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The Socratic Way of Thinking 


B.Contestabile        admin@socrethics.com           First version 2014   Last version 2015





Table of Contents


1.      The Socratic Turn

2.      Socratic Conversation

3.      Socratic Method

4.      Socratic Questioning

5.      Maieutics

6.      Socratic Dialogue

7.      Socratic Skepticism






1.  The Socratic Turn


The Socratic way of thinking originated in a social environment that in analogy to today’s situation – was exposed to major political and religious upheavals and where the old conventions lost their liability [Hampe, 438].


Socrates raised the question of whether we can acquire genuine knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. Reputedly, Socrates was the first philosopher to make the attempt (…)


Socrates is often associated with the separation of theoretical and practical philosophy. But he was a materialistic natural scientist in his youth, and it was only much later in life (around the age of forty), after having seen the shortcomings of pre-Socratic natural science, that he turned to the examination of ordinary moral and political opinions. Similarly to Buddha in the Far East, Socrates rather turned away from metaphysical speculations than from science. His approach to the question of justice, is still worthy of being called scientific.


The fact that we still group all his predecessors together as presocratics indicates that Socrates significantly changed the character of philosophy. The Socratic approach to the study of nature as a whole and of human nature in particular was a revolution in the history of thought.

(The Socratic Turn, Dustin Sebell)




2.  Socratic Conversation


Following a contemporary form of the Socratic conversation, inspired by historical sources:



         The Socratic conversation is an exchange of experiences and arguments in order to get insight. Insight, however, cannot be produced like goods or services. It has something unpredictable.

         In contrast to the lifestyles of contemplation and mysticism [Hampe, 434], Socratic conversations include the concerns of the community. They serve the pragmatic search for a good form of the individual and collective life [Hampe, 415].




Although there is no pre-defined framework, Socratic conversations often deal (as in the antiquity) with the so-called "big" questions:

         Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? What is the meaning of life?

         Is there anything like an "objective" truth, good and right, and if so, what is it? [Hampe, 417]

         Is the "objectively" true, good and right relevant for the individual and, if so, under what conditions and to what extent?

         How can we know ourselves? How strongly are our thoughts, feelings and behavior shaped by our biography?




Woher kommen wir? Wer sind wir? Wohin gehen wir? (Paul Gauguin)



Paul Gaugin  Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?




         The Socratic conversation is an interdisciplinary activity, i.e. it combines natural sciences, humanities, everyday language and art, wherever it promises a gain in insight.

         The Socratic conversation cares about the awareness of history.

         The Socratic conversation is practice-oriented. Theories are means and notends in themselves”. The individual life experience (internal perspective) is as important as the scientific (external) perspective.

Theory and practice are not separate spheres; rather, theories and distinctions are tools or maps for finding our way in the world. As John Dewey put it, there is no question of theory versus practice but rather of intelligent practice versus uninformed practice (…). Theory is an abstraction from direct experience and ultimately must return to inform experience (Pragmatism, Wikipedia).




         The Socratic conversation is a search for truth and not (like doctrinaire philosophy) a preaching of truth.

         The Socratic conversation strives for authenticity and empathy. The exchanged experiences are as important as the books read.

         The Socratic conversation strives for a simple and clear language. The detached jargon of certain representatives of academic philosophy spoils the pleasure to do philosophy.

         The Socratic conversation is an idealistic activity. It becomes suspicious precisely when someone is trying to make money out of it.




3.    Socratic Method


Socratic method, also known as method of elenchus, elenctic method, or Socratic debate, is named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates. It is a form of inquiry and discussion between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving a discussion in which the defense of one point of view is questioned; one participant may lead another to contradict themselves in some way, thus weakening the defender's point.

The Socratic method is a method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape beliefs, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. (…) Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method (Socratic Method, Wikipedia).




4.    Socratic Questioning


Socratic questioning is disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth of things, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we don't know, to follow out logical implications of thought or to control the discussion. The key to distinguishing Socratic questioning from questioning per se is that Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, deep and usually focuses on fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues or problems. Socratic questioning is referred to in teaching, and has gained currency as a concept in education, particularly in the past two decades. Teachers, students, or anyone interested in probing thinking at a deep level can construct Socratic questions and engage in these questions. Socratic questioning and its variants has also been extensively used in psychotherapy (Socratic Questioning, Wikipedia).




5. Maieutics


The extent to which the Socratic method or Socratic questioning are employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, is called Maieutics (Socratic Method, Wikipedia).



Greek maieutikós of, pertaining to midwifery, equivalent to maieú to serve as a midwife (akin to maîa midwife) + -tikos -tic      (Dictionary.com)


Socrates tells Theaetetus that his mother Phaenarete was a midwife and that he himself is an intellectual midwife.  Whereas the craft of midwifery brings on labor pains or relieves them in order to help a woman deliver a child, Socrates does not watch over the body but over the soul, and helps his interlocutor give birth to an idea.  He then applies the elenchus to test whether or not the intellectual offspring is a phantom or a fertile truth (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).




6. Socratic Dialogue


Socratic dialogue is a genre of prose literary works developed in Greece at the turn of the fourth century BCE, preserved today in the dialogues of Plato and the Socratic works of Xenophon. Characters discuss moral and philosophical problems, illustrating a version of the Socratic method. The dialogues are either dramatic or narrative, and Socrates is often the main character (Socratic Dialogue, Wikipedia)


The predecessor of a Socratic-type dialogue can be found in the Upanishads:

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is a key scripture to various schools of Hinduism.

         Chapter 3 reports about a great speech competition at the court of Janaka during which the wise Yajnavalkya proved his superiority over nine opponents.

Yajnavalkya was one of the first philosophers in recorded history and renowned for his unrivaled talent in theological debate. Paul Deussen called above event a metaphysical dialogue "not dissimilar to that of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato.” [Deussen, 443-445]

         Chapter 4 starts as a dialogue between King Janaka and Yajnavalkya.

This dialogue is the prototype of a setting which was taken up in the confrontation of Greek with Indian philosophy; see The Moral Ideal of the Complete Life, chapter 2.2 (Milinda Panha).




7.    Socratic Skepticism


The Socratic skepticism is not a dogmatic form of skepticism:


The Socrates of the Platonic dialogues may have had a sense of aporia as an end in itself, as a necessary therapy for dissolving dogmatic views, leading to a kind of tranquility that Socrates personally seems to have displayed [Kuzminski, 44].


The phrase "I know that I know nothing" or "I know one thing: that I know nothing", sometimes called the Socratic paradox (…) is not one that Socrates himself is ever recorded as saying:

         The saying, though widely attributed to Plato's Socrates in both ancient and modern times, actually occurs nowhere in Plato's works in this form. [Fine, 49-88]

         Two prominent Plato scholars have recently argued that the claim should not be attributed to Plato's Socrates and that it is a clear misreading of Plato [Taylor, 46]

Plato's Socrates is not saying that he does not know anything but means instead that he cannot know anything with the absolute certainty of seeing.

(Socratic paradox, Wikipedia)






1.      Deussen Paul, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banar

2.      Fine Gail (2008), "Does Socrates Claim to Know that He Knows Nothing?", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy vol. 35

3.      Hampe Michael (2014), Die Lehren der Philosophie, Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin

4.      Kuzminski Adrian (2008), Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, Lexington Books, Lanham, 2008.

5.      McEvilley Thomas (2001), The Shape of Ancient Thought. Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, New York, Allworth Press

6.      Taylor C.C.W.(1998), Socrates, Oxford University Press