Getting to Know Socrates and the Socratic Method

Getting to Know Socrates and the Socratic Method
“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.1” Socrates may have embraced his own ignorance, but his ideas have become a staple in philosophy and intellectual discussion even in our modern times. Who was Socrates during his lifetime, and how is his philosophy understood and used today? What can we learn from Socrates and can his philosophy teach us what it means to be human?
Socrates as a Teacher
Born in Athens around 470 BCE, Socrates was a Greek teacher and philosopher.2 As a young man, he was a soldier, but ultimately dedicated himself to an intellectual way of life. He engaged his followers and students in active conversation. Conversation with others is one way we can find the truth!
His commitment to independent thought led to his death in 339 BCE. He was sentenced to death via poisoning for a lack of proper piety.2 Though he did not write any of his teachings down, his work remains accessible due to the efforts of his students, some of whom are giants in philosophical discourse themselves.
Xenophon, a historian, and the philosopher Plato were both students of Socrates, and they wrote down his conversations. These written recollections serve as the foundation for understanding Socrates and his philosophy today.
Enduring Legacy
Socrates influence is so great he is often considered an essential founder of all of Western philosophy. His student Plato went on to found a school, the Academy, and to develop his own highly regarded philosophical discourse. Aristotle, another major figure in Western philosophy, was a student at the Academy.
While a seminal figure today, understanding Socrates remains a challenge. Though his thoughts remain alive through the writings of his students, it is difficult to determine the level of accuracy or bias with which he is portrayed. The challenge modern scholars face when examining his philosophy through the eyes of others is known as the “Socratic problem.4
The Socratic Method
While a cornerstone in Western philosophy, Socrates’ teachings are used today in a wider context. His Socratic method is used today in education, perhaps most prominently in law school.
This teaching tool and conversational approach uses a series of continuous questions to help students understand challenging topics and see flaws in their own arguments and assumptions.5 While an onslaught of questions, particularly in a public setting like a classroom, can be intimidating, the method is designed to lead students to a particular idea, or perhaps a new idea. At its core, the Socratic Method helps to develop critical thinking skills. Can the Socratic Method help us to understand what it means to be human? 
Written by Michael Jaurigue

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