The Socratic Method
David Wallace Croft
A sermon presented to the
Humanist Church of North Texas
2003 Oct 18 Sat
* What We Believe
"Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are,
without regard to place or person;
my country is the world, and my religion is to do good."
-- Thomas Paine, Rights of Man
* Last month: The Scientific Method, a tribute to science
* Did anyone become a trillionaire in the last month?
* This month: The Socratic Method, a tribute to reason
* Socrates, the Man
* Teaching by Questioning
"A pedagogical technique in which a teacher does not give
information directly but instead asks a series of questions,
with the result that the student comes either to the desired
knowledge by answering the questions or to a deeper awareness
of the limits of knowledge."
-- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
"[T]he Greek philosopher Socrates sought to discover and teach
universal principles of truth, beauty, and goodness. Socrates,
who died in 399 bc, claimed that true knowledge existed within
everyone and needed to be brought to consciousness. His educational
method, called the Socratic method, consisted of asking probing
questions that forced his students to think deeply about the meaning
of life, truth, and justice."
-- "History of Education", Encyclopedia Article from Encarta
* I find myself using the Socratic Method when I need to
explain a subject where the listener must reason out a
number of causal relationships.
This causes the listener to engage in thought experiments.
* Economics example:
"If a monopoly seller raises his prices too high, what happens?"
"If the buyer can choose from more than one seller, what happens?"
"If competing sellers drop their prices too low, what happens?"
* If the listener is irrational about their beliefs,
the Socratic Method may be the only way to reach them without
triggering their defensive mechanisms. It drives them to reach
the desired conclusions using their own thought processes rather
than telling them what to believe in an authorative fashion.
If they come up with the logic on their own, they achieve more
buy-in as they understand the subject in depth.
* Economics example:
"If everyone gets paid the same regardless of effort, what happens?"
* I used to debate logic with people as a child and a young man.
* If I were dealing with Vulcan scientists, this might have worked.
* These confrontational debates were never productive so I gave them up.
* The Socratic Method gives me new hope, however.
"We owe it to ourselves as respectable human beings,
as thinking human beings, to do what we can to make
humanity more rational...
Humanists recognize that it is only when people feel
free to think for themselves, using reason as their guide,
that they are best capable of developing values that succeed
in satisfying human needs and serving human interests."
-- Isaac Asimov
"the use of questions, as employed by Socrates, to develop
a latent idea, as in the mind of a pupil, or to elicit
admissions, as from an opponent, tending to establish a
* Sometimes people appear to make irrational decisions based upon
the information at hand
* The Socratic Method can be used to force them to explain their logic
* If their decisions are rational but based on hidden knowledge or
a hidden agenda, expect defensiveness and hostility
* "I don't like the way you are speaking to me."
* "You are twisting my words."
* "We're going to do it that way because I say so!"
* Socratic Irony
"Consequently, the Socratic method of teaching included two stages,
the negative and the positive. In the negative stage, Socrates,
approaching his intended pupil in an attitude of assumed ignorance,
would begin to ask a question, apparently for his own information.
He would follow this by other questions, until his interlocutor
would at last be obliged to confess ignorance of the subject
discussed. Because of the pretended deference which Socrates payed
to the superior intelligence of his pupil, this stage of the method
was called "Socratic Irony". In the positive stage of the method,
once the pupil had acknowledged his ignorance, Socrates would proceed
to another series of questions, each of which would bring out some
phase or aspect of the subject, so that when. at the end, the answers
were all summed up in a general statement, that statement expressed
the concept of the subject, or the definition. Knowledge through
concepts, or knowledge by definition, is the aim, therefore, of the
-- "Socrates", Catholic Encyclopedia
"Socrates, encountering someone who claims to know much,
professes to be ignorant and seeks assistance from the
one who knows. As Socrates begins to raise questions,
however, it becomes clear that the one reputed to be wise
really does not know what he claims to know, and Socrates
emerges as the wiser one because he at least knows that he
does not know. Such knowledge, of course, is the beginning
-- "Plato", Encyclopedia Article from Encarta
* Ask the questions a child might ask:
- Where does God live?
- How do you know God is there?
- Who wrote the Bible?
- Who made God?
- The Socratic Method allows people to convince themselves
- The Socratic Method may be the only way to get some to reason
- Adversarial use of the Socratic Method engenders defensiveness
- Using Socratic Irony can get them to open up and engage productively
Socratic Method and Scientific Method
The Socratic Method: Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling
I won't take my religion from any man who never works except with his mouth.
Carl Sandburg (1878 - 1967)
If you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each
other's throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will
dwell in peace.
A good sermon should be like a woman's skirt:
short enough to arouse interest but long enough to cover the essentials.
© 2003 David Wallace Croft
This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution License 2.5.