The Socratic “Foot Massage” dialogue in Pulp Fiction

by Maurizio Bisogno

Vince (John Travolta), Jules (Samuel L. Jackson)

In starting this article, I have made two assumptions:  the first is that you have seen Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction. The second one is that you should have a basic understanding of the Socratic method. After reading this article again I decided that, in fact, you will be able to understand it even if you don’t satisfy the two conditions above. What I am going to show you is an application of the Socratic dialectical method in a particular scene of Pulp Fiction. In this scene, the two main characters Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vince (John Travolta) act an almost didactic application of the Socratic conversation pattern. In that sequence, Vince unhinges step by step Jules’ initial thesis.

Let’s start with a very fast synthesis of the Socratic method which we could outline as follows:

1. We arrive at or start from a thesis

2. An objection is raised, or a contradiction is identified

3. We are therefore forced to reformulate the initial thesis.

4. Steps 2 and 3 are repeated.

5. An aporia is reached. [Aporia is a Greek word for “a state of being at loss”; in English came to mean “puzzlement occasioned by the raising of philosophical objections without any proffered solutions, especially in the works of Socrates”. Source: Collins Dictionary online]

The result of this proceeding is that we discover that we do not know what we thought we knew.

The scene where this dialectical conversation in happening is known as the ‘Foot massage’ scene. Here, the conversation takes place between Jules and Vince who want to decide if Marsellus was justified in launching Rockamora from the fourth floor, reacting to the fact that he had made a foot massage to Marsellus’s wife.

There are two arguments put forward; let’s see Jules’s first argument . (Reminder: an argument has premisses and a conclusion)


   You don’t be givin’ Marsellus

   Wallace’s new bride a foot massage.


   You don’t think he overreacted? (Stress by me)


   Antwan probably didn’t expect

   Marsellus to react like he did, but

   he had to expect a reaction.


   It was a foot massage, a foot massage

   is nothing, I give my mother a foot

   massage.” (Stressed by me)

Premiss 1. Antwan Rockamora did a foot massage to Marsellus’ wife

Premiss 2. Marsellus reacted violently by launching Rockamora from the fourth floor.

Premiss 3. A foot massage cannot have the value or meaning that is specifically associated with sexual acts.

Jules’s argument seems to presuppose another thesis, namely that the acts implying the type of value and meaning associated primarily with sexual acts and which occur between one’s partner and someone else outside the relationship, justify the use of violence against the person outside the relationship.

Based on the premises and the implicit thesis that I tried to make clear, Jules draws the following:

Conclusion. The use of violence by Marsellus was NOT justified.

Let’s see now the second Jules’ second argument:


   It’s laying hands on Marsellus

   Wallace’s new wife in a familiar

   way. Is it as bad as eatin’ her out

   – no, but you’re in the same fuckin’


   Jules stops Vincent.


   Whoa… whoa… whoa… stop right

   there. Eatin’ a bitch out, and givin’

   a bitch a foot massage ain’t even

   the same fuckin’ thing.


   Not the same thing, the same ballpark.


   It ain’t no ballpark either. Look

   maybe your method of massage differs

   from mine, but touchin’ his lady’s

   feet, and stickin’ your tongue in

   her holyiest of holyies, ain’t the

   same ballpark, ain’t the same league,

   ain’t even the same fuckin’ sport.

   Foot massages don’t mean shit.”

From the dialogue quoted above, we can outline Jules’s Second Argument in this way:

Premiss 1. Sexual acts have a kind of meaning and value specific only to themselves.

Premiss 2. A foot massage is not a sexual act.


Conclusion 3. A foot massage may not have the meaning or significance specifically associated with sexual acts.

Here where Vince starts his counterattack;  he does not give up and, following the example of Socrates, he poses questions that first tend to establish what Jules’ argument is and then find the contradiction that invalidates it.


   Have you ever given a foot massage?


   Don’t be tellin’ me about foot

   massages – I’m the foot fuckin’



   Given a lot of ’em?


   Shit yeah. I got my technique down

   man, I don’t tickle or nothin’.


   Have you ever given a guy a foot


   Jules looks at him a long moment – he’s been set up.


   Fuck you.

   He starts walking down the hall. Vincent, smiling, walks a

   little bit behind.


   How many?


   Fuck you.


   Would you give me a foot massage –

   I’m kinda tired.


   Man, you best back off, I’m gittin’

   pissed – this is the door.

Vince’s questions put Jules in the corner; above all by insinuating that a foot massage is not an indifferent act to sexual dispositions.

Vince’s argument seems to be that a foot massage, although not an explicit sexual act, can be associated with sexual meanings and values.

But this contradicts the initial premise of Jules’s argument, that is to say, it shakes the Premiss 1: “Sexual acts have a kind of meaning and value specific only to themselves.”

Now, since the premise is invalidated, the argument is not justified, so the conclusion is denied, i.e. it is absolutely not true what is stated in Premiss 3. “A foot massage cannot have the meaning or value specifically associated with sexual acts.”

Let’s point out that this was also a premise of Jules’s first argument. Therefore, the conclusion of Jules’s first argument is also invalidated, i.e. its Conclusion is denied: “C. The use of violence by Marsellus was NOT justified.”

The film does not elaborate because it then takes another direction. The argument that Jules could have developed is, for example, if the offence (a foot massage) justified such an excess of violence, that is the degree of violence applied in the reaction.

In any case, Jules is led to a moment of doubt and seems to admit that his initial belief is now at least a doubt, if not an aporia.

Here is that John Travolta, Vince, revives in a few minutes the Socratic dialogue, whose structure I have reminded you at the beginning of this article with a very simple outline.

Before closing this article, I would like to point out one last thing: Vince’s argument is also based on the implicit thesis described in the first argument: “the acts implying the value and meaning associated primarily with sexual acts and which occur between one’s partner and someone else outside the relationship, justify the use of violence against the person outside the relationship.”

However, if this premise were to be questioned with the same Socratic method, Vince’s argument would also NOT stand up. In fact, we could come to the conclusion that such a situation does not justify an act of violence and proceed Socratically to its criticism.

This example not only shows the Socratic method, but at one point redirects the attention to us. We are driven to ask ourselves: what do we assume as true in a similar situation? When the attention shifts to us, when the Socratic inquiry is directed at our mind and our values, opinions, assumptions, etc., the discourse becomes more difficult as it is not always painless.

Furthermore, I disagree that we would simply slip into moral relativism. It is not a sophisticated procedure. When we come to the aporia about our beliefs, we begin to know each other better, eliminating many beliefs that in reality are not solid at all. In this way, we also learn to live better.

Have a nice day!

Watch the movie here