The Socratic Method

I've written a few times about how Stoicism is a leading influence on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). However, as important an influence is Socrates, the father of western philosophy, though his influence on modern psychotherapy is less remarked upon.

The influence is clearest upon Albert Adler, the one-time student of Sigmund Freud; and upon Aaron T. Beck, the founder of CBT. Both describe their therapeutic technique with patients as 'the Socratic method'. What do they mean by this?

Beck writes, in his groundbreaking work Anxiety Disorders and Phobias:

"Cognitive Therapy uses primarily the Socratic method. The cognitive therapist strives to use the question as often as possible. This general rule applies unless there are time restraints - in which case a therapist has to provide direct information to reach closure.

"While direct suggestions and explanations may help to correct a person's anxiety-producing thoughts, they are less powerful than the Socratic method. Questions induce the patient (1) to become aware of what his thoughts are, (2) to examine them for cognitive distortions, (3) to substitute more balanced thoughts, and (4) to make plans to develop new thought patterns."

"Good questions can establish structure, develop collaboration, clarify the patient's statements, awaken the patient's interest, build the therapeutic relationship, provide the therapist with essential information, open up the patient's previously closed system of logic, develop his motivation to try out new behaviour, help him to think in a new way about his problem, and enhance the patient's observing self."

"The therapist is modeling coping strategies by asking questions that expand a patient's constricted thinking. Often a patient reports that when confronted by a new anxiety-producing situation, he will start by asking himself the same questions he heard from the therapist: 'Where is the evidence?', 'Where is the logic?', 'What do I have to lose?', 'What do I have to gain?', 'What would be the worst thing that could happen?', 'What can I learn from this experience?'"

So this is how Beck defines the Socratic method. But is it one that Socrates himself used?

At a simple level, yes, because Socrates (or rather, the Socrates who we meet in Plato's dialogues) did indeed use questioning and dialogue between himself and his 'patients', as a way of helping them come to realize how their beliefs and ideas may be irrational and nonsensical.

Thus, in Plato's early dialogue, Euthyphro, we see Socrates meeting Euthypro, a worthy of Athens, on his way to bring a law case against someone. Socrates asks him how he can be so sure that he is acting justly or virtuously, and the two proceed to go into a dialogue, or dialectic, in which Euthypro puts forward his idea of virtue and tries to defend it, while Socrates questions him about it, draws him out, and gets him to dig down and examine how logical or rational his ideas about virtue are.

We discover that Euthypro's ideas aren't that rational or consistent at all. So we end up, by the end of the dialogue, in a state of ethical uncertainty as to what virtue really is. We realize, at least, that we can't be so sure about the things we thought we knew. We proceed with a new humility and willingness to examine our beliefs and ideas, and thus to 'know ourselves'.

Socrates' dialogues invariably pursue the question of 'what is the good?' How can we know whether our actions are virtuous or not? Are external factors such as wealth, fame or political power part of virtue or not? How can we come as close to virtue as possible.

Often, Socrates is busier in destroying bad or lazy thinking than he is in putting forward positive doctrines. However, in some of Plato's later dialogues, when Plato was developing his ideas, we see Socrates putting forward more positive doctrines. One can summarize them as follows:

Humans are possessed of reason. Our psyche, or soul, is rational. This rational psyche is given by God, who is also rational. God made the universe a rational, ordered whole. When the rational soul frees itself from bad or irrational ideas, it becomes more ordered and more aware of its own divinity. It recollects its own divinity. Philosophy is the work of taking care of the soul. The philosopher reminds people to worry less about conventional goods such as wealth or sex, and more about their souls, or psyches. He is thus a sort of 'psycho-therapist'. The best way to take care of the soul is to free it from the influence of the body, from the influence of the passions, and from the influence of bad ideas. We can do this through philosophy, that is, by thinking about our thinking, by examining our ideas, by knowing ourselves.

There are some important differences, then, between Socrates' method and goals and the method and goals of CBT. Socrates' aim, unlike the aim of Stoic or Epicurean philosophers, is not principally the elimination of anxiety. His philosophy is not as overtly therapeutic as Stoic philosophy. His aim instead is knowledge of the good.

CBT takes no real ethical positions. It is more Socratic in the early sense, of exploding obviously false and negative ideas, rather than Socratic in the later sence, of putting forward positive doctrines about the soul and its mission on Earth.

Thus a patient says to their therapist, 'I'm a loser, I'll always be a loser, I'll never be happy', and the therapist drills down to find the beliefs behind these statements and to see if they are rational or defensible:

'Why are you a loser?'

'Because I always fail to pull women.'

'Have you failed every single time?'

'Well, not every time.'

'So what is that?'

'A generalization, I guess.'

'And just because you've failed a few times, does that mean you are somehow 'a loser', in some total and essential way?'

'I guess it just means that I've failed in trying to pull a few times. I suppose I'm fairly competent in other areas of my life.'

'And you agree that it's possible to acquire new skills, including acquiring new skills at meeting women?'

'I guess so'.

'So it may be possible for you to acquire new skills, and to become more successful in the future, so then in the future you would fail less?'

'I suppose'.

'Do you think your self-esteem should depend solely on how you do with women?'

And so on.

The therapist plays the role of rational interrogator, and the idea, as Beck says, is that the patient will from these conversations learn the habit of rationally interrogating his beliefs, so that he no longer simply takes them on faith, or because they 'feel true', but starts to examine them more critically.

The therapist is not, as the later Socrates did, telling the patient what the goal of human existence is. He is not urging him to 'seek the good'. But he or she is pointing out that our self-acceptance and self-esteem doesn't have to rest on external success or failure. So there is a wariness of becoming overly attached to externals, which in some sense emerges from its roots in Socratic philosophy.

Above all, what CBT takes from Socrates is the idea that what imprisons us, what makes us miserable, is our ideas and beliefs; as well as the idea that we can free ourselves from these prisons by rationally examining our ideas and beliefs and if necessary discarding the bad or irrational ideas and replacing them with ideas that seem to make more sense.

CBT also takes from Socrates the idea that this process of mental liberation can be guided by a mentor figure - the philosopher, or therapist.

The idea that our suffering came from beliefs and ideas, and that our minds could rationally free themselves from this suffering by mental examination and philosophy, was hugely out of favour until very recently, mainly because of Sigmund Freud.

Freud argued that it didn't matter what we consciously thought or believed. We were ruled by unconscious motivations, by the 'Oedipus Complex' or the 'Death Instinct', and other irrational phenomena that escaped our rational awareness. The way to mitigate suffering was to go to a psychoanalyst, who would open up your unconscious via hypnosis, dream interpretation, word association, and years and years of therapy where you would lie on the couch and pick over your childhood or your dreams, while the therapist sat quietly listening and saying little.

Somehow or other, Freud's ideas convinced a huge amount of very clever people. I still find this remarkable. And because of his profound influence on our idea of knowledge and human free will, the idea of 'Socratic therapy' through rational self-questioning became very discredited.

Socrates, we should say in passing, did believe in messages hidden in dreams. He speaks of how sometimes our bestial nature expresses itself in dreams while our rationality sleeps, so that we dream of sleeping with our mother, for example. He also believed the gods spoke to us through dreams. But he still thought the real work of therapeutic philosophy existed in our conscious examination of our beliefs and ideas.

In the last 20 years, this idea of the importance of rationally examining our ideas and beliefs has come back to the centre of western therapy, via CBT. It aims to uncover the ideas by which we are guided. These ideas may be unconscious in so far as we don't fully examine them. We take them for granted. They are so taken for granted as to be automatic. They constitute the accepted perameters of our experience.

And yet, through the process of therapy, we can start to hold them up to the light, to examine them, their rationality and their usefulness. Why should my self-esteem depend on external success or failure? How do I know that such-and-such hates me? Does it matter so much if they do? Why should I let my unhappy childhood continue to make me miserable today and in the future?

CBT therapists have found that the mind does in fact respond to this sort of rational self-questioning, if it is done repeatedly, so that it becomes a habit to interrogate oneself and one's ideas, to play the Socrates to your own negative thinking. Our minds are rational, and we are capable of freeing ourselves from mental suffering. This idea was discredited and unfashionable for a century, thanks to Freud, Hitler, Nietzsche, DH Lawrence, Derrida, Dostoevsky, and all the other late 19th and 20th century irrationalists. I'm very happy to see it return to the mainstream of our culture.