Sei sulla pagina 1di 2

Feigned Ignorance: Socratic Irony Defined

Have your parents ever pretended not to know about something you'd
done, only to ask you a series of seemingly innocent questions leading to
your inevitable confession? They may not realize it, but parents everywhere
employ Socratic irony to get to the bottom of things, since it is the practice
of simulating ignorance in order to reveal the errors in another person's
viewpoint or argument.
There are several types of 'irony' out there, but Socratic irony is the
one that started it all. The Greek term eironeia was first used by Plato in his
Republic (c. 380 B.C.) to refer to the type of 'feigned ignorance' so often
displayed by Socrates. This famous Greek philosopher on whom Plato's
dialogues centered was in the habit of pretending to know much less than he
actually did. While also subtly ingratiating himself to his various
interlocutors, Socrates would play dumb, asking them a series of ostensibly
harmless questions related to the particular topic of the day. By carefully
choosing the questions he posed, though, Socrates was able to use the
answers his fellow conversationalists provided to demonstrate their true lack
of knowledge in areas where they often claimed to be experts.
Socrates employed this method of questioning not to make his
companions look foolish (although he doesn't seem to mind it), but rather as
a means of directing people on their own paths to the truth. For this reason,
in the world of education, the act of using series of questions to guide
students toward an answer instead of simply providing them with it is known
as the Socratic Method. However, Socratic irony may also be used in a
manner comparable to your parents' implementation of it. In the case of your
parents or perhaps a detective, Socratic irony's purpose is to expose the
truth that the person being questioned is trying to hide, but which the
interrogator already knows. Keep reading to see how this sort of irony is used
by both its originator, as well as a famous TV detective!
What Is Socratic Irony?
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 persons 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.