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What is a Socratic question? That question is a Socratic question. But not all questions are Socratic questions. Asking questions as a way of teaching and engaging with others is the Socratic method, but not just any question will do. So, what is a Socratic question?

The precise reason why Socrates became the founder of political philosophy appears when one considers the character of the questions with which he dealt in his conversations. He raised the question, “What is …?” regarding everything. This question is meant to bring to light the nature of the kind of thing in question, that is, the form or the character of the thing (Strauss and Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy, p. 5).

The essence of a Socratic question is to determine the essence (or nature) of a thing. In other words, it’s a quest for truth. Truth is real and knowable through reason, dialogue, scientific inquiry, and revelation.

But some questions are not Socratic. They aren’t meant to illuminate or know, they are meant to trap:

  1. Have you stopped beating your wife yet?
  2. Did you eat a cookie from the cookie jar?
  3. Are you a bigot?
  4. How many mass public shootings must we tolerate before we enact gun control laws?

The first is a complex question; the second and third are leading questions; the fourth hides an implicit but dubious assumption. All four either contain hidden assumptions or the suggestion that the answerer is in fact guilty of subtle accusations hidden in the questions. In most cases, you wouldn’t ask these questions unless you already suspect the person is guilty. But you don’t want to accuse the person yourself. So you ask these questions in the hopes of planting a seed of doubt that will eventually prompt the person to ‘confess’ to their supposed transgression. When they do, you can claim they have admitted their own guilt. But you also accused them by asking loaded questions that masqueraded as innocent inquires.

These questions are not Socratic questions. They are not concerned with the nature of things, and they do not genuinely invite others to come alongside you to learn, discover, and know. Socratic questions are objective to the speaker; they remove the subjective ‘I’ from the center of attention, providing a safe place to honestly explore what it is you want to know without fear of self-implication. But the fallacious questions above do the opposite: they accuse first, and require self-abnegation and confession before you can become an equal participant in the dialogue and the search for truth–a ‘truth’ that has already been decided upon and that you now must submit to if you want to be accepted and forgiven.

Instead of asking, “Are you a bigot?”, what if you asked, “What is bigotry?” This makes space for those in the conversation to first consider the nature of bigotry apart from the very personal (and threatening) idea that they themselves are a bigot. Once the essence of bigotry has been determined, then each person can engage in reflection on whether they are a bigot. This process is critical, because the question “Are you a biogt?” often sidesteps the question of what bigotry is, and therefore easily slips in a distorted or incorrect idea of what is being accused. Then, not only are you being accused, but you’re being accused of something that isn’t so.

We should be wary of faux Socratic questions. They fill our social, political, and theological conversations everyday. Be like Socrates: question the question when the question isn’t Socratic.