The Socratic Method and Its Pitfalls

How did Socrates stop people from getting angry?

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787).
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

The story goes that Socrates had a characterful friend called Chaerephon who went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. Astonishingly, the oracle replied that there was no one wiser, leaving Socrates, who knew only that he knew nothing, perplexed.

To discover the meaning of the oracle, Socrates questioned several supposedly wise people—first the politicians, and then the poets, and then the artisans—and in each case concluded: “I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” Socrates was the wisest of all people not because he knew everything or anything, but because he knew what he did not know.

From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, “if he is not, showing him that he is not”. As a result, he acquired a reputation for wisdom and a following among young men of the richer classes, who began to imitate him. But he also earned the enmity of those whom he had exposed, and of those who stood beside them.

Plato paints the oracle story as the turning point in Socrates’ career. By validating his skeptical stance to the philosophers who came before, it gave him the confidence, and the impetus, to develop his own, distinct manner and method of doing philosophy.

But is the oracle story even true, or is it just another of Plato’s myths? The oracle story conveniently serves to frame Socrates, who had been put to death as a heretic and corrupter of youths, as having been on a noble, divinely inspired mission, attached by the gods to Athens as upon a great horse which “needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly”. In favour of the story being true is that it is also related by Xenophon, who knew Socrates well, although in his version the oracle replies that there is no one more just (rather than wiser) than Socrates.

The Socratic method

Plato might also have intended the oracle story as a sort of origin myth for the Socratic method, or method of elenchus. Although Socrates may have perfected the method of elenchus, it is unlikely that he originated a mode of conversation that seems so naturally and fundamentally human. For instance, in Plato’s Parmenides, Parmenides himself uses the method of elenchus on Socrates to undermine Plato’s Theory of the Forms. But it remains that while the sophists of his day tried to make a show of their knowledge, Socrates tried to make a show of his and everyone else’s ignorance.

The method of elenchus, especially as employed by Socrates, consists in questioning one or more people about a certain concept such as justice or virtue with the aim of exposing a contradiction in their initial assumptions and provoking a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly precise or refined definition of the concept, and, in due course, to a shared recognition that it eludes our understanding—and hence that we know far less than we thought we did.

With our initial dogmatism transmuted into a state of puzzlement and suspended judgement, we are ready to become much more open and subtle thinkers—assuming, of course, that we have not first become angry and resentful.

Socratic irony

To have our understanding of a moral concept undermined is also to have our values undermined, and, with that, our sense of self.

To manage their anger and other feelings, and to keep them talking, Socrates often flattered his interlocutors while himself playing the fool. In the Orator, Cicero esteems that, “for irony and dissimulation”, Socrates “far excelled all other men in the wit and genius which he displayed”. Simon Blackburn in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines Socratic irony with brio as “Socrates’ irritating tendency to praise his hearers while undermining them, or to disparage his own superior abilities while manifesting them.”

Here is an example of Socratic irony from Plato’s Meno, so pushed as to be almost parodic:

Had I the command of you as well as of myself, Meno, I would not have enquired whether virtue is given by instruction or not, until we had first ascertained what it is. But as you think only of controlling me who am your slave, and never of controlling yourself, —such being your notion of freedom, I must yield to you, for you are irresistible.

The technique resembles that used by the TV character Lieutenant Columbo to trap villains. One of the few miscreants who can see through Columbo’s fumbling and forgetful façade is the husband-killer Leslie Williams:

LW: You know, Columbo, you’re almost likeable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it’s the way you come slouching in here with your shopworn bag of tricks.

Columbo: Me? Tricks?

LW: The humility, the seeming absent-mindedness, the uh, homey anecdotes about the family: the wife, you know?

Columbo: Really?

LW: Yeah, Lieutenant Columbo, fumbling and stumbling along. But it’s always the jugular that he’s after.

Despite its pitfalls, and its underhandedness, the Socratic method remains popular in education, especially at its acme, and has also been severally adapted for psychotherapy. In the 1990s, during an institutional audit at the University of Oxford, a team of external assessors met the philosophers and asked about recent developments to their teaching methods. The question was met with a stunned silence, finally broken by Christopher Peacocke, the then Waynflete Professor of Metaphysics, who observed that Socrates had discovered the right way to teach philosophy more than two thousand years ago and that nobody since had been able to significantly improve upon it.

Neel Burton is author of The Gang of Three: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (forthcoming).


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