The Socratic Method and Inductive vs. Deductive Reasoning

Updated on February 28, 2018
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I earned my bachelor's degree in philosophy from SUNY Stonybrook and obtained a master's degree in philosophy from the University of London.

Socrates and the Dialectic

In this article, I will be discussing the concepts of the Socratic method, and inductive and deductive reasoning. As the name implies, the Socratic method was developed by the Athenian philosopher Socrates and utilizes the dialectic, a type of reasoning that takes the form of a discussion. This dialogue (typically between two people of opposing viewpoints) is used as a method of intellectual investigation to expose falsehoods and arrive at truth.

Classic Model of the Socratic Method

The method is used not as a means to establish positive logical truths but rather as a way to dismiss assertions of truth. This is in keeping with Socrates' definition of wisdom. He often asserted that he, in fact, knew nothing and that he was only wiser than other men because he was conscious of this fact. For Socrates, it was this ability to admit that he did not know something that was the source of his wisdom.

As such, the Socratic Method is primarily a means of refutation in which the ignorance of Socrates' questioner is exposed by the negation of his contention. Socrates himself never wrote anything down, and we know only of his method by the dialogues recorded by his student Plato. These dialogues typically begin with an Athenian acquaintance querying Socrates in the form of something like, "Is it not the case that, X?" Socrates would disassemble this statement into pieces and draw seemingly true implications from the pieces that the interlocutor would then consent to. Upon the reassemblage of these implications, a statement would emerge that was the logical antithesis of the thesis first asserted. Thus, showing it to be a statement of ignorance and invalidity.

Notice that Socrates has not arrived at any new truth but merely eliminated a contention of untruth. Thus, in keeping with his definition of wisdom, he demonstrates both the questioner's and his own ignorance regarding positive truth.

The method brings you closer to the truth through eliminating the untruths and the inconsistencies of the original assertion. The dialogues end in a state of "aporia," which is an expression of philosophical doubt or bewilderment.

The dialogues end in a state of "aporia," which is an expression of philosophical doubt or bewilderment.

Useful Applications of the Socratic Method; Induction and Deduction

The method can either use deductive or inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning uses generalizations to arrive at a specific conclusion in a particular situation. In deductive reasoning, the proof is considered an absolute, given that the premises are valid.

To take an example from geometry, given the generalization that all triangles have internal angles that add up to 180 degrees, then any random triangles with which I am presented can be deduced to have angles that when added together will equal 180 degrees. I am using my general knowledge of triangle properties and applying it to a specific triangle.

An inductive argument is just essentially the opposite. It uses specific examples to arrive at a general rule. To stay with the geometric example, inductive reasoning is how I would arrive at the premise that all triangles, no matter how different they look, have angles that add up to 180 degrees. I might measure and add the angles of an isosceles triangle and find they equal 180; then I might measure the angles of a scalene triangle and of an equilateral triangle and find that they too both equal 180. I further find that this rule holds no matter what lengths I make the sides of the triangle, and from this, I induce that all triangles have angles that equal 180 degrees.

In this case, my inductive reasoning will always hold true, but many inductions are not absolutes. For example, if a child pulls three red candies in a row out of an opaque bag, then the child might incorrectly induce that all the candies in the bag are red.

What Are the Differences Between Inductive and Deductive Reasoning?

Inductive Reasoning
Deductive Reasoning
Based on facts, specific to general
Based on observations, general to specific
Are reached by applying logical rules to the premises
Are reached by generalizing the observations
If the facts are true, then the conclusion must be true
If the observations are true, then the conclusion drawn from them is probably true
Primarily in logical problems as the facts used need to be true
Frequently used in everyday life as evidence gained from observation is used to prove something

An Example of a Socratic Dialogue

Here is an extremely simple example of the Socratic method in practice. You will not find it in any of the published dialogues; it is just a small example I ran across in the past that illustrates the method.

Questioner: Is it not true that the world is flat and not round?

Socrates: I don't know, let's examine that. What leads you to believe that the world is flat?

Questioner: When I walk about, I do not feel like I am falling forward or falling backward.

Socrates: Indeed neither do I. But let me ask you something: if you travel far enough in a straight line will you return to the spot from which you began?

Questioner: I think that you would.

Socrates: Is it not true that ships do such things?

Questioner: Yes, I believe they have been know to do so.

Socrates: Well then it appears that the Earth cannot be flat, wouldn't you agree?

Questioner: Yes, I suppose this is true.

Most of the dialogues take on quite a lengthy and involved format in which multiple refutations, such as the one just given, interplay to arrive at a much more complex refutation. But this dialogue, along with some examples to come, will illustrate how the method is used in therapy, in the classroom, and in legal proceedings. These examples will demonstrate the Socratic method's fundamental view that probing questions can draw out what is contradictory in a claim

Socratic Questioning in Therapy

Deductive and inductive reasoning—and specifically Socratic questioning—can be useful in many fields. Socratic lines of questioning are an indispensable part of mental health therapy. Opening, guiding, and closing questions are all used to explore a client's issues in greater depth, to elicit tacit conclusions drawn by the client, and to focus on new modes of behavior. For example, with a client that selectively remembers only periods of depression and thus concludes that he or she will always be depressed, the therapist will draw out the exceptions when the person has not felt depressed and point out that the induction they have made is invalid.

In reality-therapy, a therapy based on conscious choice, a client may reject that they are choosing to feel depressed as a result of their cognitions and actions. A basic use of Socratic questioning can disprove this:

Therapist: So you don't think your actions and thoughts are leading you toward depression?

Client: No.

Therapist: Could you imagine yourself making choices and ruminating on thoughts that would make you even more depressed than you are now?

Client: Yes, I suppose so.

Therapist: So then the opposite must be true right? If you can think and act your way into feeling worse, doesn't that imply that you can think and act your way into feeling better?

Client: I suppose you're right.

Of course, establishing a logical proof by itself doesn't do much for depression. Following the establishment that a client can think and act in ways that will improve their mood, the client and therapist must brainstorm ways in which depressive thoughts can be challenged, stopped, and replaced. Additionally, the client and therapist must establish activities in which the client can partake in that will lead to moments of decreased depression and increased enjoyment. Once some of these strategies are in place and the client experiences instances of decreased depression, they will begin to see that this approach is an effective means for dealing with depression.


Socratic Questioning in Legal Proceedings and School Settings

Law schools use the Socratic method most of the time. This is because it fosters the probing of one's own assumptions and forces a critical examination of those assumptions in whole, piecemeal, and in relation to other assumptions. For example,

Law professor: What is case law?

Law student: A case that establishes a statute?

Law professor: What's a statute? How is it like and unlike a law?

Probing of this type engenders both a more specific and a broader understanding of concepts that a student already thinks that they fully comprehend.

Socratic dialogue can be used very effectively with most school-age pupils. It works especially well with students because of its use of questions to be answered and examined instead of statements to be accepted and memorized, thus keeping young students actively engaged. An example of a simple exercise for a school-age child might go like this:

Teacher: What is arithmetic?

Students: It's math.

Teacher: Ok, then what is math?

Students: It's doing different things with numbers.

Teacher: What types of things?

Students: Like adding them together.

Teacher: Who can add two numbers together on the chalkboard for me?

Student: (Writes) 2+2=4

Teacher: Great, thank you. What is that symbol before the 4 you made?

Students: It's an "equals" sign.

Teacher: What does it mean?

Students: It means that 2+2 and 4 are the same thing.

Teacher: What do you mean the same thing? They look different to me.

Students: We mean they are the same size, just as big as each other.

Teacher: I see. Can anyone think of two other numbers that are just as big as 4 when added?

You get the idea. From here, you can ask how subtraction is like or unlike addition, get some examples of subtraction using the same numbers that were added, and help the students to realize on their own that subtraction is the inverse of addition. ("Opposite" would be a better word to use with them.)

We act out our daily lives by drawing deductive conclusions and inductive expectations. We typically just don't analyze or put specific terms to the processes. However, by examining the phenomena by which we draw inferences (deductions) and establish beliefs (inductions), we can force ourselves to better understand that which is innate in any given situation and that which is not. We can then apply this line of thinking to situations in which we might not normally use them.


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    • profile image

      Ezra 3 years ago

      I thoroughly enjoyed your article but I would like to let you know that there are multiple grammatical errors int this post. Other than that I enjoyed it.

    • adamschwartz profile image

      adamschwartz 3 years ago from Syracuse NY, USA

      No not at all, Honored in fact.

    • seraphic profile image

      Seraph 3 years ago from Canada

      Hi! I hope you do not mind, but I am going to link your article to my article that I am completing on Socrates.