2. The Socratic method

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The Socratic method could be one of the methods useful for building knowledge. The method is attributed to Socrates who used to use it as a dialectic (loosely: an argument) in order to extract truth from any statement or set of statements. Architects often speak loosely about architecture if they do the explanation AFTER it is seen in the real world. Here is why I use the term "loosely": The real architecture is out there in an form that cannot very easily de-compressed from its existence to the theory/theories that were used to bring it to its existence.

For e.g. a zip file can be de-compressed to reveal the internal contents. Not so with architecture. However, it is equally important to know that there could be one or more processes that are used to create good architecture. In mathematics, they talk about a process known "a one-way function": It is a mathematical function that is significantly easier to compute in one direction (the forward direction) than in the opposite direction (the inverse direction). Mathematicians use one-way functions to encrypt information just so that one cannot reverse engineer the information and see what is in it. Analogously, once a good design process is known it is possible for an architect to use it to create good architecture. However, trying to decipher what a process maybe by examining good architecture and walk backwards into the process is almost always error prone, if the explanation does not use the documentation of the design process itself.

Hence for some (E.g. students) learning good design processes is a critical exercise. Unfortunately, any talk that tries to build up a theory from the existence is very suspect to fallacious reasonings. I've seen architects struggling to explain the design process standing in front of slide-shows showing crisp photos of their works. For want of proper documentation of the design process, posteriori explanations contain many irrelevant and mystical explanations. This is more so, when it is architects/theorieticians who are trying to justify/explain some OTHER architects' works.

The Socratic method could be one method to extract the truths from such statements. However, many times even the socratic method of arguing may be insufficient if it was indeed a third party who was doing the explanation and not the architect who had designed the project ( Psst… the above three paragraphs are also a set of statements, and someone out there should subject it to a Socratic method of extracting truths from it )

So what is the Socratic method: Search for it on Google and Wikipedia.org, and there are much to read about this method that is attributed to the old Greek philosopher Socrates. Simply stated, it is one of the earliest form of scientific investigation where the investigator (Socrates, for example) starts with a position of complete innocence about the statement being made; willing to even accept it completely. Socrates then invokes a one-to-one dialog with the statement proposer (E.g. Euthyphro a Greek who got into an argument with Socrates on Piety. See below ) where in a step by step manner, Socrates exposes contradictions in the statements that were made.

These contradictions could be either by Socrates himself, in which case he would correct himself and if other party had contradictons, Socrates would request to change the other party's statements and move towards the "truth". In the end of such a "dialogue", if the other party was also equally open-minded, there would exist a set of truths that is applicable for the given dialogue, in that given time and context. For the Socratic method to work in a learning environment, there are some pre-conditions: It is almost always a one-to-one dialog and that kind of dialog should be considered socially acceptable else it can set off other issues.

There should ideally be many interested and unbiased third party onlookers, so that the dialog can go on without either Socrates or the other party feeling threatened. Last (and most importantly) both parties MUST be willing to change. In fact, in a clean Socratic method, one should not be able to detect who is playing the part of Socrates and who is Euthyphro.

If the last is not true, often the Socratic method can boiled down to some kind of hidden or even open sarcasms/irony. It can even be considered as an "Ad-hominem" attack where one person is trying to attack the other person's point of view by claiming how ignorant the other person was. It is quite important to note that in many literature on the Socratic method, it is assumed that Socrates starts with a fiegned or assumed ignorance about the subject. That is unfortunate. I do not believe one can get a good Socratic dialog going by feigning ignorance or pretending to have an open and receptive mind.

One need to really have an open mind about absorbing a new idea.

The Socratic method is extremely useful for students, especially when the teacher is interested in getting the students to ask questions themselves, instead of a pedagogic method where the teacher provides answers from a pedestal. It is quite useful if the students can get to know that they are adults in the making and are free to let the teacher stand corrected, and the teacher may not get hassled if indeed that happens. Teachers in turn, should be receptive to corrections The Socratic method is probably the earliest form of the "scientific method" where a hypothesis is proposed along with tests. More on that later …


  1. Socratic method
  2. Euthyphro
  3. One way functions
  4. Ad-Hominem fallacy

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