Argue Like Socrates

What Is The Socratic Method Of Arguing?

The Socratic Method is a form of dialogue focused on stimulating critical thinking. It typically uses questions as the primary tool for accomplishing this. It is based on the character of Socrates in Plato’s writing. Socrates as a philosopher who went around questioning everyone’s beliefs. He believed true wisdom was knowing that he knew nothing. Socrates was eventually killed because he caused everyone to dislike him.

The Socratic method is used heavily in Law Schools, and occasionally in classrooms and CBT therapy sessions.

How Do You Argue By Asking Questions Like Socrates?

There are two important characteristics to Socratic Arguing. First and most important is the heavy use of questions. If your goal is to win an argument, this is actually the best strategy. Simply never answer their questions and instead ask all the questions. Eventually most arguments cave if held up to the scrutiny of a skilled Socratic questioner.

The second part of Socratic Arguing is less mentioned. It is to start with the assumption that true wisdom is knowing you know nothing. This makes you more curious and open to changing your opinions. Practically speaking this means you are willing to apply the Socratic Method of questioning to both other people’s beliefs and your own.

You should first start with questions meant to flesh out the structure of the person’s argument. This means asking them what they think and then repeating it back to them in your own words. Use questions like “what do you think about X,” and “what reasons do you have for thinking that?” Continually dig into the reason a person thinks each premise is true until you can’t dig any further.

Then find the limits of the argument. Do this by asking questions like “what are situations where this wouldn’t apply,” “is this always true?”

Next dig for assumptions and implications by asking questions like “what would cause you to change your mind about X,” or “how does your belief about X effect what you think about Y,” “does your belief about Y not contradict what you think about X,” “what else could we assume about X,” and “what would be a good counter argument for X?”

List And Types Of Socratic Questions

  • Clarifying Questions
    • What do you mean by X?
    • When you say X, do you mean Y or Z? (Y an Z are applications of X)
    • Does that include X?
    • Did I restate that correctly?
    • What else haven’t we mentioned that would be relevant here?
    • What are the situations where this wouldn’t apply?
  • Probing Questions
    • What else could we assume that would explain that situation?
    • What reasons do you have for thinking X?
    • What would verify or disprove your assumption?
    • What does your argument assume?
    • What causes X to happen?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of X?
    • How did you determine X?
    • How does X connect with Y?
    • What else could explain this event?
    • How do we know which explanation to choose?
    • Is this always true?
  • Implication Questions
    • If X isn’t true, what does that mean for Y?
    • How does your statement about X effect your beliefs on Y?
    • Who would benefit from that state of affairs?
    • What if the opposite were true, how would that effect your argument?
  • Frame/Assumption Questions
    • What is another way to look at this?
    • Why is that an important thing to value?
    • What would be a good counter argument for that position?
    • Why are we asking questions about X and not Y?
    • How does that apply to the real world?
  • Leading Questions
    • It is true that X was present at the store, right?
    • You weren’t going to reveal that to your friend, right?

Socratic Questioning Exercises

You can apply Socratic Questioning to yourself in two ways.

First you can use Socratic questioning to challenge your own beliefs or other people’s beliefs. This will make your arguing skills better and also improve your decision making. Simply ask yourself why you have a certain belief. Think of each reason you have for thinking something and ask yourself if there is a better explanation. How could you prove that reason wrong? In what ways is that reason inconclusive or insufficient for reaching the conclusion? What are other ways to look at this fact about the world? Is there a more helpful way to look at or reframe this fact? Are these beliefs based on facts or feelings? See how CBT applies this to therapy for more examples.

Another way is to use Socratic Questioning to explore other ways of looking at the world. Do this during conversations. Find people who you do not typically associate with and ask them what they think about issues. Practice listening carefully. Don’t argue, but use probing and clarifying questions to figure out why they think what they think.


Socratic Debate Examples

  • The Cross Fire period in debate can be a good example. If one side typically uses mostly questions to make their point then the debate can be said to be more Socratic.
  • Presidential debates can sometimes involve Socratic Questioning, though lately this is rare.
  • Cross Examination in a court room is the best example of Socratic Debate. This is because the attorney is using leading questions to support, weaken, or craft a narrative about their case.

Socratic Questioning Examples

  • Depositions frequently use Socratic Questioning. The goal of depositions are to protect your client’s information, and to dig up useful information for your case.
  • CBT therapy uses Socratic Questioning to get the subject to replace unhelpful beliefs and interpretations of events and facts with helpful ones.
  • Teaching in law school or in general can use Socratic questions. Often students are asked to summarize their reading and then told to defend various parts of why the reading made certain statements.

Socratic Dialogue Examples

  • The best example is the original dialog written by Plato. See it here.
  • Another example of Socratic questioning is in law school and movies about law school. See the Paper Chase here.
  • Finally you can look at therapy CBT for Socratic questioning.

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