The Socratic Method

Question in class

Socrates (470-399 BC) was a Greek philosopher who, despite being considered one of the greatest and most important philosophers who ever lived, left no writings at all. Most of what we know about his life and work comes from the writings of his disciples, Xenophon and Plato. He lived during a period of transition in the Greek empire, and after the Peloponnesian War, he was tried, convicted, and executed for corrupting the young.

Socrates engaged in questioning of his students in an unending search for truth. He sought to get to the foundations of his students' and colleagues' views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption. This became known as the Socratic Method, and may be Socrates' most enduring contribution to philosophy.

Perhaps because of its over-the-top portrayal in the 1973 movie The Paper Chase, the very mention of the Socratic Method strikes fear in the hearts of those considering attending law school. John Houseman may have won an Oscar for his impressive performance, but if anyone ever did teach a law school class like his Professor Kingsfield, no one at UChicago does today. Instead, our students discover quickly that the Socratic Method is a tool and a good one at that used to engage a large group of students in a discussion, while using probing questions to get at the heart of the subject matter. The Socratic Method is not used at UChicago to intimidate, nor to "break down" new law students, but instead for the very reason Socrates developed it: to develop critical thinking skills in students and enable them to approach the law as intellectuals.

The Law School is proud of its excellent teachers and their use of this time-tested method. For more about the Socratic Method at UChicago, please read this article from The Green Bag.