1.3 The Socratic Method


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • How Socrates employed his Socratic method of philosophical dialogue.
  • Some of the key philosophical topics covered by Plato’s dialouges.

Socrates believed that philosophy was about more than devising clever arguments that would help speakers persuade their audiences. Philosophy was about using questions to draw closer to the truth. Socrates employed what has come to be known as The Socratic Method.  A reading of many of Plato’s dialogues shows us that Socrates often followed a consistent rhetorical method when leading his fellow citizens into an argument.

  • First, he would gradually steer a conversation toward a specific philosophical idea or term, such as “truth” or “justice” or “piety.”
  • Second, he would profess his ignorance about that term or idea and ask the opponent for a definition of the term.
  • Next, when the opponent offered a definition, he would then begin to ask questions about that definition until the opponent admitted it was insufficient and offered a re-definition.
  • Once the opponent offered a new definition, Socrates would continue to apply questions to analyze and redefine the term.
  • Ultimately, in many dialogues, the opponent has to admit his ignorance and concede the debate to Socrates.

Taking it to the streets…

Try this with some friends:

Choose a topic like Life or Beauty or God and engage your friends by merely asking questions. Get them to define their terms. Resist the temptation to give answers. Instead, keep asking questions in response to your friends’ claims. See how far you can extend the conversation. Note your friend’s reactions.

Does anyone become frustrated? Does anyone enjoy the conversation? Does anyone feel listened to? Does the experience bring you closer?

Obviously, after a lifetime of such public engagements, it is easy to see why Socrates would make some enemies. Eventually, the citizens of Athens charged him with the crimes of corrupting the youth and teaching false gods. It is worthwhile to explore next his self-defense at this trial found in the dialogue The Apology.

Key Philosophical Ideas in Some of Plato’s Dialogues

  • The Republic: Justice
  • The Charmenides: Temperance
  • The Crito: Obedience to the Law
  • The Euthyphro: Piety/Goodness
  • The Laches: Virtue
  • The Phaedo: the Human Soul



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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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