Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 2, Issue 3, pp 219–224

The Socratic method in teaching medical ethics: Potentials and limitations

  • Dieter Birnbache

DOI: 10.1023/A:1009999523468

Cite this article as:
Birnbache, D. Med Health Care Philos (1999) 2: 219. doi:10.1023/A:1009999523468


The Socratic method has a long history in teaching philosophy and mathematics, marked by such names as Karl Weierstraß, Leonard Nelson and Gustav Heckmann. Its basic idea is to encourage the participants of a learning group (of pupils, students, or practitioners) to work on a conceptual, ethical or psychological problem by their own collective intellectual effort, without a textual basis and without substantial help from the teacher whose part it is mainly to enforce the rigid procedural rules designed to ensure a fruitful, diversified, open and consensus-oriented thought process. Several features of the Socratic procedure, especially in the canonical form given to it by Heckmann, are highly attractive for the teaching of medical ethics in small groups: the strategy of starting from relevant singular individual experiences, interpreting and cautiously generalizing them in a process of inter-subjective confrontation and confirmation, the duty of non-directivity on the part of the teacher in regard to the contents of the discussion, the necessity, on the part of the participants, to make explicit both their own thinking and the way they understand the thought of others, the strict separation of content level and meta level discussion and, not least, the wise use made of the emotional and motivational resources developing in the group process. Experience shows, however, that the canonical form of the Socratic group suffers from a number of drawbacks which may be overcome by loosening the rigidity of some of the rules. These concern mainly the injunction against substantial interventions on the part of the teacher and the insistence on consensus formation rooted in Leonard Nelson's Neo-Kantian Apriorism.

Socratic group work Socratic method teaching medical ethics 

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dieter Birnbache
    • 1
  1. 1.Philosophisches InstitutHeinrich Heine UniversitätDusseldorfGermany

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