Socratic questioning refers to a disciplined, rigorous approach to questioning initially explored and cultivated by Socrates in the fifth century BCE, and developed much later chiefly within the field of critical thinking (which appropriates and utilises significant philosophical and ethical concepts, as well as concepts from other fields of study). Through the systematic exploration of significant ideas and issues, Socratic questioning focuses on the analysis and assessment of reasoning in pursuit of ethical and intellectual virtues. The term Socratic questioning is usually used in reference to verbal communication – dialogue and discussion – which was Socrates’ primary form of communication. Though the term Socratic questioning typically refers to verbal communication, the principals that guide Socratic questioning can be used not only in verbal form, but in written form as well (when useful in context). This might entail, for instance, developing various lines of reasoning through written dialogue – using a question and answer approach – especially in an instructional setting. The fundamental goal of Socratic questioning is to develop an inner voice of high-level reasoning through questioning – an executive level of functioning of the mind which systematically improves reasoning through rigorous questioning. This may apply verbally, in written form, or indeed in the silence of one’s own mind. The expansion of Socratic questioning occurred primarily in the later twentieth century by Richard Paul. After Socrates was put to death – to a large degree for educating people to think for themselves – it is remarkable that more than two thousand years was to pass before Socratic dialogue techniques were substantially developed.
The questioning strategies originally explored and encouraged by Socrates can be found in some of the Socratic dialogues by Plato, among the most important being: Euthyphro, the Apology, and Crito, as well as Xenophon’s Memorabilia. It is essential to understand that we can never know what the real living Socrates said or thought, because Socrates himself left no documents of his own writing; yet it is possible to have a fairly clear picture of Socratic thinking on the whole. Scholars do not agree on which documents best exemplify Socrates’ thought. However, there seems to be greater agreement among scholars that the early dialogues of Socrates as written by Plato (the four I have suggested) seem to better capture Socrates’ thinking than many of those written later by Plato, such as the dialogues focused on metaphysics. When studying and developing Socratic thought, then, it is important to stay focused on those works generally considered to exemplify the actual thinking of Socrates. All literature labelled ‘Socratic’ should be closely studied to ensure that its basic tenets and principles adhere to original, paradigmatic, Socratic thought. These works have left a permanent record of what appears to have been Socrates’ approach to systematic, rigorous forthright questioning aimed chiefly at living a rational life.
Socrates, who was born circa 469 BCE, and died in 399 BCE, was the first person in recorded history to develop an approach to questioning that could be used by all persons interested in objectively pursuing truth in connection with living an ethical life. Later development in the theory, application, and practice of Socratic dialogue, primarily by Richard Paul, and other Paulian scholars, has detailed and made more explicit the intellectual moves in questioning initiated by Socrates. Socrates believed the only defensible way to teach was through asking the student a significant question, then following through on the thoughts being generated by formulating and asking further questions; he thought that people must come to discipline and cultivate their own minds through the questions they ask in living their everyday lives.