Sahil Bloom


about 2 months ago

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Socrates is considered one of the most famous philosophers in history. But one shocking fact: He never wrote anything. Why he never wrote—and its implication for our own critical thinking—is worth understanding:

Socrates was an Ancient Greek philosopher who lived from ~470-399 B.C. He is generally credited as one of the founders of Western Philosophy. But unlike every other famed philosopher, Socrates left zero written works of his ideas, perspectives, or logic.

Everything we know about Socrates—the basis for his high standing in history—is through the writing and work of his pupils, namely Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon. But the accounts often differ. It represents one of the great philosophical mysteries: Who was Socrates?

One thing we do know is that Socrates was effectively against reading and writing. This is a historically hot take from Socrates—but one grounded in a finding from his life: He believed that discourse was the superior method of learning, discovery, and growth.

There's a great article from @bigthink that deconstructs the question. Ultimately, it's a very hard one to answer, as we are unlikely to uncover any new sources of truth on the matter. Barring some archaeological find of his works, we are left with more questions than answers.

The Socratic Method typically follows a simple structure: Step 1: Start with open-ended questions. Step 2: Propose ideas based on questions. Step 3: Probe ideas with progressive questioning. Step 4: Repeat until the best ideas are developed. Let's illustrate with an example:

The Socratic Method is a process of asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and expose and vet underlying assumptions and logic. It is both cooperative and argumentative. Its aim is to create an environment of productive discomfort for its participants.

Socrates' belief in the power of discourse is the foundation of one of the most powerful frameworks for stimulating critical thinking and creative problem solving: The Socratic Method What it is and how it works:

Now dive deeper. Sketch out your current thinking on the problem, including the origins of that thinking. Open the floor for targeted questioning: Why do you think this? Is the thinking too vague? What is it based upon? Challenge each other (collaboratively!).

Let's imagine your team has encountered a challenge that requires an imaginative solution. Start at the surface. What's the problem you're trying to solve? We waste time and energy trying to solve the "wrong" problem. Identify the “right” problem before trying to solve it!

Evaluate the evidence used to support the thinking. What concrete evidence do you have? How credible is it? What “hidden evidence” may exist? Understand the consequences of being wrong. Can this be quickly fixed? How costly is this mistake? Always understand the stakes.

Challenge the assumptions underlying the original thinking. Why do you believe this to be true? How do you know it’s true? How would you know if you were wrong? Identify the source of beliefs on a problem. Be ruthless in evaluating their integrity and validity.

The Socratic Method can be powerful unlock when teams are working on complex problems that require imaginative solutions. Question base assumptions, ask “why?” incessantly, and expose flawed logic to uncover better hypotheses.

Finally, after zooming in, zoom out. What was the original thinking? Was it correct? If not, where did you err? What conclusions can you draw from the process about systemic errors in your thinking?

Evaluate the potential alternatives. What alternative beliefs or viewpoints might exist? Why might they be superior? Why do others believe them to be true? What do they know that you don’t? Evaluate them on their merits and ask these same fundamental questions about them.

Entrepreneur @elonmusk often talks about the importance of the Socratic Method to his success: “One particular thing that I learned at Queen’s was how to work collaboratively with smart people and make use of the Socratic method to achieve commonality of purpose."

If you enjoyed this, follow me @SahilBloom for more writing on learning, frameworks, history, and decision making. I'll write a deep dive on the Socratic Method and how to use it to execute first principles thinking in a future piece. Join 115,000 others!

We may disagree with Socrates' hot take on reading and writing, but his belief in the power of discourse to expose flawed logic and uncover truth certainly rings true. The Socratic Method is the great legacy of that belief.

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