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What Is Socratic Irony?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Socratic irony is a particular device often used in rhetoric in which one person pretends to be ignorant about an issue to lure the other person into explaining it. In a debate or argument, for example, two people may hold differing points of view about a particular subject. One of the two participants may then pretend that he or she does not understand an important aspect of the subject, and ask the other person to explain it. As the other person explains it, the first participant then comments on weaknesses inherent in the other person’s argument and has used Socratic irony to make him or her reveal them.

In general, the term “irony” typically refers to an idea in which something seems to mean one thing but actually means another. Verbal irony, for example, is typically an expression in which someone says something while meaning the opposite of that thing. If a person talks to someone else about a hated rival, he or she may state ironically, “Oh, he's my best friend.” While Socratic irony refers to a similarly deceptive concept, the purpose of it is to disarm an opponent in an argument or debate in order to make them damage their own position.

The most basic use of Socratic irony takes the form of one person in an argument feigning ignorance about a particular aspect of the argument. One of the most important aspects of this method is that the ignorance is not real; the person using Socratic irony should actually know a great deal about the subject. In pretending that he or she does not, however, the opponent in an argument or debate can gain a false sense of confidence. As the first person pretends to be ignorant about the subject, he then asks the other person to explain it to him or her.

When the second person in the debate begins to explain the issue that the first has pretended to be ignorant of, then the first person can begin weakening the argument. Socratic irony allows someone to step back from a topic or argument, especially one that has become emotional or irrational, and to start at the foundation of an issue. Someone arguing for gun control, for example, might pretend that he or she does not fully understand the laws or legal precedents that have been used to establish any forms of gun control in his or her country. As the other person begins to discuss them, the person using Socratic irony can then point out flaws in those statutes or otherwise indicate how various cases were later changed or overridden by other laws.

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Discussion Comments
By bear78 — On Mar 19, 2014

Teachers use socratic irony in the classroom all the time when they ask students questions. A teacher may even say "can you tell me about this, because I don't know." It's not that a teacher doesn't know, he or she wants to find out if the student knows about that topic.

By candyquilt — On Mar 18, 2014

@ZipLine-- Socratic irony may play out that way but it doesn't have to. The person who poses the question or who requests an explanation does not have to reveal that he or she already knew about the subject. Often times this is not revealed. It is usually unintentionally revealed during a debate, especially if the purpose of socratic irony is to point out the faults in someone's argument.

Other times, socratic irony is used to make someone believe something or to make someone reveal what they would not otherwise. For example, a police officer may pretend not to know something in order to make someone talk during an interrogation or police visit. The officer will not reveal his knowledge in this situation. The goal is to cause the other side to think that the police is clueless so that they gather courage and accidentally give far more information than they had intended.

By ZipLine — On Mar 18, 2014

Socratic irony sounds like trickery. The other person eventually finds out that this person is not uninformed about the subject right? Won't that cause anger and frustration for the person targeted? Or is that the point?

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