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Socratic Questions

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Socratic Method is a dialectic method of inquiry, that uses cross-examination of  someone's claims and premises in order to reveal out a contradiction or internal inconsistency among them.  The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their real beliefs about some topic, seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances.  Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method.

Simplifying Hegel's dialectic considers each notion has three stages of development called Thesis,_antithesis, and synthesis (this characterization actually belongs to Heinrich_Moritz_Chalybaus but is also widely used by Marxists):

Hegel himself used this classification only once, and he attributed the terminology to Immanuel Kant. Many think that this model is not Hegelian but Fichtean.

The Socratic method is considered to be a negative method of hypotheses elimination. The key idea is that better hypotheses can often be found by identifying antithesis to the proposition and trying to find synthesis by eliminating those parts of the proposition which lead to contradictions or the whole proposition if contradictions are irreconcilable with the initial proposition.  

The method presuppose a search for the underlying hypotheses, assumptions, or axioms, which may subconsciously shape one's opinion, and subjecting them to scrutiny, in order to determine their consistency with other beliefs. In this search one can also use the three laws of dialectics are:

In a sense, a dialectical analysis provides an overview and a set of warning signs against various forms of dogmatism and narrowness of thought. Furthermore,

when presented as guidelines for a philosophy of change, not as dogmatic precepts true by fiat, the three classical laws of dialectics embody a holistic vision that views change as interaction among components of complete systems, and sees the components themselves not as a priori entities, but as both products and inputs to the system. Thus, the law of "interpenetrating opposites" records the inextricable interdependence of components: the "transformation of quantity to quality" defends a systems-based view of change that translates incremental inputs into alterations of state; and the "negation of negation" describes the direction given to history because complex systems cannot revert exactly to previous states.[37]

The Socratic questioning involves asking a series of questions surrounding a central issue, and answering questions of the others involved.  The idea is expose the opponents contradictions in such a way that proves the inquirer's own point. The term Socratic Questioning is also used to describe the kind of questioning, with which an original question is viewed as the thesis and the task is not to answer it, but to find antithesis and then synthesis of the notion behind the original question.  This process often reveals weaknesses in the original notion behind the question (including inadequacies and inconsistencies of the underling beliefs) and that in turn forces the person who asked the question to reformulate it in the light of the new facts or evidence. It also reveals one's ignorance and/or intellectual limitations. Socrates, unlike the Sophists, did believe that knowledge was possible, but believed that the first step to knowledge was recognition of one's ignorance.

Socratic method is mainly survived in legal education and in reduced and modified form in Marxist philosophy and education (althouth in the USSR Marxist education was by-and-large scholastical). In a typical class setting, the professor asks a question to a student  and then plays Devil's advocate, trying to force the student to defend his or her position by rebutting arguments against it. These subsequent questions can take a few forms. Sometimes they seek to challenge the assumptions upon which the student based the previous answer until it breaks. Further questions can also be designed to move a student toward greater specificity, either in understanding a rule of law or a particular case. The teacher may attempt to propose a hypothetical situation in which the student's assertion would seem to demand an exception. Finally professors use the Socratic method to allow students to come to legal principles on their own through carefully worded questions that spur a particular train of thought.

One hallmark of Socratic questioning is that typically there is more than one "correct" answer, and more often, no clear answer at all. The primary goal of Socratic method in law schools is not to answer usually unanswerable questions, but to explore the contours of often difficult legal issues and to teach students the critical thinking skills they will need as lawyers. This is often done by altering the facts of a particular case to tease out how the result might be different. This method encourages students to go beyond memorizing the facts of a case and instead focus on application of legal rules to fungible fact patterns. As the assigned texts are typically case law, the Socratic method, if properly used, can display that judges' decisions are usually conscientiously made but are based on certain premises, belief, and conclusions that are the subject of legitimate argument.

Six Types of Socratic Questions

The taxonomy of Socratic questions was created by Richard Paul. While it is not a hierarchy in the traditional sense and the categories build upon each other, simplifying, we can distinguish the following six types of Socratic questions:

  1. Probing underling concepts
  2. Probing Assumptions
  3. Probing evidence
  4. Probe implications and consequences
  5. Questioning underling position
  6. Questions about the question

They probe six distinct but interconnected areas: concepts, assumptions, evidence, implications/consequences, underling position and the question itself.

Probing underling concepts

Get them to think more about what exactly they are asking or thinking about. Prove the concepts behind their argument. Basic 'tell me more' questions that get them to go deeper.

Here are some useful examples:

Probing assumptions

Probing of assumptions makes them think about the presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their argument. Dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use un-thought-through or weakly understood supports for their arguments.

Here are some useful examples:

Probing the evidence

When they desribe the evidence behind the arguments, prove if those are fact are fiction. Facts are stubborn things. People often use weak, refutable evidence to support for their arguments.

Here are some useful examples:

Questioning underling position

If arguments are  given from a particular position you can try not attack the arguments directly but attack the underling foundation -- the position on which they are explicitly or implicitly based. It is important that there might be  other, equally valid, viewpoints.

Here are some useful examples:

Probe implications and consequences

The argument that they give may have logical implications/consequences that can be predicted. Do these make sense? Are they desirable?. Here are some useful examples:

Questions about the question

Sometimes it is useful to become reflexive about the whole thing, turning the question in on itself. 

Here are some useful examples:

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Taxonomy of Socratic Questions

The taxonomy of Socratic questions, created by Richard Paul, is not a hierarchy in the traditional sense. The categories build upon each other, but they do not necessarily follow a pattern or design. One question's response will lead into another category of questioning not predetermined by the teacher/facilitator. In keeping with the PBL philosophy, this aspect of the model is most conducive! The role of the skilled teacher/facilitator is to keep the inquiry "train on track," but, also, to allow the students to "travel to a viable destination" of their own design.

The following table has been adapted from:

Paul, Richard, Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World, 1993.

Questions of Clarification
Questions that Probe Assumptions
Questions that Probe Reasons and Evidence
What do you mean by ____?

What is your main point?

How does _____ relate to _____?

Could you put that another way?

Is your basic point _____ or _____?

What do you think is the main issue here?

Let me see if I understand you; do you mean _____ or _____?

How does this relate to our problem/discussion/issue?

What do you, Mike, mean by this remark? What do you take Mike to mean by his remark?

Jane, can you summarize in your own words what Richard said? . . . Richard, is this what you meant?

Could you give me an example?

Would this be an example, . . .?

Could you explain this further?

Would you say more about that?

Why do you say that?

What are you assuming?

What is Jenny assuming?

What could we assume instead?

You seem to be assuming _____. Do I understand you correctly?

All of your reasoning depends on the idea that _____. Why have you based your reasoning on _____ instead of _____?

You seem to be assuming _____. How do you justify taking that for granted?

Is that always the case? Why do you think the assumption holds here?

Why would someone make that assumption?

What would be an example?

How do you know?

Why do you think that is true?

Do you have any evidence for that?

What difference does that make?

What are your reasons for saying that?

What other information do you need?

Could you explain your reasons to us?

Are these reasons adequate?

Why do you say that?

What led you to that belief?

How does that apply to this case?

What would change your mind?

But, is that good evidence for that belief?

Is there a reason to doubt that evidence?

Who is in a position to know that is true?

What would you say to someone who said that ____?

Can someone else give evidence to support that view?

By what reasoning did you come to that conclusion?

How could we find out if that is true?

Questions about Viewpoints or Perspectives Questions that Probe Implications and Consequences Questions about the Question
The term "imply" will require clarification when used with younger students.

What are you implying by that?

When you say _____, are you implying _____?

But, if that happened, what else would happen as a result? Why?

What effect would that have?

Would that necessarily happen or only possibly/probably happen?

What is an alternative?

If _____ and _____ are the case, then what might also be true?

If we say that ____ is ethical, how about _____?

How can we find out?

What does this question assume?

Would _____ ask this question differently?

How could someone settle this question?

Can we break this question down at all?

Is this question clear? Do we understand it?

Is this question easy or hard to answer? Why?

Does this question ask us to evaluate something? What?

Do we all agree that this is the question?

To answer this question, what other questions must we answer first?

I'm not sure I understand how you are interpreting this question. Is this the same as _____?

How would _____ state the issue?

Why is this issue important?

Is this the most important question, or is there an underlying question that is really the issue?

6 types of Socratic Questions

Due to the rapid addition of new information and the advancement of science and technology that occur almost daily, an engineer must constantly expand his or her horizons beyond simple gathering information and relying on the basic engineering principles.

A number of homework problems have been included that are designed to enhance critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is the process we use to reflect on, access and judge the assumptions underlying our own and others ideas and actions.

Socratic questioning is at the heart of critical thinking and a number of homework problems draw from R.W. Paul's six types of Socratic questions:

1. Questions for clarification:
  • Why do you say that?
  • How does this relate to our discussion?
  • "Are you going to include diffusion in your mole balance equations?"

2. Questions that probe assumptions:
  • What could we assume instead?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?
  • "Why are neglecting radial diffusion and including only axial diffusion?"

3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence:
  • What would be an example?
  • What is....analogous to?
  • What do you think causes to happen...? Why:?
  • "Do you think that diffusion is responsible for the lower conversion?"

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 is the best?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of...?
  • How are...and ...similar?
  • What is a counterargument for...?
  • "With all the bends in the pipe, from an industrial/practical standpoint, do you think diffusion will affect the conversion?"

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?
  • "How would our results be affected if neglected diffusion?"

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?
  • "Why do you think diffusion is important?"

Socratic questioning

Conceptual clarification questions

Socrates was one of the greatest educators who taught by asking questions and thus drawing out (as 'ex duco', meaning to 'lead out', which is the root of 'education') answers from his pupils. Rather stupidly, he martyred himself by drinking hemlock rather than compromise his principles. Bold, but not a good survival strategy. But then he lived very frugally and was known for his eccentricity. His pupils, by the way, include Plato and Aristotle. Plato wrote up much what we know of him.

Here are the six types of questions that Socrates asked his pupils. Probably often to their initial annoyance but more often to their ultimate delight. He was a man of remarkable integrity and his story makes for marvelous reading.

The overall purpose, by the way, is to challenge accuracy and completeness of thinking in a way that acts to move people towards their ultimate goal. Don't waste time by doing it for your own gratification. Get your kicks vicariously, from the movement you create.

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