Phase cycles found in Plato’s early (and some other) dialogues. Most scholars believe that the early dialogues, which emphasize the Two-Phase Freestyle are more in the spirit of the historical Socrates than later dialogues. The Constructive Agenda of the Modern Socratic method, first seen in the dialogues of Plato, may be Plato’s idea of improving on Socrates. The Two-Phase Freestyle of the Classic Socratic method is characteristic of the early dialogues, and is less fruitful by most practical constructive standards. There is often no positive acquisition of knowledge except the knowledge of what we do not know. To some, this seems to be a very sparse reward. It is also very difficult to make Socrates’ deconstructive phase work in live conversation. That most modern applications of the Socratic method are oriented around the Constructive Agenda may be explained by the difficulties involved in successfully making the Two-Phase Freestyle work. If a systematic way of teaching people to work the deconstructive phase of the Classic Socratic method in live conversation can be created, it would be a useful tool for inquiry and teaching.
The Socratic Cultivation of Critical Thinking
Never in the history of humanity has it been more important to the survival of our species to raise whole generations of excellent thinkers than it is today. A dreamy ideal of modern education is that college graduates will not only have gained some mastery in the particular disciplines they have chosen, but also graduate with advanced skill in critical thinking. Unfortunately, there are a large number of college students for whom the idea of thinking critically is new to them upon their arrival to college.
Critical thinking should be actively cultivated throughout public school in order for college students to have the base they need to advance their skill. However, critical thinking is a skill that is neglected in our (U.S.) public schools. This is not because of a lack of perceived value, but is neglected because of the lack of ability to adequately teach the fundamentals of reading, writing and math to the students. Nobody can deny that the U.S. school system is broken. So many kids finish their time in the public school system with inadequate knowledge and skills that it is a national emergency. The U.S. government variously estimates the rate of functional illiteracy at between twenty-five and fifty percent. The problem is getting worse.
There are some bad teachers in our schools. But there are a lot more hardworking, dedicated teachers who are just overwhelmed with the important job of trying to get their students to acquire the basic skills they will need just to get by in the world. There is little or no time in the public school curriculum to include much in the way of activities dedicated to the cultivation of critical thinking. This is not just the fault of the public school system. The bulk of the problem is social. In the U.S. too many parents believe that the public school system will do the educating for them. If such parents participate in their child’s education at all, they are content to drop the kids off at school and ask if they did their home work at night. Then they think they are done. Many children also face horrendous social problems that tax their ability to focus on school. Between parental complacency and other factors of social chaos, which impact the students’ homes, neighborhoods and schools, many students do not have the support they need to do well in our under funded and understaffed school systems. What has been described above is extremely important, but we cannot afford to wait until those problems are fixed to address the issue of cultivating critical thinking. The beauty of the Socratic method is that you can incorporate it into existing curriculum without necessarily taking any more class time. Critical thinking can be elevated in the process of employing the existing structures of education.
The Socratic method primarily address aspects of the development of skill in critical thinking that do not come from learning types of logical fallacies or the heuristics for evaluating arguments and solving problems. It comes from a socially communicated inspiration to thirst for understanding and to experience the hard work involved in creating understanding as a joyful and satisfying journey.
Areas of Impact
The Socratic cultivation of critical thinking has two main areas of impact. I have named these areas “The Safety Factor” and “The Preference Factor.” Both areas affect people’s psychological health with regard to their capacity to do their own critical thinking.
The Safety Factor
The safety factor is about how well a person is able to cope with interpersonal conflict, social marginalization, physical danger and death. The safety factor influences the quality of our critical thinking through the dynamics of our desires for social and physical self-preservation. Belief structures are formed and maintained as a response to the demands of our environment. To critically challenge such structures is to risk compromising our ability to meet the demands of our environment and therefore compromise our safety. A basic value that the Socratic method brings to people is to make it possible for them to feel confident about the experience of questioning anything including their own ideas and beliefs. You cannot develop a capacity for critical thinking without a capacity to question anything and everything. People who are afraid to question often don’t. Such persons never develop any real skill in thinking critically until they first overcome their fear of questioning. Ironically, for a species that prides itself on thinking, even the best of our human societies are not optimally organized to cultivate fearless questioning. In many countries people regularly suffer all kinds of retributions and even death just because they asked questions. We have real reasons to be concerned about the results of our own questioning activity. The inducement to fear our ability to inquire comes from many places. Family, peers, schools, churches, societies, corporations and governments all have vested interests in making us believe that we should be careful about our questioning activity.
The social and political suppression of the act of critical inquiry is not restricted to nations ruled by dictators. Many people who have persisted in asking critical questions about the existence of God, the integrity of their government, sexual identity, current laws on abortion, a friend's motivation, evolution or a company policy have been treated like they were doing something wrong just because they wanted to question something.
People have felt the pressure to stop an inquiry because they questioned the competence, integrity and value of a national leader, popular figure, institution, or perspective. People, who question the existence of God, are considered by many as being morally corrupt and even treated like criminals in many parts of the world. Religious persons have the experience of questioning the morality of something from a religion based perspective and have felt the pressure from the non-religious to stop. The institutional self-interests of school and the workplace pressure people to conform. Parents can make their children feel as if they have done something wrong if the parent is overreacting to thinking the child is asking too many questions or to the child questioning something the parent does not wish to address. Far from being taught to cherish every opportunity to question and far from being led to embrace the experience of questioning with joyful insight into its inherent good, many of us are taught to be very careful and even suspicious about our own desire to question. This over abundance of caution reduces the intelligence of humanity.
The Preference Factor
The preference factor involves the effect of our own presuppositions, attachments and personal commitments. The preference factor influences our critical thinking capacity through the interactions of our preferences, personal beliefs and our pre-existing commitments to taking a particular side in various issues or social conflicts. Critical thinking is not a skill that is evenly applied to all things. A person can be very critically thoughtful on some issues and lacking in critical thoughtfulness in other issues. The measure of a person's critical thoughtfulness is often correlated to her own personal investments in the issue. For example a person may be very critically thoughtful on issues pertaining to judicial ethics, but lack any critical capacity on the issue of the existence of God because they are already committed to a particular answer for the God question. One can develop extraordinary capacity to engage in critical thinking and yet find that their own preferences in various issues can make the quality of their critical thinking vary tremendously. The two factors overlap but are different. The safety factor is about pressures from without. The preference factor is about pressures from within.
Socratic Questioning and Critical Thinking
It is very important to find your own love of questioning prior to using the Socratic method. If you are not comfortable with being questioned, please do not use the Socratic method. You are not ready. Not only will your lack of comfort transmit to the students (even if you are the questioner), you will not be up to par on living true Socratic Irony (See the essay, "The Socratic Temperament"). This is important because the Socratic method addresses both factors by providing people with the opportunity for positive questioning experiences. When people are placed in a situation where they are questioned in a way that is friendly, respectful and useful, people are empowered to experience the value of good questions. They are inspired to see questioning as a fundamentally important part of life. This is particularly true if a person can experience having a personal belief or idea refuted in a positive way. In the midst of Socratic questioning people can learn to feel good about getting one of their beliefs or ideas questioned and discarded. This is true because the successful application of the Socratic method provides people with the realization that if they work hard they can either create a better belief or idea, or they can in true Socratic fashion feel good about knowing what they do not know. We all have experiences which make us cautious and fearful about questioning. Through the use of the Socratic method we can offer a balancing positive experience of the act of asking questions. This can inspire people to eagerly embrace the heart of critical thinking, which is the freedom and will to question without fear of any kind. Such an embrace can only strengthen their capacity for critical thought.
Learning to love the experience of questioning gives psychological strength to our will to question. Learning to love the experience of having our own beliefs and ideas questioned and even discarded gives us an inspired vision of our power to work for our own improvement. If we see questioning as a sacred activity that is vital to our own safety (by safeguarding our integrity and growth), we are less afraid to question the world. If we develop a preference for questioning our own preferences we find a true Socratic spirit within ourselves that will empower our critical thinking for life. The successful use of the Socratic method gifts those who experience it with the living heart of critical thinking.
1 Gregory Vlastos, & Daniel W. Graham (1971). "The Paradox of Socrates." In The Philosophy of Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays. Anchor Books, p 20. (Quote was gender neutralized)