How to Use the Socratic Method

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The essays presented here are a result of over thirty years of Max Maxwell's involvement in research and experimentation in the Socratic method, and thirteen years of work in the field of curriculum development.

The purpose of this series of essays is to present and stimulate new ways of thinking about and using the Socratic Method. For a summary of most of the research presented here, see the introduction to the first essay, "The Fundamentals of Education: A Socratic Perspective on the Cultivation of Humanity".

You can listen to the first two sections of this essay:
Audio Book for The Fundamentals of Education

There are six parts to the first essay that are being posted as they are finished. Active links for existing online materials have underlining. Parts I and II are posted. Parts III-VI will be completed this summer. Parts I-III provide philosophical foundations for a broad range of uses of the Socratic method. Parts IV-VI offer implications for new research in the use of the Socratic method.

As I get enough material posted, I will be putting the essays into one PDF file. The text in the HTML version of these essays reserve all rights under standard copyright law. I will be granting special rights for the printer friendly PDF version regarding its redistribution to make it easier to use in education settings.

If you are not at all familiar with the Socratic Method, you should read the introductory article, “Introduction to the Socratic Method and its Effect on Critical Thinking".

The Fundamentals of Education:
A Socratic Perspective on the Cultivation of Humanity.

              Hospitality to the Stranger

The list below is in page numbered order. It is fairly important to read this essay in order. Part II could be profitably read independently from part one, but most of the semantic context of the words "courtesy", "hospitality", "hospitality to the stranger", "shared space", and "common ground" will be missing in the absence of reading part one.

  2. What is Fundamental to Education?
  3. Self-Knowledge, Secondary Talk and The Examined Life
  4. Academic Talk about the Arts
  5. Artistic Talk about the Arts
  6. The Labor Cost of Academic and Artistic Talk
  7. An Artistic Commentary on
      George Steiner's Real Presences
  8. An Issue of Scope in the Problem of Endless Talk
  9. A Socratic Summa Summarum of the Secondary City
10. Narcissus in the Secondary City
11. The Buddhist Hands Interpretation
      of the Adagio Cantabile
12. Peak Performance as a Function of Envisioning
13. Toward a Socratic Persistence of Vision
14. The Relevance of Character for the Design of Education Systems
15. Artistic Performance Within the Gates of the Secondary City
16. A Stranger in a Strange Land
17. The Return from Exile
18. The Immanence of the Other
19. Hospitality to the Stranger

               The Art of Cultivating Citizens

20. The Birth of a Socratic Philosopher
21. Of Philosophy and Method
22. The Malaise of Public Discourse

The Teachings of the Anti-Socratic
23. Anyone with a Different Point of View is an Enemy
      that must be defeated.
24. Rudeness has a place in intelligent conversation.
25. Winning is more important than truth.
26. Important topics can be justly handled
      in the time between commercial breaks.
27. Democracy can validate ideas
      (the majority makes right).
28. You ARE your Perspective.

29. The Art of the Anti-Socratic Talking Head
30. The Talking Head and The Problem of Endless Talk
31. Persuasion in the Socratic Method of Conversation
32. Socratic Persuasion Summary
33. The Socratic Method of Conversation as the Practice of Peace
34. The Anti-Socratic War on Peacemaking

PART III: The Fundamentals of the Human Condition

35. What does it Mean to be Human?
29. The Constant Human Response to Variation
Repetition, Variation, Complexity and Meaning
31. Exploring the Structure of the Artistic
Aesthetic Incommensurability in Natural Language
Incommensurability in Formal Systems and Natural Language
34. The Human Condition and the Art of Socratic Questioning
35. Redefining Socratic Questions
The Freedoms of Art

PARTS IV through VI: Research Implications

Part IV explores the first direction of research involving the creation of new types of Socratic exercises that do not depend on the dialogues of Plato for their form, yet retain the important character developing Socratic dynamics. The example provided is a method to encourage a Socratic envisioning of personal development. The purpose is to help students develop their own personal vision of living the examined life. The concept of the 'Hero' is used as a focus to help students envision their better self.

              Written Tools for encouraging the Examined Life
PART V looks into the second direction of research by exploring the use of the Socratic method as a written text. An example of how to apply the Socratic method to modern topics in written form is provided. The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith is a Socratic dialogue I wrote that is close to the dialectical style of the early dialogues of Plato. This dialogue can be used in written or oral form. It uses a technique for refuting definitions that relies on clarifying the scope of knowledge pertaining to morality. It also uses the "one example" technique, which allows an idea or definition to stand or fall based on the success or failure of finding one illustrative example of the idea that is able to stand up to further examination. The net result of this dialogue is that the respondent is unable to either define morality or the scope of application of moral knowledge. The implications of this dialogue are discussed regarding the application of the Socratic method in both written and oral form to a broader range of topics.

The most exciting implication of this line of research is the recovery of an ancient aspect of Socratic dialogue. The most famous portrait of Socrates is in the early dialogues of Plato. Here, Socrates and his conversation partners fail to find the answer they seek as each definition is refuted. The repeated cycle of definition and refutation ends with an admission of failure to find the knowledge they seek. We almost never use the Socratic method as portrayed in the early dialogues of Plato because it is too complex to reliably overturn another's deeply held view through simply asking questions.  The verbal possibilities are too unwieldy, the tenacity of people in clinging to their views too great. The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith is a demonstration of the ability to use the style of Socratic method similar to the style the early dialogues of Plato, in application to modern topics. This dialogue is the first, or one of very few, dialogues since Plato that actually captures the flavor of functionality of the early dialogues of Plato.

PART VI demonstrates a third direction of new research. This direction explores the possible use of the Socratic method as a formal system such as propositional logic or formal systems capable of basic arithmetic. The first step in this research is to create methods for generating valid Socratic questions in a way that functions through dependence on rules and exhibits semantic independence from natural language. A proof of concept example is provided that describes a technique for generating valid Socratic questions in response to a definition by attending only to the formalities of the definition's grammar. The introduction of this kind of formality means that we can create effective Socratic questions that can be asked without the questioner knowing the meaning of the respondent's definition. This line of research favors the development of the Socratic method as seen in the stylings of the early dialogues of Plato. The proof of concept example is constructed by using a formal rule that eliminates most of the natural language semantic entanglements of human dialogue. This research demonstrates that the Socratic facilitator may indeed be quite ignorant, yet still able to successfully conduct a Socratic process. It also indicates that it is more possible than previously believed to write computer programs capable of having effective Socratic dialogues with a human being.


This essay describes the character of the teacher who is most able to effectively use the Socratic method in the classroom and the important of providing opportunities for students to develop their own Socratic temperament.

© Copyright 2013 Kenneth J. Maxwell Jr. - All Rights Reserved