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*The Socratic Method has limitations (like all tools). It helps to fully understand and appreciate the method before examining its limitations.
What is the Socratic Method?
Beware: this method might get you killed. Research the life and death of Socrates for more.
Socrates was one of the greatest thinkers of all time. Since this is a logic text, I will not outline his life, but will instead reduce his way of thinking to a simple and powerful method.
Well, I should say it is simple in theory, but usually difficult to apply. Much of philosophy (and debate) is an application of this method, and no other method is as effective in both humbling and clarifying. Of course, this method is also a good way to test friendships and get yourself killed… like Socrates did.
The Socratic Method is a way of thinking that involves three steps:
1) Give an initial definition or opinion.
2) Ask a question that raises an exception to that definition or opinion.
3) Give a better definition or opinion.
Repeat these steps until you achieve a full understanding of the concept. If you cannot discover a perfect definition, you will at least achieve rational ignorance (i.e. aporia). That is, you will know what it isn’t and you will know why you do not know (i.e. Socratic Wisdom).
Consider an example:
Step 1 (Define): A triangle is a shape.
Step 2 (Exception Question): This isn’t a sufficient definition for triangle because there are many shapes that are not triangles (e.g. circles). This definition of triangle includes too much because it does not exclude all non-triangles. Socrates would ask, “Is a circle a triangle?”
Step 3 (New and Improved Definition): A triangle is a closed figure consisting of three line segments forming three interior angles that add up to 180 degrees.
Notice how challenging this way of thinking is. I can recognize triangles, but it is challenging to sufficiently define them (i.e. to discover their essence). According to Socrates, one does not really know until one can give such definitions. The consequence is that people know very little. To better understand why, try giving sufficient definitions for Justice, Goodness, Truth, Beauty, Love, and Circle.
Many people believe that concepts like justice are simply opinions so there is no truth about them. However, the Socratic Method is still valuable because it helps people discover their real opinions about justice. For example, imagine I define Justice as “giving people what belongs to them.” A modern day Socrates would then ask, “Would it be just to give your drunken friend his car keys since the keys belong to him?” My answer is no, which means I do not really think Justice is giving people what belongs to them. Indeed, I now recognize my ignorance. Thanks Socrates!
Socratic Method Exercise
Use the Socratic Method to test the following definitions/knowledge claims. Answer key below.
1) Knowledge is belief.
2) Knowledge is holding a true belief.
3) A fish is an animal that swims.
4) Justice is saving the maximum number of lives.
5) A circle is an enclosed shape.
6) Games are things people play.
7) Love is affection towards people that please you.
8) Love is a feeling of attraction.
9) Michael Jackson was a singer.
10) Vampires are people who suck blood.
1. Not all beliefs are knowledge. For example, my belief in flying pink elephants is not knowledge. So, Socrates could ask, “Is Paul’s belief in flying pink elephants a form of knowledge?”
2. But I could guess the right answer and a correct guess is not knowledge. Socrates might ask, “What if I really believe x will happen, but I have no reasons for why I believe?” To have knowledge, I need some good reasons for my belief. In Philosophy, this is called justification.
3. Turtles, snakes, dogs, and humans swim. Are they fish?
4. Would it be just to steal the organs of a healthy person to save five sick people? Your answer is probably no, so your idea of justice is not simply about saving the maximum number of lives. This definition does not capture all of what you mean by justice.
5. A circle is an enclosed shape, but a square is also an enclosed shape. Therefore, the definition is too broad. Socrates might ask, “Is a circle a square?”
6. This is a difficult one. Perhaps, there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a game. See Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblance. Still, Socrates might ask, “Is a violin a game?”
7. Can you love a child with whom you are displeased? If you can, then that definition is too narrow.
8. Is it love if I give one hundred dollars to charity even though I don’t feel like it (i.e. I do it solely from a sense of duty)? If so, then love is not just a feeling.
9. So, Michael Jackson was John Denver?
10. So, vampires are phlebotomists?
Application and value
The Socratic Method reminds us that good ideas take work and are based on rigorous thinking.
It shows us that not all opinions are equal or deserving of respect because some opinions are tested and consistent while others aren’t. Do you see how Socrates created enemies yet?
Testing your ideas with the Socratic Method will give you more confidence and increase the probability that your ideas are true. It will take you from inside the cave where you recognize triangles and some just acts to the sunlit world outside the cave where you discover the essence of Triangles and Justice. To learn more about Socrates, check out Botton's Socrates on Self Confidence (YouTube the title to find it) and my sketchy overview of Socrates' Cave Allegory.