The Socratic Method: A Powerful Route to Self-Discovery
A wise philosopher in ancient Greece once said: “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think”. His name was Socrates, and this ethos is the basis of what’s known as the ‘Socratic Method’. It’s an approach to knowledge that’s less about having the answers and more about asking questions. As a guideline for inquiry, the Socratic Method is used in the classroom to foster critical thinking, especially in the realms of law and medicine. The method assumes that there are no straight ‘answers’ and that everything is subjective. It also forms the basis of mental health interventions like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as it can be a powerful route to self-discovery. Let’s explore it.
What is the Socratic Method?
Socrates was immortalized in a number of dialogues written by his student, another famous ancient Greek philosopher named Plato. In these dialogues, Socrates is shown to unpick certain ideas by questioning the information or assumptions that surround them. These questions often bring attention to the flaws in the ideas, inviting deeper discourse and debate, further research, and inquiry. We often see the method in action in law movies like Legally Blonde, both in the classroom and when a suspect is interrogated in the courtroom. The Socratic Method can involve feigning ignorance of an issue to ask ‘innocent’ questions that disarm the person making certain claims, or it can simply be a genuine curiosity for more information and deeper levels of understanding. It opens up a field of debate and subverts the traditional student-teacher dynamic.
Why is the Socratic Method so important?
If the internet age has taught us anything, it’s that there is more knowledge in the world than any one brain could ever know. And yet we see so many people around us believing that they know everything, or placing all their trust in someone who claims to. Many of us have been raised to take what we are told by our teachers, parents, bosses and cultural leaders as truth. We’re trained to accept certain hierarchies of knowledge and power that exist in society without question, and it can be extremely difficult to acknowledge that other possibilities or realities might also be true. This is called conditioning. A Socratic mindset, on the other hand, is vital for the advancement of human thought, because it implies that what we believe is true today might not be so tomorrow. When scientists split the atom, or when oppressive regimes get overthrown, it’s because a certain number of people didn’t accept the prescribed knowledge of the time. Socratic questioning is the antithesis of an authoritarian system that tells us what we should believe and take as ‘truth’. Socrates himself believed that the wisest thing we can know is that we know nothing.
How can the Socratic Method help me?
As a framework for thinking critically, the Socratic Method can help us navigate the confusion in our external world and the conditioning of our internal experience. Instead of dividing the world into binaries that alienate and marginalize certain people, Socratic questioning helps us investigate the nuance in any situation. It’s the antidote to cancel culture and any kind of fundamentalism. If we can stay curious about people’s beliefs, ideas and motivations, we can save ourselves from taking things personally. If we remain humble about what we know, we can dissolve the assumptions that make us feel attacked and triggered. We are then more open to connection, debate, and resolution. Similarly, the Socratic Method can help us overcome rigid ideas about ourselves that might be keeping us locked into shame and negative emotions.
Several powerful styles of psychotherapy, including CBT and Compassionate Inquiry, use a Socratic approach to bring about a shift in perspective that can break us out of harmful patterns.
What questions can I start asking myself?
When toddlers begin talking and engaging with the world, one of the first questions they often ask about any information they are presented with is, “but why?”. Embrace the relentless curiosity of your inner toddler and question everything about your world. With practice, a Socratic mindset will be second nature. Here are some ideas to get you started in your self-inquiry.
What beliefs do I hold to be absolutely true about myself? But why?
What led me to these beliefs?
What evidence do I have to hold up these beliefs?
Is there any evidence to the contrary?
Could another possibility exist?
What am I striving for? But why?
How will that make me feel about myself?
How do I want to feel about myself?
Do I feel like I need permission to be _____?
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: The Socratic Method in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: A Narrative Review; Elements of the Socratic Method: 1 Systematic Questioning.
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