The Socratic Method: What It Is and How to Use It in Your Everyday Life
Lead people to find the knowledge and answers on their own…
The technical definition of the word “philosophy” is “love of knowledge,” for in Greek, the word “philo” simply means love and “sophos” means knowledge. In practice, philosophy is the study of those most fundamental questions about human reason, knowledge, morality, and even our very existence. It is a lot to approach, in other words, which is why one philosopher developed an ingenious method to help people discuss and ultimately digest these profound topics.
And when we say “one philosopher,” we can also say philosopher #1.
Socrates, an Ancient Greek who lived from approximately 469 BCE to 399 BCE, is often called the founder of Western philosophy, and it’s well-deserved: before his life’s work, Western philosophy barely existed.
And how did Socrates create this foundation for modern philosophy? He asked questions. Lots of questions. But here’s the thing: in most cases, he knew the answer, but he just wanted to lead his pupils to the answer.
That, in a nutshell, is the definition of the Socratic Method: it is the process of asking a series of questions crafted to lead a person or a group to arriving at new ideas and understandings as if of their own volition.
If the Best Way to Learn Something Is to Teach It, What Is the Best Way to Teach?
It’s often said that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. That’s not quite an accurate aphorism, though: in truth, trying to teach something to another person merely reveals if you really understand it yourself, and the more competently you can teach, the better you know it.
Assuming you are in command of the topic at hand, , the best way to convey the knowledge you have is to tease it with questions.
The Socratic Method begins with the asking of broad questions, leading the minds of those gathered to the topic at hand and, subtly, establishing a few preconceptions. (Think: “Is it better to be morally right always and successful sometimes, or morally right sometimes and successful always?” Ideally, the response is the former.)
The next questions try to weed out potentially false assumptions on which people may begin to predicate answers, thereby leading themselves astray. (Think: “Are justifications for occasional improper but effective action a slippery slope toward improper action seen as useful?”)
The next questions lead the “students,” so to speak, to explain the issues to be settled, the unknowns, the variables, and the like – you ask questions that lead those gathered to a clear understanding of what needs to be settled, but that is not yet settled.
And then finally, of course, you lead them to the answers you are confident are correct by asking questions that only truly have one answer – though of course that answer can and should be phrased and formed in myriad ways. This ensures the person supplying it will feel a sense of ownership over what he or she says.
Everyday Use of the Socratic Method
The Socratic Method can be used to help instil an understanding of and appreciation for deep matters the mind must approach, ike dealing with the fragility of life and death, questions of motivation in work, family, love, and friendship, or even with life’s very worth and meaning.
But on the other hand, more casual applications of the Socratic Method can help you out in everyday life, because indeed it is a tool that can lead people in the right direction even if they were hesitant to head that way. It’s not coercion or deception, but rather subtle guidance that directs toward a proper end result.
In our example of actionable use of the Socratic Method, let’s imagine a mother gently leading her child to clean up his room even though the kid is initially resistant.
Mom: Do you not want to clean up your room?
Mom: Is it that you don’t want a clean room, or that you don’t want to do the work to clean it?
Child: I don’t want to clean up.
Mom: Isn’t it more fun to get out toys and play with them when the room is neat and tidy so you have the most space to enjoy the next toys you get out, though?
Mom: Do you think it might be worth a few minutes of cleaning tonight so you can play for hours tomorrow?
Mom: Do you think that if you start cleaning right now, you might even have enough time for a bit more play tonight?
Just like that, the child sets to the task of cleaning up. And make no mistake, the cleaning up was the right thing to do, the mother did not compel the child to do something outside the bounds of the proper, it was merely something in which he did not see the value at the time.
Now, to be sure, this is a most basic example of using the Socratic Method in everyday life, but in most cases, using a series of questions to lead your counterpart to a conclusion will be more like the mother and the child than the philosopher and the pupil.
A Teaching Tool You Can Use Yourself
Socrates developed the eponymous Socratic Method to help teach scores of Ancient Athenians about their world, their minds, about ethics and logic, and more. Today, the same approach works well in classrooms, in offices, in households, and really anywhere people need to be guided toward an idea.
And that includes ideas at which you need to arrive yourself. You can use the Socratic Method internally as a thought experiment, helping you refine your own thinking, and ultimately, making the best possible decisions you can when no outside support is available.
Why am I doing this or that? What is my goal? What are the challenges and risks? What can help me along my way? What might hinder my progress? All these questions and more you have surely asked yourself countless times in the past; string a few productive questions together and you will lead yourself to better answers.