In the second half of the 5th century BCE, the sophists specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric to entertain, impress, or persuade an audience. Genuine education was of little or no concern to them. Meanwhile, Socrates promoted an alternative method of teaching, which would eventually get him killed. It all began when a friend of Socrates named Chaerephon visited the Oracle of Delphi. There the high priestess asserted that no man in Greece was wiser than Socrates. Of course, he saw this as a paradox and began using the Socratic method to answer his conundrum.
Socrates’ best student Plato formalized the Socratic elenctic style in prose, presenting Socrates as the curious questioner of some prominent Athenian interlocutors. In some of his early dialogues, such as Euthyphro and Ion, Plato generally portrayed Socrates engaging in the method by questioning his fellow citizens about ethical and epistemological concerns. However, in his later dialogues, such as Theaetetus or Sophist, Plato had a different method of philosophical discussions, namely dialectic.
As such, Socratic debate is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between two or more individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and draw out more ideas and underlying presuppositions. In line with this, the Socratic method, otherwise known as the method of Elenchus, was named after the godfather of philosophy, as well as the very act of refutation itself. That is to say, the English word elenchus is derived from the Greek word “elenkhos” meaning refutation.
It was introduced in Plato’s Theaetetus as “midwifery” because it is employed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors’ beliefs, or to help them further their understanding. This was done with the use of “Socratic irony”, which is a pose of ignorance that Socrates assumed in order to entice others into making statements that could then be challenged. He did this with the following algorithm:
- First, Socrates would take a claim that a person averred that they knew, call it A.
- Then, Socrates would speak to the person and discover that they also believed other propositions, call them B, C, and D.
- Finally, Socrates would show that B, C, and D implied that A was not the case.
This elenctic method of skepticism would invariably show the person that they did not actually know what they claimed to know. So, the elenchus is a technique that Socrates used to investigate, for example, the nature or definition of ethical concepts such as justice. According to Vlastos, this process has the following steps:
- Socrates’ interlocutor would assert a thesis statement, for instance: “courage is endurance of the soul”.
- Socrates would then decide whether the thesis was false or not, and target it for refutation accordingly.
- Socrates would secure his interlocutor’s agreement to further premises, for example, “courage is a fine thing” and “ignorant endurance is not a fine thing”.
- Socrates would then argue, and the interlocutor would agree, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis: “courage is not endurance of the soul”.
- Socrates would then claim that he had shown his interlocutor’s thesis to be false and its negation is true.
In this way, one elenctic examination can lead to another, more refined, examination of the concept being considered. In the case of the example above it invites an examination of the claim: “courage is wise endurance of the soul”.
The thing is that, most Socratic inquiries consist of a series of elenchi and typically end in puzzlement known as “aporia”. Thus, Vlastos’ conclusion in step #4 makes nonsense of the aporetic nature of the early dialogues. In other words, having shown a proposed thesis to be false is insufficient to conclude that some other competing thesis must then be true. Rather, the interlocutors have reached aporia, which is an improved state of still not knowing what to say about the subject under discussion. Therefore, the exact nature of the elenchus is subject to a great deal of debate, in particular concerning whether it is a positive method, leading to knowledge, or a negative method used solely to refute false claims to knowledge.
In essence, Socratic debate is a method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. In other words, the Socratic method searches for commonly held truths that shape beliefs and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs. So, the basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests that are intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about a given topic, exploring definitions and seeking to characterize general characteristics shared by various particular instances.
Just as one quick example of how this works, in one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates debated Euthyphro about the nature of piety. Euthyphro claimed that (A) good is what is dear to the gods. So, Socrates showed that Euthyphro thought that (B) the gods could disagree on things and (C) what is good cannot also be bad. However, Socrates made the argument that one god could think that something is good while another could think that it is evil. Given the impossibility of this, as shown in part (C), Euthyphro was forced to confront the fact that goodness cannot be something determined by deities.
This time-honored technique always works like a charm when performed properly. Ultimately, the trick to winning a philosophical argument is to play dumb, using Socratic irony. Then, you get people to prove themselves wrong. That is to say, you make someone explain their side of the debate until it simply falls apart. You don’t even have to defend the truth, just let them come to it on their terms. By pretending to be stupid and sympathetic you can get their guard down. After that, you can disarm them, and the debate will be settled. You just let them think that they came to the conclusion, plain and simple.
Believe it or not, this age-old form of logic can easily be applied to anyone spreading misinformation in the modern world, such as anti-vaxxers, just as one example among many. This is about doing life-altering transformations in real-time. The power to alter people’s beliefs is the greatest responsibility and duty that you have as a citizen of planet Earth. So, with that in mind, if you happen to be well acquainted with anyone who denies climate science, then you should properly refute them on the all-important issue as soon as possible. Just think of Socratic debate like an intellectual dance, then get out there and take the lead. Together we can convert the idiotic masses, one Socratic debate at a time.