Socratic Tools for Questioning – An Interesting Concept to Explore


Socratic maieutics or Socratic questioning was named after Socrates, the Greek philosopher also known as the Father of Western Philosophy. As we all know, Socrates is one of few individuals whom one could say has founded and molded the cultural and intellectual spheres of the world. We cannot imagine a world without Socrates.

Socrates believed the only key to finding answers is to question and keep on questioning. The only way to improve one’s personality is to question your standards and improve. Questioning is the only tool to discovery.”

Even the simple method of Socratic questioning has restructured the thinking tool. It is widely used to contextualize the problems and get the answers in a creative way. We can find a lot of similarities between Socratic questioning and design thinking considering the user analysis process.

Socrates was born in Athens in the year 469 B.C.E. to Sophroniscus, a stonemason, and Phaenarete, a midwife.  His family was of lower-middle-class origin, and they were by no means affluent or had any upper say in the society. Socrates had no royal background or noble birth to claim like Plato. That’s what makes his story even more intriguing. Whatever Socrates achieved in his life was on the basis of his intellectual power. 

The ancient Athenian culture worshipped male beauty that depicted idealized masculine figures. It was an utter misfortune that in such an era of male power and beauty, Socrates had incredibly ugly looks. It is mentioned in our ancient sources (Theaetetus 143e, Symposium, 215a-c; also, Xenophon Symposium 4.19, 5.5-7 and Aristophanes Clouds 362).   that Socrates had an awkward physical appearance. He was exophthalmic meaning that his eyes bulged out of his head and the cornea was always focused sideways. He had a snub nose, that to some extent resembled a pig. To add to all these ugly variations, Socrates had a potbelly and he never cared about his outlook or made any attempts to look neatly dressed. He wore the same cloak and sandals throughout the day, outside and inside his home.

He grew up in the political environment of Alopece, and no wonder, when he turned 18, he began to perform the typical political duties required of Athenian males.  These included compulsory military service, legislative services, and membership in the Assembly, the governing body responsible for determining military strategy and legislation.

Socrates was given an appropriate education that laid the foundation of his career as a philosopher. In the middle of the 5th century, all Athenian males were taught to read and write, but Sophroniscus, the father of Socrates, took all the pains to give his son an advanced education. He motivated Socrates to learn poetry, music, and athletics, even when he was demeaned for his ugly looks.

The Debate of Socrates and Aspasia – Socrates’s discussions were not limited to a small elite group; he engaged in dialogues with foreigners and with people from all social classes and of all genders.

As per the Athenian custom, Socrates’s father taught him the basics of trade and commerce, though Socrates didn’t execute any trading activities. He preferred to spend most of his time in the marketplace, asking questions to those who would speak about him.  When he was not so popular, he acquired a following of many young and influential aristocrats and they enjoyed speaking about the wisest men in the city.

Socrates was married to Xanthippe, she gave birth to his first son, Lamprocles. He also had a second wife, Myrto. Socrates had married her without any dowry and she gave birth to his other sons, Sophroniscus and Menexenus. There are some references, that mention that in accordance with Athenian custom, Socrates was open about his attraction to young men. He always subordinated that his physical desire for them would improve the condition of their souls.

Socrates along with his wives 

The Stoics relied on Socrates heavily and his philosophical school of thought. His Socratic method was a pivotal tool in eliminating inconsistencies. The moral doctrines scripted by Socrates focused on living a content life through wisdom and virtue. Socratic thought echoed about attaining happiness by prioritizing goodness and ethical values.

Scene of Socrates (center) saving Alcibiades

Beyond philosophy and moral doctrines, Socrates also fought valiantly in the Athenian military. He helped Athenians win the battle of Potidaea (432 B.C.E), and also saved the life of Alcibiades, the famous Athenian general.  Also, he had displayed excellent feat of courage and military-strategic formation at the Battle of Delium (424 B.C.E).

Though Socrates was an asset to the city, many members of Athenian society perceived him to be a threat to their democracy. He was also framed for corrupting the minds of young people and introducing strange mythological characters. The coup conspired to his conviction in court that sentenced him to death by drinking poison hemlock.

 Socrates while drinking hemlock poison was visited by friends on his last night at prison.

Though Socrates didn’t document all his work, his legacy has left a lot for us to research and explore. Socrates laid a strong constitution by contributing to the fields of epistemology and logic. Socrates employed an influential thinking pattern, with logical tricks to answer any questions. 

His valuable concepts like Socratic irony and the Socratic Method are ingrained in western philosophy. Socratic Method is known as an elenctic method, or Socratic irony, or Socratic debate. It can be used to clarify any meaning, to gradually unfold different perspectives, or explore consequences.

“Socratic questioning is differentiated from normal questioning on basis of systematic approach and focuses on fundamental concepts.

It emphasizes eliminating all negative and unwanted thoughts filtering all impurities of the mind.”

Along with, Socratic questioning even Socratic irony is acknowledged for questioning in Courtrooms and other forums. Let me explain to you about Socratic irony in easy terms – when you pretend to be ignorant to get the real information from a horse’s mouth.

The philosophical theories and the utility of their applications in practical life made him the Father of Western Philosophy. One of the influential and enduring contributions made by Socrates, which is followed even today in our everyday life is – Socrates Questioning. Let’s discuss the term Socrates Questioning and understand the concept – 

A Socratic Method is a form of brainstorming between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out new ideas and underlying presumptions.

Socrates taught us to raise questions and discover answers through quizzical techniques and asking patterns. Socratic questioning follows a disciplined process that pursues improved thoughts, new insights, principles, and assumptions. The main key of Socratic questioning is to engage in discussions, develop critical thinking and spark new concepts to act as a solution. This method has gained popularity in discussions to emphasize out of box thinking and create innovative solutions. Even doctors, therapists, use this method to reduce the mental pressure of patients, making them understand the logical reasoning to derive a conclusion.

Socratic questioning develops students to understand questions, reason the alternatives and assess the validity of answers. This type of questioning is used in different professions like Psychotherapy, Human Resources – Training & Development, Planning, and Operations Methodology. Trainers or Professors use the method to understand the thinking potential of students and develop questioning abilities. The method is used to distinguish the knowledge level of students and embed in them rational modesty. Socratic questioning promotes the questioner to reformulate new questions than another question engaging intellects in the discourse. 

Socrates questioning plays a pivotal role in the following aspects –

  • Develop listening and thinking skills of students.
  • Cultivate an interest in learning through deep thinking / critical thinking.
  • Understand the ethical dilemma and actions.
  • Examine the various consequences and outcomes.
  • Challenge the illogical thoughts and ways.
  • Ratification of modern philosophy.

The greatest tactic of this method is that the teacher pretends to be ignorant of the topic and motivates the students to participate through the questioning process, bridging the progress towards truth and reality.

The Socratic Method is an open discussion type. It eliminates all the evil, misconceptions and builds a reliable knowledge structure. The force of the discussions gives us the vantages to accessible multiple points or explore moral and epistemological issues.

Socrates is not only the father of western philosophy but also moral and political philosophy.

Any type of informal discussion, casual conversations without application of ethical standards or principles, or beliefs can’t be termed as Socratic Dialogue.

Another concept, the Harkness table or Socratic seminar (also known as a Socratic circle) is a pedagogical approach based on the Socratic method and uses a dialogic approach to understand the information in a text. In the Socratic seminar, the participants examine the content through questions and answers founded on the belief that knowledge is interrelated.

In the Socratic circle, all the members were motivated to ask questions and all thinking comes from asking questions and further questions. The Socratic seminar or circle is not based on a debating theme but arrives at an answer for the entire group, “to win the argument.”

This approach is based on the belief that participants seek and gain a deeper understanding of concepts through thoughtful dialogue rather than memorizing information. While Socratic seminars are easy in structure, they typically involve a passage of text that students must read beforehand and facilitate dialogue.

Sometimes, a facilitator can restructure the circle into two concentric circles of students: an outer circle and an inner circle.

  • The inner circle focuses on exploring and analyzing the text through the act of questioning and answering.
  • During this phase, the outer circle remains silent. Students in the outer circle are asked to observe and listen to the conversation of the inner circle.

When the content has been discussed and the inner circle is finished talking, the outer circle provides feedback on the dialogue that took place. Then, in the process, the inner circle students swap position with the outer circle for the next meeting till inferences are drawn.

The most significant role in this activity is of the teacher.  In a Socratic seminar, the teacher’s role is to advance the discussions and encourage feedback.

The socratic circle emphasizes three types of questions –

  1. Opening questions are to generate discussion at the beginning of the seminar.
  2. Guiding questions help deepen and elaborate the discussion, and encourage a positive atmosphere for others.
  3. Closing questions lead participants to summarize their thoughts and learn from the inferences.

Socrates always highlighted the importance of questioning in learning and exploring. He stressed differentiating between systematic and fragmented thinking while forcing individuals to understand the root of their knowledge and ideas. Socratic questioning in any type of setting helps participants become active and independent learners.

“One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.”
― Socrates, Apology

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