The Socratic method of thinking

The book

Whilst reading Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy I came across the so-called Socratic method of thinking, named after the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. The idea of the book, as the title already suggests, is to console you in the everyday difficulties you face. In every chapter a different philosopher takes the stage, dealing with a particular topic. The first chapter is on unpopularity and Socrates is ‘used’ to console you in facing the difficulties and frustration that come with actions that could lead to unpopularity. So, the Socratic method of thinking is a 6-step action plan for coming to ‘perfect’ – irrefutable – arguments

  • 1. Think of a statement broadly accepted as being common sense
  • 2. Imagine that the statement is false and search for example that support that argument
  • 3. When a situation is found, the statement must indeed be false or imprecise
  • 4. Reformulate the statement by including the exception
  • 5. Repeat the process and continue to add exceptions to come closer to the truth of the statement
  • 6. “The product of thought is, superior to the product of intuition”  – Consolations of Philosophy p. 25

Theoretically, this would imply to you would be able to produce a perfect argument/statement, which is irrefutable. Even though this might not be possible to do in practice, it has great implications of the way people would think of statements and arguments made by others.

Here is a figure which schematically tries to make the point.

In the field of politics, the repercussions could be huge. Populists would face more challenging times, if their potential supporters would apply this method of thought, they would become significantly more critical. And that can be done very simply. For instance, a politician makes the following hypothetical statement: “All the problems in our country are because of the Euro and immigrants” (this could very realistically have been said by Geert Wilders, but that is not relevant to the point being made). A proportion of the people, lacking deep understanding as to what causes economic/societal/political problems in a country might agree with the statement, because they don’t know better, and perhaps have come across a case where an immigrant committed a violent act; thus reinforcing that belief. What would happen if those same people would put the statement that “all the problems in our country are because of the Euro and immigrants” to the test, by trying to search for exceptions/contradictions to this statement? Firstly, they would find many exceptions to the statement, because of its overly simplified nature. Can the Euro and immigrants be (completely) blamed for rising unemployment, violence at soccer matches or the large income inequality between the poor and the rich? No, they cannot. Furthermore, triggering these people to see the virtues of the presence of immigrants and the Euro, would further offset the previously statement as being held for true.

Secondly, it would (ideally) make people more intelligent for I believe that many people do not take the time to think about their set of beliefs enough, including myself. Questions like; “Are there instances where that what I belief to be true is not true?” will make one more careful in making oversimplified and more critical.

And that is why I think that politicians would have a much harder time to sell their stories, because their voters would pay more attention to what they say – whether the argument put forward is correct, or alternatively, how many exceptions one might find to the statement.

An interesting site for more on the Socratic method: http://www.socraticmethod.net/

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2 thoughts on “The Socratic method of thinking

  1. Pingback: Thinking politics | Selected advices from Seneca

  2. Pingback: Thinking politics | Selected advice from Seneca

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