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What Socrates taught us about critical thinking

Apr 14, 2021

Critical thinking is the cornerstone of any good decision-making process. One of the most potent weapons in the critical thinker’s arsenal is the Socratic questioning method. It involves a dialogue between two or more people to break down deeply held beliefs into individual elements.

Participants then evaluate each of the components’ merits based on underlying assumptions, rationale, and justifications. This process emphasizes the use of questions as a means of exposing contradictions and inconsistencies. The method has stood the test of time for more than 2,000 years. It is considered by many to be Socrates’ most significant contribution to humanity.

Why This Method Was Developed

In 399BC, a seventy-year-old man named Socrates was convicted and sentenced to death. His accusers claimed that he was an atheist who corrupted the youth of Athens. Such corruption caused his followers to question those holding positions of power. At his trial, Socrates summarized these accusations as follows:

“Socrates is an evil-doer and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear, the better cause, and teaches the aforesaid doctrine to others.” – Socrates¹

Socrates was an expert in the art of asking questions. He developed the Socratic questioning method as a means of self-knowledge discovery. It also served as a way to expose those claiming knowledge they didn’t have. At the time, people accepted the teachings of those in positions of authority. Such people included oracles, politicians, poets, and artisans.

Learn to Think Differently

The Oracles were thought of as vessels which the gods used to speak directly to the people. The citizens of Athens followed decrees issued by the Oracles without a second thought. Who would dare question the wisdom of the gods?

The Archon was the highest public office in Ancient Greece. Those holding such a position of power were expected to possess a sense of responsibility, organizational talent, and decision making intelligence. Subsequently, politicians and elected officials were assumed capable of such qualities.

The poets produced words of wisdom and virtue. They became revered for their knowledge of how the world works. It was assumed that genius and inspiration gave the poets the ability to produce such words of wisdom.

Artisans were considered to contain significant knowledge that was useful and good. Years spent learning their craft provided them exceptional wisdom. This wisdom was sought after by the people who needed guidance on various subjects.

Socrates cared about true wisdom and virtue.

During this period, most intellectuals were concerned with how the universe worked, the beauty of nature, and what pleased the gods. Socrates wasn’t worried about any of these things. Instead, he dedicated his life to learning about human morality. His teachings focused on the importance of self-understanding, ethical behavior, the power of knowledge, wisdom, and virtue. So how did someone dedicated to learning wisdom and virtue become so despised? More importantly, how did he become such an important figure, even in today’s society?

A god claimed he was the wisest man alive.

According to Socrates, one of his followers, Chaerephon, visited the Oracle of Delphi. Delphi was the most famous temple of the Greek God Apollo. Chaerephon if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. To this, the Oracle responded no, there was none. Upon receiving his answer, Chaerephon returned to share this information with Socrates.

But Socrates didn’t believe it.

He questioned how a God could declare him the wisest of men when he knew that he had no wisdom. In an attempt to prove the Oracle wrong, Socrates thought long and hard. Finally, he came up with a plan. He would search for a man wiser than himself. When he found such a man, he would return to the Oracle with his proof. This proof would show that the Oracle could be wrong, disproving the existing doctrine.

“What then can he mean when he says I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god, and cannot lie; that would be against his nature.” – Socrates¹

So he searched for someone wiser than himself.

Socrates sought out those who had a reputation for wisdom. He questioned politicians, poets, and artisans because they were highly regarded within Athenian society. Undoubtedly one of them must be wiser than Socrates. Soon he would have the evidence to prove the Oracle wrong.

He asked them questions to reveal the truth.

First, he asked questions related to their trade. Upon hearing them speak on such topics, he was indeed impressed. But when he questioned them on topics they knew nothing about; the men would babble on foolishly. After speaking to several such men, he began to notice a pattern.

One after another, he found the same result.

As a result of his inquisition, Socrates made the following observations. The politicians held in the highest regard were the least knowledgeable. Others who were less esteemed were actually wiser and better. When quizzed on matters unrelated to politics, the politicians falsely believe themselves to be knowledgeable.

He found that the poets didn’t even understand the meaning of the words they had written in many cases. The poets foolishly thought they knew about other important things. Socrates questioned them on these things and determined they didn’t know what they were talking about.

When he spoke with the artisans, he found that they did possess significant knowledge of their craft. Unfortunately, the artisans made the same mistake as the poets. Based on their understanding of their craft, they also believed they knew about unrelated matters. When Socrates questioned them, he found they did not.

Finally, he understood the Oracle’s claims.

Socrates realized that the way he approached the search for knowledge was much different from others. He claimed that he only knew that he knew nothing. As a result, he needed to seek out knowledge and wisdom. In contrast, the men he spoke to claimed to possess knowledge of things they didn’t.

Socrates was a master in the art of questioning.

He would practice this art in the Agora, the market of Athens, where economic and political life took place.² He would interrupt people to question their knowledge and beliefs. Because he spoke clearly and intelligently, it was easy to talk to him. However, his use of argumentation patterns was exhausting to those he encountered.

His tactics became known as the Socratic questioning method.

Socrates would first work to establish common ground. He would do this through the use of the “hypothesis” that was behind their beliefs. The initial hypothesis would serve as the basis for their future behavior. Once his dialogue partner finished their explanation, he would ask himself, “what must follow if this is true”? This allowed him to deduce their underlying beliefs. He would then compare their answers to what must be their underlying beliefs.

His method had an important rule.

Socrates believed that truth is a logical system. Anything which contradicts a true statement cannot be true. Sometimes, the validity of the hypothesis itself was called into question.

When this happened, he often defended the initial hypothesis as a consequence of a more robust theory. However, the hypothesis’s effects, and whether the hypothesis is correct, must be kept separate. As long as the focus is on the impact, the hypothesis itself should remain unquestioned.

Socrates kept his own beliefs out of the discussion.

He created the dialog necessary to evaluate self-knowledge. When the counterparty responded, he asked additional probing questions in search of understanding. Through the use of logic, he probed deeper to analyze core beliefs.

Probing deeper through the use of logic made it clear whether the counter-party understood the subject matter. When contradictions exposed flaws in thinking, it became clear the counterparty wasn’t as knowledgeable as they believed. Socrates’ process alerted people that social or political status should not serve as a means to evaluate claims.

He emphasized checking for contradictions.

When he discovered a contradiction, he pressed to explore further. This exploration created opportunities to gain new insights. These insights facilitated the development of self-knowledge.

For those eager to learn, the dialogue with Socrates provided intellectual stimulation. By exposing themselves to his Socratic questioning method, they were allowed to prove their knowledge. If they discovered they were wrong, the Socrates’ questions guided their pursuit of self-knowledge.

The Socratic questioning method is a valuable tool to aid critical thinking.

The World Economic Forum cites critical thinking as the second most important skill to thriving in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Critical thinking involves the self-disciplined analysis of facts to form an opinion on a subject. The ability to separate fact from fiction is essential to good decision making.

You can use Socrates’ method to help you evaluate knowledge and assumptions. The diagram below demonstrates a high-level overview of the Socratic questioning method used by Socrates.

The general process looked something like this:

  1. Establish common ground with the counterparty.
  2. Ask a question that supports the pursuit of knowledge discovery.
  3. Provide examples to ensure the question is fully understood.
  4. Check for contradictions that might affect previous statements.
    - If no contradictions exist, accept the basic principle as truth.
    - If contradictions exist, modify the question or request clarification until insights lead to self-knowledge discovery.
  5. Analyze the counterparty’s behavior throughout the process.

Unfortunately, not everyone was a fan of the method of questioning. Socrates would press for information until people became irritated. When he exposed them publicly, they would get angry. His process created many powerful enemies. These enemies ultimately led to his trial.

“When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself: and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is, – for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another who had still higher pretensions to wisdom, and my conclusion was exactly the same. Wherupon I made another enemy of him, and many others beside him” – Socrates³

The Socratic method we use today has taken a slightly different form. In a future article, I’ll explain the current state along with a detailed explanation of the Six Types of Socratic Questions.


¹ Taylor, A. E. Socrates. Easton Press, 1989. P150

² Gronke, H., & Häußner, J. (2006). Socratic Coaching in Business and Management Consulting Practice. Practical Philosophy, 8(1), summer, 28-38.

³ Taylor, A. E. Socrates. Easton Press, 1989. P150-151

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