The Socratic Method by Farnsworth is a book that takes you deeper into the story and techniques of Socrates. It covers the way Socrates asked questions, the possible history and source of Socrates, and the effects of Socrates. It draws and analyzes methods of questioning from Plato’s writings. It teaches you how to be more Socratic by challenging your own beliefs.
Review & Criticism
Farnsworth is a very clear writer. Each chapter is extremely well organized. It is never unclear what he is trying to accomplish with any portion of the text. Each chapter advances his points slowly and clearly. The sections within the chapters are clearly labeled and easily understood. He uses quotes by Plato and other philosophers to make his points. By the end you feel like you have a strong understanding of Socratic methods, history, implications, effects, and more.
If you want to get a holistic understanding of Socrates this is a great book. Farnsworth explains different theories of where Socrates might have come from. Maybe he was a creation of Plato, maybe he was a historical character. Maybe both. Time is also spent discussing the strengths and weaknesses and results of the method. The author also covers the effect Socrates had on other areas of philosophy. He influenced the Skeptics and the Stoics. Farnsworth also takes time in the last few chapters to teach you how to create your own Socratic questions. You can use these on yourself or on others.
If you are primarily concerned with picking up Socratic techniques to add to your quiver, you will be satisfied but not overjoyed. This isn’t a book full of long lists of questions or techniques. Don’t get me wrong, the book covers in detail each of the parts of the Socratic method. There are chapters devoted to how to draw contradictions, how to eliminate differences between terms, how to use inconsistency against someone, and more. But if you are looking for a very practical guide full of argument strategies or lists of questions you can immediately use, you should just buy a legal book on cross examination or deposition techniques. Or just read this guide on how to quickly apply Socratic questioning.
The book is 80% philosophy of Socratic reasoning and 20% techniques. If you are seeking a more deep and contextual understanding, you will be happy with this purchase. But I’d try renting it at a library if you are wanting to improve your Socratic technique. The context itself might make you a better questioner. For example, the author points out multiple times that these techniques can be applied internally to your own beliefs. This reframe of the general idea people have about how to use the Socratic method would make you a better Socratic questioner if you hadn’t thought of this before.
If you are just looking for useful questions that can help people be more open minded, consider this summary we wrote on one book that is used by the Street Epistemology group. It has a whole list of very specific and actionable questions you can use to lower someone’s certainty.
Chapter By Chapter Summary
1. The Socratic Problem
The first chapter talks about Socrates, Plato, and other characters that will come up through out the book. It discusses history and the forces at play. The chapter spends most of the time analyzing the different ideas on the origin of Socrates. The author leans towards him being a creation of Plato.
2. Methods vs. Doctrine
This chapter makes a distinction between the method of Socrates and Plato himself. It is important because both Mill (a philosopher) and the author lean towards saying that Plato’s great contribution was less of the forms and more of the Socratic method. No one really believes in the forms or the philosopher king. But people regularly research and use the Socratic method.
3. Elements of the Method
Chapter three covers five important elements of the Socratic method. First it is a question and answer based approach. Second it has a heavy focus on proving a person’s inconsistency. Third it draws out the principle behind what the interlocutor is saying in order to show how it covers too much or too little. Fourth it drives the point home with concrete examples. Fifth Socrates admits that he doesn’t know.
You should want friends who behave like Socrates. They will make you more humble, aware, less error prone, and more understanding.
4. The Socratic Function
Consider applying the reasoning of Socrates to your own ideas. This seems to be how Plato himself approached the method. It is almost as if the dialogues were a way for him to play out the different characters in his brain. Socrates himself is a part of the brain focused on being the vicious reasoner. You should develop a character like this in your brain but not fully become Socrates himself. This is the focus of chapter four.
5. Question and Answer
Five talks about how the Socratic method is different from philosophy. It seeks commitment to a process rather than a result. Socrates’s beliefs aren’t really found in the dialogues, but his commitment to a type of activity is.
He is never in a rush. He asks open ended questions to gather information about what the person thinks. He helps the individual develop what they think. Then he starts asking closed and leading questions. Socrates takes particular pleasure in questioning the beliefs that his interlocutors assume are true.
6. The Elenchus
Chapter six talks about one of the more useful Socratic techniques. He gets you to make a series of propositions and then shows how agreeing to one of them means contradicting something you said before. In a sense this technique is equivalent to what we would call falsification. Finding one grey duck falsifies the belief that all ducks are white.
The presence of consistency in a belief system, sometimes called coherence, is some evidence that those beliefs are true. They happened to survive the rigor of questioning.
Farnsworth says you should try to “take your own beliefs and follow their implications… keep going after you flinch. You test them with extreme cases… different perspectives.” You will eventually get used to and more comfortable with being wrong.
This chapter talks consistency in general. Socrates doesn’t just prove you wrong with external facts. He shows you how the things you already think make you wrong. Your own beliefs turn against you. This prevents you from attacking the new data or the author of the idea.
Inconsistency is persuasive because it makes people feel lost, stuck, and miserable.
8. Systole and Diastole
Chapter eight talks about Socrates’ tools for showing similarities and differences between ideas. The ability to reduce or create a distinction allows him to find inconsistencies. It allows him to show the interlocutor that they are headed somewhere they don’t want to go. Similar to this is the ability to define something by putting into categories and then segmenting those categories.
Analogies are covered in chapter nine. They are useful because they show instead of just telling. They allow Socrates to illustrate points along the way to his main point.
10. Socratic Rules for Dialogue
The tenth chapter talks about general rules for engaging in Socratic dialogue. You should be focused on searching for truth and not just winning. The method tests people just as much as it tests claims. The process can be considered therapeutic. Reason is the most important. Focus on candor, saying what you think is accurate and not what you think will make you look good. Encourage honesty. Assume the interlocutor means well and is intelligent. Encourage your partners and support them when they don’t have confidence. Deflate their egos when they are too big.
Eleven talks about the role of ignorance in the method. The conversation is supposed to start with and end with “I don’t know.” Double ignorance, or being unaware of how you are ignorant, is worthy of contempt. If you are wrong you can account for it. If you are wrong and don’t know it, you will eventually meet disaster. Don’t try to add to your knowledge before you know what you don’t know. The Socratic practitioner should help the person develop a strong version of their belief before tearing it down.
Twelve talks about the state of not knowing. It is the first response to a successful Socratic session. Then the person usually moves on to skepticism of ideas in general. Aporia itself prepares you to learn by making you humble. It also gives you a motivation to learn.
13. Socratic Goods
Chapter thirteen talks about why you should bother with Socratic thinking. Plato’s allegory of the cave is the answer. When you are in the cave you don’t know what you are missing. But once you are out you don’t want to return to your state of ignorance. The “sensation of one’s own wisdom is a deceptive, insidious, and stubborn feature of human nature… it is the master mistake that makes all other mistakes more likely.”
14. Socratic Ethics
This chapter talks about Socratic views. “He may be physically harmed… but his happiness… depends on his own virtue (or wisdom, or understanding), it’s up to him. This idea powerfully influenced the Stoics.”
15. Socrates and the Stoics
The influence of Socrates on the Stoics is the focus of this chapter. Epictetus seemed to buy into the idea of a person’s witness. He also uses questions and comments to drive a student to an untenable conclusion. There are also similarities in how each Socratics and Stoics approach emotions. Socrates doesn’t account much for emotion. Stoics see emotional reactions as not valid responses to the thing itself but to how you understand the thing. Both sides also try to detach themselves from external things that you can’t control or influence.
16. Socrates and the Skeptics
Skeptics are the focus of this chapter. Farnsworth calls them the “direct extension of the methods of Socrates.” They dislike jumping to conclusions, instead preferring to take their time and inquire with suspicion. One skeptic focused on showing how there were good arguments on both sides. Skeptics focus on suspending judgement by saying they don’t know one way or another. Similarly, Socrates doesn’t say he is sure. He just says that no one has been able to refute him yet.
The Fallibilist approach seems to come from this combination of Skepticism and Socrates. They believe that you can’t be certain but you can still move forward and take rational actions.
17. Finding Principles
This chapter is one of the pragmatic ones. It has very specific examples of questions you can ask. The focus here is to first get a claim on the table and to clarify it. Do this by drawing out a claim you can test.
Ask what is X? What makes x better than y? What is your objection to X? Why do you love or hate x? What does it mean?
Look for judgements. Smoke out the main premise and the underlying assumptions. Keep asking why and how until you are really clear about their argument. The more they speak and answer questions, the more you have to draw a contradiction from. Find the principle behind the first statement they made. Seek the real reason they have for holding their beliefs. Establish where you agree with the person and where you depart from them.
The single best way to ask why, what, and how questions. How do you know that? What makes you so sure? What is the reason behind that? What is that thing’s purpose? Why doesn’t this make sense? Are there other reasons for X? What are other possible purposes? Why is X important?
18. Testing Principles
The 18th chapter focuses on how to draw contradictions. First you can think of counter examples. This is easy to do with simple ideas but harder with complex ones. With complex claims your focus should be to show that the claim is inadequate, too simple, or needs more thought. Try taking the person’s claim literally. This works well with metaphors. Think of extreme cases. Imagine your friends doing something and imagine your enemies doing that same thing. If dealing with ethics, a particularly useful trick is asking how it would look if another person was in your shoes. Next you can ask what else would you see if the claim were true. What would happen next? How would those conclusions they support effect how people act. Economists love this question.
Farnsworth also says to focus on finding out “what others would be willing to accept as evidence that they are wrong, or what (if anything) might cause them to change their minds.”
If the person feels threatened, stretch out the distance between your initial agreements and when you end up making them contradict themselves. Take the extra time to clarify your understanding of what they are saying.
Epilogue: Socratic Rules of Engagement
This chapter simply gives a flexible way to apply the Socratic method by following general rules. It suggests things like humility, self skepticism, and meeting arguments with more arguments.
This section was a bit redundant as some of the topics are covered earlier.
Where Can I Buy This Book
Check out the book here.
If you are interested in questions and persuasion, check out our detailed summary of the best book on conversational persuasion we have come across here.
Read this one on strategies on how to win arguments if you are more interested in that.