On the internet you can find several lists with (positive) critical thinking questions. But in essence these questions can possibly be summarized in two questions: two socratic questions. In this article we will give you these two questions from Socrates.

The art of asking the right questions

"A person should not live an unexamined life".
This is perhaps the best known statement from Socrates. This statement perfectly expresses Socrates' attitude: his inquiring, questioning character. An attitude that is still valuable today and can be summarized with the two following important critical questions.


For many, Socrates is the philosopher with whom Philosophy (or at least Ethics) was born [1]. Before Socrates, philosophers probably asked questions about what was right and wrong, about what was right, but Socrates - especially the Socrates as we know him through Plato's works - was quote innovative and groundbreaking.

For the first time, he thoroughly questioned the self-evident things that until then seemed to be quite normal. The character of Socrates was important in this respect: a questioning, investigative attitude in order to arrive at true knowledge [2]. An attitude that is at the heart of the Socratic method.

An important part of this method is the maieutics. Maieutics is the idea that by asking questions we can arrive at true knowledge; true knowledge that people already have in them. The metaphor is that of the midwife: by asking questions (the Platonic) Socrates gave birth to ideas in people. Ideas - for example about justice or courage - that are already latently present in us.

The Socratic method is still relevant today

The premise that we already have all kinds of ideas in us and that these can be discovered by socratic questions makes some people suspicious. From a scientific point of view, this even seems questionable. Or at least ineffective.

So what is the practical value of such a starting point? For example, you can't get out of someone's mind whether a machine is safe or not. Whether or not a medicine is suitable.

Is asking questions still valuable?

Of course it is.

In today's information society, Socrates' approach is still interesting. The pursuit of clear thinking, continuing to question knowledge, continuing to ask questions, these are skills that perhaps are more valuable than ever.  Funnily enough, some people even call these skills 21st-century skills.

Take, for example, a nurse who notices something strange and concludes that the surgeon probably knows what he is doing (which turns out not to be the case afterwards). She would have been better off asking questions. Or a supervisor who needs to be convinced of the safety of a machine. A socratic approach is also valuable for him or her. Precisely because the method is so simple.
Let me explain the essence of the Socratic method.

Ask these two Socratic questions

The essence of the Socratic methode is summarized in a good, concise way by Van Tongeren. Van Tongeren rightly states that the approach of Socrates can be summarized by two questions. Questions that are very simple but nevertheless essential to arrive at true knowledge and to communicate well:

    What do you mean?
    Is it correct?

1. What do you mean?

The first question challenges the other person to explain exactly what he or she means.

For example, what exactly does another person mean when he says:

  • "I take my responsibility". What do you mean with 'responsibility?' Is this in a legal sense, in a moral sense, in a financial sense, in ...? Is he going to resign or is he going to stay when things go wrong to fix things? You can take responsibility in many ways. What exactly is meant? 
  • "these risks are acceptable". What exactly does "acceptable" mean?
  • "this patient agrees with further treatment". What exactly is meant by 'agrees'? And which 'further treatment'? What exactly did the patient say?

Example. Suppose a doctor says that the patient agrees to further treatment. If this consent is important, it may be necessary to determine exactly what this consent means. In order to investigate this, questions need to be asked. Does it involve written consent, oral consent, knew the patient to whom she consented, has the family consented, was it tacit consent, when has she consented, et cetera. In addition, it is perhaps not exactly clear what she agreed to. What exactly is this further treatment that she has agreed to?

Now these are just three randomly chosen examples. However, for almost every concept that is said, one can ask what is meant. Particularly with regard to (moral) values that are pronounced - such as responsibility - it is better to ask questions from time to time.

See, for example, this questionnaire with 150 examples of socratic questions.

2. Is it correct?

Van Tongeren then draws our attention to the second type of questions Socrates asked.

After it is clear what the other person means, you can ask a second socratic question. This is a testing question, namely: Is it really true what is being said? Do you have any proof?

For example, what exactly shows that the patient has consented? Is there evidence for this? What exactly shows that the other person takes his or her responsibility?


Our experience is that most professionals recognize the value of these questions. The strength also lies in its simplicity: what do you mean and is it correct?

I think Socrates would ask these questions more than ever if he had lived now.

Both in order to communicate well (are we talking about the same thing) and in terms of the quality of the knowledge that we use during our professional practice (is it true).