Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Socratic Dialogue in Education

  • Bruno Ćurko
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_166



Socrates and his pupil Plato believed that education through dialogue is good. Although there are no written traces and we only know about Socrates through the work of other authors, Socrates and the dialectic method attributed to him have left a permanent mark both in the history of philosophy, as well as in the dialectic method as an educational method which teaches students how to think. Guthrie mentions Socrates as a tipping point in philosophy. Socrates insisted on philosophy aimed toward his fellow citizens and the moral and intellectual issues they were coming across, disregarding issues of natural philosophy that most of the pre-Socratic philosophers were focused on. Guthrie quotes Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations:

Ancient philosophy up to Socrates, who was taught by Archelaus the pupil of Anaxagoras, dealt with number and movement, and these early thinkers inquired zealously into the magnitude, intervals, and courses of the stars, and all celestial matters. But Socrates first called philosophy down from the sky, set it in the cities and even introduced it into homes, and compelled it to consider life and morals, good and evil. (Guthrie 1971)

Socratic Method

This is precisely one of Socrates’ main qualities: he tried to encourage his fellow citizens and interlocutors to think about the things truly relevant for people. The method he employed is known as the Socratic method. Therefore, Socrates was an advocate of enlightenment and constantly urged his fellow citizens to think. We should also point out that aiming philosophy toward citizens was a process started by the sophists. They offered their intellectual and philosophical services to anyone who could afford them, while Socrates strived to enlighten his pupils and citizens. Socrates used questions to guide the interlocutor toward “the truth,” something the interlocutor was unaware prior to the conversation with Socrates. In modern terms, it could be said that Socrates did not teach his interlocutors what they should think but how to think. There is the comparison between Socrates and a midwife; Socrates is helping with “the birth” of an opinion. He used to help the interlocutor to form and state their opinion and bring it into the world. In Theaetetus, Plato as Socrates draws a comparison to the midwife:

SOCRATES: Well, my art of midwifery is in most respects like theirs; but differs, in that I attend men and not women; and look after their souls when they are in labour, and not after their bodies: and the triumph of my art is in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth. And like the midwives, I am barren, and the reproach which is often made against me, that I ask questions of others and have not the wit to answer them myself, is very just – the reason is, that the god compels me to be a midwife, but does not allow me to bring forth. And therefore I am not myself at all wise, nor have I anything to show which is the invention or birth of my own soul, but those who converse with me profit. Some of them appear dull enough at first, but afterwards, as out acquaintance ripens, if the god is gracious to them, they all make astonishing progress; and this in the opinion of others as well as in their own (Plato 2014).

Perhaps it can be said that Socrates was able to make people “birth” their opinions, strictly paying attention to the argumentation and “closeness to the truth.” Socrates’ midwifery art refers to, naturally, his use of ironic-maieutic method which can be observed on any example of Plato’s dialogue: with carefully constructed questions, Socrates puts the interlocutor in a position to, first, question their principles (irony) and then, with another series of careful questioning, to bring forth new, logically based principles (maieutic).

The Socratic method is (rightfully) attributed to Socrates and the way in which he pulled the opinion out of the interlocutor and how he made them question their own principles and judgment. Copleston describes the method:

What was Socrates’ practical method? It took the form of “dialectic” or conversation. He would get into conversation with someone and try to elicit from him his ideas on some subject. For instance, he might profess his ignorance of what courage really is, and ask the other man if he had any light on the subject. Or Socrates would lead the conversation in that direction, and when the other man had used the word “courage,” Socrates would ask him what courage is, professing his own ignorance and desire to learn. His companion had used the word, therefore he must know what it meant. When some definition or description had been given him, Socrates would profess his great satisfaction, but would intimate that there were one or two little difficulties which he would like to see cleared up. Accordingly he asked questions, letting the other man do most of the talking, but keeping the course of the conversation under his control, and so would expose the inadequacy of the proposed definition of courage. The other would fall back on a fresh or modified definition, and so the process would go on, with or without final success. (Copleston 1993)

Copleston points out the main characteristics of the Socratic method. Apart from “birthing” the opinion of the interlocutor, he also taught or, better yet, practiced how to think and ensured the procedure followed logical rules. Socrates did not allow the interlocutor to state their principle without the proper argument, that is, every definition, sentence, and statement had to be corroborated. Moreover, whatever was said was examined from all possible “sides.” This process of questioning what had been said allowed rejecting any ideas cofuted by either Socrates or the interlocutor. In this way, only the ideas resistant to the fiercest questioning could be maintained. As observed by Haynes, any mental “debris” would be removed:

The Socratic method was called elenchus. The idea was to open space for learning through liberation and prevent garbage to clutter the mind, and address pure, fresh thinking. This includes both the intellect and emotion in challenging previously established beliefs and assumptions. (Haynes 2003)

No matter how idealized Socrates may be in Plato’s dialogues, it is clear that for most of the interlocutors, the conversations with Socrates, at least in some part, are not pleasant. Socrates uses any means necessary, he does not hold back and does not play games, and any invalid line of argument rejects the thesis in question. For most of the interlocutors, it is not easy to keep calm, while their beliefs and attitudes crumble like a house of cards. To most individuals, it is not easy to experience the total denial of their established principles or opinions (whether this is done by Socrates or someone else). Hayes is obviously right when he says that both the intellect and emotions play a part in the elenchus (this refers to Socrates as well). Socrates confronts the interlocutor with their opinion, with themselves, revealing their misconceptions and mistakes, and that is not an easy task for anyone. Socrates may be helping them to birth the truth about the subject in question, but the collateral damage consists of the people themselves, because the truth that is brought to light is the truth about the people themselves. Discovering your own flaws has to cause negative emotions. Without facing our own “negativity,” there is no “pure and fresh thinking.”

Socrates’ dialectic method has two parts: irony and maieutic. Irony is the initial part of the method where Socrates asks the interlocutor to define the basic notions relating to the subject, because he (Socrates) “does not know them.” In his work Socrates. Towards the discovery of Human Wisdom, in chapter on Irony, dialectic versus maieutic (Reale 2003), Reale discusses the Socratic method. He also talks about Jan Patočka, who says:

Essentially, irony is part of the Socratic educational method, that is, the care for the soul. (Reale 2003)

Is the Socratic method an educational one? Given everything that has been mentioned so far, yes, even more so than many other methods considered to be educational. The Socratic irony is not simple. It is not easy to use irony in the Socratic sense; every answer offered has to be met with its essence, while seemingly naively pretending not to know what the subject is, and then offering a counter answer or question either to allude or provoke doubt.

Socrates, in fact, logically questions the opinions and principles of the interlocutor, while irony brings into question the attitude of the interlocutor, so that the confused individual has to elaborate on their opinion or principle, in accordance with logical consistency of what they are about to say.

Socrates believed that only through a live conversation can we get closer to the truth, find out something new, and eventually learn. All of that is not possible without thorough thinking on the subject, and rules of thinking are used to deny the logical inconsistencies and to reach, if possible, a satisfactory logical conclusion. Socrates used his methods to establish greater knowledge, based on sound principles and definitions of things that he discussed:

His “irony,” then, his profession of ignorance, was sincere; he did not know, but he wanted to find out, and he wanted to induce others to reflect for themselves and to give real thought to the supremely important work of caring for their souls. (Copleston 1993)

Maieutic is a more complex process than irony. Through careful questioning, Socrates examines the attitudes stated by the interlocutor but also guides them to a logically consistent conclusion. However, the conclusion may not always be reached, as evident from Plato’s dialogues. Lack of a real conclusion is not or, at least, should not be a problem, because thinking about and raising awareness of the issue is the path toward solving it. Nevertheless, there are authors who doubt that maieutic was actually created by Socrates. According to Reale:

But everyone did not consider maieutic as Socrates’ expression, rather, they thought it was Plato’s poetic invention. For instance, Burnyeat and Vlastos believed that the method [sc. maieutic] is Plato’s invention, alien to Socrates from Plato’s early dialogues. (Reale 2003)

Regardless of whether or not maieutic is an original Socratic method, together with irony, it is a part of the Socratic dialogue, as it is called today, with its contemporary interpretation being used more and more in formal and nonformal education.

Contemporary Version of the Socratic Dialogue in Education

Colloquially, Socrates “made” the interlocutor to think about their judgments, principles, and statements, but more precisely, he encouraged thinking. The definition of Socrates as the grandfather of critical thinking, that is, of “learning how to think,” can be found among most critical thinking theoreticians. Some contemporary philosophical tendencies, such as “philosophy with children,” use dialogue based on irony and maieutic. This is called the “Socratic dialogue,” “Socratic method,” or “elenctic method.” It is a form of discussion based on questions and answers used to encourage critical thinking and “shed light on the path to the truth.” It is a dialectic method that includes opposing views, defending those views logically and problem-solving.

What is the goal of the Socratic method in education? The standard answer would be that the method encourages children and teenagers (and all those who participate in this type of educational programs) to develop critical thinking. The participants’ benefit from the development of critical thinking is probably best described by Show: “The process of Socratic dialogue assists students to organise their thoughts and sequence their learning. It guides learning by emphasising what is important and relevant” (Shaw 2008). Furthermore, Socratic dialogue develops what we refer to nowadays as critical thinking and what John Dewey referred to as reflective thinking. It was John Dewey who reestablished the need to learn how to think in modern society. “No one doubts, theoretically, the importance of fostering in school good habits of thinking” (Dewey 1926, p. 226). However, according to Dewey, although in theory the problem of thinking in educational process observed in practice is different. However, even the theoretical does not recognize the importance of this problem: “But apart from the fact that the acknowledgment is not so great in practice as in theory, there is not adequate theoretical recognition that all which the school can or need do for pupils, so far as their minds are concerned (i.e., leaving out certain specialized muscular abilities), is to develop their ability to think” (Dewey 1926). So, one of the main goals of the school is to develop the ability to think. Dewey continues: “Thinking which is not connected with increase of efficiency in action, and with learning more about ourselves and the world in which we live, has something the matter with it just as thought” (Dewey 1926). Bringing back “the learning how to think,” that is, getting used to critical thinking, can be achieved by using the Socratic method in educational systems.

As a rule, contemporary tendencies and programs which aim to teach children how to think and develop their critical thinking include an updated version of the Socratic dialogue, that is, a dialogue which features the Socratic question and answer method. The method’s tagline could be “question everything” but based on sound arguments. The method can be adapted according to age, and the most important question of the method is “Why?”. However, modern-day Socratic method in education is primarily based on thoughtful series of questions. These questions open up new question and new explanations. R. W. Paul divided the questions of the Socratic method into six basic types:
  1. 1.

    Questions for clarification: Why do you say that? How does this relate to our discussion?

  2. 2.

    Questions that probe assumptions: What could we assume instead? How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?

  3. 3.

    Questions that probe reasons and evidence: What would be an example? What is....analogous to? What do you think causes to happen…? Why?

  4. 4.

    Questions about viewpoints and perspectives: What would be an alternative? What is another way to look at it? Would you explain why it is necessary or beneficial, and who benefits? Why it is the best? What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? How are…and … similar? What is a counterargument for…?

  5. 5.

    Questions that probe implications and consequences: What generalizations can you make? What are the consequences of that assumption? What are you implying? How does…affect…? How does…tie in with what we learned before?

  6. 6.

    Questions about the question: What was the point of this question? Why do you think I asked this question? What does…mean? How does…apply to everyday life? (Paul et al. 2002)


Paul is good at establishing the types of questions in a contemporary Socratic dialogue. During workshops and while working with clients, apart from these types of question, the most frequently asked question, and also the most efficient one, is why, which demands a logical response.

Encouraging Intellectual Engagement

Socrates walked around the streets and town squares in Athens and encouraged people to think, to develop their own opinion, to dare to think, and to dare question the socially acceptable norms. Eventually, he was sentenced to death. Nowadays, we may not be sentenced to death if we think for ourselves and encourage others to do the same. Nevertheless, lethargy and mental laziness mean that most people lack the will power to bravely face everything that is put in front of them. To live thoughtfully and to live according to Kant’s Sapere aude! is difficult, but it is the only life worth living. Laziness and self-neglect is not life, merely survival. This is why changes have to be made in the educational curricula. They should encourage moral awareness among students, which also comes hand in hand with responsibility and, ultimately, freedom. These programs may be manipulated; therefore, they have to be planned carefully. Such programs offer no ready-made answers. On the contrary, they provide content for thinking and methods to do so. Each student is welcome to come to their own conclusion or what Hare calls the critical level of moral thinking. A curriculum which tries to achieve that – encourage students to think critically and reach their own conclusions – is present in educational systems around the world. However, formal education is hard to change; so many programs that are dedicated to learning how to think and development of critical thinking via the Socratic method are often part of nonformal education. The French philosopher Oscar Brenifier developed such a method called the Socratic method of Oscar Brenifier, in the UNESCO book Philosophy – a School of Freedom (Goucha 2007).

Example: The Socratic Method of Oscar Brenifier

Brenifier’s method is based on Socratic dialogue in the literal sense. Discussion with children has no formal or technical rules (sitting arrangement, talking order), but the method relies on logic, naturally. The teacher/moderator guides the discussion and points out the logical errors in children’s abstraction. Oftentimes, the discussion revolves around clarifying a notion or a problem. At first, the method may seem too abrasive for working with children, because the moderator points out children’s misconceptions, which is not easy for children (or anyone else). Nevertheless, the method is good for raising awareness about contradictory statements; associating child’s personality with general rules; becoming aware of your own character, personality, and thoughts in a given setting; identifying an issue and ways of dealing with it; facing and accepting the truth; rejecting the strict good versus bad dichotomy; etc.

Why did Socrates’ interlocutors feel uncomfortable? Because Socrates disputed their misconceptions and pointed out the flaws in their reasoning. This is how people feel any time someone shatters their prejudice and misguided opinions. This is an issue of the ego, that is, egoism and vanity. This is what seems to be Brenifier’s focus. If we can disregard our ego in a philosophical dialogue, if we can confront a logical line of thought, then we are in a far better position to find the answers we seek.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Association Petit PhilosophyZadarCroatia