The Socratic Method

from Apr 17, 2021 Category: Ligonier Resources

To this day, many gifted teachers use the Socratic method to lead their students into greater understanding. In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul considers how the ancient philosopher Socrates can help us think more deeply today.

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The Socratic method of discovering truth is the method of dialogue. He would engage people in dialogue and ask them probing questions. And as the person would respond, Socrates would help them move along in their own self-examination by asking more questions and deeper questions. In other words, he didn’t just stand in the middle of the town square and preach and deliver lectures. He was more like Lieutenant Colombo. He would say, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” He would then engage people in dialogue. You see the value of that method of teaching when you see the vast corpus of writings that his most famous pupil wrote, Plato. When we think of Plato and his writings, what do we call them? The Dialogues of Plato. There is an issue that is introduced at the beginning of the dialogue, and then he moderates a discussion that goes on between representatives of different schools of thought. Then finally, Socrates comes in the dialogue and unravels the mystery of whatever issue it is that they are discussing. So, Socrates thought that by forcing people to think, he could move them from that superficial plane of sophism and get them into a deeper consideration of truth. He was what we might say is the original paradigm of education. His goal was to educate. And that word, “educate,” means literally, “to lead out of.” “El duce”—the leader, remember? “Ed,” or the “e” at the beginning, means “from” or “out of.” “E-duce,” educate—to lead out of. To lead out of what? To lead out of ignorance. Now, Socrates said that the very first thing that has to happen for any true knowledge to be gained, for anyone to ever become knowledgeable, to gain an understanding of virtue, and to truly be educated was the admission of ignorance. And that’s one of the hardest things for any of us to admit, that we are ignorant about anything. But Socrates said that once the person admits that he or she is ignorant, now the possibility is open to lead them to a deeper understanding of truth. Now again, his principal concern was to come to an understanding of virtue, virtue being the “good” or the “right.” And he believed this not only in an abstract way, but also in a very concrete way. He believed that how we act, how we behave is in the first analysis a matter of proper knowledge. He didn’t embrace a biblical concept of original sin as we would. But what he was saying is that part of problem that we have with our behavior is that we don’t know what right behavior is. Before we can possibly act in a good way, we have to first understand what a good form of behavior is. So, he focuses attention on helping people understand virtue. What is honesty? What is industry? What is justice? He would push them beyond the idea of vested interests or self-interest to come to the deeper understanding of these concepts by which human life, human virtue, and the virtue of a society stand or fall.