The method behind thinking

What follows is what I have distilled to be the root steps in Socratic/Platonic method. I make no claims to originality; I have followed Socrates, Plato, Bernard Lonergan and others who blazed the trail before me. The four steps that follow are almost childishly obvious, and yet I have found that the greatest existential discoveries I have made in my own life are the result of following this method, even before I was able to articulate it. Such a testimonial is poor evidence. Better evidence will come when you reflect on you own activity and thought, examine the consequences of following or avoiding such a method. I would love to hear of any of your experiences with anything similar.

Here are the steps:


1. All thinking begins with questioning. You can pump your head full of facts and the rules of logic, but without a question animating this content, no thinking will happen.

2. Since knowing only comes at the consummation of a process of thinking, you cannot know anything except through the mediation of questions.

3. We don’t choose our questions; our questions choose us. What we can do is submit to its claim on us and to give it voice.

4. Let’s distinguish between a merely formal question and a living question. There is no uninteresting question. If a question is uninteresting to you then it is not a question for you; an uninteresting question can only be formal, not vital. Much that passes for education in our times is sterile because it fails to summon vital questions in the souls of students. But to be a student in the true sense is to be overcome with studium, i.e. zeal or passion. The passion comes from the vitality and personal importance of the question asked.

5. A free mind is a mind that can entertain its own vital questions. So we must begin thinking by giving voice to a vital question, a question that brings in its train its own energy and momentum. Socratic questioning is only interested in what touches on the vital and personal. Socrates decries any interest in anything that is is not human and that relates to the concrete living of a good life.

6. Giving voice to the question, objectifying it in speech, is crucial. The unfree mind is afraid of the doubts and confusions of the unvoiced questions, thinking that by leaving the place of ignorance unexamined it can protect itself. But the undisciplined squabs of emotion that haunt the inner mansion of the mind do not lose their effect by being unexamined. On the contrary, they become the true agents in our lives; they become the subjective lens by which we imagine what we think we know.

7. The key to growth and self-mastery is to transform subject into object, to turn our motive feelings and desires into signs in quest of objective meaning. We like this — why?  We want this — why? We fear this — why? The emotions are just signs of vital values and thinking begins when we stop confusing the sign with the thing itself. This happens when they give rise to questions.



1. Just as we must give voice to what we don’t know and yet are interested in knowing, so we must give voice to what appears true to us and profess it openly. Open profession of one’s tacit beliefs is much more difficult than one might think:

  • First, because what is latent is difficult to contain in speech and we always have the uneasy (but mostly true) sense that something is escaping us.
  • Second, in the arena of vital truth, professing what one honestly believes is existentially demanding and we understand our responsibility for the beliefs we have.
  • Third, we are afraid before others to profess what may on examination turn out to be embarrassingly mistaken.
  • Fourth, we harbor beliefs that would be shameful to admit openly.

2. Socrates often relates this willingness to state openly one’s opinion to the virtue of courage. The following passage from the Charmides is a typical Socratic exhortation:

Charmides, attend more closely and look into yourself; reflect on the quality that is given you by the presence of temperance, and what quality it must have to work this effect on you. Take stock of all this and tell me, [well and bravely (andreios),] what it appears to you to be. He paused a little, and after a quite manly (andrikos) effort of self-examination: Well, I think, he said, that temperance makes men ashamed or bashful, and that temperance is the same as modesty.

— Plato, Charmides, W.R.M. Lamb translation from the Perseus Project, 160d-e. Please note that I modified the translation in brackets to capture the adverbial qualifiers more literally.

3. Often, this effort to explicate in words what is implicit in thought takes the form of a search for definition, as in the example above. Our ability to point out true instances of a particular virtue seems to indicate the existence of a criterion within us. Socrates asks his interlocutors, as he does with Charmides above, to examine themselves to try to objectify this criterion in speech. What is the “common look” (eidos) that is the point of reference for calling all the varied instances by the same name (such as temperance)? This is how the term eidos, usually translated “form,”  is used concretely, without any appeal to sophisticated metaphysics. To call multiple appearances instances of temperance seems to require a common standard of reference, at the very root of our power of speech (logos), that makes them seem to be so.



1. I mentioned in the previous step that what is latent is difficult to contain in speech and that we always have the uneasy (but mostly true) sense that something is escaping us. The residual uncertainty that accompanies an attempt to make something clear becomes focal at this step.

2. In some sense we are returning to the first step and vocalizing the questions which the difficulty in pronouncing our opinions give rise. But now, the desires, likes, fears, etc. are those that follow in the train of this attempt to be explicit.

3. Step Two is monological: *I* claim what *I* believe to be true. But Step Three is necessarily dialogical, requiring the thinker to take a perspective outside of his/her beliefs, to hold them hypothetically at least for a time. Most of this time, we must find the outside perspective outside of ourselves: in the challenges of others or in written articulations of other point of view.

4.Socrates, in the Theaetetus defines thinking (dianoia) this way:

As the talk which the soul has with itself about any subjects which it considers. You must not suppose that I know this that I am declaring to you. But the soul, as the image presents itself to me, when it thinks, is merely conversing with itself, asking itself questions and answering, affirming and denying.

—- Plato, Theaetetus, Harold Fowler translation from the Perseus Project, 189e-190a.

5. So thinking is an internalized replica of open dialogue. Thinking is difficult in that it requires one to take contradictory positions on a single subject and forces us to unsettle the complacent beliefs that remove in their way the anxieties of doubt.

6. In such internalized thinking, it is tempting to be evasive and to let the vague penumbra of feeling, positive or negative, substitute for clear thought. This is why I emphasize (along with Plato and Socrates) giving voice both to one’s affirmations and doubts so that one can critically examine as object, what usually is not seen but only shapes what we see.

7. Self-knowledge is only possible through this stage, when the how of thinking becomes the what of thought.

8. The desired end of thought is knowledge, but the effective end is internal agreement — when the all the questions that occur to thought have been acknowledged and satisfactorily answered. Although thinking ends at belief, it develops, in its activity, a greater and greater attunement and openness to the fruit of noetic insight. When such openness has reached the stage of being more than a event, but has become an achievement, then knowledge is present. Knowledge is always transcendent to thinking, both its arche and telos.



In the Gorgias (475d), Socrates tells Polus to “submit [himself] nobly/bravely to the logos as to a doctor“.  At the root of Socratic praxis is the therapeia of the soul. Once a vital truth has been uncovered, one must affirm it and live into it. Not to do so is a sign that one still has some growing up to do.


So these are the four steps:

  1. Ask a vital question.
  2. Give voice to what you believe.
  3. Give voice to second thoughts.
  4. Submit yourself to what you learn along the way.

A powerful methodology indeed.

2 thoughts on “The method behind thinking

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