Psychotherapy According to the Socratic Method: Integrating Ancient Philosophy with Contemporary Cognitive Therapy

By Overholser, James C. | Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, December 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Psychotherapy According to the Socratic Method: Integrating Ancient Philosophy with Contemporary Cognitive Therapy


Overholser, James C., Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy


The Socratic method provides a useful framework for psychotherapy by integrating ideas from ancient philosophy with strategies from contemporary cognitive therapy. According to the Socratic method, four main components underlie the process of therapy: systematic questioning, inductive reasoning, universal definitions, and a sincere disavowal of knowledge in the therapist and the client. These components work together to guide the dialogue that occurs in most therapy sessions. In addition, the Socratic method often focuses on two major topical areas: self-improvement and cultivating virtue in everyday life. Through the use of the Socratic method, clients can explore important issues, clarify major life goals, and strive to improve their moral character.

Keywords: Socratic method; cognitive therapy; self-improvement; virtue

The Socratic method can provide a useful framework for contemporary cognitive therapy. The Socratic approach combines major views from ancient philosophy with the strategies developed through contemporary cognitive therapy. Although many psychotherapists have alluded to the use of guided discovery or the Socratic method (e.g., Beck & Emery, 1985; Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979; Dryden, 2009; Ellis, 1994; Padesky, 1996; Persons, 1989), few authors have described in detail the approach that is based on the philosophical teachings of Socrates and Plato.

There are four main components that underlie the processes used in the Socratic method of psychotherapy. Many therapists rely on an extensive sequence of questions to guide a clinical interview. However, the Socratic method is more complex than simply asking numerous questions. The Socratic method also uses inductive reasoning to guide a process of searching through the client's beliefs and exploring various aspects of the client's life. Also, universal definitions help the therapist and the client to focus on major life issues instead of trivial events. Finally, a disavowal of knowledge helps both therapist and client to respect the limits of their knowledge. In order for the process to be effective, all four of these components need to work together.

In addition to the structural components of the Socratic method, there are two main areas of focus that often guide the therapeutic dialogue. Therapy discussions can focus on client selfimprovement, with an emphasis on self-awareness, self-acceptance, and potential self-regulation of affect and behavior. In addition, therapy discussions can explore the meaning of virtue, including wisdom, courage, moderation, justice, and piety.

In general, the Socratic method is best viewed as a cognitive approach to therapy. The underlying philosophy views a client's beliefs and opinions as more important than "objective reality." Similar to many aspects of cognitive therapy, clients can be helped to view their attitudes, interpretations, expectations, and attributions as hypotheses to be examined, confronted, and sometimes replaced. By clarifying and changing their attitudes, many clients can reduce their emotional distress and improve their ability to cope with assorted life problems.

SYSTEMATIC QUESTIONING

The core process of the Socratic method lies in the use of a planned sequence of questions to guide the flow of the dialogue. Questions allow the therapist to explore different topics, gather relevant information, and help clients to think about key issues in a different manner. The use of questions can be organized according to the form, content, and process used to structure a series of questions (Overholser, 1993a).

The form of questions can influence the responses that are elicited (Seiple, 1985). Despite misguided views of a legalistic interrogation (Areeda, 1996), the Socratic method uses questions to help the therapist and client join together in a collaborative search for information and a sincere quest for understanding (Rutter & Friedberg, 1999).

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