The Socratic Method

Illustration: João Casaca

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
— Socrates

In an uncertain world, full of complex problems, we need to constantly question what surrounds us. And you know what? There’s a method for that. It serves both seasoned critical thinkers as well as newbies, or any curious mind. It’s something pretty recent; its creator, Socrates, only died 2419 years ago…

Socrates lived in Athens, but he was far away from fitting the status quo. Where others had answers, he had questions.

While wandering through Athens’ streets, Socrates questioned people about their beliefs — and unsettled some of them by doing so. Not everyone understood that he just wanted to get to the “root of things”, rather than put people in check. This approach became known as the Socratic Method — also called Socratic Debate or Socratic Questioning.

“If men discoursed too readily of justice, he asked them, quietly, tò tí? — what is it? What do you mean by these abstract words with which you so easily settle the problems of life and death? What do you mean by honor, virtue, morality, patriotism? What do you mean by yourself?”
— Will Durant

It sounds simple, and in a way, it is, but the importance of Socrates for philosophy is enormous. It’s not by chance that the philosophers before Socrates are called pre-socratic. On one side, they were more concerned with physical things than the mind; on the other, Socrates’ philosophical thought made him above the rest — and all of this was based on his radical humility.

You see, Socrates was an ugly man, with bad hygiene, and careless about his family. So, at first, it may seem odd that Athens’ youth would flock to him. We can speculate that his being a decorated military hero had a role in that, but his legacy proves that there was a lot more to it.

Amid Athens’s turbulent history, Socrates was a misfit by all counts — someone to leave out of the picture. How could it be possible that someone that admitted knowing nothing, that had more questions than answers, could be a people magnet? Let’s just say he didn’t fit in; he was seen as a threat to the ones in power.

Just picture this, a man that looked homeless, who didn’t coach people in anything, being seen as the intellectual leader of the divergent ones. More, when faced with a trial for defending free thought (he was charged for impiety and corrupting the youth), he could have appealed for pardon. But he didn’t. When his followers bribed the prison guards, he could have escaped. But he didn’t. He just drank the hemlock he was sentenced for. What a character, right?

Most of what we know about Socrates is through his follower Plato. And we need to consider that Plato was both one of his biggest admirers and the philosopher that “used” Socrates to explain his own thoughts. Nevertheless, the main point is the value of the method and not its exact origin.

To explain how to apply the method in a clear way, there’s no need to write any word. Shawn already did that.

“The key distinction between Socratic questioning and ordinary discussions is that the former seeks to draw out first principles in a systematic manner.

Socratic questioning generally follows this process:

1. Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas. (Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?)

2. Challenging assumptions. (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)

3. Looking for evidence. (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)

4. Considering alternative perspectives. (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)

5. Examining consequences and implications. (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)

6. Questioning the original questions. (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?) “
— Shawn Parrish

All of this works better in a dialog, as it was intended. However, first validating your ideas internally (you with yourself), and then externally (you with others) will enhance the process.

Don’t go wild when applying the method, though — you can damage some relationships in the process if you do so. Just kindly ask people if they are open to discussing their ideas using logic (ok, simplify the wording according to the context) and explain how that can be fruitful for both of you.

Today’s Socratic Method variations are applied in such different fields as education, law, and psychotherapy, but anyone can use it. If you decide to go through the rabbit hole of metacognition (just jargon for thinking about thinking), this method is an excellent way to unlock the door.

Any person who starts to build a solid body of knowledge will soon conclude the same as Socrates — “I only know that I know nothing.” And then, continue the endless quest to know more, where sharpened critical thinking is crucial.

— — — — —

One last word. The ideas in the article, as well as the historical context, are extremely simplified and vulnerable to criticism. REINVENTION.SPACE is an experiment to help as many people as possible to reinvent themselves. Sometimes we need to choose clarity over precision. The curious minds will follow through.

REINVENTION.SPACE

A live experiment aimed at helping people reinvent…

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