6 Steps to Thinking Like Socrates (Pt. 1)

Thinking is hard. Thinking through a complex problem is even harder. We all have thoughts, but we’re rarely thinking in an efficient manner. Thoughts seem to pop-up into a narrative that feels correct. Through repetition, those thoughts become justified beliefs. We own, speak and act upon these unexamined beliefs convinced we’re right. But have we chosen these beliefs, or have they chosen themselves?

What if I told you that you could learn to think through an issue like Socrates: the father and founder of Western Philosophy itself? The process is called the Socratic Method and is the way Socrates would question experts about an issue. Through a systematic form of questions, he often discovered that people’s beliefs often contained glaring flaws. The process was so efficient in analysing an issue that it’s still used by the world’s philosophers, lawyers, judges, scientists and mathematicians today.

My favourite example is from Plato’s Euthyphro—a story about one of Socrates’ famous dialogues.

  1. Socrates looks for clarification from Euthyphro about piety (what is deemed morally good by the Gods).
  2. Socrates then contemplates, is something morally good because the God’s say so, or do the Gods deem something moral because the thing is good in itself?  Euthyphro automatically answers that what is good or bad is determined by the Gods.
  3. Socrates Critiques with a Consequence: what if the Gods decide that something truly horrific is good? Euthyphro thinks for a while and admits that maybe there are things that are good in themselves and that’s why the Gods choose them.
  4. But then, Socrates points out (counters), if the Gods choose what is good because it is morally right, then doesn’t morality exist independent of the Gods?
  5. Socrates concludes by inference that a moral good has to be outside of the Gods and done for its own sake.

The Socratic method only requires one to go beyond a generally accepted view into examples where the rule or belief won’t apply. In the investigative process, the enquirer discovers the strengths and weaknesses of a position allowing one to choose an action with more confidence.

The 6 C’s Process

To make the process simple to remember, I’ve broken the process into six steps named the 6 C’s: Clarify, Contemplate, Critique, Counter, Consequence and Conclusion. I’d recommend writing through the steps when starting out as it allows you to see and think about the issue. As you become more proficient, the process can be done mentally but there’s always a danger of getting distracted or going off on irrelevant tangents. The first part will explain the process while the second section will illustrate a personal example from my past.

1. Clarify the issue

Confusion on a topic is often due to a lack of focus on what the issue is fundamentally about. Our first response to something is an automatic reaction, and it’s vital to recognise it for what it is: an impulse. To clarify understanding, we need to specify the one thing that’s underlying an issue. Don’t get distracted by extraneous noise and drama, focus on the main topic.

2. Contemplate Assumptions

Do you have any pre-conceived assumptions about the issue that’s clouding your judgement? Often, we have a subconscious bias that may dictate how we react. What might that be? Can you work it out and consider it before going further? Is it a fear, a memory, a preference, an alliance? Recognise and put it aside for now as it’s clouding your judgement.

3. Critique the evidence

Is there any tangible proof of the issue you’re considering or is it an opinion or hearsay? If the issue is intangible, like an idea, is there historical evidence of its application? Are there arguments from earlier thinkers on the subject? Can you gather data to support your hypothesis?

4. Counter

Are there counter-arguments? Can you plan a counter-argument? Is your current opinion rational or wishful thinking? If a friend had your current opinion, how would you talk them out of it? Is there evidence to disprove your hypothesis?

5.  Consequences?

Consequences are the ultimate result to consider any decision. Often, the long-term impact isn’t immediately clear. Will your words have perceptual consequences? Will consequences be immediate or latent; local or global; personal or to other people; small or large; simple or have a potential domino effect? Nothing exists in isolation. Every action has an inevitable reaction. Think about what that is.

6. Conclusion

Is the conclusion right or wrong; good or bad; probable or improbable; possible or impossible; worth it or not?

Anyone can learn to think like Socrates. All you need to do is repeat the 6 C’s on as many ideas or issues as possible until it becomes a habit. I suggest writing through the process for a while to stop becoming distracted or confused. Eventually, the process becomes natural and instinctive. With practice, you’ll be ripping through problems like the greatest minds throughout history. I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote by David Foster Wallace:

Learning how to ‘think’ means learning how to exercise control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

Part 2, I’ll show you how to use the 6 C’s through a personal example. Subscribe to be notified and share on Social Media if you thought this was useful.

Tell me what you think. What decision will the 6C’s help you work out?

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