Socrates' Pursuit of Definitions

Phronesis 48 (4):271 - 312 (2003)
"Socrates' Pursuit of Definitions" examines the manner in which Socrates pursues definitions in Plato's early definitional dialogues and advances the following claims. Socrates evaluates definitions (proposed by his interlocutors or himself) by considering their consistency with conditions of the identity of F (F-conditions) to which he is committed. In evaluating proposed definitions, Socrates seeks to determine their truth-value. Socrates evaluates the truth-value of a proposed definition by considering the consistency of the proposed definition with F-conditions that F he believes to be true. (For instance, a proposed definition's inconsistency with one of these gives Socrates reason to believe that the definition is false.) Socrates' belief in the truth of a given F-condition to which he is committed may be based on self-evidence, its endoxic status, experience, or deduction from premises to which he is committed on the basis of any of the previous three. However, Socrates does not consider the epistemological grounds of his commitments to his F-conditions. This is part of a general avoidance of metaethical and ethical epistemological issues. Due to his avoidance of these, Socrates' pursuit of true definitions is theoretically naïve. However, Socrates recognizes a certain limitation to his manner of pursuing definitions. These results are applied to advancing the following further points. (1) Although Socrates has a distinctive manner or style of pursuing definitions, it is inappropriate to ascribe to him a method of doing so in the following sense. The concept of method implies a certain theoretical conception of procedure that Socrates lacks. Moreover, according to Socrates' own conceptual framework, only one who possessed the relevant τέχνη would have a method. (2) Furthermore, Socrates' manner of pursuing definitions is not elenctic just insofar as the word "elenchus" is interpreted to have adversarial connotations; that is inconsistent with Socrates' motives and interests. (3) Socrates' manner of pursuing definitions is consistent among the early definitional dialogues. More specifically, there is no "demise of the elenchus" in a set of transitional dialogues, as Vlastos describes it. First, Socrates' manner of pursuing definitions is not "elenctic" (in the sense described). And, second, the fact that Socrates himself proposes definitions in allegedly post-elenctic dialogues (that is, Lysis and Hippias Major) is consistent with his manner of pursuing definitions. (4) In the early definitional dialogues, Socrates does not have a theory of definition. In particular, he lacks a general theoretical ontology. Moreover, while his comments and implicit commitments entail beliefs about some conditions for a satisfactory definition (for example, that the definiens must be a uniquely identifying true verbal description), such conditions do not constitute a theory. (5) Although in other early dialogues and in other parts of the definitional dialogues Socrates may express concern over the psychological states and well-being of his interlocutors, in the process of pursuing definitions, Socrates' principal concern is the evaluation of definitions, not the psychologies or lives of his interlocutors. (6) Finally, Socrates is committed to the epistemological priority of definitional knowledge for pertinent non-definitional knowledge. This does present a methodological problem of the kind to which Geach first drew attention. Specifically, according to the manner in which Socrates pursues definitions, it is unclear how he can get from belief that p to knowledge that p. Although this problem is genuine, Socrates himself is not unaware of such limits of his approach
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