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.

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  • 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.

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