The role of humility in the Socratic method by Bruce Ivar Gudmundsson

In the spring of 2010, while I was teaching my first case-based undergraduate course, a student paid me an unusual compliment. “Professor,” he said, “you are more humble than most academics.”

In the summer of 2011, while searching for good descriptions of the Socratic method, I ran across the following quotation from the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood's), at the end of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method; and soon after I procured Xenophon's Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method. I was charmed with it, adopted it, dropped my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer. *

At first, I was taken aback. This was not the sort of description I had been looking for. However, after reflecting a bit, I realized that Franklin had hit the nail on the head. The Socratic method is not merely the art of asking hard questions. To be sure, the questions that Socrates asked were as probing as that of any prosecuting attorney, interrogator, or inquisitor. However, what made the great philosopher so effective was the manner in which he asked these questions. Rather than using brutal logic to force his students into a corner, Socrates used quiet, humble questions to draw out their thoughts.

*Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, 1895), pp. 42