Socratic method: gaining wisdom through questioning

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Statue of Socrates in Athens - Socratic method

Socratic method is an approach to learning and self-discovery based on questioning. It was developed by the Greek philosopher Socrates, who used the method to educate his students, encourage them to question things they were told and look beyond the obvious. This method involves uncovering contradictions and irrational thinking that may interfere with progress and learning. It focuses on an individual’s current understanding and knowledge while avoiding ideas that may be inappropriate or even harmful to a person at a given stage.

Unlike traditional one-sided forms of education, where one party is a passive recipient, and the other is assumed to hold the truth — the Socratic method promotes dialogue where each individual’s ideas and contribution are of value. The goal is to reach a deeper personal understanding through active participation and personal responsibility instead of mindless conformity.

The fundamental element of the Socratic method is a question. A question can challenge assumptions, explore different perspectives, and encourage self-reflection. Socratic questions are focused on the issue while being neutral and open-ended, without a predetermined goal or suggested preferred answer.

Engaging in Socratic dialogues

When engaging in a Socratic dialogue, it is crucial to truly listen, acknowledge biases, and commit to understanding and truth rather than winning an argument. It’s great to create a ‘productive discomfort’ environment with the absence of fear and panic. The structure can be the following:

  • Receive — listen and understand a person’s belief or argument.
  •  Reflect — reflect on what a person said and ask for clarifications if needed (e.g., “Could you explain further?”)
  •  Refine — ask open-ended questions to uncover contradictions and biases (e.g., “Is it always the case?”)
  •  Restate — challenge the misconceptions, explore alternative perspectives, and get people to reformulate their position after (e.g., “Can anyone see this differently?”)
  •  Repeat — to get to the core of the issue until both parties accept the restated belief.

Engaging in Socratic dialogues not only leads to deeper understanding but also helps participants develop valuable tools like personal responsibility, self-worth, humility in learning, problem-solving abilities, and critical thinking. These skills are essential for addressing personal challenges, making life more manageable, and contributing to an individual’s freedom. The Socratic method is applicable in various areas, including personal growth, education, politics, and leadership. It remains a valuable and timeless tool for critical thinking, self-discovery, and meaningful discourse in a world with ongoing challenges.

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