Socratic Teaching and Socratic Method

Socratic Teaching and Socratic Method
Thomas C. Brickhouse (Lynchburg College)
Nicholas D. Smith (Lewis & Clark College)
I. Introduction
In recent years a great deal of learned attention has been paid to what has become
known as the “Socratic Method,” or the “Socratic Method of Teaching,” from scholars
specializing in the study of ancient Greek philosophy as well as from specialists in
educational theory. Despite scholarly interest, the actual ancient texts that serve as our
best sources on what Socrates himself actually said and did1 present several puzzles for
those interested in the subject. Here is a sample:
For my whole life shows that I am this sort of person whether I did
anything in public or in private, namely one who never gave in to
anyone at all contrary to what’s just, nor to any of those whom my
accusers say are my students. I’ve never been anyone’s teacher.
Socrates did not write philosophy, and so our entire knowledge of him and his philosophy derives from
the testimony of those who admired him (and, in a few instances, from those who regarded him less
favorably). There are many such texts, by several ancient authors, and their depictions of Socrates are so
varied that our access to “the historical Socrates” is actually much discussed and disputed as “The Socrates
Problem.” We have defended our own view—that the early or so-called “Socratic” dialogues of Plato are
the best source for “Socratic philosophy”—in Brickhouse and Smith 2003. But whether or not we are right
about this, the controversy over “The Socrates Problem” has little effect on our topic here, as it is plainly
the Socrates of Plato’s early or “Socratic” dialogues who people have in mind when they discuss the
“Socratic Method” or “Socratic Teaching.” These dialogues are (in alphabetical order): Apology,
Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis,
Menexenus, Protagoras, and Book I of the Republic. Most also include the Meno, as well, though the
theory that learning is recollection, which appears in that work, is generally recognized as Plato’s own view
(one he develops in more detail in several of his later works). In style, the Theaetetus is similar to the
earlier works, though the subject matter and the ideas developed in that dialogue do not accord with those
of the early group. We will have more to say about the Meno and Theaetetus later, and how and why they
present importantly different views of Socrates as a teacher from those of the other dialogues mentioned
But if anyone, young or old, wants to hear me talking or carrying
out my own work, I never refused him, nor do I carry on a
conversation when I get paid but not when I don’t get paid.
Instead, I make myself question rich and poor and by answering if
anyone wants to hear what I have to say. And if any of those who
listen becomes good or not, I couldn’t rightly be held to be the
cause, since I’ve never promised any of them any knowledge, nor
have I ever taught anyone anything. If anyone says that he’s ever
learned anything from me or heard in private something that
everyone else hasn’t heard, you can be sure he’s not telling the
truth. (Plato, Apology 33a-b2)
Why would one of the world’s best-known teachers not only disclaim actually
being a teacher, but also contend that no one had ever learned anything from him? And if
he did not teach and no one learned from him, what are we to make of the notion of a
“Socratic Method of Teaching”?
II. Socratic Irony
The ground Socrates gives for disclaiming being a teacher is, as he often says in
many of Plato’s dialogues, that he lacks the knowledge he would need to have in order to
be a teacher. In at least some instances of Socrates’ profession of ignorance, however,
we have some reason to think that the profession itself plays a strategic role that has led
some scholars to doubt Socrates’ sincerity. Consider, for example, what Socrates tells
Critias, in Plato’s Charmides:
All translations provided herein are our own (from Brickhouse and Smith 2002a), unless otherwise noted.
“But Critias,” I replied, “you are talking to me as though I
professed to know the answers to my own questions and as though
I could agree with you if I really wished. This is not the case—
rather, because of my own ignorance, I am continually
investigating in your company whatever is put forward.
(Charmides 165b-c; Sprague trans. [in Cooper 1997])
Socrates’ reluctance to answer others’ questions—when he is so very good at
insisting that others answer his own—on the ground that he is ignorant himself, has
struck some as a transparent pose. Plato himself has one of his characters refuse to
accept Socrates’ tactics. In Book I of the Republic, Thrasymachus refuses to allow
Socrates to continue in his normal way.
If you truly want to know what the just is, don’t only ask and
gratify your love of honor by refuting whatever someone
answers—you know that it is easier to ask than to answer—but
answer yourself and say what you assert the just to be! (Republic
I.336c; Bloom trans.)
In response, Socrates makes his familiar claim of incompetence, but Thrasymachus will
have none of it:
He listened, burst out laughing very scornfully, and said,
“Heracles! Here is that habitual irony (eironeia) of Socrates. I
knew it, and I predicted to these fellows that you wouldn’t be
willing to answer, that you would be ironic and do anything, rather
than answer if someone asked you something. (Republic I.337a;
Bloom trans.)
It is plain that Thrasymachus does not believe Socrates, when the latter claims not
to be able to answer questions. Rather, Thrasymachus supposes that Socrates only claims
ignorance in order to maintain the upper hand in his discussions with others, for “it is
easier to ask than to answer.” Socrates’ claim of ignorance, then, is actually “that
habitual irony of Socrates”—in other words, it is feigned rather than real. And
Thrasymachus is not the only one who suspects that Socrates is not telling the truth when
he disclaims knowledge. Even now, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary gives the
following definition for “irony”:
noun (pl. ironies) 1 the expression of meaning through the use of
language which normally signifies the opposite, typically for
humorous effect. 2 a state of affairs that appears perversely
contrary to what one expects.
Greek eironeia ‘simulated ignorance’.
Several ancient and modern readers, as well, have shared Thrasymachus’
suspicions about Socrates. So Quintilian claims that Socrates “was called ‘ironical’
because he played the part of the ignoramus who revered others as sages” (Institutio
oratoria 9.2.46, trans. McAvoy), and in modernity, L. R. Shero (1927, 109), Norman
Gulley (1968, 69), and Gregory Vlastos (1971, 7-8), though the last of these later
reversed his view, all regarded Socrates’ profession of ignorance (as Gulley put it) as “an
expedient to encourage his interlocutor to seek out the truth, to make him think that he is
joining with Socrates in a voyage of discovery” (Gulley 1968, 69).
But if, as Thrasymachus and these others have suspected, Socrates’ profession of
ignorance is not entirely sincere, then we might also be suspicious of his disclaimers to be
a teacher, as well, for the two disclaimers are linked. Moreover, some modern scholars—
especially those eager to put Socrates back on trial and to find him guilty a second time—
are not only eager to find that Socrates was a teacher, they are also prepared to give some
of Athens’ most notorious men to Socrates as pupils.3
Now, there can be no doubt that sometimes Socrates lavishly praises the wisdom
of interlocutors he actually regards as fools, or worse (see, e.g. Euthyphro 5a, Ion 430b-c,
Protagoras 328d-329b, and Euthydemus 295e), and these episodes plainly fit the claim
that Socrates is at least sometimes ironical with his interlocutors. But it is one thing to
regard Socrates’ praise of others as ironical and another to suppose that his selfdeprecation about his own knowledge is ironical. So let us look more closely at precisely
what the famous Socratic disclaimer of knowledge actually disclaims, so we can be in a
better position to see whether he really did regard himself as having knowledge to share
with others by instructing them.
III. Socratic Knowledge
Those disinclined to count Socrates’ professions of ignorance as ironical have
sometimes gone so far as to say that Socrates claimed not to know anything at all.4 In
fact, however, Socrates occasionally allows that he knows something or other. For
example, at Apology 29b, Socrates claims to know that it is always wrong to disobey
one’s superior. Nonetheless, because he lacks any special grounding for this bit of
So, see, for example, Stone 1987; for our own rebuttal, see Brickhouse and Smith 1987 and 1994, 155175.
See, e.g. Irwin 1977, 40; Burnyeat 1977; Santas 1979, 120 and 311 n. 26.
knowledge, he never identifies himself as a teacher of anything. So, in Plato’s
Euthydemus we find Socrates challenged by Euthydemus:
Very well, he said, just answer. Do you know anything?
Yes, I said, many things, but only little things. (Euthydemus 293b;
Sprague trans. [in Cooper 1997])
Elsewhere, he allows that there are some things that “anyone could know” (Ion 532d-e),
and lots of things that others know that he does not know, but which nonetheless do not
make their possessors less ignorant than Socrates is (Apology 22d).
But if Socrates’ famous “profession of ignorance” is not a confession that he does
not know anything, then what exactly does he disclaim? Socratic ignorance is nowhere
better explained than in the famous passage in Plato’s Apology in which he explains how
the oracle at Delphi declared that no one was wiser than Socrates. In this passage (20e23c), too long to quote here, Socrates explains how he was dumbfounded to hear that the
oracle had said such a thing about him, “for I’m aware that, in fact, I’m not wise at all”
(21b). Socrates is also convinced, however, that the god of Delphi cannot lie, but is
notorious for riddling, and so he seeks to refute the superficial meaning of the oracle, to
attempt to discern what the possible meaning of the riddling answer might be. So he goes
first to a famous politician—one renowned for his wisdom—and is surprised to discover,
on questioning him closely, that the politician indeed was not wiser than Socrates (Ap.
Socrates goes on to examine more politicians, and then some poets—again, men
celebrated for their great wisdom—only to find that each one of them fails in precisely
the same way to be wiser than Socrates. Whereas Socrates is aware of the extent and
degree of his own ignorance, these others suppose they know what they do not know. At
last, Socrates searches among more modest men, the craftsmen. Among these, he
actually does find genuine knowledge—the knowledge of their crafts—but also among
these, too, he finds the pretense of wisdom: The craftsmen also believe they are wise
about “the most important things” when they are not. (Ap. 22d-e)
On the basis of these investigations, Socrates draws the conclusion that he really
is the wisest of men.
But what’s likely, men, is that the god is really wise and that in this
oracle he means that human wisdom is of little or no value. And
he appears to mean that such a person is Socrates and to have used
my name, taking me as an example, as if to say, “This one of you,
O human beings, is wisest, who—as Socrates does—knows that
he’s in truth worthless with respect to wisdom.” (Apology 23a-b)
We can see, then, why Socrates claims not to be a teacher, and why he says no
one ever learned anything from him: What knowledge he actually has is entirely ordinary
and commonplace, and although others have knowledge that really is worth teaching (the
knowledge of crafts, for example), Socrates does not have such knowledge. In the
subjects he is most interested in—“the most important things”—neither he nor any other
human beings have knowledge, and so neither does he teach anyone when he talks about
these subjects nor does anyone learn anything from him.
IV. Doctrinaire Teaching
Socrates’ claim not to have been anyone’s teacher may seem somewhat forced to
us, for anyone who reads Plato’s dialogues will come away convinced that Socrates has
done quite a bit of teaching in his conversations with people. No doubt this very strong
impression is part of why some have been inclined to regard Socrates’ disclaimers as
ironical and not to be taken literally. But we should understand Socrates’ claim not to be
a teacher within the context in which he made the claim—at his trial. Socrates had been
charged with impiety, a charge that requires further specification to detail the exact way
or ways in which the defendant is alleged to have offended religion or the gods. In
Socrates’ case, the three specifications are these: (1) Socrates fails to recognize the gods
that are recognized by the state, (2) Socrates introduces new (bogus) divine things, and
(3) Socrates corrupts the youth. It is the third specification that pertains to the question of
teaching: Socrates, according to his prosecutor (Meletus) teaches the youth not to believe
in the gods (Apology 26c), and to believe that the sun and moon are not gods, but that the
sun is a stone and the moon is earth (Apology 27d). These accusations are obviously
intended to fit with the general prejudices against Socrates, which he explains as “what’s
commonly said against all philosophers—‘what’s in the heavens and below the earth,’
‘doesn’t believe in gods,’ and ‘makes the weaker argument the stronger’” (Apology 23d).
The kind of teaching that Socrates is accused of doing, by which he allegedly corrupts the
young, is what might be called “doctrinaire” teaching—the kind of teaching by which one
compels or persuades one’s students into accepting certain doctrines as truths the students
did not know or believe prior to being taught them. So when Socrates denies that he is a
teacher and denies that anyone has learned anything from him, he is denying that he is a
teacher of doctrines and denies that anyone has learned any doctrines from him.
V. Socratic Questioning: The Elenchos
Socrates’ claim not to be a doctrinaire teacher accords well with what we actually
see Socrates doing in his many conversations with others, for these conversations are at
least usually refutations ad hominem: Socrates produces arguments against some thesis
or a series of theses proposed by his interlocutor, and does so mostly by eliciting other
claims made by the interlocutor, which Socrates then shows are inconsistent with the
thesis or theses the interlocutor initially proposed. Although Socrates did not assign a
special name for the ways he questioned others, scholars have come to call this
distinctively Socratic style of philosophizing “the Socratic elenchos,” and have treated
this term synonymously with the term “Socratic method.” The question is: Did Socrates
believe that those he questioned could actually learn anything of value from this sort of
refutative questioning, and, if so, might that learning rightly be seen as the (nondoctrinaire) product of what can only be called “Socratic teaching”?
This question may be the most contentious of all of the questions scholars have
tried to answer about Socrates. On the one hand, if all that Socrates does with
interlocutors is bring to light inconsistencies in their beliefs—as good as it might be for
them to recognize this about themselves—nothing in Socratic conversations will help the
interlocutors figure out which of the inconsistent beliefs must be revised or eliminated.
On the other hand, Socrates sometimes speaks to his interlocutors as if his refutations
have proven something positive. This pair of features of Socratic questioning was
dubbed by Gregory Vlastos as “the problem of the Socratic elenchus” (Vlastos 1994, 34).
Scholars have offered various solutions to this problem, but none have managed
to create much of a consensus. One major obstacle to scholarly agreement has been
Vlastos’s view that Socrates supposed himself to be proving something in his elenctic
arguments. Vlastos’s best direct textual evidence for this claim was Gorgias 479e. There
Socrates says in what is admittedly remarkable language for him: “Hasn’t it been proved
that what was said is true?” (Vlastos trans.). However, Socrates immediately goes on to
note that “what was said” is entirely conditioned upon other things his interlocutor
(Polus) had agreed to, and Socrates plainly indicates that he is not committed to those
other things (480e). A thorough review of the texts finds no more compelling evidence
than this passage in the Gorgias, moreover, that Socrates conceives of himself as proving
anything positive in his refutations. 5 Without more positive evidence that Socrates took
himself to be proving anything, accordingly, it seems reasonable to conclude that
Vlastos’s “problem of the elenchus” is a non-problem.6
Another obstacle to resolving scholarly disputes over the Socratic elenchos has
been the failure of all attempts to explain precisely what “the Socratic method” actually
is, and what it requires. Perhaps the scholar most dedicated to this task—other than
Vlastos himself—has been Hugh H. Benson, whose “doxastic constraint” provides both a
necessary and sufficient condition of elenctic argument:
(DC) Being believed by the interlocutor is a necessary and
sufficient condition for being a premise of a Socratic elenchos.
(Benson 2000, 38)
Such as Benson undertakes in Benson 1995.
After decades of negative reactions to Vlastos’s proposal, there has very recently appeared at least some
modest support for it. At the 2005 meetings of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical
Association, Alejandro Santana argued that sometimes Socrates should be seen as arguing for the
conclusions of elenctic arguments, and proposed several indicators of how we may know that the argument
is constructive. From the fact that Socrates is prepared to draw positive conclusions in his arguments (if it
is a fact), however, it does not follow that Socrates actually takes himself to be proving anything, so much
as drawing out the logical consequences of claims he and or his interlocutors have agreed to.
Plainly, the advantage of this condition is that is captures well the ad hominem
nature of Socratic philosophizing. But even if this condition actually did apply, it would
provide only the thinnest possible analysis of “Socratic method,” for one can readily
imagine any number of kinds of arguments flowing from the mere requirement that
Socrates’ interlocutors believe the premises of the arguments they develop in their
discussion. Moreover, if this condition were both necessary and sufficient, we should
expect that the very most anyone could get from a Socratic discussion is a bit of selfknowledge, namely, the recognition that some of one’s beliefs are inconsistent with
others. This result does not trouble Benson, of course, because he is convinced that the
elenchos was never intended, and never taken, by Socrates to teach anyone anything in a
constructive way. But it also leaves very little room for those of us interested in
“Socratic teaching” to see much in the way of teaching in Socratic conversations,
doctrinal or otherwise.
But even this thinnest of analyses of how the elenchos works does not succeed,
for one finds several cases of elenctic arguments in which the putatively required
condition fails to apply. Although it is evident that Socrates actually often does
encourage his interlocutors to express only their own beliefs (e.g. at Crito 49c-d,
Euthydemus 286d, Gorgias 500b, Protagoras 331c and 359c-d, and Republic I. 337c and
346a), he will sometimes allow especially recalcitrant interlocutors to evade this
condition, in order to allow a fruitful conversation to continue (e.g. at Gorgias 497b,
499b, 501c, 504a-c, 505c, 506c, 510a, 513c, 516d, 519d-e, and 522e; Protagoras 333b-c,
Republic I.350e, 351c, d, and 352b). At other times, he quite obviously leads his
interlocutors in ways they find very difficult to follow, and to such a degree that it would
be unreasonable to take their willingness to agree to the premises subsequently
introduced as indications of genuine beliefs they actually hold (e.g. at Euthyphro 12a ff.).
Perhaps it is not surprising that others have argued that we should understand the
elenchos in a far less unified way, insisting that the only thing common to all elenctic
arguments is that they are refutative.7 But even this much unity is difficult to sustain in
the light of all of our texts, because in at least some of them, the refutative function seems
peripheral to Socrates’ real goals, which often leave the strongest impression that he is
actually arguing for something, rather than simply seeking to refute an interlocutor. For
example, most of the argument in the Crito seems to be more of a shared deliberation
than a simple refutation of Crito. And in the Protagoras, Socrates explicitly exhorts
Protagoras to help him to “persuade humankind” (352e) that “being overcome by
pleasure” or moral weakness is not possible. Indeed, in most of Socrates’ encounters
with his interlocutors, including especially the most recalcitrant ones, such as Callicles in
the Gorgias and Thrasymachus in Book I of the Republic, Socrates is not merely arguing
against what his interlocutors have proposed—he is plainly also arguing for an opposing
In an earlier work, we tried to show that absolutely nothing in our texts actually
licenses attributing to Socrates anything that he himself would be willing to say was a
method or that he would agree followed some pattern that was methodical. In fact, we
have now come to the conclusion that the entire enterprise of searching for the necessary
and sufficient conditions of Socratic elenchos has been misguided. As we put the matter
in our latest contribution to this subject:
This sort of approach is taken in Carpenter and Polansky 2002.
Plato fails to give the supposedly “Socratic method” so much as a
name […] and applies the one scholars have given it [elenchos] to
any sort of refutation at all. […] The most reasonable conclusion,
we claim, is a purely negative one: there simply is no such thing as
“the Socratic elenchos.” (Brickhouse and Smith 2002, 155)
VI. Three Platonic Versions of Socratic Philosophizing
We have argued thus far that the Platonic dialogues generally regarded as the
most reliable sources on Socrates do not provide him with anything like a “method” for
teaching. But if we broaden our survey of Plato’s dialogues to include two others, we
will find that Plato actually manages to depict three distinct versions of Socratic
questioning, and in each version something significantly different is going on. In the first
version, which we have discussed already, Socrates insists that he himself has no
particular knowledge or wisdom worth sharing, and accordingly claims not to know the
answers to the very questions he asks (Charmides 165b-c; Republic I.337e, 354c; Hippias
Minor 372a-e, 376b-c). Even so, Socrates plainly has beliefs he is willing to share, and at
times seems eager to argue for his own beliefs and to contrast what he regards as their
merits with the faults he finds in others’ views. Moreover, his focus in these dialogues is
exclusively ethical and is often marked by a focus on definitions.
The second version can be found in the Meno, a relatively short dialogue that
shares many of the features of the dialogues we have been calling “Socratic.” There we
find Socrates once again depicted as someone who only challenges his interlocutor’s
pretense of wisdom and who does not possess positive doctrines of his own. But in what
is almost certainly one of the most memorable scenes in that dialogue—one that has
almost certainly helped to form modern notions about “Socratic education”—Socrates
actually undertakes to demonstrate what is plainly a positive doctrine: All learning, he
proclaims, is recollection, and so “teaching” would simply be provoking memory (Meno
81e-82b). Socrates provides a demonstration with a slave boy of how he can use
questions in order, first, to refute the boy’s conceit that he knows something when he
doesn’t (Meno 82b-84e), and then to lead him to the correct conclusions (Meno 84e-85b),
which is supposed to prove that the slave boy had the true opinions within him all along,
and only needed to have Socrates, as teacher, tease them out with the correct line of
The difference between the example of Socratic questioning in this section of the
Meno and what we found in the other dialogues we have discussed is not just the novelty
of the doctrine of recollection; for in addition to this, we suddenly find a Socrates who
plainly has some understanding of geometry and who can use that understanding to guide
the slave boy to what Socrates himself clearly knows to be the right answer. In none of
the other dialogues does Socrates give us any reason to think he is an expert at anything.
Moreover the topic itself is not only not within the general area of ethics, it is also one
that (other) early Platonic dialogues give us no reason to suspect that Socrates held any
interest in, whereas here in the Meno, Socrates expertly guides the slave boy with
sophistication and obvious facility. In this famous passage in the Meno, then, we find a
new use of Socrates’ practice of questioning: to employ one’s own knowledge in such a
way as to lead another along a path that will ultimately allow the other to gain the
knowledge already had by the one who leads him.
Our third version is found in the Theaetetus, a dialogue generally regarded as one
of Plato’s later works. There we find what might appear to be a return to the nondogmatic questioner of the earliest dialogues. But this appearance is deceptive, for
several new elements are introduced in the Theaetetus that do not square well with what
we found in the first dialogues we discussed here. For the first time, for example,
Socrates describes his philosophical questioning as a distinct craft (technē), which he
compares to the craft of midwifery (Theaetetus 149a-151d). Whereas midwives help
others to deliver bodily children, Socrates helps others deliver the offspring of their souls.
Similarly, just as the first judgment of the viability of a physical child is made by the
midwife (who may even decide to promote a miscarriage—149d), so Socrates will test
others’ cognitive offspring to see if they are “beautiful things” (150d), or “not worth
bringing up, a wind-egg, a falsehood [which should be] exposed to die” (161a). Most
importantly, just as female midwives are women who are past conceiving themselves and
are barren, so, Socrates claims, he is “barren of wisdom”; however, “with those who
associate with me it is different” (150c-d8)
Several differences are worth noting here. First, in obvious contrast to the
Socrates who earlier denied having technical knowledge of any kind (explicitly
contrasting himself with those who do have such knowledge, for example at Apology
22d), the Socrates of the Theaetetus, though proclaiming himself in every other way
barren of wisdom, actually does possess a valuable craft. Although he does not elaborate
what procedures constitute his craft, we can be sure that, just as midwives require
This and all of the following translations from Plato’s Theaetetus are from M. J. Levett, revised by M. F.
Burnyeat, in Cooper 1997.
knowledge and skill to do what they do, so Socrates must be skilled in all of the
techniques his craft requires.
Secondly, unlike the earlier Socrates, whose mode of questioning is mostly ad
hominem and refutative, in the Theaetetus, Socrates’ role is to assist the interlocutor by
helping his interlocutor to “give birth,” if necessary, by inducing and hastening labor
(149d). The reason why the oppositional aspect of Socratic questioning disappears in the
Theaetetus is because he now clearly grants to others the capacity to “give birth” to the
very wisdom Socrates lacks himself. Gone now is the earlier Socrates who claimed
Delphic authority for recognizing himself as the wisest of men for his awareness of his
own ignorance.
Thirdly, when Socrates characterizes his cognitive midwifery in the Theaetetus,
he makes it plain that he actually contributes nothing of substance to the conversations
(161b). As we saw in our discussion above, the Socrates of the earlier dialogues is
prepared to express and even argue for his own views; the “midwife” of the Theaetetus,
however, positively refuses to contribute his own views, but instead assiduously avoids
stating them.
In both the Meno and Theaetetus, Socrates could well qualify as a kind of
teacher—but he would be a different kind of teacher in each case. In the Meno, as we
have now seen, Socrates uses questions to teach positive facts about a subject, on the
basis of knowledge he possesses and can bring his interlocutor also to possess. In the
Theaetetus, Socrates again lacks all such knowledge—as he did in the earlier dialogues—
but he recognizes that others may have it “within them” in some sense, and can exercise a
highly developed skill by which he can bring that knowledge “into the light,” whereas
without the assistance Socrates’ midwifery provides to those who are “in labor” with
some great idea, those capable of such knowledge cannot fully realize it. The knowledge
that Socrates “brings into the light,” in both dialogues, is in some way already “inside”
the interlocutor. Socrates’ skilled questioning, in both cases, makes occurrent what
would otherwise remain occult.
VII. The “Socratic Method” of Teaching: Modern Applications
If what we have said thus far is correct, one might have any of three different
models of questioning in mind when talking of “the Socratic method of teaching” and
each one of these would have some basis in the Platonic portrait of Socrates. Those of
you who have been troubled by the primarily negative tone of our exposition thus far will
be relieved to find that we are inclined to make qualified endorsements of each one of
these three different models, for contemporary uses. In order to be clear on each
application, however, let us distinguish them as follows: For the distinct models given in
the Meno and in the Theaetetus, let us refer to these as “the Meno model” and “the
Theaetetus model,” respectively. As for the kind of questioning we find Socrates using in
(at least most of) Plato’s earliest dialogues, we have argued that there is no specific
method there at all, but we are inclined to think that what Socrates does in these
dialogues would most aptly be called “the Socratic model” (or even “the genuine Socratic
model”), but since all are in some sense “Socratic” (as all are given to Socrates by Plato),
let us call what Socrates does in the earliest dialogues simply “the testing model,” as this
model is the one Socrates uses to test others for wisdom.
The Meno model is perhaps most widely employed (and advocated for use) in the
context of legal education.9 This model of education was first introduced into legal
education by Christopher Columbus Langdell, the dean of the Harvard Law School from
1870 to 1895 (Mintz 2006, 476-477). Langdell would have his students read cases, and
then in class, he would call upon the students to summarize the cases and would question
them in ways designed to bring out the legal theories that informed and were revealed in
them (Redlich 1914, 12-13). In the next several decades, Langdell’s “Socratic method”
became standard practice in legal education (Patterson 1951, 1). Although there have
been several criticisms of this method (Patterson 1951, 22-23; Guinier, Fine, and Balin
1997; Cicchino 2001; Mintz 2006, 477), a recent study reports that 97% of law professors
continue to use the “Socratic method” of legal education—based, again, upon the Meno
model—in their first year classes, though this percentage steadily declines in second- and
third-year courses (Friedland 1996, 27).
Outside of the legal context, one can also easily imagine the Meno model used
effectively in contexts relevantly like the first context in which it appeared: Socrates’
questioning of Meno’s slave on a problem in geometry. Generally, the “Socratic” teacher
in all such cases will use knowledge the teacher already has and will ask leading
questions of the student to be guided, and will adjust those questions to expose errors in
the student’s initial responses and to lead the student to make more fruitful responses
subsequently. This way of guiding students allows them to induce basic principles as a
result of their own (guided) reasoning, rather than more passively learning them by rote
memory from textbooks or class lectures. The more active engagement in discovering
We owe the remainder of our discussion of legal education to Mintz 2006, including the citations of
others’ work.
how such reasoning systems work is plausibly supposed to lead to the student gaining
better and more lasting mastery in the subject-area. The Meno model would appear to be
generally useful in areas involving abstract reasoning, where someone expert in that area
can guide novices to the recognition and application of principles by which expertise in
the area may be gained.
Though many scholars interested in “Socratic education” have clearly
distinguished what we are calling the Meno model from the more open-ended forms of
Socratic questioning, they have generally failed to distinguish the Theaetetus model from
the testing model,10 and have sometimes thereby created a certain degree of confusion
about the two models, and thus how each might successfully be applied.
The primary problem we find in failing to distinguish the Theaetetus model from
the testing model may be found in various authors’ insistence on the idea that in true
Socratic teaching (which they generally distinguish clearly from the Meno model), there
will be “an understanding of community, of a learning context of genuine affection and
concern … fairly called ‘friendship’ or a kind of ‘civic love’ among interlocutors”
(Cicchino 2001, 534). Those extolling this model of teaching emphasize the
“collaborative, engaging communal inquiry of Socratic teaching” (Mintz 2006, 486) and
say some studies show not only that all students enjoy significant benefits in learning, but
also that there are particular benefits to females generally, and to minority females
specifically (Strong 1997, 133; Mintz 2006, 486). They also note that students
themselves are strongly supportive of this form of teaching over the perceived
See, for example, Mintz 2006, esp. 486-487, though a very useful source in general.
But this form of “Socratic teaching,” in which teachers and students are engaged
in a fully cooperative and collaborative form of inquiry best fits the Theaetetus model
(see Mintz 2006, 486-487). It does not conform well at all to the testing model of the
early dialogues. In Plato’s earliest dialogues, it is actually quite uncommon to see the
kind of collaboration between questioner and interlocutor that contemporary advocates of
“Socratic teaching” extol.11 In fact, the atmosphere of Socratic conversations is far more
confrontational than collaborative, focused as it so often is on exposing the interlocutor’s
pretense of wisdom. The process is generally not enjoyed by the interlocutors, and their
reactions are often tense and hostile. Let us not forget, in our haste to advocate the uses
of “the Socratic method” in our classrooms, that it was precisely because of Socrates’
questioning ways that he was brought to trial, found guilty, and put to death.
But all of this is not at all to say that there is no good evidence for the sort of
collaboration that contemporary advocates have in mind—for the evidence is plainly
there in the Theaetetus in the account of Socratic questioning as midwifery. The midwife
comes to the one “in labor” precisely to assist that person. The midwife has no special
personal stake in the process of his or her own, but works with the “patient” in such a
way as to give the best assistance possible, and to ensure the most successful outcome of
their cooperation. So, too, the “Socratic” teacher does not undertake to inject his or her
own views into the minds of the students, but rather to work with them to help them to
develop their own ideas, and to achieve personal growth—a kind of growth that will be
shared only incidentally (and perhaps only infrequently) by the teacher him- or herself,
Indeed, perhaps the only example of such a collaboration in one of the earliest Platonic dialogues can be
found in the Crito, but even here Socrates’ lifelong friend cannot be said to find his “collaboration” with
Socrates anything but wrenching, given the outcome of the conversation, which ends all of Crito’s hopes
that he might still save his friend from execution.
but in which the teacher will play a critical role as questioner and (gentle, constructive)
In suggesting that the Theaetetus model is “collaborative” we must be careful not
to overstate the role played by Socrates, the midwife, in the process of discovery. It is
true that the Socrates of the Theaetetus is honestly engaged with his interlocutor and has
no desire to “steer” the discussion to a preconception Socrates already has about how it
should turn out. However, the Socrates who poses questions and the interlocutor who
answers, even on this model, are not on an equal footing and this is not because Socrates
has the right answers that he is not willing to disclose. On the contrary, he claims that it
has been ordained by the gods that he be barren and hence he “has no wisdom of his own
to be brought forth” (150d). Thus, in understanding that there is collaboration involved
in the Theaetetus model we must be careful not to obscure the fact that the effective
Socratic midwife exercises a special skill that is intended to bring forth what is in the
other party to the discussion—something that he, himself, wholly lacks. We doubt that
many modern “Socratic teachers” would be willing to concede this point, with respect to
their own knowledge. And as for the putative communitarian aspect of this model, it may
be that two or more persons can assume the role of midwife, but at least if we take what
we see in the Theaetetus as our guide, the parties to the discussion will not switch roles,
nor may they even be able to.
Another caveat is in order. In trying to understand the motives of the
appropriately “Socratic” teacher, understood on the Theaetetus model, it would be a
mistake to think that the sort of “intellectual growth” that is to be fostered is the mere
formulation of new ideas or the recognition of previously unseen consequences of a
student’s antecedently held views. None of our sources about Socrates ever suggest that
he was interested in promoting novel thoughts, however complex or pleasant. We always
see Socrates directed by one thing, the truth, and thus, the only sort of intellectual growth
that matters for him is growth towards the truth. Thus, his concern for the well-being of
his interlocutor, which we see most plainly in the Theaetetus model, is concern that the
interlocutor obtain wisdom and to expose mere appearance masquerading as wisdom.
Finally, the truth Socrates always exhorts his interlocutors to pursue is truth in an
objective sense, a truth that demands assent from all rational inquirers. In this respect,
even the proponent of the Theaetetus model, properly understood, must part company
with those who think it makes sense to talk of something being true for one person but
not for another. Socrates was no relativist.
Thus we see even in the Theaetetus model that Socrates (and the Socratic teacher)
always recognizes some potential for conflict—after all, his commitment to an objective
conception of truth as the goal of inquiry requires the Socratic midwife to inform the
parent of the intellectual offspring that “it is a phantom and not truth” and that,
accordingly, it must be abandoned (151c). Despite this potential for conflict—a potential
that can even destroy the very community required for this sort of “Socratic” interaction
to take place at all—the goal of the Theaetetus model of Socratic questioning is
nonetheless a productive one, intended to bring new knowledge or wisdom about the
truth to light. It is predicated upon cooperative effort, and thus is best and most
effectively undertaken between people who are on friendly and mutually trusting terms.
Neither of these features are much in evidence in the examples of the testing model we
find in Plato’s earliest dialogues.
VIII. A Modern Application of the Testing Model
This is not to say, however, that the testing model requires a lack of community,
or a mood of mistrust or hostility between the interrogator and the interlocutor. This sort
of “Socratic” exchange may still have a place in contemporary society, of course, in
congressional hearings, in courts of law, in investigative journalism, and in public or
private debates, as well as many other situations in which we contest others’ claims or
expertise. Gaining experience in such debates was, in the ancient Athenian context, and
is still in contemporary democracies, important to political efficacy. But even where the
Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues seems intent on refuting his interlocutors, he also
emphasizes that he at least regards his efforts as cooperative (see, for example,
Charmides 166c-d).
Generally more cooperative contemporary examples of the critical and refutative
aspects of Socratic inquiry may be found in the presenter plus commentator format of
most major philosophical meetings, and indeed, in most forms of contemporary
philosophical discourse. Indeed, this sort of model would appear to apply to most forms
of intellectual debate in which those engaged do not regard themselves as already
occupying positions of sufficient knowledge—debates, that is, between people who are
aware of their own cognitive limitations in the subject, and who wish to inquire with
others in order to overcome or at least mitigate those limitations, which is (at least
supposedly) the condition that most philosophers today find themselves in, just as
Socrates regarded his own condition to be. So most contemporary philosophizing, in the
broadest sense of the word, is not the expert-asking-leading-questions pattern of the
Meno model, nor does it consist in the “barren midwife, there only to assist other in
giving birth to ideas” that we find in the Theaetetus model. Philosophy now, as it was
with Socrates, consists in recognizing our own ignorance, but wishing to eliminate or at
least diminish that ignorance.12 So we examine one another’s arguments with intense
critical scrutiny, and (at least when we are on our best behavior!) we also regard those
who give critical attention to our arguments as our colleagues and collaborators, in the
hopes that our errors will be brought to light, so that we may learn from them.
Some scholars have supposed there to be no positive or constructive role at all for
Socratic refutations, and have supposed instead that their sole aim is exposing false
claims to or the pretence of wisdom (see e.g. Benson 2000). But we have argued
elsewhere (e.g. in Brickhouse and Smith 1994, 16-23; see also May 1997) that persistent
efforts of this sort can begin to allow the one who persists to develop his or her ideas in
ways that avoid the pitfalls and errors past refutations have illuminated. This may be
seen as a form of “backing into the future,” but as unfruitful as that awkward image may
make it seem, this way of trying to learn from one’s ignorant mistakes, so as to become
less ignorant, does seem to be the only available way for us to escape from ignorance
where there is no one else we can turn to, to teach us (by the Meno model or any other)
what they do—and we do not—know. In most areas of philosophy, at any rate, the
condition of ignorance seeking to improve itself through refutation of the errors it
produces continues to be the only game in town.
We see no reason, moreover, why this same idea of Socratic investigation could
not find its way into classrooms, and we suspect that it already does—at least in higher
education settings, where professors do not shy away from injecting their own ideas into
classroom discussions (contrary to the Theaetetus model), but in which competing and
One recent advocate of this picture of contemporary philosophizing is McEvoy 1999.
contrary views are also given serious exposure and consideration (contrary to the Meno
model), and challenges to all ideas from students are encouraged and considered
carefully. Once again, though, if the activity is to be carried on in anything like a truly
Socratic spirit, it must be a genuine inquiry whose goal is real refutation of what is false
and real understanding of the truth. In such settings, teachers may play both roles: as
Socratic questioner of students, and as interlocutor to take critical questions from
students. As in ancient Socratic conversations, potentially all parties to this kind of
debate can learn something from the debate—especially if an idea that seemed attractive
to one or more parties to the debate is refuted. In secondary and primary educational
settings, for obvious reasons, the influence of the teacher as a presumed “expert” whose
own ideas are not subject to critical scrutiny may weigh against the more open-ended
kinds of discussions the testing model would engender, for each input of the teacher’s
own ideas is likely to produce an end to discussion rather than to provide a focus for
criticism. For these educational settings, as recent advocates have made their cases,
something more like what we have called the Theaetetus model would be more
applicable and more effective.
Bibliography of Sources Cited
Ahbel-Rappe, Sara and Kamtekar, Rachana (eds.) 2006. A Companion to Socrates.
London: Blackwell.
Benson, Hugh H. 1987. “The Problem of the Elenchus Reconsidered.” Ancient
Philosophy 7: 67-85.
_______. 1995. “The Dissolution of the Problem of the Elenchus.” Oxford Studies in
Ancient Philosophy 13: 45-112.
_______. 2000. Socratic Wisdom: The Model of Knowledge in Plato’s Early Dialogues.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
_______. 2002. “Problems with Socratic Method.” In Scott 2002, 101-113.
Bloom, Allan. 1968. The Republic of Plato. New York: Basic Books.
Brickhouse, Thomas C. and Smith, Nicholas D. 1984a. “The Paradox of Socratic
Ignorance in Plato’s Apology.” History of Philosophy Quarterly 1: 125-132.
_______. 1984b. “Vlastos on the Elenchus.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 2:
_______. 1987. “Socrates’ Evil Associates and the Motivation for His Trial and
Condemnation.” In Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy,
vol. III, ed. J. Cleary, University Press of America, 1987, 45-71; repr. in Socrates:
Critical Assessments, ed. W. Prior, Routledge, 1996, vol. II, 92-110.
_______. 1989. Socrates on Trial. Oxford and Princeton: Oxford University Press and
Princeton University Press.
_______. 1994. Plato’s Socrates. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
_______. 2000. The Philosophy of Socrates. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
_______. 2002a. The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
_______. 2002b. “The Socratic Elenchos?” In Scott 2002, 145-157.
_______.2003. “Apology of Socratic Studies.” Polis 20, 2003, 108-127.
Burnyeat, M. F. 1977. “Examples in Epistemology: Socrates, Theaetetus, and G. E.
Moore.” Philosophy 52: 381-398.
Carpenter, Michelle and Polansky, Ronald. 2002. “Varieties of Socratic Elenchi.” In
Scott 2002, 89-100.
Cicchino, Peter M. 2001. “Love and the Socratic Method.” American University Law
Review 50: 533-550.
Cooper, John M. 1997. Plato. Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing
Fine, Gail. 1992. “Inquiry in the Meno.” In Kraut 1992. 200-226.
Friedland, Steven. 1996. “How We Teach: A Survey of Teaching Techniques in
American Law Schools.” Seattle University Law Review 20: 1-44.
Geach, P. T. 1966. “Plato’s Euthyphro: An Analysis and Commentary.” Monist 50: 369382.
Guinier, Lani, Fine, Michelle, and Balin, Jane. 1997. Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law
School, and Institutional Change. Boston: Beacon Press.
Gulley, Norman. 1968. The Philosophy of Socrates. London: Macmillan.
Haroutunian-Gordon, Sophie. 1991. Turning the Soul: Teaching through Conversation in
the High School. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Irwin, Terrence H. 1977. Plato’s Moral Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
_______. 1979. Plato: Gorgias. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
_______. 1995. Plato’s Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kahn, Charles. 1986. “Plato’s Methodology in the Laches.” Revue Internationale de
Philosophie 40: 7-21.
Kraut, Richard. 1983. “Comments on Vlastos.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 1:
_______ (ed.) 1992. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Lesher, James. 1987. “Socrates’ Disavowal of Knowledge.” Journal of the History of
Philosophy 25: 275-288.
May, Hope E. 1997. “Socratic Ignorance and the Therapeutic Aim of the Elenchos.” In
McPherran 1997, 37-50.
McEvoy, Martin. 1999. The Profession of Ignorance, with Constant Reference to
Socrates. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
McPherran, Mark I. (ed.). 1997. Wisdom, Ignorance and Virtue: New Essays in Socratic
Studies. Edmonton: Academic Printing and Publishing.
Mintz, Avi. 2006. “From Grade School to Law School: Socrates’ Legacy in Education.”
In Ahbel-Rappe and Kamtekar 2006, 476-492.
Nehamas, Alexander. 1986. “Socratic Intellectualism.” Proceedings of the Boston Area
Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 2: 275-316.
O’Meara, D. J. (ed.) 1985. Platonic Investigations. Washington, D.C.: Catholic
University of America Press.
Patterson, Edwin W. 1951. “The Case Method in American Legal Education: Its Origins
and Objectives.” Journal of Legal Education 4: 11-14.
Penner, Terrence. 1992. “Socrates and the Early Dialogues.” In Kraut 1992, 121-169.
Polansky, Ronald. 1985. “Professor Vlastos’ Analysis of Socratic Elenchus.” Oxford
Studies in Ancient Philosophy 3: 247-260.
Redlich, Josef. 1914. The Common Law and the Case Method in American University
Law Schools: A Report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Bulletin Number 8. New York.
Santana, Alejandro. “Constructivism and the Problem of the Socratic Elenchos.” Paper
presented to the 2005 meetings of the American Philosophical Association, Pacific
Santas, Gerasimos Xenophon. 1979. Socrates: Philosophy in Plato’s Early Dialogues.
Boston and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Scott, Gary Alan (ed.) 2002. Does Socrates Have a Method? Rethinking the Elenchus in
Plato’s Dialogues and Beyond. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University
Shero, L. R. 1927. “Plato’s Apology and Xenophon’s Apology.” Classical World 20:
Stone, I. F. 1987. The Trial of Socrates. New York: Little, Brown.
Strong, Michael. 1997. The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic
Practice. Chapel Hill, NC: New View.
Taran, Leonardo. 1985. “Platonism and Socratic Ignorance.” In O’Meara 1985, 85-110.
Vlastos, Gregory. 1971. “The Paradox of Socrates.” Introduction to The Philosophy of
Socrates: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Gregory Vlastos. Garden City: Anchor
Books (Doubleday and Co.).
_______. 1985. “Socrates’ Disavowal of Knowledge.” Philosophical Quarterly 35: 1-31.
_______. 1991. Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca, NY and Cambridge:
Cornell University Press and Cambridge University Press.
_______. 1994. Socratic Studies. Ed. M. F. Burnyeat. Vambridge: Cambridge University
Related flashcards
Scientific method

20 Cards


23 Cards


19 Cards

Indian philosophy

13 Cards

Create flashcards