Socrates famously observed, “I know one thing, that I know nothing.” He habitually posed of ignorance even though he knew more about any subject matter than he let on. He led his pupils through a sequence of questions—not to test or assess them, but to draw out their “tacit knowledge.” According to Plato, Socrates assumed that a pupil already possesses the knowledge or the understanding, but is not aware of this until a skillful teacher can help the pupil draw it out of himself using leading questions.
In his dialogues, Socrates imparted no information about the subject of inquiry, but systematically asked questions. By responding to Socrates’s teased-out line of thinking, the pupils eventually arrived at the desired knowledge.
The Buddha’s Socratic Questioning Technique
Buddha talked not because he was particularly loquacious, or because he was given to elaborate explanations, but in order to help people see through the smoke screen of their own language and views. Once someone asked him for his secret in answering questions as effectively as he did. He said that he had four ways of answering questions.
- One way was categorically—just to say yes or no without ambiguity.
- The second way was to examine the question analytically, clarifying definitions and trying to determine what was actually being said, usually by deconstructing it. Most of the time when the Buddha employed this method there was no need to answer the question: under analysis the question proved meaningless.
- The third way was by posing a counterquestion, the purpose of which was to bring the questioner back to his or her own mind, redirecting attention away from the entanglement of the language of the question to something real that stood behind it.
- The fourth way was simply to put the question aside, knowing that some questions are so hopelessly entangled that to take them up at all means beating your head against a wall—there is no end to it and you end up with a bloody head. To put the question aside is simply to walk around the wall. This way you can get to the other side without beating your head bloody. So sometimes the Buddha’s response to a question was silence.
Idea for Impact: Rational Inquiry is Driven by Questions
Become skilled at how to facilitate critical thinking with the Socratic Questioning technique. I recommend Richard Paul and Linda Elder’s excellent The Thinker’s Guide to the Art of Socratic Questioning (2006; excerpt.) Here’s a handy primer on the nine types of Socratic Questions.
With patience and loving-kindness, ask questions in such a way that can skillfully lead your interlocutors to a better understanding of themselves. Help them cross-examine and uncover the inconsistencies and errors of their thinking, and even change their mind—all without arguing with them.
You can also use Socratic Questioning for self-reflection, which in itself is a rhetorical device to discover the true self. Engage yourself in contemplation not to judge your past choices, but to ponder on them, learn from them, and make whatever changes you believe are right for you in the here and now.