Questioning Like Socrates

(C) Eric Gaba - Wikimedia commons user StingThere are no stupid questions is, quite possibly, the stupidest statement anyone ever made.  Of course there are stupid questions – What is the flavour of yellow or asking a lady her weight without good medical reason come to mind.   Nevertheless questions remain the essential way in which we take advantage of the knowledge of others and add it to our own for our benefit.  Consider for example:

  • Which way to the station?
  • Does this product contain nuts?
  • Are we there yet?

With ADL, students get unlimited tutor support as one of their key benefits to studying with us.  What this means is that you should make use of your tutor.  You can’t get them to do your assignment for you but you can and should ask them questions.  However, asking the right questions is as we hope we’ve pointed out, an essential thing all of its own.  And when it comes to asking questions there's a few people who knew just how to do it. 

Introducing Socrates – The Man Who Knew He Knew Nothing

Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived some 2400 years ago.  Relatively little is known for certain about his life as no original writings attributed to him have survived. What we do know comes down from secondary sources such as the philosopher Plato and historian Xenophon in whose preserved works what is known about Socrates has been preserved.

According to these sources, Socrates was born to a stone mason father in Alopeke which in those days was a village outside of modern day Athens (which has now become part of the greater city). Taking up his fathers profession, he married a woman named Xanthippe with whom he had three sons.

Later in life he became a Hoplite – a greek soldier armed with a long spear and shield which was the mainstay of ancient Hellenic armies and as a citizen was thus involved in the occasional wars and skirmishes that broke out between the rival Greek states.   He later became a member of the Boule which was effectively the city council for Athens. 

He is best known for how his life was reported to have ended.  According to legend, the Oracle at Delphi had pronounced that there was “No man wiser than Socrates”.  Believing that he did not infact know very much, Socrates sought out the wise men of Athens, the rich and powerful whom he believed were clearly the very smartest. 

However, upon questioning them he began to realize that they were didn’t know as much as they claimed to and were not as wise as he had thought.  In most cases they were completely ignorant of how much they didn’t know, which contrasted with Socrates who knew that he did not know.  (The phrase “I know that I do not know” is frequently attributed to him). 

Unfortunately for Socrates, by inadvertently exposing many of the elite minds of Athens as foolish and unwise he had made many enemies.  Accusations against him eventually resulted in his imprisonment and trial where he was condemned to death for corrupting the minds of the youth and impiety.

Socratic Questioning and You

The way Socrates asked his questions has survived in education since then however.  Socratic questioning is very much about challenging your assumptions, in part to realize what ideas you hold are just assumptions and also to help find your way to the truth.  It is considered in many ways a precursor to the scientific method.

Consider for example the following statement: “Global warming is a hoax”.  Following the Socratic method we would delve deeper into this statement and it’s implicit assumption.  We might ask the question to that declaration about “Why do we say that?” or “Can you explain further?”  The goal here is to clarify thinking. 

Other questions to ask for example might include:

Challenge assumptions – “Why do you think this assumption holds weight here?”

Consider Evidence in favour of the argument and it’s implications – “What is your evidence for your claim?”  “Is there reason to doubt the evidence?”

Ask to Consider Alternative Viewpoints – “What is the counter argument?” “What do other people say about this?”

The goal overall is to explore more deeply the process by which a student comes to the answers they do.  Socratic methods are an invaluable tool for critical thinkers and are excellent for learners.  Understanding how you arrive at a truth and being prepared to challenge your assertions is key in becoming a good student able to demonstrate your learning.

So make sure to ask your tutors those questions – and be prepared to answer if they ask some back!





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