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 as 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, a Socratic debate is a form of a 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.