Socrates was rather a know-it-all, or at least that’s how he would have appeared according to the Socratic Method. It was a technique of questioning a stance or opinion in a way to shed light on what was known and what gaps in knowledge existed. There are six types of Socratic questions: conceptual clarification, probing assumptions, probing rationale and reasons, questioning viewpoints, probing implications, and questioning the question itself.
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Finally, we come to the Socratic Method. It sounds like it could be an ancient Greek method of losing weight, but instead it’s an ancient Greek method of discourse, teaching, and learning. As with the other thinkers in this chapter, the focus is on understanding and seeking truth.
When you boil it down, the Socratic Method is when you ask questions upon questions in an effort to dissect an assertion or statement. The person asking the questions might seem like they are on the offensive, but they are asking questions to enrich both parties and discover the underlying assumptions and motivations of the assertion or statement.
Imagine that you make a proclamation, and the only response you get is a smug, “Oh, is that so? What about X and Y?” Unfortunately, the know-it-all is on the right path.
American law schools are notorious for using the Socratic Method—where a student will essentially have to defend their statement against a professor’s questioning regarding the merits of a case or law. Again, it’s not adversarial by nature, it merely capitalizes on the fact that when you force someone to defend themselves or explain their line of thinking, they will often find gaps in their logic if the right questions are asked and emphasized. It may cause defensiveness, though it is not offensive.
As you might have guessed, the Socratic Method derived from Socrates himself, who is best known as being the teacher of the famous philosopher Plato, and also for willingly being executed by drinking poisoned hemlock for having “corrupted the minds of the youth” in Athens.
So what is the Socratic Method, exactly, beyond asking a series of tough questions that make people uncomfortable? You are putting what people say to an incredible stress test. When you use it on others or yourself, it trains you to question beliefs, discard assumptions, and find the implicit hypotheses people are operating on. You are discouraged from taking things at face value, and instead are encouraged and pushed to pick statements and assertions apart so you can find weaknesses and hidden intentions.
If you are mercilessly questioned and picked apart with Socratic questioning, what remains afterward will be heavily tested, validated, and rock solid. If there is an error in your thinking, it will be found, corrected, and proofed with a rebuttal.
As a brief example, imagine that you are telling someone that the sky is blue.
This seems like an unquestionable statement that is an easy truth. Obviously the sky is blue. You’ve known that since you were a child. You go outside and witness it each day. You’ve told someone that their eyes were as blue as the sky. Now, imagine someone asks how you know.
There are many ways to answer that question, but you decide to say that you know the sky is blue because it reflects the ocean, and that the ocean is blue, even though this is completely erroneous. The questioner asks how you know that color in particular is blue, and how you know it is a reflection of the ocean.
How would you answer this?
This incredibly brief yet effective line of Socratic questioning just revealed that you have no idea why you know the color blue is indeed blue, and why or how the sky reflects (or doesn’t) the blue of the planet’s oceans.
That, in a nutshell, is the importance of the Socratic Method. A series of innocent and simple questions can unravel what you thought you knew and lead you to understand exactly what you don’t know. This is often just as important as knowing what you do know because it uncovers your blind spots and weaknesses. Recall that it was used by teachers on students, so it is designed to allow people to gain knowledge about themselves by asking the right questions. The questions are essentially tests of logic and knowledge so people may discover what they know and what they do not.
I wouldn’t suggest doing this on a regular basis to people, at least if they aren’t fully prepared for it. The reason is that this can easily be seen as adversarial and obnoxious. This is especially true if people can’t answer your questions, and they realize their assertions are mostly assumptions they don’t fully understand, and that their lack of understanding is being fully exposed. For example, how might you respond if someone soundly demonstrated to you that you don’t understand why the sky is blue as the example above?
If you wanted to learn about it, it would be great. But if you just wanted to have a normal conversation with someone and they started a line of Socratic questioning, that’s not typically a pleasurable conversation for the person in the student role, because they are continually on the defensive.
There are generally six types of Socratic questions, as delineated by R.W. Paul. After just briefly glancing at this list, it should be apparent how continually addressing these types of questions can improve your thinking and lead you to better solutions and assertions.
The six types of questions are:
Conceptual clarification questions
Probing rationale, reasons, evidence
Questioning viewpoints and perspectives
Probing implications and consequences
Questions about the question
Conceptual clarification questions: What is the significance and motivation for bringing up this topic, and why was it important enough for them to say? What do they hope to achieve with it?
Suppose we have the same assertion from above, where the sky is blue. Here are some sample questions from each category you could plausibly ask to gain clarity and challenge their thoughts.
What does it matter to you if the sky is blue?
What is the significance to you?
What does that have to do with the rest of the discussion?
Why would you say that?
Probing assumptions: What assumptions are the assertions based on, and are actually supported by evidence? What is opinion and belief, and what is evidence-based fact or proven in some other way?
Is your blue my blue?
Why do you think the sky is blue?
So what leads you to believe the sky is blue?
How can you prove that the sky is blue?
Probing rationale, reasons, and evidence: How do you know the evidence is trustworthy and valid? What are the conclusions drawn and what rationale, reasons, and evidence are specifically used in such a way? What might be missing or glazed over?
What’s the evidence for the sky’s color and why is it convincing?
How exactly does the ocean’s reflection color the sky?
What if the study was incorrect or flawed?
Show me your reasoning.
Questioning viewpoints and perspectives: People will almost always present an assertion or argument from a specific bias, so play devil’s advocate and remain skeptical about what they have come up with. Ask why opposing viewpoints and perspectives aren’t preferred and why they don’t work.
How else could your evidence be interpreted?
Why is that research the best in proving that the sky is blue?
Couldn’t the same be said about proving the sky is red? Why or why not?
Why doesn’t the sky color the ocean instead of the other way around?
Probing implications and consequences: What are the conclusions and why? What else could it mean and why was this particular conclusion drawn? What will happen as a consequence and why?
If the sky is blue, what does that mean about reflections?
Who is affected by the sky’s color?
If the sky is blue, what does that mean about the ocean?
What else could your evidence and research prove about the planet?
Questions about the question: Forcing people to step into your shoes and ponder why you asked the question or why you went down that line of questioning. What did you mean when you said that, and why did you ask about X rather than Y?
So why do you think I asked you about your belief in the sky’s color?
What do you think I wanted to do when I asked you about this?
How do you think this knowledge might help you in other topics?
How does this apply to everyday life and what we were discussing earlier?
At first, it sounds like a broken record, but there is a method to the madness. Each question may seem similar, but if answered correctly and adequately, go in different directions. In the example of the blue sky, there are twenty-four separate questions—twenty-four separate answers and probes into someone’s simple assertion that the sky is blue. You can almost imagine how someone might lose their nerve and belief in the sky’s blueness after not being able to produce evidence or understand the actual physical phenomenon.
The Socratic Method translates fairly easily to everyday life as well, though you must pick your battles. In daily life, it must be presented more as curiosity and doubt. Suppose someone makes the assertion, “Taco Bell is really healthy, actually.” If you’ve decided that this is the battle you want to pick and possibly create a defensive and hostile atmosphere, you can.
Therefore, to the assertion of Taco Bell’s healthiness, you could ask:
Oh really? Where did you hear that?
Interesting! The quadruple cheesy taco too?
I’ve read the opposite! What’s different about what we heard?
What parts of the menu?
Yes, I suppose, but what about McDonald’s?
What makes you say that?
What nutritional standard are you using?
What approach to health makes you say that?
You’ll learn, you’ll poke holes, and you’ll understand. Isn’t that what this whole thing is all about?
Clear thinking is tough, and these great thinkers show that disavowing the fast and easy path is necessary. Patience is a prerequisite, and the ability to use intellectual humility helps. Blind acceptance is frowned upon, and assumptions are meant to be questioned and prodded. The thing about clear thinking is that anyone can do it, but few are willing to do so.