Mar 6, 2019 in Research

Socratic Definitions

Socrates had his conceptions of adequate definition. In order to prove whether definitions met his conception or not, Socrates would ask a simple question of what is it, and would expect an answer. The questions asked by Socrates were usually related to moral qualities such as courage, wisdom, virtue and justice among other qualities. From these qualities, Socrates was not interested in knowing what the word meant. Instead, he was interested in understanding the nature of the thing under inquiry. For example, when asking about justice, Socrates was not interested in knowing what justice meant because he was interested in understanding the nature of it. Therefore, a correct definition involved a true description of the principle of the thing being defined. 

One of the concepts of Socrates in relation to definition is that good definitions should not be rounded or circular. This conception is seen in the Meno where in his bid to answer Meno’s question whether virtue is teachable, ends up asking about virtue and what it is. The first definition provided by Meno presents the types of justice such that of a man and a woman. According to Meno, a man’s justice has the capability of managing the affairs of a city. On the other hand, a woman’s justice involves the duties of managing a household. 

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Despite Meno’s good argument, Socrates states that this is not a fine definition of virtue since it does not tell what virtue is. Socrates explains the similarities between color and shape. The latter, according to Socrates, resembles color. Therefore, stating what color is important as it helps in defining shape. Socrates continues to provide another definition of shape, which according to him is limited to solid. Just like the first example, the second as well calls for a definition of solid in order to understand shape and what it entails. When Socrates continues to define color, he still shows that the definition is still unsatisfactory. Therefore, from these numerous definitions, it is clear that each definition leads to the same thing proposed during the beginning. Therefore, each of these examples provided in the first definition proves that definitions have limitations and pitfalls.

Just like how the first definition is circular, the second definition of virtue given by Meno is still the same. According to Meno, virtue is longing for good things and is able to acquire them. Socrates refutes this definition by arguing that nobody longs for what is not fine meaning that the definition is reducing the power that leads to the attaining of good things. However, he agrees that good things must be acquired, but in just ways. Therefore, just is part of a virtue. Eventually, this argument, like the first one, implies that the definition is repetitive or circular and, according to Socrates criterion, it is not a good definition.  

Although Socrates’ conception is solid, he is caught in his own game in the Meno since his proof against Meno’s definition leads to the same thing he is refuting, circular definition. This is seen in third definition when Socrates presents the Meno Paradox. He seeks to know the possibility that one can look for something without the knowledge of what that thing is. In this case, Meno is simply seeking to understand how he can know when the accurate definition has been suggested. In his bid to resolve Meno’s dilemma, Socrates comes up with the example of religious experts who teach about reincarnation and immortality. Moreover, he explains that the soul has beheld things in this and the other worlds. Therefore, learning, in the present life, is a recollection. However, despite Socrates conception of adequate definition, the solution provided by Socrates is also circular. Learning has been presented by Socrates as impossible. Therefore, the question remains how learning in the other life is possible. 

Another view of Socrates, in relation to definition, is that there are real definitions. Socrates had its own belief that real answers to what is question existed. Answers to these questions, according to Socrates, would lead to expressions of eternal truths about the world. These definitions captured the core principle of what they were defining. However, one of the important things about Socrates is that his perception and belief were that he did not know the true definitions. Therefore, he believed that the definitions were out there and could be found. Although there existed many differences in definitions of things like courage, justice and virtue, Socrates still believed that facts existed somewhere about the true definitions of these concepts. 

Good definitions according to Socrates, are not extensional, but intentional. It seems that people learn about a thing by encountering with the thing or encountering things related to thing. For example, people learn about a car by encountering or seeing a car. However, learning comes only when a person comes to understand the characteristic of the thing being learnt. In addition, lack of a clear definition of things leads to poor reasoning as it can be misleading. 

But, still, definition can come through enumeration or through extension of a concept in order come up with extensional definition. This definition, according to Socrates, is neither sufficient, nor necessary. For example, it is not essential to know all the trees in order to know what a tree is. To prove this, Socrates only seeks one characteristic among many when trying to define something. For example, in his definition of shape and color, he only picks one or the other. When the definition seems to include everything, Socrates leaves it as the way it is and explains that it is not a good definition. 

In addition, definition is objective as it is not about what god or people think. In fact, it is hard for either people or gods to come up with an agreement on something related to moral values. For example, gods as well as men agree against injustice and argue that it should be punished. Therefore, the view that people acting injustly need to punished is uncontroversial. However, this is not the problem as sorting injustice from what is just sparks controversy among gods and men. Another example can be given using piety where it is loved by the gods. However, other questions about piety attract controversy among men and gods.  

The object of definition, according to Socrates, is reality. This means that it is hard to determine what good is because it is not a matter of simple opinion. In this case, Socrates is trying to imply that how people use some words such as virtues or justice is not reliable and cannot lead to a proper definition of things. 

Socrates plans to use the definitions for many purposes such as to prove the ignorance that exists among people. He also plans to use definitions to come with universally accepted arguments. One of the philosophers, who tried to explain Plato’s use of definitions, was Aristotle. According to him, Socrates did search for definitions. However, his quest in this area was related to a higher quest or interest in character and excellence virtues. Aristotle also explained that Socrates’ quest was beyond doubt meaning that Socrates was surely interested in seeking knowledge. Although this is Aristotle’s view, other philosophers do not accept it. For example, some philosophers have actually doubted this practice by arguing that Socrates was not interested in obtaining definitions. Instead, they explain that he was solely interested in showing others how they were ignorant. Other philosophers concluded the worst by arguing that Socrates was only interested in refuting other people’s claim. However, Aristotle and other philosophers that see the positive interest in Socrates claim that he had reasons for seeking definitions and these reasons were beyond simple refutation of other people’s definitions. 

Plato’s use of definitions also points out to its primacy or importance in the Socratic practice. In most cases, Socrates insists in coming up with the correct definition not only as for epistemic purposes but for a higher need of dealing with the practical problem that confronts him. This is observed in the Meno whereby he insists that he is solely interested in obtaining decisions. To stress on this point, he continue to use numerous definitions. Apart from the Meno, most of his other discourses are highly interested in definition search. These discourses not only include definitions, but also other things like testing definitions and the truth in them. In fact, he rarely abandons his quest. In addition, he encourages his fellows to renew their efforts or to work hard in reaching for definitions. There is no one time that Socrates thinks that he is incapable of probing for definition.  

Apart from the named use of definitions, Socrates was also interested in using definitions to explain the universals. As seen earlier, Socrates is not simply interested in any definition. Instead, definitions, related to things like virtues and justice, seem to catch his attention. These are definitions that tend to explain the feature or characteristic of things that has been always considered to be common. Therefore, seeking definitions of such universals help in giving accounts of these universals. 

Socrates was also seeking definition with the aim of coming up with deductive inference. In this case, knowledge is viewed as being demonstrative or being composed of the need to draw valid inferences from propositions. Although Socrates does not directly illustrate this using own words, it is possible to deduce the argument from his dialogues. For example, some of the ideas developed by Socrates in one area are used to support ideas in other areas. For example, ideas presented in the Meno are used in his interview with the slave boy. 

From Plato’s definitions in the Meno, it is clear that knowledge is more treasured that simple belief. It is also clear that definitions are a source of knowledge. Plato’s proof of the former has been explained earlier in his revisionary responses to various problems. Moreover, it is clear that definitions play the epistemic role of drawing conclusions through formal reasoning.

Socrates conception of epistemic role of definition is a kind of fallacy that leads to the Paradox of Inquiry. It is for a reason that the person engaging in a definition follows a certain procedure. However, the person after the definition comes to know what he did not know previously, thus, creating a Paradox of Inquiry. 

Through the Paradox of Inquiry, it is clear that it is impossible. However, this does not mean that The Theory of Recollection is the only way of getting around the problem that exists on inquiry. The Theory of Recollection still has its flaws. Socrates accidentally proves this by engaging a slave boy in an interview. By using his two feet to draw a square, he asks the boy to compute the length of the side of the square given that it is twice the area of his drawing. The slave boy comes with two suggestions; first four, then three feet. However, at both instances, Socrates proves the boy that he is wrong. Afterwards, he helps the boy to recognize the right answer. While doing this, Socrates makes sure that the boy thinks through the problem himself. Further, he comes into conclusion that the boy, using his own mind without direct teaching, is actually recollecting. It is for a reason that at point one, the boy does not know the theorem posed by Socrates. However, at point two, the boy knows the theorem without gaining knowledge in the interval of learning and knowing. 

Just like in conception of adequate definition, Socrates again binds himself with his own words. Instead of proving that inquiry through recollection is the best way to get around a problem, Socrates gives others a chance to question his arguments. For example, in the attempt or in the theorem example, three possibilities are obtained, which include propositions, concepts and abilities. The theorem used is the proposition while the concepts include such things as equality, odd and difference. On the other hand, ability includes such things as being able to reason. All these things, according to Socrates, are innate. By using the theorem as his way of proving recollection, he tries to establish that the theorem is innate. However, he ends up proving that concepts and abilities are innate, which weakens the explanation of the theorem used. Therefore, instead of explaining recollection, Socrates weakens it by creating more problems that needs prove.

In addition, other possible alternatives of recollection stems from Socrates attempt to prove his arguments. For example, in the part involving the slave boy, reasoning as another possible alternative of recollection, crops up. When interviewing the slave boy, whether the boy knew the theorem or he did not know it is not enough to deduce that recollection was taking place. Instead, the boy could have engaged his reasoning skills to come up with what had not been noticed earlier. In short, the boy could have deduced the results of what he previously knew.

In conclusion, one of the most notable roles of Socratic dialogues is adequate definitions. In order to reach this conclusion, Socrates used simple questions after which he would engage in a serious refutation of the definition given. In most cases, Socrates would beat his opponent by giving strong and valid arguments against his definitions. For example, Socrates severally corrects Meno in her explanations of virtue. He proves of the drawbacks of all his definitions. Mostly, Socrates is interested in using knowledge to achieve several things in relation to epistemology. For example, Socrates is interested in explaining universal concepts such as virtue and justice among other. Socrates is also interested in coming up with real and adequate definitions. Lastly, Socrates use of inquiry as way of obtaining definitions leads to a contradiction of inquiry.


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