The Socratic method, also known as method of elenchus, elenctic method, or Socratic debate, is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. It is a dialectical method, 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. This method is named after the Classical Greek philosopher Socrates and is introduced by him in Plato’s Theaetetus as midwifery (maieutics) because it is employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors’ beliefs, or to help them further their understanding.

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 definitions or logoi (singular logos) and seeking to characterize general characteristics shared by various particular instances.

Development

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In the second half of the 5th century BC, sophists were teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to entertain, impress, or persuade an audience to accept the speaker’s point of view. Socrates promoted an alternative method of teaching, which came to be called the Socratic method.

Socrates began to engage in such discussions with his fellow Athenians after his friend from youth, Chaerephon, visited the Oracle of Delphi, which asserted that no man in Greece was wiser than Socrates. Socrates saw this as a paradox, and began using the Socratic method to answer his conundrum. Diogenes Laërtius, however, wrote that Protagoras invented the “Socratic” method.

Plato famously formalized the Socratic elenctic style in prose—presenting Socrates as the curious questioner of some prominent Athenian interlocutor—in some of his early dialogues, such as Euthyphro and Ion, and the method is most commonly found within the so-called “Socratic dialogues”, which generally portray Socrates engaging in the method and questioning his fellow citizens about moral and epistemological issues. But in his later dialogues, such as Theaetetus or Sophist, Plato had a different method to philosophical discussions, namely dialectic.

Method

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Elenchus (Ancient Greek: ἔλεγχος, translit. elenkhos, lit. ‘argument of disproof or refutation; cross-examining, testing, scrutiny esp. for purposes of refutation’) is the central technique of the Socratic method. The Latin form elenchus (plural elenchi) is used in English as the technical philosophical term. The most common adjectival form in English is elenctic; elenchic and elenchtic are also current.

In Plato’s early dialogues, the elenchus is the technique Socrates uses to investigate, for example, the nature or definition of ethical concepts such as justice or virtue. According to Vlastos, it has the following steps:

Socrates’ interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example “Courage is endurance of the soul”, which Socrates considers false and targets for refutation.
Socrates secures his interlocutor’s agreement to further premises, for example “Courage is a fine thing” and “Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing”.
Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis; in this case, it leads to: “courage is not endurance of the soul”.
Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocutor’s thesis is false and that its negation is true.
One elenctic examination can lead to a new, more refined, examination of the concept being considered, in this case it invites an examination of the claim: “Courage is wise endurance of the soul”. Most Socratic inquiries consist of a series of elenchi and typically end in puzzlement known as aporia.

Frede points out that Vlastos’ conclusion in step #4 above makes nonsense of the aporetic nature of the early dialogues. Having shown that a proposed thesis is false is insufficient to conclude that some other competing thesis must be true. Rather, the interlocutors have reached aporia, an improved state of still not knowing what to say about the subject under discussion.

The exact nature of the elenchus is subject to a great deal of debate, in particular concerning whether it is a positive method, leading to knowledge, or a negative method used solely to refute false claims to knowledge.

W. K. C. Guthrie in The Greek Philosophers sees it as an error to regard the Socratic method as a means by which one seeks the answer to a problem, or knowledge. Guthrie claims that the Socratic method actually aims to demonstrate one’s ignorance. Socrates, unlike the Sophists, did believe that knowledge was possible, but believed that the first step to knowledge was recognition of one’s ignorance. Guthrie writes, “[Socrates] was accustomed to say that he did not himself know anything, and that the only way in which he was wiser than other men was that he was conscious of his own ignorance, while they were not. The essence of the Socratic method is to convince the interlocutor that whereas he thought he knew something, in fact he does not.”{pg 74}

Application

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Socrates generally applied his method of examination to concepts that seem to lack any concrete definition; e.g., the key moral concepts at the time, the virtues of piety, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. Such an examination challenged the implicit moral beliefs of the interlocutors, bringing out inadequacies and inconsistencies in their beliefs, and usually resulting in aporia. In view of such inadequacies, Socrates himself professed his ignorance, but others still claimed to have knowledge. Socrates believed that his awareness of his ignorance made him wiser than those who, though ignorant, still claimed knowledge. While this belief seems paradoxical at first glance, it in fact allowed Socrates to discover his own errors where others might assume they were correct. This claim was based on a reported Delphic oracular pronouncement that no man was wiser than Socrates.

Socrates used this claim of wisdom as the basis of his moral exhortation. Accordingly, he claimed that the chief goodness consists in the caring of the soul concerned with moral truth and moral understanding, that “wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state”, and that “life without examination [dialogue] is not worth living”. It is with this in mind that the Socratic method is employed.

The motive for the modern usage of this method and Socrates’ use are not necessarily equivalent. Socrates rarely used the method to actually develop consistent theories, instead using myth to explain them. The Parmenides dialogue shows Parmenides using the Socratic method to point out the flaws in the Platonic theory of the Forms, as presented by Socrates; it is not the only dialogue in which theories normally expounded by Plato/Socrates are broken down through dialectic. Instead of arriving at answers, the method was used to break down the theories we hold, to go “beyond” the axioms and postulates we take for granted. Therefore, myth and the Socratic method are not meant by Plato to be incompatible; they have different purposes, and are often described as the “left hand” and “right hand” paths to good and wisdom.