How Pulp Fiction Uses the Socratic Method, the Philosophical Method from Ancient Greece

No soon­er did Pulp Fic­tion open in the­aters than its direc­tor, a young for­mer video-store clerk named Quentin Taran­ti­no, became the new auteur to beat. Draw­ing from a vari­ety of cin­e­mat­ic tra­di­tions both high and low, Taran­ti­no’s break­out film showed main­stream audi­ences things they’d nev­er seen before, or at least in com­bi­na­tions they’d nev­er seen before. Its dia­logue in par­tic­u­lar was often cit­ed as an exam­ple of Taran­ti­no’s sheer film­mak­ing vital­i­ty. And so it remains: recall how many times, over the past few decades, you’ve heard lines quot­ed just from the con­ver­sa­tion ear­ly in Pulp Fic­tion between John Tra­vol­ta and Samuel L. Jack­son’s black-suit­ed hit men Vin­cent Vega and Jules Win­n­field.

It’s thanks to this pas­sage of Taran­ti­no’s script that even Amer­i­cans know the name of the French equiv­a­lent of McDon­ald’s Quar­ter Pounder. But a bit lat­er, and with a bit more sub­tle­ty, it also demon­strat­ed to view­ers what’s known as the Socrat­ic method. Such is the premise, any­way, of the Prac­ti­ca­ble video at the top of the post.

Named for its first prac­ti­tion­er, the peri­patet­ic Greek of the fifth-cen­tu­ry B.C. who has since lived in on dia­logues com­posed by his stu­dent Pla­to, the Socrat­ic method has come to be regard­ed as an effec­tive means of get­ting to the truth through con­ver­sa­tion, either with oth­ers or with one­self — or rather, as an effec­tive means of get­ting away with false­hoods: false opin­ions, false con­vic­tions, false beliefs.

Socrates, says Prac­ti­ca­ble’s nar­ra­tor, “would start off ask­ing peo­ple for a def­i­n­i­tion of a term like wis­dom, courage, or jus­tice, and through repeat­ed­ly point­ing out con­tra­dic­tions in their def­i­n­i­tion, and then the con­tra­dic­tions in their adjust­ments to their orig­i­nal def­i­n­i­tion, they would even­tu­al­ly reach a state of admit­ted igno­rance.” Such a process occurs in Pulp Fic­tion when Vin­cent and Jules dis­cuss their gang­ster boss Marsel­lus Wal­lace’s recent killing of a man who dared to give his wife a foot mas­sage. “Jules believes Marsel­lus over­re­act­ed, and Vin­cent believes that Antoine Roc­camo­ra got what was com­ing to him. At this point, we see Vin­cent try to get to the root of why Jules thinks it was an over­re­ac­tion.”

Con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, Vin­cent does so using the Socrat­ic method, which requires first estab­lish­ing an argu­ment, then rais­ing an excep­tion or con­tra­dic­tion, then re-for­mu­lat­ing the argu­ment, and repeat­ing those steps as truth is approached or false­hood escaped. At issue is the inher­ent­ly sex­u­al nature of foot mas­sages. By bring­ing out con­tra­dic­tions in Jules’ own beliefs about them — he gives them to his moth­er, he argues, though he also takes pride in his advanced tech­nique, which he’s nev­er applied to the feet of a man — Vin­cent “can final­ly estab­lish that Marsel­lus’ use of vio­lence was, in fact, jus­ti­fied.” The dia­logue could con­tin­ue, but Taran­ti­no leaves it there, with Jules in the state of inter­nal con­tra­dic­tion Socrates called apo­r­ia. After all, like most of Taran­ti­no’s talk­a­tive char­ac­ters, they’ve got a a job to do.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ani­mat­ed Philoso­phers Presents a Rock­ing Intro­duc­tion to Socrates, the Father of Greek Phi­los­o­phy

Allan Bloom’s Lec­tures on Socrates (Boston Col­lege, 1983)

Why Socrates Hat­ed Democ­ra­cies: An Ani­mat­ed Case for Why Self-Gov­ern­ment Requires Wis­dom & Edu­ca­tion

Socrates on TV, Cour­tesy of Alain de Bot­ton (2000)

What Makes The Death of Socrates a Great Work of Art?: A Thought-Pro­vok­ing Read­ing of David’s Philo­soph­i­cal & Polit­i­cal Paint­ing

44 Essen­tial Movies for the Stu­dent of Phi­los­o­phy

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Konsgaard says:

    “recall how many times, over the past few decades, you’ve heard lines quot­ed just from the con­ver­sa­tion ear­ly in Pulp Fic­tion between John Tra­vol­ta and Samuel L. Jackson’s black-suit­ed hit men Vin­cent Vega and Jules Win­n­field”

    Yes, the Quar­ter Pounder dia­logue. It is amaz­ing how we tend to remem­ber or quote the most triv­ial dia­logues in movies!

    As for the Socrat­ic ques­tions, yes it might look like this is Socrat­ic ques­tion­ing but I guess this is pure coin­ci­dence, right? I doubt that the direc­tor said, “Oh, let’s use Socrat­ic ques­tions here to doubt this and that…”

    Btw, Socrat­ic ques­tions have gained much recog­ni­tion in the last few years due to Life Coach­ing — it is one of the most renowned tech­niques in coach­ing.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.