Socrates, in many ways, was the first true philosopher. While men before him had attempted to answer the big questions about life, the universe, and the world around them, their answers had tended to be built on a bed of assumptions. These old thinkers built their theories on the grand forces of their world: lightning, fire, rain, the sun. When we read their thoughts today, it’s easy to understand why these elemental forces would play such a prominent role in their philosophy, but it’s hard to emphasize with it. We live in a world where lights come on at the flick of a button, and fire with the turn of a switch. Natural forces have lost their mystery.
Reading Socrates, however, is a different experience. His thoughts still have the power to surprise us. This is because Socrates started from a standpoint of willful ignorance. His famous Socratic method was designed to scrape away assumptions, harden definitions, and clearly define categories. Our thinking today is no less free of assumptions than our ancestors, so the Socratic method still has the capacity to improve us.
But this essay isn’t just about extolling the virtues of the Socratic method. It’s about explaining how it works. The Socratic method is a tool, first and foremost, with specific uses and limitations. And, like any tool, it requires practice. This is especially true for the Socratic method, because not only can it be hard to tell when you’re using it incorrectly, but it’s often misunderstood.
To explain how the Socratic method works, first I’m going to show you an example. Then I’m going to explain how the example works, and what the outcome of it is. Finally, I’m going to show you an example from Socrates himself.
You and your friend are having a dialogue about what the best university is. Your friend says it’s Harvard, and you say it’s Princeton. Then Socrates comes along, and the dialogue begins.
You: Hey Socrates, what’s the best university? I think it’s Princeton, but John thinks it’s Harvard.
John: It’s totally Harvard. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out from there!
You: So the best university is the one with the best dropouts? It has to be Princeton. It’s on top of the rankings!
Socrates: Settle down, settle down. First, when you say the best university, are you not referring to the best one to graduate from as an undergraduate?
You: I suppose so.
John: Well, I’m not so sure about that.
Socrates: Well, if we were asking who was the best at training race horses, we would look at which trainer produced the best race horses. That is, if a horse came to him, he could make it become much better at racing after training it.
John: That seems fair.
Socrates: And if another, lesser trainer had trained the same horse, it would not have become quite as good at racing, right? This is regardless of the horse.
You: Yes, so it’s Princeton!
Socrates: I’m not so sure yet. So a university teaches students like a horse trainer trains horses. It would seem that the best university should produce a better student than a lesser university, just like the best trainer produces a better horse than a lesser trainer, regardless of the student.
John: But that’s unfair. Universities don’t all get the same students, so they might produce better students just because they get better students. It’s like a horse trainer receiving faster horses than his competitors.
Socrates: Aha, that’s one problem, and I agree that’s a big one. But I want to pursue a different route. What does it mean to produce a better student?
John: Well, that means they’ll be more successful.
Socrates: But success has many different categories, from being wealthy, to changing the world, to becoming renowned. If we discussed the best race horse, we’d discuss the one that wins the most races. But what if we were discussing the best flavor of ice cream?
You: That’s just a matter of opinion. It’s different.
Socrates: What if I wanted to say the best flavor of ice cream was dirt flavored?
Socrates: Exactly! So when we discuss the best flavor of ice cream, there’s opinion, but there’s also some standard that we accept. If we discuss the best students, there’s also opinion, because there’s many ways to be successful, and which one is best is a matter of opinion. However, there’s also some standard. Surely the most successful students couldn’t be living in the gutter, so if a university produces gutter students, then it’s not the best university.
You: So should we discuss the worst universities, then? It seems easier.
Socrates: It depends. Would you rather eat dirt-flavored ice cream or sand-flavored ice cream?
You: Neither, both sound terrible.
Socrates: Exactly. The comparison is difficult to make for the worst universities, just as it is for the best.
You: So are all comparisons inherently meaningless?
Socrates: I’d answer, but I have to leave before this angry mob catches up with me.
Socrates leaves, quickly pursued by an angry mob of Athenians carrying pitchforks and torches. One has a plant, which you recognize as hemlock.
John: Well, this discussion is pretty much ruined. Want to get ice cream?
You: Not really.
So, in this conversation, you started off with the idea of comparing universities to find out which is the best. However, first Socrates persuaded you that you were really comparing which university produces the best students. Then he persuaded you that you were really saying which students were the most successful. Finally, he persuaded you that, although success has some objective qualities, it is primarily subjective.
Now, “persuade” might seem like a strange choice of words, but it’s accurate. After all, it’s not clear that Socrates’s definitions were the same ones you would have used. In fact, judging by John’s example at the beginning with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, it would seem that he had a different definition in mind, although he couldn’t articulate it.
Socrates persuaded you with the use of common-sense analogies. Horse training was an analogy that the real Socrates actually liked to use quite often, while ice cream was one of my own invention. At any point, you could have disagreed with his analogies. You could have disagreed with the appropriateness of them, and said that universities are nothing like horse training. You could have disagreed with the conclusion, and said that dirt flavored ice cream could be considered the best ice cream flavor. But, because the analogies seemed reasonable, you didn’t.
Socrates took your definition, changed it and refined it, and then used analogies to persuade you. This might seem like just an exercise in persuasion, then, and you might be wondering why this is philosophy. Well, because there’s something else going on here.
When you and John were originally arguing, your argument could never end. This was because you were working from different definitions. You thought you were arguing about the same thing, but the evidence you used clearly showed something different. John was arguing about some version of “best” which incorporated who has dropped out of a university, and you were arguing about some version of “best” which relies on third party rankings, which are based on metrics that aren’t immediately obvious. Your definitions weren’t properly formed, so even you didn’t know what you were really arguing about. After all, John likely didn’t really believe that dropouts should count for how good a university is, and arguing about how good a university is based on rankings is just kicking the can up the road, because then you have to argue about how good those rankings are.
This brings us back to why Socrates is the first true philosopher. In order for philosophy to begin, we have to know what we’re discussing, and that has to be clearly communicated to other people. In fact, that’s true of all formal systems of thinking. It’s only possible to come up with ideas if it’s clear what the ideas are about. Socrates gives us a tool for starting discussion, and a way of persuading others to our point of view.
However, this is only a beginning. Socrates doesn’t give us a clear way of progressing our thoughts, because common-sense analogies rely on what you already know and believe. In order to learn new things, and come up with new things to believe, we have to have some additional tools and concepts under our belt. I’ll cover those in subsequent essays.
The best part of reading Plato’s accounts of Socrates, was how you brought you into his own confusion. He was the wisest man because he knew that he knew not. Meanwhile others made wild proclamations about things they could only reference to with anecdotes. If there is any one thing that Socrates can teach us, something that I myself still need help with, is to re-frame the question to ensure that all parties are on the same page before taking the step forward in your argumentation.