The Semantic Independence of Socratic Focus

by Max Maxwell

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The Classic Socratic Method, as as found in the early dialogues of plato,[1] has been part of the philosophical and educational imagination of western civilization for many centuries. However, its actual use in real conversations has been limited to say the least. The reason that the full richness of the Classic Socratic Method has never been commonly used in teaching or philosophical discussion can be expressed in one word...semantics. Natural language semantics impose a world of difference between two minds. In real life, two people can discuss the same ideas using the same words and yet each person evokes different associations and meanings, which lead them to derive different inferences and conclusions. The primary historical resource on the Socratic Method is the texts of the dialogues of Plato.  If the dialogues of Plato have ever inspired you to try to use the Socratic Method in live conversation, your attempt will have taught you the significance of the fact that Plato was able to write the answers as well as the questions. The ability of human language to generate new sentences and express new ideas is extraordinary. This ability is so great that you simply cannot predict what a person will say in response to any question. One unexpected response is all that is needed to derail a process of Socratic questioning, if the Socratic questioner is employing the method in a static fashion.


In these essays, I will focus on the classic form of the Socratic Method, which seeks to define a particular term or idea and is famous for a particular “Socratic Effect.” This Socratic Effect exists when people's attempts to verbalize their understanding of a term or idea, while under Socratic questioning, makes them sensitive to previously unknown or unacknowledged inconsistencies and ambiguities. The Socratic Effect leaves them feeling less sure of the adequacy of their understanding and thus makes them better prepared to look into the issue with a fresh perspective.  The only people who cannot think about an issue are the ones who think they already know. Creating opportunities for people to experience the Socratic Effect is very important in order to lead people to a superior experience of critical thinking.


My approach to the use of the classic Socratic Method is to employ simple principles that serve to remove the overwhelming semantic complexity involved in interpreting the responses to questions. These principles also guide the formation of new questions. Instead of seeing the Socratic Method as a static process with a list of fixed questions and necessary understandings for each subject, the questioner employs simple principles that are open ended, dynamic and can express some independence from the semantic content of particular responses to questions. These principles allow for the successful incorporation of unexpected responses and ideas into the process of Socratic questioning, without requiring that the questioner be an expert in the subject of the discussion.


[1] There are two patterns in the Socratic method. The Classic Socratic Method is distinguished from the Modern Socratic Method by the nature of its questions. The Classic Socratic Method pursues the big questions about justice, virtue and other basic qualities of human character and living. Here, the answers are not known by the Socratic facilitator. The classic method is much more difficult to use due to the upredictabilty and semantic complexity of the responses. The Modern Socratic Method asks leading questions about topics that have known, expected, and verifiable answers, such as the geometry experiment in Plato's Meno. See the main article “Introduction to the Socratic Method and its Effect on Critical Thinking” for more information on the structure of the Classic Socratic Method and the Modern Socratic Method.