Socratic Dialogue: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Learn about the Socratic dialogue, an investigation for exploring moral and philosophical issues. When you are finished take the quiz and see what you've learned.

Socrates: Originator of Socratic Dialogue

If you've got a burning question that you just can't answer, then you have the catalyst for a conversation with others. Your question can be used to probe the views of people who share your curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Since 2,500 years ago, men have developed ways to improve the art and style of conversation. Socrates of Ancient Greece, in particular, devoted his teaching to rhetorical investigations made by his students who were in search of truth.

A Portrait of Socrates
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Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, believed that most people found it difficult to arrive at the truth. During his day, he had to contend with the Sophists, a group of people who insisted that truth was unattainable for human beings. Unlike the Sophists, Socrates sought to establish the steps to take in order to illuminate the truth and free oneself from error. Socrates was confident that truth was, in fact, knowable and that men could be trained to seek out and find it.

Definition of Socratic Dialogue

Thus, Socrates developed the Socratic dialogue, a form of the Socratic method in which conversation is used to find the value and truth of individuals' opinions. During this conversation, members of a group think carefully, slowly, and deliberately. Hence, the Socratic dialogue must not be confused with a debate, discussion, or brainstorming session because it's a methodical investigation that engages participants in a common cause.

Socrates With His Followers
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Socratic dialogue has three, distinctive levels. The first level is the dialogue or conversation itself. The second level is strategic discourse, which describes the shape of the dialogue as it unfolds. The third level is called meta-discourse because it relates to the rules for conducting the dialogue.

Examples of Socratic Dialogue

To begin an exercise of Socratic dialogue, a group leader, or facilitator, directs group members to think about the answer to some universal question. Some examples of typical questions asked are:

  • What is life?
  • What happens to the soul after death?
  • What is happiness?

The Socratic dialogue shouldn't be confused with the Socratic method, a technique for enabling people to identify contradictions in their own universal definitions that was created by Plato, the famed student of Socrates.

Next, during a Socratic dialogue, group members work together to arrive at a common consensus, which is an agreement based on their own decision-making. Every participant gives his or her ideas regarding the universal question, and the whole group considers every point made in an allotted time frame. Because there is no one winner in this dialogue, it's an enterprise of consensus that has many attractive values, such as civility, attentiveness, and thoughtfulness.

The actual process that follows the introduction of a universal question in Socratic dialogue involves participants who speak about their life experiences. For example, the facilitator presents the question: 'What is sadness?' Then, the first participant might say, 'On one occasion, X, I felt very sad.' Next, this input is open for the investigation of other participants. For instance, a second participant might add, 'During X, I never feel sad because Y.' Thus, the second participant's judgment contrasts with the first participant. This sharing of judgments among participants continues until the facilitator calls time.

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