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 Aristotelean Method
- The Scholastic Method
- What Exactly is the Socratic Method?
Please note that this written article contains more information than the recorded talk.
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.
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 who claim to use “the Socratic method” as a method of instruction. 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 organized lectures, no systematic knowledge of a subject, no real curriculum, no accountability. And they call this class lazy 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 hire 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 — may we not ask whether St. Thomas himself taught 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.
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” — who are no teachers at all. 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.
The other reason why this this question is important is because modern democratic society, and many of the devil’s temptations, in general, make use of a fallacy. That’s called a false dilemma. 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 claim 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?
Understanding the Socratic Method
Let’s begin by simply looking at the name, the Socratic method. And this name implies two important things.
1. The Real Socratic Method is a Method
The Socratic Method was an actual method of investigation developed and employed by Socrates for use in philosophy.
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 characteristics. 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.” You can go through the details of the method or procedure that you use to handle the laundry. Or the same could be true of 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, etc., 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.
2. The Real Socratic Method is Socratic
Secondly, we have an adjective that describes this method. And we say that it’s Socratic. It’s a method that is Socratic. What that means is that this method is a method that we claim was used and taught by Socrates, in history.
Another question that arises is, “What is the end or purpose of this method?” In the example of doing the laundry, the end of that method is to provide all of the family members with clean clothes. The end of the method of a man’s exercise is to develop and maintain good physical health. A method serves an end or goal.
When we come to the Socratic Method, we have to ask “What was the end that was sought, by Socrates, with what was named the Socratic method?”
If we look back to the life of Socrates and into the history of philosophy we find a method that allows us to show that certain opinions are false. This method helped Socrates to advance in the pursuit of truth and wisdom. The Socratic Method was a method taught and used by Socrates in the pursuit of wisdom. It was a philosophical method of investigation. The Socratic Method was the philosophical method that was developed and used by 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” in his own philosophical studies, and writing. We can also learn about the Socratic Method from Xenophon, who was a friend of Socrates and writes about Socrates and his method. However, we can learn about the Socratic Method in a more formal and scientific 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 taught and explained, systematically, the method of Socrates in his work on the “Topics”.
So, we have a number of historical and philosophical sources from which we can learn about the method that Socrates developed and used in his pursuit of wisdom.
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 may certainly be considered a method of teaching, 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 an alternative to formal modern class lectures, but it’s not the Socratic Method.
Again, the reason why a school would charge tuition for instruction, but not provide formal class lectures, is that the teachers are unable to provide formal class lectures. They’re not experts. They do not have the kind of knowledge of a subject that a true teacher has. They cannot give systematic knowledge to their students because they do not have it.
What student wouldn’t prefer an efficient, formal class lecture from a wise, experienced teacher to an inefficient, wandering class discussion where his classmates are talking most of the time?
Socrates was not teaching classrooms full of tuition-paying, credit-seeking students. Socrates was a philosopher. Socrates was engaged in private philosophical discussions, through which he was seeking to answer ONE question by means of a strategic investigation. Socrates was using his method because no better method was available at the time. The superior method of philosophical investigation was established by Aristotle, a generation later.
The Aristotelean Method
When Socrates was arguing in the streets and banquet halls of Athens, the art of Reasoning was yet unknown. Sophists had their way throughout Greek culture and no one could resist them — except Socrates. Socrates engaged with false teachers and proved that their ideas lead to self-contradictions that prove their systems of thought to be false. Proving people false was all that the Socratic Method could do. This was the state of philosophy at that time.
Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) in Raphael’s famous painting, “The School of Athens”.
Fifteen years after Socrates died, Aristotle was born. Aristotle would grow up to study under Socrates’ greatest pupil: Plato. Plato would use the Method of his teacher to present his philosophical ideas through written dialogues in which contrary ideas were shown to be impossible. The Socratic Method allowed Plato to prove that his opponents were wrong — but it did not allow him to prove that his philosophy was true.
Aristotle wasn’t content with the Socratic Method. He knew that its use was limited and that it couldn’t demonstrate what was true. He knew that it could not produce “scientific” knowledge of a subject. He also knew that the Socratic Method didn’t solve the problem of the Sophists in Greek society.
What was lacking when Socrates died, and when Plato taught, was knowledge of the art of Reasoning. Gifted, philosophical individuals could be found who were able to argue effectively, but there was no “method” to be studied and practiced. Men argued effectively by natural ability or by experience with arguments or by luck. Seeing this, Aristotle knew that a method existed but hadn’t been discovered yet.
Aristotle worked to establish the art of reasoning. He saw that the Socratic Method, which relied on asking a certain kind of question and then stringing together answers to those questions until contradictions were discovered, started with men’s answers rather than absolute truth. This is why the Socratic Method could not demonstrate what was true. For something to be proven true it must be concluded not from premises that appear true to men, but from premises that are absolutely certain and require no demonstration themselves. Aristotle knew that the truth could only be demonstrated by reason from self-evident truths, but how?
The actual process of reasoning had to be understood and explained, and Aristotle worked to explain this process in his “Organon”. He had to learn how the mind actually draws conclusions and is persuaded.
As he studied, he realized that the mind depends on words and that words are the causes of confusion and error. He learned that ideas are produced by the mind to represent objects outside the mind — and that these ideas are shared by all men. He also learned that words are created by men to represent their ideas — and that this creation of words as artificial. He saw that the use of words to represent ideas was a source of confusion and error among men, and one of the sources of the Sophists’ deceptions. He explains this in the first book of his Organon, the “Categories”.
He also learned that words and ideas, by themselves are neither true nor false, but that they become true or false through combination with others. These combinations are called “propositions”. He showed that truth and falsehood were only present when words were combined in certain ways, but that there were other modes of combination that did not produce truth and falsehood and could lead to confusion and error. He explained this in his work “On Interpretation”.
Most importantly, however, he learned that just as words are combined to make propositions that are true or false, so also propositions, when combined, make new propositions. Aristotle showed that the mind does this automatically — and that this is the process of reasoning! Sometimes, certain pairs of propositions produce a third proposition that is true, and sometimes others produce a third proposition that is false. He explained this in his word “Prior Analytics”.
Aristotle had established how human ideas, language and reasoning worked. The last step was to who what kind of propositions they were that produced true conclusions. This he accomplished in his work “Posterior Analytics” After finishing this, he went on to consider what exactly Socrates was doing in his method and what role it served in the life of the philosopher. He did this in his work titled the “Topics”.
Thus, a generation after Socrates argued in the streets, Aristotle established the art of Reasoning itself. Once he achieved this, he had in hand a method that was far superior to the Socratic Method.