What is the Socratic Method?

by William C. Michael

The Socratic Method is spoken of today in a thousands different contexts. Some speak about the “Socratic Method” as a way of teaching classes in schools. Others speak of the “Socratic Method” as a way of solving problems. What should concern us is that most of the people who are talking about the Socratic Method offer no evidence that they’ve every studied the teaching of Socrates or any true “method” that might be named after him. As a classicist, I’d like to answer the question, “What is the Socratic method?”

- The Fake Socratic Method
- The Real Socratic Method


The Fake Socratic Method

The primary source of the fake Socratic Method is found in educators and schools who are pretending to be something that they’re not. Knowing that many are unhappy with modern schools, it’s easy to create something that is different on the surface and then dress it up with all kinds of historical words to make ignorant people think that it is substantially different from the modern schools. This is comparable to Starbucks’ strategy in re-branding coffee as a luxury beverage by raising the prices, doubling the amount of coffee used and using fancy names for the drinks and their sizes.

Fake Classical Educators and Schools

One of the reasons why this question has to be answered is because there are many people today, well, I shouldn’t say many, there are a relatively small number of people today that are advertising. their teaching, their schools, their publications, and they claim that they use “the Socratic method” as a method of instruction. They say that their schools employ “the Socratic method”. These schools, and publishers who do the same thing, are part of the fake classical education movement that I’ve talked about in other videos, and one of their main selling points, is this false and unfounded appeal to “the Socratic method”.

Now, in these schools and in these publications, “the Socratic method” is simply a cover to hide the fact that the “teachers” do not have systematic knowledge of the subjects that they teach and do not teach as teachers who do. That’s what this is really about. When a teacher shows up to a classroom, to teach a group of students who are being required to pay tuition, he’s not going to give them a masterful, efficient, systematic, and certain lecture, teaching them some important topic in a scientific manner — when we use the word “scientific” in the ancient sense. You’re not going to have teachers who are masters who can explain things, scientifically, which means systematically, and certainly, you’re going to have poorly educated, incompetent, barely employed men and women, leading classes that they themselves don’t understand. And when you think, “How can we have people leading classes and teaching subjects which they have no mastery of? How can they produce lectures? How can they organize instruction?”

The answer is that they can’t.

And so this modern, fake classical education movement leaves these fake teachers free to just talk with the students every day, with no no organized lectures, no systematic knowledge of a subject, no real curriculum, no accountability. And they call this class discussion “the Socratic method”. They use the term “Socratic method” to justify charging tuition for students to sit with men and women called “teachers” who are not able to teach the subjects they’re being paid to teach. If we take a man who barely has a college degree in any field, or we take someone who has a relatively useless degree, like English or theology, and is working as a layman and we hire him as a teacher, and we barely pay him anything, because he’s not a competent worker (let’s say we pay him $40,000 a year), we have to explain to the parents paying all the tuition, how it can be okay to have someone who clearly can’t provide a systematic lecture on a subject with demonstration. And the way that the schools do this is by telling the parents who examine nothing and ask no questions is that he teaches with “the Socratic method”.

And this is total baloney.

The man is not a teacher, he cannot teach the subjects he pretends to teach because he does not possess what the ancients called science or systematic knowledge of the subjects. And therefore, what he does in class is merely babysits students and talks with them, acting like a teacher and telling them that his aimless babbling is some kind of ancient method that he learned from Socrates — one of the wisest and most influential philosophers who ever lived. It’s “the Socratic method”.

For example, the Angelicum Academy, speaking of classes for 3rd-8th grade children, asserts — with no evidence anywhere:

“The dialectical method is conversation between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned (logical) arguments and critical thinking.”

No, the Socratic Method is not a “conversation”. What these classes are doing is nothing, at all, like anything Socrates did. Socrates didn’t have conversations with 3rd graders. A parent comments,

“My son is involved in the Socratic Discussion. The group he is involved in is the 3rd grade group. It has helped him to be more confident and secure in expressing his thoughts about things. He would always look to us after making a comment on something and say “Am I right?” Now he makes a statement about something and has more confidence in his answers and ability to think for himself. This new ability for him has lead us into some very interesting conversations, whereas before he would just listen and not express any thoughts on the subject. I would recommend it for anyone, child as well as adult.”

This has nothing to do with the real Socratic Method. Anyone who reads the dialogues of Plato or who has studied Aristotle’s Topics would understand how absurd this is.

Thomas Aquinas College, goes even further, referring to the Socratic Method as “the Discussion Method”, stating:

“In the classroom, students sit around a table with their peers and with a faculty tutor as a guide, and together they grapple with the greatest works of Western civilization. There are no lectures, no didactic discourses, no simple regurgitation of others’ conclusions. Instead, ideas are proposed, rebutted, and defended, until, through discussion and critical argumentation, the class discerns the meaning of a given text and, more important, its veracity or error.”

This sounds simple, but why would this free discussion among peers seeking the truth for themselves cost Catholic students $35,000 per year? Why would Catholic students not be interested in learning the “regurgitation of others’ conclusions”, when those “others” are canonized saints and doctors of the Catholic Church? Is catechesis, then, a bad thing? Wouldn’t these discussions be able to be conducted in a chatroom, online, for free?

The more we think about this, rather than just running stupidly into it, the worse it gets. If this is the way of learning at a college named after Thomas Aquinas — did St. Thomas himself teach like this? Were Catholic schools ever run like this? Was St. Thomas Aquinas opposed to “lectures and didactic discourses”? No, this is exactly how he taught. We know this for a fact because we have his lectures!

How is anyone falling for fake Socratic Method?

It’s no surprise that people who fall for fake classical education will also fall for a thousand other errors. The advantage that these teachers have, if they teach for multiple years, is that they have a chance to read through the book, or at least parts of the book multiple times. And they can participate in these live class discussions with knowledge that appears to be greater than that of the students who are often completely unfamiliar with the books and are just reading them for the first time. So there’s always this ability to show some appearance of knowledge, but what is not found in these fake teachers, in these fake classical schools, is any ability to teach a subject systematically. So they resort to this lazy, unprepared class discussion, which is the same thing that modern graduate schools do, which really have no purpose other than hand out degrees in exchange for tuition checks. These fake “classical” Christian schools and colleges do the same thing, charging families tuition, to have the kids come to school, sit in classes and talk about books with “teachers”, and I hate to even use the word teachers because they’re not teachers. They’re just employees of the school. They claim that this arrangement is some kind of “classical’ method called “the Socratic method”.

And this exploitation of parents and students is common through this fake classical education movement. You’ll see “the Socratic method” all through their catalogs and websites and school brochures. You’ll see “the Socratic method”, “the Socratic method”, “the Socratic method” — and all that means is that incompetent men and women are being paid as publishers and teachers who are unable to provide efficient, helpful, systematic lectures for the students who are paying tuition. Again, this is excused by pretending that these class discussions are “the Socratic method”. So that’s one reason why this discussion is very important to clarify, this advertising gimmick of false classical Christian Schools and publishers.

II. Division in Modern Society

The other reason why this this question is important is because modern society modern democratic society. And many of the devil’s temptations, in general, make use of a fallacy. That’s called a false dilemma, a false dilemma. And understanding the Socratic method rightly will help us to understand the false dilemma and will greatly assist us in our thinking and decision making. So for the sake of exposing the fake teachers in the classical education movement, who claimed to use the Socratic method. And to help with thinking in modern democratic society, I’d like to answer the question: What is the Real Socratic Method?

The Real Socratic Method

Let’s begin by simply looking at the name, the Socratic method. And this name implies two important things.

The Socratic Method was an actual method of investigation developed and employed by Socrates for use in philosophy.

I. It is a Method of Philosophical Investigation

First of all, it’s a method. We’re talking about a method or a procedure, something that can be practiced, that has a certain characteristic. It’s a certain method. And everyone knows what the word method means. If I were to ask you, how do you handle your family’s laundry? What’s your method? You might be a well organized housewife and say, Oh, well, here’s what I do. First of all, I have these three hampers in the bathroom, and the children put their dirty clothes into one of these three. And you can go through the details of the method or procedure that you use to handle the laundry. Or the same could be true grocery shopping. A man may have a method for how he goes about exercising. He may have a workout, he may have a certain weekly routine. And if I were to ask him, How do you stay in shape, he would explain. This is my method. for staying in shape. We understand what a method is. It’s a method, a way of doing something A set of procedures which are followed to accomplish some desired end. That’s a method everyone understands that.

II. It is the Method Used by Socrates

Secondly, we have an adjective that describes this method. And we say that it’s Socratic. It’s a method that is Socratic. And what that means is that this method is a method that we claim was used and taught by Socrates. So the Socratic method is a method that was taught and used by Socrates. Now another question that arises is, what is the end or purpose of this method? In the examples that I used, such as doing the laundry, the end of that method is to wash all the clothes and put them away and keep the house clean. So the kids have clean clothes to wear. That’s the end of the method for a man to be physically healthy, and in good. Cardiovascular shape is the end of his fitness method. But when we come to the Socratic method, we have to ask what is the end that’s sought with the Socratic method. And if we look back to the life of Socrates and into the history of philosophy we find when we talk about the Socratic method, we’re talking about a method that allows us to show that certain opinions are false. And that helps us to advance in the pursuit of truth and wisdom. So the end of the Socratic method is wisdom. The Socratic method is a method taught and used by Socrates in the pursuit of wisdom. It is a philosophical method of investigation. And it’s the philosophical method that belonged to Socrates. Socrates, is a real historical person. We can learn about Socrates from a number of different sources. The most important source from which we can learn about Socrates is the writing of the philosopher Plato. Plato was a student of Socrates, who used the Socratic method that he learned from his teacher in his own philosophical studies, and teaching. We can also learn about the Socratic method from other writers like Xenophon, who was a friend of Socrates and writes about Socrates and his method. We can also learn about the Socratic method in a more formal way. Through the study of Aristotle’s Organon.

Aristotle, was a student of Plato. So Aristotle was in this line of Socratic philosophers. And Aristotle teaches and explains, systematically the method of Socrates in his work on the Topics in the Organon. So we have a number of sources, from which we can learn about the method that Socrates used and developed in his pursuit of wisdom and this method that Socrates used is the Socratic method.

Now just by knowing that much We can already be certain that what schools and publishers are claiming to be the Socratic method has nothing to do with any method ever employed by Socrates, in his philosophical pursuits, to have a group of students reading a book, sitting around a table or in a classroom, talking about the book is certainly a method. But it’s not any method that has anything to do with Socrates. It’s not a philosophical method at all. And it has nothing to do with Socrates. It’s a method. As I said, it’s an alternative to formal class lectures. And the reason why a school will charge tuition, but not provide formal class lectures is that the teachers are unable to provide formal class lectures. They’re not experts. What student in the entire world wouldn’t prefer and benefit more from a formal class lecture from a wise experienced teacher than from some class discussion? When St. Thomas Aquinas taught in the 13th century? Do you think that he spoke with organized formal lectures? Or do you think that he opened up class discussions and talked with the students about the books they were reading? Ask their opinions. And let the kids argue about what the meaning of the book is? No, we don’t have to wonder about what St. Thomas did, because we have examples of his lectures, his systematic formal lectures. If you would, like I can show you how St. Thomas Aquinas taught his classes, because we have his lectures. Some St. Thomas Aquinas did not use class discussion as a way of teaching. He was an expert teacher, he was a master. And when his students gathered for classes, he didn’t ask them for their thoughts. He delivered to them the fruits of his own study, experience, and meditation. And this is actually the mission of the Order of St. Dominic, to be a contemplative order that studies praise and meditates and then shares the fruits of that meditation. And true teaching is the work of sharing in the most efficient way possible. The fruits of a Wise Man’s studies, experience and meditation. class discussion is not the Socratic method.

So let’s talk about what the Socratic method is positively. If we want to learn what the Socratic method is, instead of reading the websites of homeschool publishers selling books and schools, marketing their programs for the sake of tuition payments from parents who don’t know any better and don’t ask any questions. Let’s look to the actual sources, where we find Socrates speaking, and teaching. Let’s look at the dialogues of Plato. What do we see Socrates doing? We don’t see Socrates sitting at a table with a group of students talking about some book they’re reading. We don’t see Socrates using the Socratic method as a way to lead class discussions in exchange for tuition payments. We see the Socratic method being used as a method by which Socrates investigates a question. A question that at the time of investigation, doesn’t have a known answer. The Socratic method is the method, the method that Socrates uses to answer a question — a philosophical question.

If you were to ask Socrates, “What is the nature of man?”, or “What is man?”, Socrates would begin the investigation by asking questions, but these are not questions for people’s opinions or class discussions. The questions Socrates asked were a very specific kind of question. And this is the difference between this nonsense about the Socratic method in fake classical schools and the real thing. Socrates does ask questions. That’s true. But he asks a specific type of question. And this question, this specific type of question, is what makes the Socratic method to be the Socratic method.

What Socrates asks, are called dialectical questions, and the method that Socrates uses is what Aristotle called the dialectical method. And the dialectical method is different from the demonstrative method, which Aristotle developed and taught a century later. The dialectical method asks a question that allows only one of two answers. I’ll repeat that. The Socratic method or the dialectical method asks a question that allows only one of two answers. So for example, if we were to say, What is man? And we were to say, well, let’s begin by asking the question whether man is mortal, or not mortal? This is a dialectical question. This is the kind of question Socrates would answer in his philosophical investigation, and notice the nature of the question: Whether man is mortal, or not mortal? The nature of the question allows for only one of two possible answers. And the reason why only two answers are possible, is because the answer choices are one positive answer, and then it’s contrary. “Is man mortal?” That’s the positive, or “Is man not mortal?” That’s it’s contrary. The dialectical question is a question that allows only an answer, or it’s contrary A or not A. Those are the only two options. And this is very important.

So using that example, the first question we’d investigate is whether man is mortal, or not mortal. And we would seek to look for arguments or evidence that proves that man is mortal or not mortal. And we’d like to see that man is taken as a genus, as a class, and we’d like to speak universally if we can. When we say “man”, we mean “all men” and ask whether all men are mortal. And the contrary to that, is that No, all men are not mortal. The discussion that would follow would be a dialectical discussion. And that would be an example of the true Socratic method asking questions, which allow only an answer and it’s contrary.

It’s not simple questioning and discussion, and this is where these modern fake classical schools are wrong. Socrates did not teach by discussion. Socrates investigated philosophical questions by asking a very specific type of question, a question which allows only an answer. And it’s contrary. By collecting the answers to these questions, one by one by one. Over time, results would begin to appear. It would be seen that these answers to these dialectical questions were leading to a certain general conclusion. Or they were leading into contradictions.




Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the <a href=”https://classicalliberalarts.com">Classical Liberal Arts Academy</a>. He graduated from Rutge

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William C. Michael

William C. Michael

Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the <a href=”https://classicalliberalarts.com">Classical Liberal Arts Academy</a>. He graduated from Rutge

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