The Socratic Method

by John Wyatt
copyright 2002

The other day my wife and I were watching the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. At one point Bill and Ted tell their history teacher that thanks to such people as Napoleon and Socratic Method, the world is full of history. My wife turned and asked: “I know who Napoleon was, but who was Socratic Method?” I replied that it was not a person, but a process.

“Then why,” she asked, “did they say it was a person?”

“What type of movie is this?” I replied. “Is it a comedy, action, or drama?”

“It’s a comedy, silly. You know that.”

“Yes, and since I knew that Socratic Method is not a person, I laughed.”

“Oh. Then they said it to get a laugh.” She pondered that for a minute, then asked “What is the Socratic Method?”

Resigned to satisfying my questioning wife, I paused the film and turned to her. Clearing my throat and assuming what I hoped was a scholarly tone, I asked her if she knew the name Socrates.

“He was a philosopher, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, he was. And a method is a way of doing something, so the Socratic Method would be…” I asked the leading question, knowing that it would either spark her thinking process, or annoy her intensely.

“It sounds like a philosophical method.”

“Precisely!” I beamed, hoping to return to the film. However, her curiosity had been aroused and she countered with another question.

“But dear, what exactly is the Socratic Method?”

Sighing, I gave up all hope of continuing the film and addressed her question with another question: “Are you seeking knowledge?”

“Yes, dear.”

“And what is knowledge?”

“Obviously, it is knowing something.”

“Socrates said that all knowledge lies in knowing that we know nothing. Does this mean that knowledge is nothing?”

“Dear,” she sighed, “if I knew that I knew nothing then that would be knowing something. Are you deliberately asking contrary questions to annoy me?”

“Not at all.” I smiled, now that I was getting into the conversation. How could I explain that giving counter-examples was an integral part of the Socratic Method?

“If knowledge is knowing something,” I asked, “and if I do nothing with that knowledge, would others consider me knowledgeable?”

“They would probably think you foolish if you did nothing with your knowledge.”

“Then,” I continued, “knowledge is not only possessing information, but knowing what to do with the information.”

“I disagree with your definition of knowledge.” She responded. “If I know how to rob someone and then rob them, I am still a fool. Knowing how to rob someone is only cleverness, not knowledge. If I was jailed for robbery, everyone would call me a fool.”

“Your counter-example to my definition is a perfect example of the Socratic Method. We may not have a definition of knowledge yet, but we have determined that it is more than simply possessing and knowing what to do with information. By asking questions and posing counter-arguments to challenge my definitions, you learn more about the nature of knowledge. That is the essence of the Socratic Method.”

The VCR, disrespectful of our philosophical conversation, automatically left the pause condition and restarted the film – cutting short our conversation. As we watched the remainder of the film, I pondered the uses and limitations of the Socratic Method. By asking questions and posing counter-examples we could assemble a picture based on knowledge we already possessed. However, a scientist could not gain entirely new information by this method. I concluded that the Socratic Method is not a tool for gaining new information, but for synthesizing answers from information already possessed.

When the film ended my wife turned and asked “Would you like to go out for dinner?” As I pondered the poor state of our finances I began to smile. Putting on a serious face I turned and asked “What would you define as ‘out’?”