Socratic Method(s)


Consider the following letter to the editor from the well-known philosopher Simon Blackburn:

“Sir, I was a member of the then sub-faculty of philosophy in Oxford some 30 years ago when the chairman received a letter from the administration asking us to detail innovations in teaching methods we had recently made. His reply was that the right method of teaching philosophy was discovered by Socrates some 2,500 years ago, and we had no intention of changing it. We heard no more about it.” Professor Simon Blackburn

In reply to Blackburn’s chairman, I’m tempted to say: “How very un-Socratic of you!” But that’s too cute (even for this blog) and I’d probably be wrong anyway—in Plato’s dialogues at least, Socrates does indeed recommend his own method(s). My criticism of the chairman’s claim is more nuanced. I begin by showing that at least two distinct teaching methods can be and have been attributed to Socrates. Then I show that both methods, when taken literally, have their own distinctive shortcomings. My aim, however, is not to show that we, as teachers, should reject Socratic teaching, but rather that we utilize his teaching methods critically, with an awareness of their own problematic assumptions and potentially negative consequences. This too is Socratic.


This question itself is problematic, since Socrates employs more than one teaching method. Consider this encounter between Socrates and a couple of his “students.”

Socrates comes across two well-respected generals, Laches and Nicias. Naturally, he asks both about what it means to have courage. Initially, Laches confidently defines courage in the following way: “if someone is willing to stay in ranks and ward off the enemy and not flee, rest assured he is courageous.” Socrates, however, remembers something about the 479 B.C. battle of Plataea: “[T]hey say that the Spartans at Plataea, when they met troops using wicker shields, refused to stand and fight but fled, and when the Persians broke ranks, the Spartans [wheeled around] to fight like cavalry and so won the battle.” Laches is forced to rethink his original definition of courage. So he tries this: Courage is “a kind of perseverance of soul.” In other words, courage is a kind of endurance. Again, Socrates raises a problem with this definition: perseverance can be directed toward impulsive and foolish ends. Nicias, with the judicious guidance of Socrates, “comes to the rescue” by proposing that courage would have to involve knowledge not only of what things to fear and to be confident about, but also an awareness of good and evil, and could not always be limited to warfare. Socrates thus takes an initial definition of a concept and subjects it to criticism, trying to come to some knowledge about its meaning.

This encounter is typical of Socrates; however, what he is ultimately doing here can been interpreted differently. In other words, when it comes to his teaching style, at least two distinct methods are regularly attributed to Socrates. Let’s call one the Critical Thinking approach and the other the Truth Seeking approach.

C r i t i c a l  T h i n k i n g

Here’s a typical expression of the Critical Thinking approach: “The oldest, and still the most powerful, teaching tactic for fostering critical thinking is Socratic teaching. In Socratic teaching we focus on giving students questions, not answers. We model an inquiring, probing mind by continually probing into the subject with questions” (Foundation for Critical Thinking). There is no pre-determined argument or end-point to which the teacher attempts to lead the students. “Teachers” and “students” are seen almost as peers, engaged in the same pursuit of answers. The only essential difference between “teachers” and “students” is that the former has probed longer and has experienced that certain paths of inquiry are more promising than others. It’s easy to see Socrates in this light. For Socrates insisted many times that he was not a “teacher,” at least in the traditional sense of spoon-feeding knowledge to those who lack the knowledge themselves. In practical terms, this means no textbooks, no lectures, no Powerpoints, no exams, minimal note-taking, if any, and small classes.

T r u t h  S e e k i n g

Socrates engages in questioning others and himself in a search for truth. As demonstrated in his conversation with Laches and Nicias, he challenges the assumptions of their views by asking continual questions until a fallacy or contradiction is exposed. His aim, however, is far from destructive or subversive; one can easily see this conversation as part of a larger dialectic whose aim is to uncover the truth or at minimum get closer to it, however long this may take. Possible answers to what courage is are eliminated—including those offered by Laches and Nicias—thus narrowing the search for the meaning of courage. Let me explain.

Socrates is concerned with the knowledge of concepts such as courage, justice, and beauty. Since there is no recognized procedure or accepted method for coming to such knowledge, Socrates has to argue for his own method. In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates does just that, by arguing that the answers to these questions are to be found within our souls. In fact, the word “education” comes from the verb “to educe,” to draw forth from within. Socrates’ method here is therefore specifically geared to help us retrieve these answers from within. It is then not surprising that he sometimes calls himself a “midwife of ideas.” Now, these answers are called definitions. A true definition is one that accurately describes the essence or nature of the thing to be defined; it is objectively true. For example, the true definition of courage captures the essence of courage. It doesn’t matter whether or not people agree or disagree with that definition. Its truth doesn’t depend on what we think or believe, or even if no one was ever courageous. Imagine Cowardly Earth, where no human ever shows courage in anything they do and no one has ever thought about courage. Nonetheless, courage possesses an eternal and unchangeable essence.

The Critical Thinking and Truth Seeking approaches, as described above, are certainly distinct from one another. Both teaching methods have their virtues, but only when taken in moderation. Here’s why.


When taken to its extreme, the Critical Thinking approach to teaching faces two problems. First, it can engender a “question everything” attitude, especially in beginning students. Even “Philosophy Talk,” an otherwise fantastic podcast out of Stanford University, introduces each show with the mantra: “The program that questions everything except your intelligence.” This attitude can easily be taken too far, and even the podcasters Ken Taylor and John Perry have no patience for those who question the value of equality, respect for others, and the like. But what if we question the very enterprise of questioning? Isn’t this the logical endpoint of the Critical Thinking approach? In other words, the Socratic Method (taken as immoderate critical thinking) carries the seeds of its own destruction. I observed a class once where I saw the spirit of inquiry die over the course of the semester, precisely because inquiry itself was questioned and was found pointless and wanting. The teacher and a single persistent student were helpless in resuscitating the others.

Second, using the critical thinking approach to teaching can engender complacency and even laziness in the teacher and ultimately frustration in the student. Consider what some have said about law school (at least American ones) in a well-known blog: “The Socratic method as a cruel game designed to let professors show off how clever they are while students struggle to tease out basic concepts from boring cases is well-established. It was the basic dispute between the Harvard casebook approach and the ‘shut the hell up and take notes’ approach that raged almost two hundred years ago.” Continuing, “The Socratic method is the method used by sage law professors to tease the law’s nuances out of the minds of their brilliant pupils. In practice, it leads to lazy law professors with little real world experience calling on whichever gunner feels like talking that day…. The classes consist of meandering discussions that often have no real point and leave students even more confused than before” (Above the Law). As you can imagine, this can be incredibly frustrating for students. I daresay that law school isn’t the only place where such complacency and frustration occur.

Socrates’ Truth Seeking approach, on the other hand, faces its own problems, for it makes two contentious assumptions. First, it assumes that there is a true definition (essence) of concepts such as courage, justice, and beauty to be discovered. But Ludwig Wittgenstein argues in his 1953 Philosophical Investigations that things which are believed to share one or more essential common features may actually be connected by a series of overlapping similarities, where no one feature is shared by all. Wittgenstein uses games to illustrate this idea.

“Consider for example,” Wittgenstein says in §66, “the proceedings that we call ‘games’ [e.g., card games, board games, ball games, and Olympic games] to look and see whether there is anything common to all.” “We can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; we can see how similarities crop up and disappear.” We want to say, “there must be something common among games, but we’d be wrong. “The result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.” Wittgenstein concludes by stating: “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than family resemblances.” 

If examples of courageous acts are analogous to games in the sense that they too share no one essential feature in common—and when you see philosophers in action, it sure seems that they are analogous to games—then the Truth Seeking paradigm of Socratic inquiry faces a deep, perhaps fatal, problem.

Second, even if concepts such as courage have an essence (that is, the set of essential properties that all acts of courage share in common), whatever that essence is has been stripped of any capacity to mold itself to the circumstances, to change with the times, for it is the product of abstraction from concrete courageous things. Socrates himself realized that courage’s essence would have to be an abstract thing, or as he puts it, a permanent, changeless, and timeless Form or Idea. Nietzsche calls such abstractions “concept-mummies” in Twilight of the Idols:

You ask me which of the philosopher’ traits are really idiosyncrasies? For example, their lack of historical sense, their hatred of the very idea of becoming, their Egypticism. They think that they show their respect for a subject when they de-historicize it, when they universalize it… when they turn it into a mummy. All that philosophers have handled for thousands of years have been concept-mummies; nothing real escaped their grasp alive…. Death, change, old age, as well as procreation and growth, are to their minds objections—even refutations.

Never mind that Nietzsche tends to exaggerate; he has a point. Socrates, Plato, and a veritable treasure-trove of philosophers, de-contextualize concepts, as if the definition of courage is permanent, changeless, and timeless. But acts of courage themselves are not at all abstract; they are concrete, contextual to both circumstance and time, and varied.


Don’t get me wrong. I often employ the Socratic Method(s) in my classes. But I take both varieties—critical thinking and truth seeking—in moderation. As teachers, we don’t need to re-debate the morality of slavery, any more than geologists need to re-debate the shape of the earth. Neither do we need to take concepts such as courage to have essences; we can treat them as open concepts. We can continue to think critically and to seek the truth.


“The Teaching Hub”

At the 2017 APA Eastern Division Meeting held in Baltimore, Maryland, I attended a mini-conference on teaching. It had a nifty title: “The Teaching Hub.” I enjoyed it for the most part; however, two things became clear and concerning to me. First, the research/teaching divide in philosophy seems as alive as ever. The majority of graduate schools of philosophy in the U.S. still do not require their graduate students to take teaching seminars. Many philosophy departments still operate as if simply being a teaching assistant is sufficient to becoming a good teacher oneself. But of course it’s not; learning good teaching practices doesn’t come by osmosis alone. The lecturer for whom one is assisting may not be a model of stellar teaching. Also, lecturing well is not identical to running a smaller class well. At the mini-conference, a University of Chicago professor said that attendance was so low for a voluntary graduate teaching seminar he offered that the department eliminated it. He then noted that pedagogy is not that important anyway for Chicago grads. Fortunately, a professor from Harvard replied that given the job market in philosophy even Harvard Ph.D.s were not guaranteed of landing a job on research alone. To put things in perspective, the job market in philosophy is so tight that there were about 120 applications for my job at Santa Barbara City College.

Second, some recent trends in teaching philosophy seem not to fully take into account the diversity of college students, especially those in community colleges. “The Teaching Hub” offered a workshop on Team-Based Learning, or TBL for short. Here’s a short description of this teaching model:

Team-based learning (TBL) is a structured form of small-group learning that emphasizes student preparation out of class and application of knowledge in class. Students are organized strategically into diverse teams of 5-7 students that work together throughout the class.  Before each unit or module of the course, students prepare by reading prior to class.

In the first class of the module, students participate in a “Readiness Assurance Process,” or RAP. Specifically, students complete a test individually (the “individual Readiness Assurance Test,” or iRAT); and then complete the test with their group members (the “group Readiness Assurance Test,” or gRAT). Both the individual scores and the group scores contribute to the students’ grades. The tests are typically multiple choice, and students often complete the group test using a “scratch-off” sheet and score themselves, reducing grading time and promoting student discussion of correct answers.

After the students complete the group test, the instructor encourages teams to appeal questions that they got incorrect. The appeals process encourages students to review the material, evaluate their understanding, and defend the choice they made.

On initial inspection—apart from the fact that there are far too many acronyms (!)—the TBL model sounds promising. It emphasizes team work and is very learner-centered—both wonderful things in a classroom environment. However, to be successful, TBL requires a fundamental homogeneity among students. Let me explain. Reading prior to class is required for these group tests and activities to function well. But I have students who face real difficulty with readings done on a deadline. Some are homeless, or are working multiple jobs, are single parents, disabled (intellectually and/or physically), have mental health problems, in and out of the courts, etc. Of course, when I teach I try to get students to do the required readings, and I certainly talk about the readings, but the success of any particular class cannot be dependent on all or even most of my students actually doing the reading. However, successful group work under the TBL model is dependent on such completion. Now take the “individual Reading Assurance Test.” It is timed. Some of my disabled students physically cannot take in-classes quizzes, certainly not under a time constraint. Some emotionally can’t take such quizzes. They need assistance and go to an on-campus testing center to take quizzes and exams. Those who are deaf or cannot speak also cannot fully participate in group activities. A few group activities per semester can work fine, but TBL requires group work daily. This is just not feasible and therefore undermines inclusivity in the classroom.

There is another aspect of TBL that seems problematic to me. It requires careful “criterion-based,” “strategic” selection of groups, since these groups remain fixed for the whole quarter or semester. Here’s the exact wording from

In forming groups, we recommend trying to do three things. One is spreading assets and liabilities (i.e., background factors that are likely to make a difference in students’ performance in this course) across the teams. Assets are often such things as attitudes toward and/or performance in previous course work, course-related life experience; liabilities often include such factors as no (or poor) preparation in related courses, language barriers, etc. … A second objective of the team formation process is to avoid pre-existing, cohesive sub-groups (e.g., a group of three students from the same fraternity and three students who did not previously know each other would probably struggle). For these two reasons, teams should not be self-selected. Third, the process you use for team formation should foster the perception that none of the teams was given a special advantage. Thus, we recommend using a very public team formation process.

I am concerned a bit about the competitive atmosphere that having fixed teams would most likely engender, but two other things seem more problematic. First, I am concerned with the recommendation that the team formation process be “very public.” Here’s my worry: in a highly diverse group of students, the only way to properly ensure fairness among teams—that is, “spreading assets and liabilities”—would be to venture into criteria that may constitute an invasion of privacy. Where are you from? Is English your native language? What other classes have you taken? Second, initiating the semester with a veritable ranking of students as to whom we judge would be better at doing philosophy than others rankles me. As an experienced teacher, I have often seen a student who has never before taken a philosophy class, or is an ESL student, do fantastically well, far exceeding many of her peers. Any kind of pre-screening seems presumptuous and borders on plain rudeness.

I would also add that it isn’t only in community college classrooms where there is serious diversity, or should I say, more diversity than an initial inspection reveals. In other words, even in the most homogeneous of classes, there is more diversity than meets the eye. TBL may sound good “on paper,” but in the classroom, I’m not so sure.