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Different Standards versus Different Definitions | Socrates | Practical Wisdom

If by 'a definition' we mean 'an explanation of meaning', just what type of thing are we willing to call a definition?

These are rough, some very rough indeed, draft "logic of language" (Wittgenstein's expression, but as my jargon) remarks: Words are only marks on paper, spoken sounds -- what gives them meaning? And how is meaning distinguished from nonsense (scribble, sound without sense) in the discussion of philosophical questions?

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Witness: He was always talking, always talking. Always about the same thing, always the same thing.

Prosecutor: And what was that?

Witness: I don't remember. (Max Frisch, Bluebeard)

Well, I was thinking about myself when I quoted that, that I write as much as Chrysippus (Diog. L. vii, 180) did for the same reason he did: he talked about the same topics over and over again (and he very often included long quotations from other philosophers in his works). However, "Socrates, you always talk about the same thing" was what Critias said about Socrates' method of using "cobblers, builders and metal workers" in his analogies (Cf. Gorgias 490c-491a). Further, however, there is this: that Socrates told each of us that every day we should discuss what is the good for man, of how man should live his life (Apology 37e-38a).

One thing one learns from reading Plato intensely enough to write about him is that he was an inveterate repeater of himself -- even to the point of tedium. (Guthrie, Plato ... earlier period (1975), p. 175)

That as well as what was said about Chrysippus. On the other hand, slight variations there are and these variations often show a slightly deeper insight into old ideas.


Grammatical standards versus Definitions of 'grammar'

Note: Are we defining the word 'grammar' or merely stating different criteria for correct grammar? The following is related to the discussion Wittgenstein's sense of the word 'grammar.

Query: Webster, grammar is whatever makes sense.

Note: words that follow "Query" on this page are Internet searches from my site's server logs, that I have responded to here.

If a form of expression's meaning is clear, then that form of expression is grammatically correct; that is one standard, one way to define the word 'grammar' -- i.e. to base its meaning on sense and nonsense (rather than e.g. syntax, text-book parts of speech (adjective, noun, adverb), prohibition of double-negatives, things like this). That is what Wittgenstein does.

The sign-post is in order -- if, under normal circumstances, it fulfills its purpose. (PI § 87)

The concept 'grammar' is connected with the concepts 'rules' and 'standards', but it is otherwise fluid (as far as I can see at the moment, in any case). Thus there would be no correct definition of 'grammar' -- if such a definition specified a particular standard. So, then, Wittgenstein did not redefine the word 'grammar' -- and his statement to G.E. Moore was mistaken? Are we defining the word 'grammar' here, or by 'grammar' do we simply mean: 'correct usage by some standard or other'?

Should we say that Wittgenstein redefines the word 'grammar' or should we say that he uses a different standard of grammatical correctness [than used by the school textbook grammarians]? You don't know? What do you need here in order to know? You need a rule [i.e. a convention for using the word 'grammar']. Now, which shall it be? If there isn't a rule [i.e. if the concept 'grammar' is more rather than less fluid], we might choose to make the rule that: If someone chooses a different standard for grammatical correctness, then he redefines the word the word 'grammar'. Or we might choose not to say that. There is no rule [no usage, no custom, no institution of language use in this case].

One might ask, however, which is clearer [i.e. which rule would be more useful from that point of view]? In my judgment in this case, "redefines" is clearer than "sets a different standard". Because "sets a different standard" makes it look as if the difference were too small, as if it were merely a case resembling British 'colour' or American 'color' (Publishers choose different standards here). In the case of Wittgenstein's use of the word 'grammar', we have something more akin to a new way of looking at things [cf. gestalt shift]; so that I would call his use [or, jargon usage] of the word 'grammar' jargon. But reasons might be given for a different judgment.

It is possible to be interested in a phenomenon from many points of view. (PI § 108)

And the particular point of view should determine the appropriate standard of correctness. Then should I simply have said that Wittgenstein set a different standard of correctness for 'grammatically correct'? or that he redefined (or at least extended the meaning of) the word 'grammar'? Is the inclusion of a particular standard essential to the concept 'grammar'? It seems not. But are you going to call "extending the meaning of a word" an instance of redefining the word, or not? (Which classification scheme shall we choose -- or in other words how shall we define the word 'definition'? What is essential to the concept 'definition'?)

So much for Wittgenstein and logic and philosophy. However, if we are preparing foreign students for tests of their knowledge of the English language, Wittgenstein's standard [or definition of the word 'grammar'] is not the correct standard [or most useful definition] for our purposes. Because in this case we want, not to be rational, so to speak, but to have the students score well on their tests. The grammar [standard] used in those tests is the language of well-educated, native English speakers.

But from the point of view of sense and nonsense, that particular language is no more correct than any other. -- Or can't well-educated speakers utter nonsense? Oh yes; they can and do.

cf. From a picture titled "Riddles of technology". The comment of one professor to another after hearing a working-class builder issue orders to another working-class builder: "It really is quite incomprehensible, my dear colleague, how anyone can carry out such complicated and precise work in such language" (CV p. 15). Nonetheless, not only is it possible, it is also actual. Now why would that be?

A university-educated girl in Malaysia wrote: "English is my second language. Bad and broken English is my first." She speaks the English of many Chinese-Malaysians. Or should that English be called a dialect? But is the English spoken in America a dialect? Or a patois? But a patois is not passed on from immigrants to their native-born children. Does she have any difficulty communicating with other Malaysian English speakers? None at all. Nonetheless the English that girl speaks is not the English spoken by educated Britons or Americans, and the latter English would be the standard she would be tested for if she wished to apply to study in those countries (or in Australia or New Zealand). Of course, from the point of view of philosophical studies, it is better to have something worthwhile to say in "broken English" than to have nothing worthwhile to say in "good English".

Query: what are the justifications for criticisms of various definitions of 'grammar'?
Query: meanings of the word 'grammar'.

The only justified criticism of a definition is that: it does not truly describe the way the word being defined is used in our language (or its use in someone or other's jargon) -- or that it states a rule that cannot be followed (because how to follow it is unclear; rules often require other rules to explain their meaning). Further, we categorize things in different ways depending on the particular use we have for the category. That purpose determines the criteria we use, and therefore there are no absolute correct or incorrect ways to classify the words of a language. For some purposes 'a noun is the name of a person, place or thing' will serve well, for others it will not. (Whether the particular classification scheme is part of the definition of the word 'grammar' or not is discussed above.)

As to "meanings of the word grammar". If we are simply trying to discover how people commonly use that word -- where do we begin nowadays, with dictionaries, yes? Before there were dictionaries, we might have looked in writers we regarded as authorities (perhaps as writers about language or logic, perhaps simply as good prose writers or poets). We would want to determine the limits of the word's application: perhaps we would not want to accept the general definition: 'rules for using language' (or Wittgenstein's "any explanation of the use of language"), which might seem to mean most anything. On the other hand, we might have to accept that a broad, general definition is the best we can do, if the concept 'grammar' turns out upon investigation to be very fluid.

A definition of 'grammar' might include "negative rules": what the word 'grammar' doesn't mean. E.g. according to one definition of 'grammar', the grammatical category 'noun' might be 'the name of a person, place or thing' -- without a definition of the word 'thing' being included; maybe a definition of 'thing' would be treated as belonging to philosophy (as a philosophical question) rather than as belonging to grammar. Such a concept 'grammar' might be called "practical", concerned only with descriptions-categorizations that work syntactically; semantics ("logic" in Wittgenstein's jargon) would not enter any further into it. That definition would not be what Russell or Wittgenstein called "philosophical grammar", but instead what I have called "school text-book grammar".

Where we set the limits of a concept depends on what our purpose is in establishing that concept. If it is a new category or a revision of an old category, our concept-word will also now be a jargon-word; and so Wittgenstein's "grammar" and "logic" are his jargon.

Query: meaning of undefined.

But the undefined is without meaning. But is the query different from asking for the meaning of the word 'undefined'? Could 'Undefined language is language without meaning' be used to state a fact (other than about the meaning of the word 'undefined' in the English language)? One says, But the word 'undefined' is not defined that way in geometry. And that is exactly correct: the word 'undefined'. [The Distinction between a sign and the meaning of a sign] cf. 'void' -- the meaning of the word 'void' is not nothing (If it were, the 'void' would be undefined, "sound without sense"), but 'nothing', a word which is its synonym.

Query: understand the word, but not the sentence.

Not everything that looks like an English sentence is one. A combination of words may be in correct grammatical order and yet be meaningless if we have no use for it (An obvious example is 'A square is round'). Yes, but how can we decide whether any particular combination of words is meaningless, rather than that we just don't know how [other] speakers of the language use it? A semantic criterion cannot be set based on form alone; it is necessary to examine each particular case, to see if we find a use in the language for it or not.

Nor could we make a list of all the defined combinations of words in the language, together with descriptions of their uses (A whole language dictionary, as it were). Because look, for example, at many combinations of words found in Shakespeare; no one had used those combinations before him, and yet they were not and are not meaningless combinations of words.

Query: chess as a grammar symbol.

Chess is a game played according to strict rules, and grammar is about rules. -- But in most cases, Wittgenstein said, that is a misleading comparison ("symbol") because: Generally, we do not use language according to strict rules (cf. PI § 81). (See the remark about Shakespeare directly above.)

Query: if language is conceived as a set of rules by which an infinite number ...

The expression "conceived as" = "thought of" = "looked at as". Using the school text-book categories of grammar {noun, verb, adjective, etc.} -- i.e. looking at language from that point of view -- we could, by following various protocols (e.g. article + noun + verb + adverb), construct a very large class of grammatically correct forms, but only a small subset of that class would be meaningful combinations of words (i.e. have a use in the language).

The search ("search-and-misdirect") engines also follow protocols. Often what they direct the searcher to is meaningless -- but 'meaningless' in a different sense (i.e. in the sense of 'irrelevant', 'pointless' or 'futile'): the engine is not "responsive" (as is said in court) to the searcher's query because the engine does not understand the query's language; so far, apparently only a human being can do that. Keyword-matching may be likened to determining meaning from syntax alone: occasionally it works.

Query: senseless versus meaningless, Wittgenstein.

If there is a distinction made in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus using those words, I have overlooked it (which I should not have done if I did), although the fundamental point is this: Are what Wittgenstein calls in that book "philosophical propositions" mere noise, ink scribbles, or have they a "meaning" (of some sort of other) -- even if they are "senseless" in the sense that they are not natural science propositions -- i.e. propositions of sense experience (sight, hearing)? (After all, "nonsense" that can convey meaning is not nonsense; it is not meaningless.) If "philosophical propositions" have "meaning", then they are not what Wittgenstein later (e.g. in the Philosophical Investigations) called either 'senseless' or 'meaningless', those two words being synonyms in English.

Query: 'whether', meaning and example.

Even in India, from whence this query came, for so the British taught. The assumption is that all words have "meanings" -- i.e. that a general, or, essential = essence-identifying, definition can be given for every word. School teachers are responsible for implanting this picture in children's thinking (It becomes a never unquestioned, a taken for granted assumption ["The small child, unlike its teacher, had understood the logic of our language"]. Surely, one thinks, all this cannot be because of Plato -- but why "can't" it be? [And is it true that examples alone can't serve as a definition?]

Query: definition of questions that are meaningless, e.g. "How are you?"

But that phrase is no more meaningless -- of course now I owe you a definition of 'meaningless' -- than the word 'hello' is: both expressions are commonly used as greetings. From that in one context 'How are you?' is a question (such as a parent or doctor might ask) it does not follow that it must be used as a question in all contexts. Any sign (any combination of words) may have various uses, various grammars in various contexts. Meaning is determined by use, not by form.

Comparisons like Definitions

Query: why is 'a line is like the edge of a ruler' not a good definition?

Straight-edge and compass were Euclid's tools ... If by 'definition' we mean 'an explanation of meaning' (PI § 560) .... What the query offers may not be sufficient as a definition, but it does give you the right idea, doesn't it? It's a nice question: what are you calling a definition / 'definition'? Can an analogy serve as a definition? [Why are definitions given in geometry? What is their role in teaching geometry to someone?]

The query, in its present form, is not philosophy: for in philosophy the conclusion comes at the end of an argument, not at its beginning. In the query the conclusion is assumed as "the given" and yet the demand is made that reasons be adduced to support the conclusion. But that method [way of thinking] is imparting a way of thinking, not philosophy. The philosophical question is: Is 'a line is like the edge of a ruler' a good [useful] definition of 'line'?

"The answer is already known; just repeat what you have been trained to say and thus you will think correctly, because the query does not concern a question of truth and falsity, but only of a way of looking at things." Why shouldn't "a line is like the edge of a ruler" be regarded as an excellent definition, if there is such a thing as definition by comparison?

Query: explain why 'a line is like the edge of a ruler' is not a good definition.

But the Greeks used compass and straight-edge in their demonstrations, suggesting that "edge" was what they did mean by 'line' (cf. a 'line' is 'the limit of the surface of a cube').

"A definition should not employ the word 'like' in it." -- I don't know; who made that rule? If '... like the edge ...' teaches someone how to use the word 'line' in geometry correctly, then it is a good definition, isn't it? (But we don't call something a good definition just because it has the effect we want.)

What is our purpose in defining a word? Is it, in this case, an end in itself (as it might be in the case of a "real" definition, i.e. metaphysical theory), or is it an explanation of meaning (in Wittgenstein's sense) given to someone who does not already know how to use the word being defined?

"... is not a good definition." When do we say that a definition is not good -- when it leads to the mistaken use (or attempted use) of a word? There are many possible criteria. For example, Plato would object to any definition that attributed materiality to the objects of geometry.

Would a "good definition" (according to the query, presumably rather than the comparison the query suggests) state the essence of geometric points? Would it be the answer to the question: What is the common nature of all things sharing the common name 'point' in geometry which distinguishes them from all other things? (Socratic definition according to Aristotle)

A comparison ("a line is like ...") is not an identification: it does not say that a line is the edge of a ruler.

"A line is like the edge of a ruler" in -- in what way exactly? That is what a comparison asserts, that A is like B in such-and-such a way. How is a line not like the edge of a ruler? Earlier I suggested as one possibility: defining the word 'point' as 'a geometrical point made by compasses in the sand whose size doesn't interest us', and something similar might be done with the word 'line', e.g. 'a geometrical line is a line drawn along a straight-edge in the sand whose thickness doesn't interest us'.

In applied geometry, isn't 'a line is the edge of a ruler' just what we mean? How does axiomatic geometry make contact with experience (applied geometry)?

Question: are concepts without percepts necessarily empty? (Does 'empty' DEF.= 'meaningless'?)

Query: how is Theaetetus' claim that knowledge is perception related to Protagoras' claim that "man is the measure of all things" and Heraclitus' claim that reality is constantly changing?
Query: is the unexamined life worth living? what did Socrates mean?

The first query is another example of imparting a point of view (namely, that the relationship is "significant", i.e. worth giving attention to) rather than philosophy. Don't ask "How?", but "Is?" -- that is philosophy; "How?" is training in how to think like other people ("the received view", people used to say) rather than for oneself. ("The answer is already known." That is not philosophy.)

The second query, on the other hand, has at least the form of philosophy ... but, one thinks, the question is after all rather elementary. (Remarkable then that Socrates should have thought about it every day of his life.) But "elementary" or otherwise, it is an infinitely more important topic than the Protagoras-Heraclitus-"knowledge is perception" relationship "claims" (i.e. philosophical theories -- i.e. mere "pictures": reasons without even the possibility of verification by experience). [Cf. Epictetus's three levels of inquiry, ending with: "Thus we tell lies, but are ready with a demonstration that lying is wrong."]


Socrates' method and why?

Preface: Witness: "Why do you keep asking the same questions?" -- Inspector: "In order to keep hearing the same answers." That is, in the hope that the witness will refute his own answers [i.e. contradict himself], or find better ones [i.e. tell a different story, maybe even the true one].

Query: is Socrates justified in requiring that Euthyphro be able to define what it is for an action to be holy?

And what would 'justified' mean here? Someone who asks questions like this is like Wittgenstein -- he does not appreciate the point of Socrates' request: ask instead, Why does Socrates make this request? Why is it important that there be a standard in ethics about which we [all] agree, just as we all agree about using a meter stick to measure, a balance to weigh, this type of thing (7b-d). [Why might a United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights be important?] The concept 'to define' in the Greek sense of 'determine the limits of' or 'set the limits to' would, if it were used in this dialog (which it may not be, at least not explicitly), would be equivalent to the concept 'identify a standard'. The dialog asks: What is the agreed upon -- the held-in-common -- standard by which we may judge whether any act is or is not holy?

I was drawn to the study of philosophy in my early youth because I wanted to learn to defend my ideas in ethics (I did not at that time think of language meaning -- clarity and definition, and the sense and nonsense distinction -- as a philosophical question), for I did not think the way others thought, or as I thought they should, about right and wrong, good and evil. The Sophists -- and anti-rationalists in ethics such as Wittgenstein (and Kant, if I understand him) -- denied that there are verifiable standards, i.e. standards that can be discovered by reason, which was contrary to the view of Socrates (and of course Plato).

One stance (which is a way of life) says, We have looked, we have not found, and therefore it is not there. Another stance (which is a different form of life) says, We have looked, we have not found, and therefore we must continue looking. The second stance is that of Socrates at the end of Plato's Euthyphro; the first stance is Wittgenstein's, at least in this instance (The topic of these two stances is discussed by Wittgenstein in WLFM Lecture xxiii, p. 255-256) [as well as that of physics according to Arthur Eddington].

Query: what is the Socratic method in the Euthyphro?

One "method" is alluded to above: to seek a standard. Another method -- the method of testing a suggested standard -- is to seek to discover a contradiction (as in Euthyphro 6e-7e). Question: is the method of refutation ("the Socratic elenchus" is Guthrie's expression) ever (1) the discovery of unclarity -- or is it always (2) the discovery of contradiction? Is the seeking of contradictions the whole of the Socratic method (according to Plato)?

It may be this way. In the early, or, Socratic dialogs, refutation seems to be all that interests Plato -- as if the discovery of error ["not knowing"] were of more interest to him than the discovery of truth ["knowing"]. Maybe this is because in those dialogs Plato is simply confirming Socrates' meaning for the riddle set by the oracle at Delphi (Apology 21a-d), that "no one knows more than Socrates" (who admits that he himself knows nothing). But if it only may be this way, then it may also not be this way.

Question (extremely speculative): in the Euthyphro as I recall, if I recall aright, and I very often don't remember things aright, one of Socrates' objections is eristic. When Plato makes objections of that type, I wonder: is it because "Yes, I know it's eristic; but I want you also to see that it is"? Or does he himself not see that it is eristic? The latter, I don't think. Or is it this way: "Here is the obscured solution for you to find"? I don't think that either. In the dialogs scholars identify as "earlier" or "Socratic", Plato cannot very well provide answers if the Socrates of his Apology did not have any answers. But as Plato moves farther and farther away from the historical Socrates and begins more and more simply to speak for himself through the mouth of his literary character "Socrates" (Diog. L. ii, 45), until discarding Socrates altogether in favor of "an Eleatic visitor", he does provide answers (e.g. to the question of "how thought can be of what is not" in the Sophist).

Query: where would philosophy be without wonderment?

But in Plato 'wonderment' means 'befuddlement' (Theaetetus 155c-d). According to Wittgenstein, if it were not for "the bewitchment of the intellect by means of language" (PI § 109), philosophy would not be anywhere at all; if the human mind were not befuddled, philosophy simply would not exist. Kant spoke of "healing the understanding" (which was also Wittgenstein's aim), and [perhaps, because I don't know] according to Kant if the human understanding were not injured it would not need philosophy to guide it to a clear understanding of: "Two things fill the human mind with awe: the starry heavens above and the moral law within." (Where would religion be without "wonderment", in the senses of 'awe', 'puzzlement' and 'befuddlement'? One might ask: where would science be without "wonder", in the sense of 'curiosity'; but it may [also] have had its origin in necessity: e.g. was the origin of agriculture curiosity?)

Query: all philosophy begins in a sense of wonder.

If by 'wonder' is mean 'awe' or 'curiosity', and that is the usual English meaning of that word, then "wonder" is exactly what Plato does not say.

Query: what did Plato want to accomplish writing the Phaedrus?

Partly, I think, to amuse himself with a display of his rhetorical skill, and partly, so he says, to provide refreshment for himself when he rereads it in his dotage (276c-d). However, the philosophical purpose is to illustrate -- i.e. to give an example -- of words about whose meaning we are at variance (263a-b), as contrasted with words about whose meaning we agree (This issue is also the basis of the Euthyphro when Plato has Socrates ask for a "standard"), the word 'love' being one such a word.

Comment: But is 'love' such a word -- i.e. a word about whose meaning we are at variance with one another? Do we disagree about the meaning of the word 'love' -- i.e. about the rules for using that word -- or isn't it rather that people disagree about "what love really is" or "what the nature of love is" (or -- to use that misleading form of expression -- "the meaning of love")? Aren't Plato's two long speeches about "what love is" (which is a question of facts -- i.e. the evidence of life -- and points of view) rather than about how we use the word 'love'?

In sum, are we at variance about the grammar of the word 'love' or about the nature of the phenomenon of love? In philosophy -- or at least in logic-of-language -- we define words, not phenomena.

Note: The word 'define', like e.g. the word 'nonsense', has a variety of meanings, which, if they are not carefully distinguished one from another, cause a lot of confusion in philosophy. To 'define' is to 'determine the limits', but there are many kinds of limits, not only the linguistic ones -- i.e. conventions, rules -- which concern logic. There are also e.g. the "limits" to the nature of something-or-other such as are stated in hypotheses or propositions -- i.e. statements of fact to be put to the test of experience.

Plato and Wittgenstein

Query: from Socrates to Wittgenstein.
Query: van Socrates tot Wittgenstein.

I wish you wouldn't put it that way. Because for "from Socrates to Wittgenstein" there are Wittgenstein's own apposite words to Drury: "... the decline that has come over the human spirit!" From a thoroughgoing logos [reason], namely Socrates, there is a step backwards to a partial mythos -- i.e. from pure rationalism to part anti-rationalism --, namely, Wittgenstein. But if we make the query instead: "from Plato to Wittgenstein", there is no step backwards, because: Although there is logos in both philosopher's [Plato's ethics and logic are both rational, although Wittgenstein's ethics is not rational], there is also mythos in both. It is true that their mythos is as different as their logos is different [Platonic-Socratic definition versus family likeness]. We may [I think this is correct] say that for Wittgenstein the solution to "the riddle of existence" is unknowable because existence itself is irrational, whereas for Plato the solution is irrational only because it is unknowable for so long as our soul is entombed in a body. See the very next query:

Query: similarities between Plato and Wittgenstein.

The question of "mysticism" and philosophy. The word 'mysticism' is in double quotes because it is most familiar in the expression 'mystical experiences'. But strange experiences was not what Wittgenstein or Plato meant, but rather 'mysticism' as Schweitzer defined it: the claim to knowledge of reality that is "transcendent" -- i.e. which claims to see beyond our sensory experience of reality.

Note: Neither Wittgenstein nor Plato claimed to have such knowledge, and Wittgenstein wished to put an end to speculation such as Plato's about "the transcendent".

Plato imported mysticism into philosophy in two ways, both of which were rejections of Socrates' views. One import was, according to Zeller, the Eastern religion of "Orphicism, which ... relied on divine revelations", and its dualistic picture of "the body as a tomb of the soul". The Phaedo is pure as it were Platonicity (not historicity) -- it has nothing to do with the historical Socrates; it is instead: Plato's account, as it were, of his own death: the speaker is Plato, not Socrates; the Phaedo is the wisdom of Plato, such as his wisdom is.

Plato's notion [which is a mythical distinction -- for it is and was a metaphysical picture; it was never an hypothesis] was taken up by early Christian theology and thence the picture of "matter" versus "spirit" was so absorbed by the Western mind that it is taken for granted by Descartes, the "father of modern philosophy", and remains there to this day (although it is not found in post-TLP Wittgenstein, where once again, 'mind' is no longer mistreated as if it were the name of an object [as though its grammatical part of speech were name-of-object-word] but is brought back from its metaphysical to its everyday use, because its "metaphysical use" is not a use of language: it is only a picture [As a grammatical account, it is merely a false account, a grammatical myth]).

The second import, which was accepted by Descartes but rejected by Isaac Newton (who in his rules for reasoning wished experience to be his master), was the method of a priori reasoning with which he displaced Socrates' method of inductive reasoning.

We must also say that Plato and Wittgenstein were similar in that they both concerned with "definition" -- however, without careful explanation, that may be quite misleading: Wittgenstein defined language, Plato defined things. [Verbal versus "real" definitions.]

In contrast to Plato, who had inherited the view of Socrates' that Ethics is rational, for Wittgenstein it was a fundamental and never-doubted, never-questioned view [conviction] of his that Ethics is not rational. He accepted Kant's notion of "categorical imperatives" in ethics (as Wittgenstein's "Lecture on Ethics" clearly shows when he speaks of "taking his hat off" to the impulse to "run against the limits of language" to express the inexpressible mystical -- while at the same time praising so-called men of faith, including Calvin, who murdered his religious-ideological opponent, and Abraham, the would-be child sacrificer) rather than reason, such as found in Socrates and "Know thyself". Wittgenstein's "logic of language" (in my jargon) is rational, but his and Ethics and "Metaphysics" (i.e. questions about life's meaning, God, and the like) are not.

Paul's "I am a mystery to myself. I do the very things I hate" versus Socrates' rationalism, which would respond, I think: but man has been gifted with reason, with which to de-mystify himself. [Whether Paul's view of the body is the same as Plato's is a nice question. Is Paul's spiritual -- i.e. supernatural -- body, which is subject neither to disease nor death, the same a Plato's disembodied soul which is not limited, as the "fleshy body" (Paul) is, by senses of perception?] Religion's "walk by faith, not by sight" is in itself not merely irrational, but anti-rational, if by 'faith' is meant 'belief in doctrines of divine revelation'. The impulse to that faith is not something to "take one's hat off to" (Wittgenstein) ... in my view, but maybe not in Wittgenstein's (I think that a man's sincerity would be Wittgenstein's standard of judgment here).

Query: language limit, bird cage, Wittgenstein.

The query is quite suggestive: in Plato the body limits the soul, in Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus language does: imprisoned like a bird in a cage the human soul longs to give expression to "what is higher", but like the bars of the birdcage language prevents it (just as in Plato the body prevents the soul from seeing the Forms as they are in themselves, although that is what the soul longs to do).

[Running up against the limits of language, or, against the bars of our "birdcage". But Wittgenstein's cage, like Plato's Forms, were the creation of his own imagination, existing nowhere else. But on the other hand if to "Is language a cage?" we add "in some sense" without saying in which sense, then whichever answer you like will be the "correct" -- or "incorrect" (PI § 258) answer to whether or not language is a cage.]

Query: language is a cage.

I don't know. Wittgenstein seems to say Yes (TLP Preface and no. 7) and then No (TLP notes by Waismann, 1930), then Yes (PI § 119) then perhaps No (ibid. II, xii, p. 230). But the absence of language would seem an even more limiting cage (prison for the soul).

Query: people could not explain by natural science, and that's why philosophers imagined things.

That would be the thesis that metaphysics is a kind of false science; cf. the thesis that religion, or, magic, is a false science. But the thing is, the Greeks invented natural science. However, the Stoics made a distinction between natural science and what they called "physics" (Diog. L. vii, 132-133), i.e. what we now call "metaphysics". So it might be difficult to maintain the thesis that if only the Greeks had had scientists to explain everything to them, then they wouldn't have "imagined things". (Thales, the first philosopher, was also a geometer and natural scientist.)

Does natural science really have anything to say about Plato's absolute reality or about the immortality of the soul or the benevolence of God [or indeed any of the so-called eternal questions]? In one thing at least the Greeks had the advantage over us: they were not under the illusion that scientists had explained everything or that natural science will someday explain everything.

Query: what did Socrates say should be the principal concern in our lives?

How we should live our life: what is the good for man (Plato, Apology 30a-b, 36c)? What is human excellence ("virtue", but above all, moral virtue)? That is the point of "Know thyself" and of "the unexamined life is not worth living"). In his Republic Plato has Socrates say: "We are discussing about no small matter, but how to live."

Query: Socrates was not beautiful.

In the Greek sense of the word translated 'beautiful': yes and no: handsome, no; serviceable, yes. The simple translation into English of many Greek words does not appear to be possible, and therefore the English words used in translations must be treated as jargon, as e.g. are the words 'beauty' (kalon) and 'virtue' (areté), useful to color che sanno, but misleading and baffling to the student whose "teacher" sees no need to give explanations, as if the student just ought somehow -- who knows how -- to understand. -- Or worse horrors still, as if what were at issue were not how the Greek word should be translated into English, but what "the true meaning of beauty" or "what beauty really is" were the issue. ("Beauty by any other name is nonetheless beauty, so we needn't quibble about what name we give it.")


Examples of Practical Wisdom

Preface: The seven sages or wise men of Greece were not philosophers (except Thales). To them are attributed "sayings of practical wisdom" (such as "Know thyself", which is entirely practical advice if taken in the limited sense of: "know your strengths and limitations"). Below are three examples, but from the middle 20th century; they are from the author of Angela's Ashes (1996)).

"I shouldn't think about why I can't do something. I should think about why I can do it".

Although he had not gone to secondary school in Ireland, when Frank McCourt came to America he wanted to become an English teacher. He didn't see how he could, but his companion told him otherwise.

"Save your emotions for bigger things".

When he was working on the docks, one of the workers made a racist remark, and the Irishman wanted to respond with this fists. But that was what his black American friend said to him.

"... he wasn't the worst man in the world and who are we to judge, that's what God is for ..."

God, that is, the concept 'God', ought after all to be useful for something. In any case, the Lord has warned us that the higher the bar of unforgiveness we set for others, that high will the bar also be set for us.

Other examples

But although he sought with all his power to lead the brethren to austerity of life, he was not pleased with an... austerity devoid of ... compassion and ... discretion. For when, on a certain night, one of the brethren, from excessive abstinence was so pinched with hunger that he could find no rest, [St. Francis] brought bread; and lest he should be ashamed to eat it, he began first to eat before him, thus sweetly inviting him to eat. And the brother, overcoming his shame, took the bread ... receiving at the same time no small edification from the holy man's example.

The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, ed. Manning (1867), v (tr. not named). Could Francis have accomplished with words what he accomplished with silent example? The good attracts imitation (as does the bad; watch what you do: because what you do sets an example for others). The distance between St. Bonaventure's book and us is as great as the distance between the Bible and us (Bultmann's "the wonder world of the New Testament") -- theirs is a fundamentally different (foreign to us) way of thinking.

"Don't make other people so important."

This may apply to an individual ("Don't make that person so important", "Don't let that person be so important") or to a class. My mother used to say this to me if I were angry.

"Our choices are what make us who we are."

Which is a sobering, possibly disheartening thought, I'd say. Charles Robert Jenkins who crossed over into N. Korea one night summed up his life that way: "Our choices are what make us who we are. Nobody knows that better than me."

"Since you have to be here, try to make the best not the worst of it."

This practical advice I myself once received was very helpful to me. The professor who taught the history of Medieval Philosophy said this to me about his class.

"Never put your hands anywhere you can't see."

"Never put your hands where you cannot see them." This is another example of purely practical wisdom, a warning from my father, who was a man of war, about booby traps in the field (but it also applies to the workshop).

The Spider and the Fly

"My generation went through many political campaigns.... One minute, the Party seems to relax its political control. Once you let down your guard, they come out to get you. They're played this trick for years. The Communist leaders change their face like the April weather ..... Initially, the government media called the student demonstrations a patriotic movement. Then, on April 26, the People's Daily newspaper carried an editorial, calling the movement a riot." (Liao Yiwu, The Corpse Walker (2002), "The Tiananmen Father" [19], tr. Wen Huang [2008])

"Then, in 1957, Chairman Mao introduced the campaign called Let one hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend. Many intellectuals responded with enthusiasm ..... [Afterwards] Chairman Mao came out and declared that the movement has had brought out the most dangerous class enemies who had previously been in hiding. With those remarks, the anti-Rightist campaign followed. One after another, many intellectuals fell from grace." (ibid. "The Rightist" [10])

Keep your own counsel, remembering that today's friend may be tomorrow's enemy (St. Francis Xavier; seeing the best in others, isn't closing your eyes).

There is a Chinese saying which goes: "All misfortunes originate in your big mouth." So I kept my mouth shut and nobody came to bother me. (The Corpse Walker, "The Former Landowner" [12])


Self-control, wisdom, and the irrational

Query: name-calling and how to control emotions.

Name-calling is provocative, but it is also ignorant. Name-calling is not an argument. Name calling makes nothing clearer -- Name-calling such as 'Idiot!' or 'Fool!' [Matthew 7.3-5] may express dislike or disapproval (so may a dog's barking), but making those sounds does not state what the reason is for the dislike or disapproval. Name-calling becomes a habit, a second instinct, a substitute for thinking things through -- and above all for asking oneself if one's response to the actions of another person is rational.

What is a "labeler"? It is us when we string together words that vilify another human being. Rather than calling someone x ["idiot", "fool"], set the word 'x' aside as if that word and its like did not exist, and instead say exactly what the person has said or done that you think justifies vilifying that person. Set aside the label, replacing it with statements of fact in the original context: "who, what, when, where, why?" Being specific requires thought; name-calling does not.

We may pin any label we like on a box, but that label doesn't alter the box's content. Pears remain pears even if labeled "Peaches". Words may encourage false perceptions, and false perceptions may replace reality. Labels are not the friends of truth.

We have to be wary of our preconceptions: we wouldn't want it justly said of us that, "He doesn't need evidence; he has ideology." (Cf. "the Coherence Theory of Truth" -- and "prejudice" (judgment before or even discarding experience))

Query: emotions control language.

Unless we are watchful over our habits and instincts, they will control us rather than us them. And thus we will rashly speak vengeful words or vice versa loving words. I won't agree, then, with E.T.A. Hoffmann, that the heart has its place as well as the mind -- and that neither should be allowed to do violence to the other, because I am more afraid of my heart being like an untethered donkey, wandering about and doing harm.

But this is not logic of language: that emotion often controls what we say, is not a grammatical question (logic), although Life-philosophy has to answer it -- as it does everything else irrational about man's life; although, given that philosophy is an act of reason, what will philosophy say about anything irrational -- other than that: it must be brought under the control of what is rational. To know oneself is to recognize this.

Skepticism towards the gods

It is ahistorical to suggest that the words "Know thyself" inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi suggest a magic-show advert: Enter and know thyself! (for a fee, of course). Skepticism belongs to man's nature; it is as old as mankind itself (There never was a universal "Age of Faith" except in the imagination of historians), and not all Greeks would have had the reverence for Apollo's supposed oracle that Socrates had. We know very little about Chaerephon, but even in Plato's Apology, Chaerephon's question appears to have been asked somewhat in jest -- or even as if Chaerephon were a character in P.G. Wodehouse who had made a wager with his companions about which way the oracle would answer the question "Is anyone wiser than Socrates?" (Socrates was not humorless: he had friends and companions like the "madcap" Chaerephon.) "Enter and know thyself!" -- but the words 'Know thyself' were, according to Plato, inscribed inside the temple (Protagoras 343b), not outside.


"Fragments make you think"

Query: Socrates claiming ignorance, therefore is wise.
Query: Socrates, ignorance is wisdom.

Put the second way it sounds, not merely paradoxical, but Orwellian.

On the other hand, the query may simply be: "Socrates' [type of] ignorance [namely, not to think you know what you do not know] is wisdom". Thus it is Socratic wisdom to carefully distinguish what you know from what you don't know, and to seek to know what you recognize that you don't know, particularly in Ethics. That is a possible reading of the query. [What is Socratic ignorance -- is it also Socratic wisdom?]

Should Socrates take the donkey to court for kicking him? Should he kick the donkey (or its shadow) back? For what reason would a rational man do this? Self-discipline must be an act of knowledge rather than an act of "will power", for the will fails again and again so long as it is this way with man's thinking: "I say I know one thing, but what I believe I know is the contrary of what I say I know."


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