Socratic method

Socratic method

Socratic method (also known as method of elenchus, elenctic method, or Socratic debate), named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving a discussion in which the defense of one point of view is questioned; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer's own point.

The Socratic method is a method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. The extent to which this method is employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, is called the method of maieutics. Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method.

In the second half of the 5th century BC, sophists were teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to entertain or impress or persuade an audience to accept the speaker's point of view. Socrates promoted an alternative method of teaching which came to be called the Socratic method.

Socrates began to engage in such discussions with his fellow Athenians after his friend from youth, Chaerephon, visited the Oracle of Delphi, which confirmed that no man in Greece was wiser than Socrates. Socrates saw this as a paradox, and began using the Socratic method to answer his conundrum. Diogenes Laërtius, however, wrote that Protagoras invented the “Socratic” method.[1][2]

Plato famously formalized the Socratic elenctic style in prose—presenting Socrates as the curious questioner of some prominent Athenian interlocutor—in some of his early dialogues, such as Euthyphro and Ion, and the method is most commonly found within the so-called "Socratic dialogues", which generally portray Socrates engaging in the method and questioning his fellow citizens about moral and epistemological issues. But in his later dialogues, such as Theaetetus or Sophist Plato had a different method to philosophical discussions, namely Dialectic.

The phrase Socratic questioning is used to describe a kind of questioning in which an original question is responded to as though it were an answer. This in turn forces the first questioner to reformulate a new question in light of the progress of the discourse.


  • Method 1
  • Application 2
    • Socratic Circles 2.1
      • Various approaches to Socratic Circles 2.1.1
      • Text selection 2.1.2
      • Questioning methods in Socratic Circles 2.1.3
    • Law schools 2.2
    • Psychotherapy 2.3
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


Elenchus (Ancient Greek: ἔλεγχος elengkhos “argument of disproof or refutation; cross-examining, testing, scrutiny esp. for purposes of refutation”[3]) is the central technique of the Socratic method. The Latin form elenchus (plural elenchi ) is used in English as the technical philosophical term.[4]

In Plato's early dialogues, the elenchus is the technique Socrates uses to investigate, for example, the nature or definition of ethical concepts such as justice or virtue. According to one general characterization,[5] it has the following steps:

  1. Socrates' interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example "Courage is endurance of the soul", which Socrates considers false and targets for refutation.
  2. Socrates secures his interlocutor's agreement to further premises, for example "Courage is a fine thing" and "Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing".
  3. Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis, in this case it leads to: "courage is not endurance of the soul".
  4. Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocutor's thesis is false and that its negation is true.

One elenctic examination can lead to a new, more refined, examination of the concept being considered, in this case it invites an examination of the claim: "Courage is wise endurance of the soul". Most Socratic inquiries consist of a series of elenchi and typically end in puzzlement known as aporia.

Frede[6] insists that step #4 above makes nonsense of the aporetic nature of the early dialogues. If any claim has been shown to be true then it cannot be the case that the interlocutors are in aporia, a state where they no longer know what to say about the subject under discussion.

The exact nature of the elenchus is subject to a great deal of debate, in particular concerning whether it is a positive method, leading to knowledge, or a negative method used solely to refute false claims to knowledge.

W. K. C. Guthrie in The Greek Philosophers sees it as an error to regard the Socratic method as a means by which one seeks the answer to a problem, or knowledge. Guthrie claims that the Socratic method actually aims to demonstrate one's ignorance. Socrates, unlike the Sophists, did believe that knowledge was possible, but believed that the first step to knowledge was recognition of one's ignorance. Guthrie writes, "[Socrates] was accustomed to say that he did not himself know anything, and that the only way in which he was wiser than other men was that he was conscious of his own ignorance, while they were not. The essence of the Socratic method is to convince the interlocutor that whereas he thought he knew something, in fact he does not."{pg 74}


Socrates generally applied his method of examination to concepts that seem to lack any concrete definition; e.g., the key moral concepts at the time, the virtues of piety, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. Such an examination challenged the implicit moral beliefs of the interlocutors, bringing out inadequacies and inconsistencies in their beliefs, and usually resulting in aporia. In view of such inadequacies, Socrates himself professed his ignorance, but others still claimed to have knowledge. Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who, though ignorant, still claimed knowledge. While this belief seems paradoxical at first glance, it in fact allowed Socrates to discover his own errors where others might assume they were correct. This claim was known by the anecdote of the Delphic oracular pronouncement that Socrates was the wisest of all men. (Or, rather, that no man was wiser than Socrates.)

Socrates used this claim of wisdom as the basis of his moral exhortation. Accordingly, he claimed that the chief goodness consists in the caring of the soul concerned with moral truth and moral understanding, that "wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state", and that "life without examination [dialogue] is not worth living". It is with this in mind that the Socratic method is employed.

The motive for the modern usage of this method and Socrates' use are not necessarily equivalent. Socrates rarely used the method to actually develop consistent theories, instead using myth to explain them. The Parmenides dialogue shows Parmenides using the Socratic method to point out the flaws in the Platonic theory of the Forms, as presented by Socrates; it is not the only dialogue in which theories normally expounded by Plato/Socrates are broken down through dialectic. Instead of arriving at answers, the method was used to break down the theories we hold, to go "beyond" the axioms and postulates we take for granted. Therefore, myth and the Socratic method are not meant by Plato to be incompatible; they have different purposes, and are often described as the "left hand" and "right hand" paths to good and wisdom.

Socratic Circles

A Socratic Circle (also known as a Socratic Seminar) is a pedagogical approach based on the Socratic method and uses a dialogic approach to understand information in a text. Its systematic procedure is used to examine a text through questions and answers founded on the beliefs that all new knowledge is connected to prior knowledge, that all thinking comes from asking questions, and that asking one question should lead to asking further questions.[7] A Socratic Circle is not a debate. The goal of this activity is to have participants work together to construct meaning and arrive at an answer, not for one student or one group to “win the argument”.[8]

This approach is based on the belief that participants seek and gain deeper understanding of concepts in the text through thoughtful dialogue rather than memorizing information that has been provided for them.[8] While Socratic Circles can differ in structure, and even in name, they typically involve the following components: a passage of text that students must read beforehand and two concentric circles of students: an outer circle and an inner circle. The inner circle focuses on exploring and analysing the text through the act of questioning and answering. During this phase, the outer circle remains silent. Students in the outer circle are much like scientific observers watching and listening to the conversation of the inner circle. When the text has been fully discussed and the inner circle is finished talking, the outer circle provides feedback on the dialogue that took place. This process alternates with the inner circle students going to the outer circle for the next meeting and vice versa. The length of this process varies depending on the text used for the discussion. The teacher may decide to alternate groups within one meeting, or they may alternate at each separate meeting.[7][9]

The most significant difference between this activity and most typical classroom activities involves the role of the teacher. In Socratic Circles the students lead the discussion and questioning. The teacher's role is to ensure the discussion advances regardless of the particular direction the discussion takes.[7][9]

Various approaches to Socratic Circles

Teachers use Socratic Circles in different ways. The structure it takes may look different in each classroom. While this is not an exhaustive list, teachers may use one of the following structures to administer Socratic Seminar:

  1. Inner/Outer Circle or Fishbowl: Students need to be arranged in inner and outer circles. The inner circle engages in discussion about the text. The outer circle observes the inner circle, while taking notes. The outer circle shares their observations and questions the inner circle with guidance from the teacher/facilitator. Students use constructive criticism as opposed to making judgements. The students on the outside keep track of topics they would like to discuss as part of the debrief. Participants of the outer circle can use an observation checklist or notes form to monitor the participants in the inner circle. These tools will provide structure for listening and give the outside members specific details to discuss later in the seminar.[7][9] The teacher may also sit in the circle but at the same height as the students.[10]
  2. Triad: Students are arranged so that each participant (called a “pilot”) in the inner circle has two “co-pilots” sitting behind him/her on either side. Pilots are the speakers because they are in the inner circle; co-pilots are in the outer circle and only speak during consultation. The seminar proceeds as any other seminar. At a point in the seminar, the facilitator pauses the discussion and instructs the triad to talk to each other. Conversation will be about topics that need more in-depth discussion or a question posed by the leader. Sometimes triads will be asked by the facilitator to come up with a new question. Any time during a triad conversation, group members can switch seats and one of the co-pilots can sit in the pilot’s seat. Only during that time is the switching of seats allowed. This structure allows for students to speak, who may not yet have the confidence to speak in the large group. This type of seminar involves all students instead of just the students in the inner and outer circles.[9]
  3. Simultaneous Seminars: Students are arranged in multiple small groups and placed as far as possible from each other. Following the guidelines of the Socratic Seminar, students engage in small group discussions. Simultaneous seminars are typically done with experienced students who need little guidance and can engage in a discussion without assistance from a teacher/facilitator. According to the literature, this type of seminar is beneficial for teachers who want students to explore a variety of texts around a main issue or topic. Each small group may have a different text to read/view and discuss. A larger Socratic Seminar can then occur as a discussion about how each text corresponds with one another. Simultaneous Seminars can also be used for a particularly difficult text. Students can work through different issues and key passages from the text.[11]

No matter what structure the teacher employs, the basic premise of the seminar/circles is to turn partial control and direction of the classroom over to the students. The seminars encourage students to work together, creating meaning from the text and to stay away from trying to find a correct interpretation. The emphasis is on critical and creative thinking.[7]

Text selection

Socratic Circle texts

A Socratic Circle text is a tangible document that creates a thought-provoking discussion.[12] The text ought to be appropriate for the participants' current level of intellectual and social development.[13] It provides the anchor for dialogue whereby the facilitator can bring the participants back to the text if they begin to digress. Furthermore, the seminar text enables the participants to create a level playing field – ensuring that the dialogical tone within the classroom remains consistent and pure to the subject or topic at hand.[12] Some practitioners argue that "texts" do not have to be confined to printed texts, but can include artifacts such as objects, physical spaces, and the like.

Pertinent elements of an effective Socratic text

Socratic seminar texts are able to challenge participants’ thinking skills by having these characteristics:

  1. Ideas and values
  2. Complexity and challenge
  3. Relevance to participants' curriculum
  4. Ambiguity

1. Ideas and values - The text must introduce ideas and values that are complex and difficult to summarize.[12] Powerful discussions arise from personal connections to abstract ideas and from implications to personal values.

2. Complexity and challenge - The text must be rich in ideas and complexity [9] and open to interpretation.[14] Ideally it should require multiple readings,[15] but should be neither far above the participants' intellectual level nor very long.

3. Relevance to participants and curriculum - An effective text has identifiable themes that are recognizable and pertinent to the lives of the participants.[13] Themes in the text should relate to the curriculum.

4. Ambiguity - The text must be approachable from a variety of different perspectives, including perspectives that seem mutually exclusive, thus provoking critical thinking and raising important questions. The absence of right and wrong answers promotes a variety of discussion and encourages individual contributions.[9][15]

Two different ways to select a text

Socratic texts can be divided into two main categories:

1. Print texts (e.g. short stories, poems, and essays) and non-print texts (e.g. photographs, sculptures, and maps); and

2. Subject area, which can draw from print or non-print artifacts. As examples, language arts can be approached through poems, history through written or oral historical speeches, science through policies on environmental issues, math through mathematical proofs, health through nutrition labels, and physical education through fitness guidelines.[9][12]

Questioning methods in Socratic Circles

Socratic Circles are based upon the interaction of peers. The focus is to explore multiple perspectives on a given issue or topic. Socratic questioning is used to help students apply the activity to their learning. The pedagogy of Socratic questions is open-ended, focusing on broad, general ideas rather than specific, factual information.[7] The questioning technique emphasizes a level of questioning and thinking where there is no single right answer.

Socratic circles generally start with an open-ended question proposed either by the leader or by another participant.[13] There is no designated first speaker; as individuals participate in Socratic circles, they gain experience that enables them to be effective in this role of initial questioner.[9]

The leader keeps the topic focused by asking a variety of questions about the text itself, as well as questions to help clarify positions when arguments become confused. The leader also seeks to coax reluctant participants into the discussion, and to limit contributions from those who tend to dominate.[9] She or he prompts participants to elaborate on their responses and to build on what others have said. The leader guides participants to deepen, clarify, and paraphrase, and to synthesize a variety of different views.[9]

The participants share the responsibility with the leader to maintain the quality of the Socratic circle. They listen actively in order to respond effectively to what others have contributed. This teaches the participants to think and speak persuasively using the discussion to support their position.[7] Participants must demonstrate respect for different ideas, thoughts and values, and must not interrupt each other.[9]

Questions can be created individually or in small groups.[14] All participants are given the opportunity to take part in the discussion.[11] Socratic Circles specify three types of questions to prepare:

  1. Opening questions generate discussion at the beginning of the seminar in order to elicit dominant themes.[9][14]
  2. Guiding questions help deepen and elaborate the discussion, keeping contributions on topic and encouraging a positive atmosphere and consideration for others.
  3. Closing questions lead participants to summarize their thoughts and learning[9] and personalize what they’ve discussed.[14]

Law schools

The Socratic method is widely used in contemporary legal education by most law schools in the United States. In a typical class setting, the professor asks a question and calls on a student who may or may not have volunteered an answer. The professor either then continues to ask the student questions or moves on to another student.

The employment of the Socratic method has some uniform features but can also be heavily influenced by the temperament of the teacher. The method begins by calling on a student at random, and asking about a central argument put forth by one of the judges (typically on the side of the majority) in an assigned case. The first step is to ask the student to paraphrase the argument to ensure they read and basically understand the case. (Students who have not read the case, for whatever reason, must take the opportunity to "pass," which most professors allow as a matter of course a few times per term.) Assuming the student has read the case and can articulate the court's argument, the professor then asks whether the student agrees with the argument. The professor then typically plays Devil's advocate, trying to force the student to defend his or her position by rebutting arguments against it.

These subsequent questions can take several forms. Sometimes they seek to challenge the assumptions upon which the student based the previous answer until it can no longer be defended. Further questions can be designed to move a student toward greater specificity, either in understanding a rule of law or a particular case. The teacher may attempt to propose a hypothetical situation in which the student's assertion would seem to demand an exception. Finally professors can use the Socratic method to allow students to come to legal principles on their own through carefully worded questions that encourage a particular train of thought.

One hallmark of Socratic questioning is that typically there is more than one "correct" answer, and more often, no clear answer at all. The primary goal of the Socratic method in the law school setting is not to answer usually unanswerable questions, but to explore the contours of often difficult legal issues and to teach students the critical thinking skills they will need as lawyers. This is often done by altering the facts of a particular case to tease out how the result might be different. This method encourages students to go beyond memorizing the facts of a case and instead to focus on application of legal rules to tangible fact patterns. As the assigned texts are typically case law, the Socratic method, if properly used, can display that judges' decisions are usually conscientiously made but are based on certain premises, beliefs, and conclusions that are the subject of legitimate argument.

Sometimes, the class ends with a discussion of doctrinal foundations (legal rules) to anchor the students in contemporary legal understanding of an issue. At other times the class ends without such discussion leaving students to figure out for themselves the legal rules or principles that were at issue. For this method to work, the students are expected to be prepared for class in advance by reading the assigned materials (case opinions, notes, law review articles, etc.) and by familiarizing themselves with the general outlines of the subject matter.

Several excellent examples of the Socratic Method are portrayed in the 1973 film The Paper Chase, based on a 1970 novel of the same name. Several scenes involve the interaction of members of Professor Kingsfields's first year Contracts Law course and clearly show how the Socratic method is used as a framework for presenting concepts in contract law to the students.


The Socratic method, in the form of Socratic questioning, has been adapted for psychotherapy, most prominently in Classical Adlerian Psychotherapy, Cognitive Therapy[16][17][18][19] and Reality Therapy. It can be used to clarify meaning, feeling, and consequences, as well as to gradually unfold insight, or explore alternative actions.

The Socratic method has also recently inspired a new form of applied philosophy: socratic dialogue, also called philosophical counseling. In Europe Gerd B. Achenbach is probably the best known practitioner. Michel Weber with his Chromatiques Center in Belgium, proposes yet another blend of practice that goes back to Socrates himself, beyond Plato's depiction.

See also


  1. ^ Jarratt, Susan C. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991., p 83.
  2. ^ Sprague, Rosamond Kent, The Older Sophists, Hackett Publishing Company (ISBN 0-87220-556-8), p. 5.
  3. ^ Liddell, Scott and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th Edition.
  4. ^ Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition; Oxford English Dictionary.
  5. ^ Gregory Vlastos, 'The Socratic Elenchus', Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy I, Oxford 1983, 27–58.
  6. ^ Michael Frede, "Plato's Arguments and the Dialogue Form", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Supplementary Volume 1992, Oxford 1992, 201–19.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Copeland, Matt (2010). Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School. Portland, MN: Stenhouse. 
  8. ^ a b "The Socratic Circle". Retrieved 17 July 2012. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Furman: Socratic Seminar". Retrieved July 2012. 
  10. ^ Ting Chowning, Jeanne (October 2009). "Socratic Seminars in Science Class".  
  11. ^ a b Gose, Michael (January 2009). "When Socratic Dialogue is Flagging: Questions and Strategies for Engaging Students". College Teaching 57 (1): 46. 
  12. ^ a b c d "The Paideia Seminar: active thinking through dialogue centre. 3.4 Planning step 3: Select text". Retrieved July 16, 2012. 
  13. ^ a b c Chorzempa, Barbara; Lapidus, Laurie (January 2009). "To Find Yourself, Think For Yourself". Teaching Exceptional Children 41 (3): 54–59. 
  14. ^ a b c d Mangrum, Jennifer (April 2010). "Sharing Practice Through Socratic Seminars". Kappan 91 (7): 40–43. 
  15. ^ a b "Facing History and Ourselves: Socratic Seminar". Retrieved July 16, 2012. 
  16. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1993). "Elements of the Socratic method: II. Inductive reasoning". Psychotherapy 30: 75–85.  
  17. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1994). "Elements of the Socratic method: III. Universal definitions". Psychotherapy 31 (2): 286–293.  
  18. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1995). "Elements of the Socratic method: IV. Disavowal of knowledge". Psychotherapy 32 (2): 283–292.  
  19. ^ Overholser, J. C. (1996). "Elements of the Socratic method: V. Self-improvement". Psychotherapy 33: 283–292. 

Further reading

  • PE Areeda, 'The Socratic Method' (1996) 109(5) Harvard Law Review 911-922
  • Dariush Darvishi, "Distinction between Dialectical methods of Socrates and Plato", Logical Study, Volume & Issue: Volume 2, Number 4, Winter 2012, pp. 49–76.
  • Benson, Hugh (2000) Socratic Wisdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Frede, Michael (1992) 'Plato's Arguments and the Dialogue Form' in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Supplementary Volume, 201-19.
  • Guthrie, W. K. C. (1968) The Greek Philosophers from Thales to Aristotle. London: Routledge.
  • Jarratt, Susan C. (1991) Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Sprague, Rosamond Kent (1972) The Older Sophists. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company ISBN 0-87220-556-8.

External links

  • Robinson, Richard, Plato's Earlier Dialectic, 2nd edition (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1953).
    • Ch. 2: Elenchus;
    • Ch. 3: Elenchus: Direct and Indirect
  • - 'Tips on Starting your own Socrates Cafe', Christopher Phillips, Cecilia Phillips
  • Socratic Method Research Portal
  • How to Use the Socratic Method
  • – 'The Socratic Method' by Elizabeth Garrett (1998)
  • Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling, an example from Rick Garlikov
  • Project Gutenberg: Works by Plato
  • Project Gutenberg: Works by Xenophon (includes some Socratic works)
  • Project Gutenberg: Works by Cicero (includes some works in the "Socratic dialogue" format)
  • The Socratic Club
  • Socratic and Scientific Method