Socratic Dialogue (Argumentation)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Socratic Dialogue
Statue of the Athenian philosopher Socrates (c. 469 BC–399 BC).

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In rhetoric, Socratic dialogue is an argument (or series of arguments) using the question-and-answer method employed by Socrates in Plato's Dialogues. Also known as Platonic dialogue.

Susan Koba and Anne Tweed describe Socratic dialogue as "the conversation that results from the Socratic method, a discussion process during which a facilitator promotes independent, reflective, and critical thinking" (Hard-to-Teach Biology Concepts, 2009).

Examples and Observations

  • "The 'Socratic dialogue' or the 'Platonic dialogue' usually begins with Socrates professing ignorance of the subject matter. He asks questions of the other characters, the result being a fuller understanding of the subject. The dialogues are usually named after the key person interrogated by Socrates, as in Protagoras where this famous Sophist is questioned about his views on rhetoric. The dialogue has obvious relations to both dramatic form and argumentation. In the dialogues, the characters speak in ways appropriate not only to their own views, but to their speaking styles as well. Lane Cooper points out four elements of the dialogues: The plot or movement of the conversation, the agents in their moral aspect (ethos), the reasoning of the agents (dianoia), and their style or diction (lexis).
    "The dialogues are also a form of 'dialectical' reasoning, a branch of logic focusing on reasoning in philosophical matters where absolute certainty may be unattainable but where truth is pursued to a high degree of probability." (James J. Murphy and Richard A. Katula, A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003)
  • The Socratic Method in Business
    "[S]he could see that he was trying to teach the other men, to coax and persuade them to look at the factory's operations in a new way. He would have been surprised to be told it, but he used the Socratic method: he prompted the other directors and the middle managers and even the foremen to identify the problems themselves and to reach by their own reasoning the solutions he had himself already determined upon. It was so deftly done that she had sometimes to temper her admiration by reminding herself that it was all directed by the profit motive ..." (David Lodge, Nice Work. Viking, 1988)

The Socratic Method, According to H.F. Ellis

What is the argument of the Idealist School of Philosophy against the absolute existence, or externality, of the objects of experience? A question of this kind is best answered by the Socratic Method, an admirable arrangement whereby you call yourself "Philosopher" and your opponent, who has no will of his own, "Man in the Street" or "Thrasymachus." The argument then proceeds thus.

Philosopher: You will, I suppose, agree that the Understanding, through the same operations whereby in conceptions, by means of analytical unity, it produced the logical form of a judgement, introduces, by means of the synthetical unity of the manifold in intuition, a transcendental content into its representations, on which account they are called pure conceptions of the understanding?

Thrasymachus: Yes, I agree.

Philosopher: And further, is it not true that the mind fails in some cases to distinguish between actual and merely potential existence?

Thrasymachus: It is true.

Philosopher: Then S is P must be true of all predicative judgements?

Thrasymachus: Certainly.

Philosopher: And A is not -A?

Thrasymachus: It is not.

Philosopher: So that every judgment may be taken either intensively or extensively

Thrasymachus: Indubitably.

Philosopher: And this is through the activity of the apperceptive unity of self-consciousness, sometimes called cognition?

Thrasymachus: Indisputably.

Philosopher: Which arranges the phenomena of the sense-manifold in accordance with the principles of a primitive synthesis?

Thrasymachus: Incontrovertibly.

Philosopher: And these principles are the Categories?

Thrasymachus: Yeah!

Philosopher: Thus the universal is real and self-existent, and the particular only a quality of the understanding. So, in the end, your opinion is found to coincide with mine, and we agree that there is no a priori necessity for the continued existence of unperceived phenomena?

Thrasymachus: No. My opinion is that you are talking a lot of balderdash and ought to be locked up. Am I not right?

Philosopher: I suppose you are.

It will be observed that the Socratic Method is not infallible, especially when dealing with Thrasymachus.
(Humphry Francis Ellis, So This Is Science! Methuen, 1932)

Example of a Socratic Dialogue: Excerpt From Gorgias

Socrates: I see, from the few words which Polus has uttered, that he has attended more to the art which is called rhetoric than to dialectic.

Polus: What makes you say so, Socrates?

Socrates: Because, Polus, when Chaerephon asked you what was the art which Gorgias knows, you praised it as if you were answering someone who found fault with it, but you never said what the art was.

Polus: Why, did I not say that it was the noblest of arts?

Socrates: Yes, indeed, but that was no answer to the question: nobody asked what was the quality, but what was the nature, of the art, and by what name we were to describe Gorgias. And I would still beg you briefly and clearly, as you answered Chaerephon when he asked you at first, to say what this art is, and what we ought to call Gorgias: Or rather, Gorgias, let me turn to you, and ask the same question, what are we to call you, and what is the art which you profess?

Gorgias: Rhetoric, Socrates, is my art.

Socrates: Then I am to call you a rhetorician?

Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, and a good one too, if you would call me that which, in Homeric language, "I boast myself to be."

Socrates: I should wish to do so.

Gorgias: Then pray do.

Socrates: And are we to say that you are able to make other men rhetoricians?

Gorgias: Yes, that is exactly what I profess to make them, not only at Athens, but in all places.

Socrates: And will you continue to ask and answer questions, Gorgias, as we are at present doing and reserve for another occasion the longer mode of speech which Polus was attempting? Will you keep your promise, and answer shortly the questions which are asked of you?

Gorgias: Some answers, Socrates, are of necessity longer; but I will do my best to make them as short as possible; for a part of my profession is that I can be as short as any one.

Socrates: That is what is wanted, Gorgias; exhibit the shorter method now, and the longer one at some other time.

Gorgias: Well, I will; and you will certainly say, that you never heard a man use fewer words.

Socrates: Very good then; as you profess to be a rhetorician, and a maker of rhetoricians, let me ask you, with what is rhetoric concerned: I might ask with what is weaving concerned, and you would reply (would you not?), with the making of garments?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And music is concerned with the composition of melodies?

Gorgias: It is.

Socrates: By Here, Gorgias, I admire the surpassing brevity of your answers.

Gorgias: Yes, Socrates, I do think myself good at that.

Socrates: I am glad to hear it; answer me in like manner about rhetoric: with what is rhetoric concerned?

Gorgias: With discourse.

Socrates: What sort of discourse, Gorgias--such discourse as would teach the sick under what treatment they might get well?

Gorgias: No.

Socrates: Then rhetoric does not treat of all kinds of discourse?

Gorgias: Certainly not.

Socrates: And yet rhetoric makes men able to speak?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And to understand that about which they speak?

Gorgias: Of course...

Socrates: Come, then, and let us see what we really mean about rhetoric; for I do not know what my own meaning is as yet. When the assembly meets to elect a physician or a shipwright or any other craftsman, will the rhetorician be taken into counsel? Surely not. For at every election he ought to be chosen who is most skilled; and, again, when walls have to be built or harbours or docks to be constructed, not the rhetorician but the master workman will advise; or when generals have to be chosen and an order of battle arranged, or a proposition taken, then the military will advise and not the rhetoricians: what do you say, Gorgias? Since you profess to be a rhetorician and a maker of rhetoricians, I cannot do better than learn the nature of your art from you. And here let me assure you that I have your interest in view as well as my own. For likely enough some one or other of the young men present might desire to become your pupil, and in fact I see some, and a good many too, who have this wish, but they would be too modest to question you. And therefore when you are interrogated by me, I would have you imagine that you are interrogated by them. "What is the use of coming to you, Gorgias?" they will say. "About what will you teach us to advise the state?--about the just and unjust only, or about those other things also which Socrates has just mentioned?" How will you answer them?

Gorgias: I like your way of leading us on, Socrates, and I will endeavour to reveal to you the whole nature of rhetoric.
(from Part One of Gorgias by Plato, c. 380 BC. Translated by Benjamin Jowett)

"Gorgias shows us that pure Socratic dialogue is, indeed, 'not possible anywhere or at any time' by showing us the structural, material, and existential realities of power that disable the mutually beneficial search for truth." (Christopher Rocco, Tragedy and Enlightenment: Athenian Political Thought, and the Dilemmas of Modernity. University of California Press, 1997)

The Lighter Side of Socratic Dialogues: Socrates and His Publicist, Jackie

"At lunch, Socrates voiced his misgivings.
"'Should I be doing all of this?' he asked. 'I mean, is the unexamined life even worth--'
"'Are you being serious?' interrupted Jackie. 'Do you want to be a star philosopher or do you want to go back to waiting tables?'
"Jackie was one of the few people who really knew how to handle Socrates, usually by cutting him off and answering his questions with a question of her own. And, as always, she managed to convince Socrates that she was right and avoid being fired. Socrates listened to her, then paid for both of their lunches and went right back to work.
"It was shortly after that fateful lunch that the backlash began. Socrates's constant questions had become intolerable to many of the Greek elite. Still, as his Publicist had promised, he had become a brand. Imitators all over Athens were now practicing the new Socratic Method. More and more young people were asking each other questions and doing it with Socrates's patented smart-assy tone.
"A few days later, Socrates was brought to trial and charged with corrupting the youth."
(Demetri Marti, "Socrates's Publicist." This Is a Book. Grand Central, 2011)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Socratic Dialogue (Argumentation)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Socratic Dialogue (Argumentation). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Socratic Dialogue (Argumentation)." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).