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The Socratic Method - What Is It, and How Does It Apply to Law?

The Socratic Method, originating from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of educational dialogue with the intent of analyzing a simple assumption. It continues to be used in the education of law and is a prominent tool used by legal workers when analyzing a case. The following will give a brief history on the Socratic Method, along with an analysis of its importance to modern law.

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The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.) is most prominently known for being a thought leader for what is now Western society, with his ideas which helped found modern democracy. Socrates was also known for being a teacher, though he did not believe himself to be one; Socrates implemented his teaching methods by asking his students questions and conversing with them, also known as the Socratic Method.

Additionally, another prominent historical event involving Socrates was the trial of his death in 406 B.C. due to his thoughts against the construct of Ancient Athenian democracy, thus being condemned to death by the courts. His death, at the age of 70, occurred by drinking a cup of poison hemlock for the betrayal of the Athenian gods and the corruption of the young. However, Socrates maintained a following of the youth at the time, including his student, Plato, who covered his trial in the book titled, The Trial and Death of Socrates.

What Is the Socratic Method?

In its finest essence, the purpose of the Socratic Method is to question everything until a contradiction is exposed. As Socrates did with his students, the Socratic Method is primarily based on conversation with a focus on questioning and dissecting a topic until a contradiction is found. The Socratic Method is used prominently in law school, where students are encouraged to have conversations stemming from simple questions, which can then translate into analyses of legal cases. The Socratic Method lays the foundation for how a law worker should think; analyzing every detail and finding contradictions in arguments. For this reason, the Socratic Method is still prominently being utilized in classrooms to this day.

Criticism and Praise of the Socratic Method

Though the Socratic Method is still being studied, it has received an abundance of criticism from contemporary philosophers and others interacting with law. As Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen states in her lecture at Harvard University, “Some say that the method doesn’t prepare students for practice, that we should have a pedagogy that is more experimental.” In fact, some people argue that the Socratic Method is unethical. For example, as stated by The Princeton Review, “A professor will often manipulate the facts of the actual case at hand into a hypothetical case that may or may not have demanded a different decision by the court.” This example demonstrates the potential fragility of the method, claiming that those with less experience using the form of thought could easily be manipulated by one who is more experienced.

Contrary to the criticism, many still believe that the Socratic Method is an important element in teaching modern law. For instance, the article on Kalampedia titled How To Deal With Criticism: The Socratic Method states, “The Socratic Method is significant in various aspects of modern life. Take criticism, for instance. Some people are simply unable to deal with criticism, while some have no idea how to distinguish between an honest criticism and an insensitive fault-finding.” This argument also raises important reasoning for the continuation of the Socratic Method in modern law. Many believe that it is equally important to receive criticism as it is to analyze questions, as is done within the implementation of the Socratic Method.

Overall, the Socratic Method continues to be an element in the teaching of modern law in spite of the criticism it is receiving. As the use of the method continues, it is likely that it will be altered and improved to fit with the necessities of modern law.


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