The Socratic Method can be a useful tool for many forms of psychological treatment and can be incorporated into many schools of counseling and psychotherapy. Named after the famous philosopher Socrates, who lived in ancient Greece (469-399 B.C.) and who sought the answers to major philosophical questions through dialogue, the Socratic Method often refers to a reliance on questions to guide the flow of a dialogue in a somewhat predetermined manner. However, it is best to view the Socratic Method as consisting of the following key components: systematic questioning, inductive reasoning, universal definitions, disavowal of knowledge, self-improvement, and promoting virtue.
Systematic questioning refers to the use of a series of questions to explore a topic in detail. Questions can follow a variety of grammatical formats, but all seek to push the client to explore ideas, opinions, and beliefs from a new vantage point. Most questions are designed to promote independent thinking and rational problem solving. Clients are encouraged to approach difficult situations, explore different alternatives, and anticipate the consequences of various response alternatives. Systematic questioning can facilitate a process of self-guided discovery for the client.
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Inductive reasoning involves the search for general answers, often based on a review of specific events.
Inductive reasoning can include the use of analogies to extend current knowledge through comparisons with similar phenomena. In addition, inductive reasoning can explore various causal factors in order to identify the true underlying cause of an event.
Universal definitions refer to general answers that apply to all cases across all time. Socrates sought the meaning of major issues, such as beauty, goodness, or courage. As related to counseling and psychotherapy, universal definitions can provide a basis for broad issues in treatment. The therapy dialogue can explore the meaning of various behavior labels (e.g., an “aggressive” child), evaluative standards (e.g., a “good” marriage), and abstract qualities (e.g., “true friendship”). In session, therapists and clients can discuss general definitions, specific examples, and potential limitations of current views. Limited or misguided definitions are confronted, refuted, and replaced with more useful terminology.
The concept disavowal of knowledge captures Socrates’ awareness of his own limitations, often referred to as Socratic ignorance. In a similar way, it is useful for therapists to recognize that their therapeutic skill and professional knowledge resides in the field of psychology and counseling. The client remains the expert on his or her own life, friends, and subjective experiences. When therapist and client both respect the limits of their knowledge, therapy is more likely to involve a true collaborative exploration.
The self-improvement component provides a basic framework for the Socratic Method. Clients are gently encouraged to gain more knowledge about self and others, accept their strengths and limitations, and learn to regulate their desires and emotions. Self-regulation relies on logic and reason in order to maintain control over more primitive desires.
Promoting virtue is a central goal of the Socratic Method. Socrates explored general issues related to the five cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, moderation, and piety. In a similar manner, it can be useful for therapists to move beyond the specifics of habit control and symptom reduction, and instead focus on cultivating long-lasting qualities inside the client. By promoting virtuous behavior in clients, a therapist can strive for generalized and lasting changes that help to reduce symptoms and promote prosocial behavior.
The Socratic Method has applications in psychotherapy sessions, classroom discussions, and clinical supervision. When used appropriately, the Socratic Method can enhance the collaborative exploration that provides a strong foundation for effective psychological treatment.
- Overholser, J. C. (1993). Elements of the Socratic method: I. Systematic questioning. Psychotherapy, 30, 67-74.
- Overholser, J. C. (1994). Elements of the Socratic method: III. Universal definitions. Psychotherapy, 31, 286-293.
- Overholser, J. C. (1999). Elements of the Socratic method: VI. Promoting virtue in everyday life. Psychotherapy, 36, 137-145.