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Confusion, conceptual and real

If moral virtue is knowledge, as Socrates say, then surely self-control should not be needed to live a good life. And yet it is needed. Why is this?

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Preface: The following are "logic of language" (Wittgenstein's expression is "The logic of our language is misunderstood", and in my jargon 'logic of language' means: How is sense to be distinguished from nonsense in the discussion of philosophical problems; how is the distinction made between language with meaning and language without meaning?) remarks, and most are first blush awaiting revision.

"But, you see, first I write one thing, and then another, just the opposite." Why? -- is nothing clear to me? No, there are things that are clear to me -- from one direction, but if I approach them from another direction, they appear not to be (PI §§ 18, 123).


Virtue, Bad Habits, Instinct, Self-control

Practice doing what is right until it becomes a habit, because what we do from habit is sweet to us. (Epictetus, my paraphrase)

Why might self-control be necessary, even if moral virtue is knowledge? For the reform of bad habits. That is why. A dog, which is "a beast wanting discourse of reason", cannot reflect before it barks. And a bad habit is like animal instinct, a reflex which "is sweet". And reform is therefore difficult.

"Why are you impatient? Why are you habitually irritated and angry at the same small things? -- Because being impatient is sweet to you, even if it is bitter-sweet, for you are ashamed of yourself afterwards."

When I look at my behavior that way (and that's what is: a way of looking at my life), ethics becomes clearer to me (e.g. how virtue can be knowledge, but how knowledge is not in all cases enough) -- and most importantly I see how I myself may change my behavior from bad to good. Talk of "weakness of the will", on the other hand, is useless both to the understanding [-- for which it is a dead-end, a mere name to give to our ignorance --] and for changing (or, re-forming) how I live my life.

But is what is habitual always sweet to you? For even if a bad habit may be sweet, it also may leave a bitter aftertaste -- because one feels ashamed of oneself afterwards. But it is this shame, this recognition that one has done harm rather than good, that makes reform possible. And self-discipline may be needed for this reformation -- for the formation of good habits to replace the bad -- again, because a habit is akin to instinct, i.e. a thoughtless act.

The cause or historical source of a bad habit is of no importance to ethics; only the reaction -- i.e. only reforming the bad reaction (regardless of its cause) -- is the concern of ethics (Justifying the bad reaction -- which is in any case impossible -- is not). The facts to which one reacts may be unalterable; but one's attitude and therefore reaction to them is not. (Stoicism.)

Choose the life that is noblest, for custom can make it sweet to thee. (Epictetus, Golden Sayings Sec. 3 Frag. xx, tr. Crossley)

A man also does not reflect before he barks; or if he does, he loves barking more than virtue -- but that can be only because of his ignorance.

Bad habits are formed during the time of ignorance of what is good. But bad habits are continued in because: "I say I know, but think I know something else, something better, something wiser." So it seems to me -- thus far in my thinking about "Virtue is knowledge".

And this is also true:

From bad companions you learn bad habits. (1 Cor. 15.33)

And contrariwise:

A certain training in virtue arises also from the company of the good, as Theognis has said before us. (Nicomachean Ethics 1170a11, tr. Ross)

Nietzsche didn't like the idea of God; he said he didn't like the idea that someone was always watching him. But, after all, whether you call it 'God' or something else, you yourself ought always to be watching over yourself. For if you are not, then you are your own bad companion.

I am honestly disgusted (cf. LC p. 28) with the notion "weakness of the will". It is not of the slightest use to us; it can only make us lazy and accustom us to irrational ways of thought (The world-picture of human subjection to the whims of gods or demons is of the same type of unserviceability). When the Apostle Paul cries out "I am a mystery to myself. I do the very things I hate. Who will save me from this body of death?" (1) The body is not to be blamed for decisions (or, choices) that only the mind can make (Man is not an animal with only its instincts and habits to serve it as guide; man does not have to surrender to either), and (2) Man is endowed with reason, the tool with which to de-mystify himself. And thus the myth of Prometheus (if fire symbolizes reason in that myth) could ennoble the Greeks, but of what service is the myth of Adam and Eve (unless, of course, the serpent is its hero).

In this context Saint Francis de Sales (if I remember correctly) refers to the story of Balaam's ass (Numbers 22.28): it was Balaam, not the donkey, who chose the path they took, and so what sense was there in giving the donkey (the body) a thrashing for the choice that Balaam (the mind) had made.

"There," John would add, "you can't touch pitch and not be mucked, lad. Here's this poor old innocent bird o'mine swearing blue fire, and none the wiser, you may lay to that." (Treasure Island ii, 10) But a man, unlike a parrot, has discourse of reason: he understands the language he speaks (of which the parrot knows only the sound but not the sense) and can say, This is right and this is wrong, and set about setting to rights what is wrong in his manner of life, including the bad habits formed in the time of ignorance, among which may be "swearing blue fire".

Natural instincts that are contrary to virtue. But these -- unless they have become habit -- require only knowledge to be overcome. But if they have become habit, then self-control is needed to form good habits to replace the bad -- The natural instinct must be replaced by a "learned instinct" or "second nature" -- i.e. habit. But it does not help to say: "Ah, I have the bad habit of impatience, and therefore I must become forbearing instead" -- until I have been thoroughly cured of my ignorance -- until I know that I am doing harm to my soul (as well, as it were, to the world's soul, because, in Bruno Walter's words: "Thus the climate of our world becomes colder").

So that sometimes even more important than saying that "virtue is knowledge" -- is to say that un-virtue (i.e. vice) is ignorance.

But, this is also true, that what we do from habit is sweet to us (which is not to say either that we necessarily enjoy ourselves while doing it, nor that it does not fill us with shame). Some poisons are also sweet. Epictetus: "My lamp was stolen; it was a humble thing and cost very little. But the thief paid a very high price for it, namely, the price of making himself a thief." So it is with bad habits: their sweetness comes at a terrible price.

"But the formation of a bad habit is not a trifle", Plato said to a young man he reproached with gaming in response to the youth's saying that he had only risked a trifle (Diog. L. iii, 38). The formation of bad habits is never a trifle; they are ferociously difficult to overcome, as one clings to what, at the moment, is sweet to one.

There is also great wisdom in the Catholic Act of Contrition where, not only "to amend" one's life, but also "to avoid near occasions of sin" is resolved. For anything that awakens a bad habit is just such a "near occasion", and the wise man will avoid it if possible.

To counter bad habits, self-restraint requires Promethean forethought -- otherwise habit-instinct takes over/rules our actions. Impulsive behavior is irrational behavior, unworthy of the manly life, which is the rational life.

"Keep yourself far from even little sins," Father Kolbe said. This is like that story of Plato and the boy, when Plato said: the amount of the wager didn't matter; wagering itself did (Diog. L. iii, 38). And giving way to even the slightest bad habit on the least occasion is this way as well.

"The stubborn man within"

Albert Schweitzer's "the stubborn man within" is the bad habits formed in the time of ignorance; the "stubbornness" is accounted for by the words of Epictetus: that "what we do from habit is sweet to us". (On the other hand, man is not an angelic being but a rational animal, and animals, being beasts "wanting discourse of reason" and thus irrational (i.e. 'irrational' = 'without reason'), can be very stubborn.)

Aristotle says that the formation of good habits in one's youth is "all important" -- but if ethics is practical, that statement is of no use to anyone who is no longer a youth, for it does not help anyone to amend his bad habits. (If "Ethics is practical wisdom", as Aristotle says (although knowing what the good is for man, I would say as Socrates said, is not), then of what use is Aristotle's Ethics to anyone who is not a mere observer.

Further, for anyone who has responsibility for the direction of youth, is Aristotle's observation useful? If a child is below the age of reason, then imparting good habits must be done by force, and with uncertain results (It may indeed be counter-effective, promoting only rebellion in later years, and reasoning with an older youth also may not be effective). A good example can only be set by someone who has recognized what the good is for man, and few men have -- and an example must be recognized as good, whereas children cannot even distinguish their friends from their enemies, very often choosing to follow the bad rather than the good example. And further, how many children have a wise guide in their youth?

And for all these reasons, the question for ethics, after the question of what is the good for man is dealt with, is: how can man amend the bad habits he learned in the time of ignorance? (Aristotle's saying that it would have been best, or perhaps indispensable, not to have acquired those bad habits in the first place -- of what use is that observation to anyone who must actually live the life of a good man.)

[Note.--the word 'practical' in Aristotle concerns his epistemology, not what we usually call ethics, for if the subject of ethics is "no small matter, but how to live", then ethics must be 'practical' in the sense of 'deeds [living one's life]', not merely in the sense of a way of classifying knowledge in Aristotle's scheme. Aristotle's thinks more as a scientist than a philosopher: he sees his task as the doctor who does an autopsy rather than the doctor who seeks to heal the sick man (and in ethics, which is knowledge (according to Socrates), all men are ill [cf. Phaedo 90e]).]

Another obstacle to the life of good - Uncertainty

And so I asked, apropos of Tolstoy's story The Two Old Men: Can one really say, "I know I shouldn't, but I will anyway"? Is that a variation of "I say I know, but I think I know something else that is better" -- namely, that I think I can "get away with it"?

You think you can "get away with it" -- that it will do you no significant (maybe only temporary or negligible) harm -- and maybe, in the case of physical harm, you can, or maybe you can't. It is this uncertainty that

With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. (Hamlet iii, 1, lines 87-88)

For this will indeed make us lazy if we believe that we can "get away with it", it will direct us to take the easy (the pleasanter) path rather than the difficult one -- rather than going "the bloody hard way". We will put off and delay doing what is beneficial to us because we think we can "enjoy" that delay without causing ourselves any real harm.

And now the question becomes how one overcomes that way of thinking -- that uncertainty that disarms the thought: "O! from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (ibid. iv, 4, lines 65-66) -- that is to say, action towards what is best -- i.e. what is beneficial to man: never choosing the pleasanter over the better (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 8, 11). Any other choice is always damaging to the soul, for not only does it prevent us from growing in goodness, but it also sets a ruinous precedent, which is the foundation of a bad habit.

So again, question: Is what is not necessarily harmful to us therefore beneficial to us? No, of course it isn't. And yet, one thinks, "I can get away with it." -- And that way of thinking can be a very sweet habit.

"You need not lose these hours" (Pliny the elder), and you set aside doing what you say you should, diverting yourself with foolish things, e.g. reading things from which you do not learn ... What is the rational way out of this dilemma? How does one keep the thought of death close to oneself when the thought of death has become such a companion that one no longer notices its presence as often as the wise man would?

Question: is what Mr. Sleary says to Mr. Gradgrind true? "People can't always be learning, nor yet always working; they aren't made for it. People need to be amused. So do the kind and the wise thing too, and make the best not the worst of us." But if it is true, then just how should Dickens' words be understood; for amused once in a while is one thing, profligacy another -- and how have the one without setting the precedent for the other? If it is true. (Plato, it is said, kept a copy of Aristophanes' plays beside his deathbed.)

[Socrates and flute-girls: is there a place for the enjoyment of beauty, e.g. also of music, in a philosophical life?]

Another obstacle to the life of good - The Irrational

If man is a rational animal, and the soul is rational and the body's effects on the soul are animal, then as Plato writes about the body: "... it fills us full of loves and lusts and fears and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery" (Phaedo 66c-d). Plato thinks the body (both in its demands and sense perceptions) all-powerful: it "takes away from us the power of thinking at all". But according to Socrates, that is not true in ethics, for in ethics reason (rationality) overrules the body, because virtue is knowledge, and that knowledge is knowable to reason (at least as a general guide, if not in every particular case). But that does not banish the necessity to man of self-control, not if man is essentially a rational animal.

Question: do not emotions such as anger belong in their origin to instinct -- i.e. the irrational? Yet, nonetheless, anger can be made learned-instinct (second nature, or, habit) by the belief that anger is justified. Although all anger is wrong-doing (As Plato's tautological ethics rhetorically asks, "If the good man allows himself to be angered, then what does the bad man do?"), if the belief that anger is justified takes hold in the time of ignorance of the good, habit to which it is sweet will allow anger to overwhelm the "soul" (that is to say, reason or rationality). And so, if emotions have their origin in the irrational, then the emotions stand as another obstacle to the life that is the good for man.


Ideals, ideas and old age

You cannot lose your ideals, if you live them. (Albert Schweitzer)

Note: With lived ideals, but with the onset of age, I grow old trying not to forget old things while trying to learn new ones. Philosophy without restful sleep is a strange philosophizing, but it is possible.

Wittgenstein's metaphor of language as an ancient city

Curiosities of "the old city", the ancient part of the city of language (PI § 18). When I approached the notion of definitions of phenomena in the context of thunder ["Logic of language is concerned always with verbal, never with real, definitions"], I saw clearly my way about. But when I approached the notion of definition of a phenomenon in the context of the phenomenon of love I found myself disoriented, as if I no longer knew my way about (ibid. § 123). And yet the way is the same in both cases.

Part of the old city appears to be my old brain, for I have gotten old: I had forgotten my earlier "solution" -- i.e. my once hard-won-by-thought point of view [frame of reference] had begun to fade from memory.

The thing is, most anything that seems to move may [i.e. this is a rule of "grammar"] be called -- i.e. placed in the category -- 'phenomenon'. Would it be natural to call a book a phenomenon? But a river or a cloud -- although the words 'river' and 'cloud' are also defined ostensively [by pointing at them] -- are called phenomena. Thunder, although not visible, is also defined ostensively [by pointing out the familiar sound], but again thunder is called a phenomenon. The words 'love' and 'thought' also name phenomena ... but here the word 'name' is misleading -- because it suggests 'name of an object', and objects are defined ostensively [i.e. by being pointed to or pointed out]. Yet don't we point [i.e. direct our companion's attention to] and say, 'That young fellow is in love'? Yes, and I tried to show how words such as 'love' ['loving'], 'hope' ['hoping'], 'pain' ['being in pain', 'having pain'] and 'thought' ['thinking'] might be defined by play-acting. To give an explanation of the meanings such words -- and there are peculiarities unique to the grammar of each -- would not be so simple as explaining the meaning of the name of an object by pointing at the object.

My synopsis of Wittgenstein's logic of language was the result of some twenty years of thought. How was it possible for me to get into the very conceptual muddle that I had worked so hard to get out of? Not just old age. But, I think, the depth of a picture that is rooted in instinct as much as in education [upbringing] -- namely, "All words are names, and the meaning of a name is the object the name stands for, if not of a visible object then an invisible one" (cf. PI § 36). So, to return to the Wittgenstein's metaphor of the ancient city: "Language contains the same traps for everyone; the immense network of well-kept false paths ..." And the best-kept false path is the one suggested to us by the word 'name'.

In the Phaedrus Plato talks about the nature of love, which it to say, about the phenomenon of love. (Here we say that 'love' is "the name of a phenomenon", but the picture suggested by the words 'love is the name of a phenomenon' is -- of course not the "normal" type of object, not a book or a rock or a milk-cow -- but of a cloud-like or gas-like object -- which we call "an abstract object". It has a shadowy existence -- like a Platonic Form "on the other side of the sky" or like the substantive of an Kantian "analytic proposition": Question: 'What is the essence of love?' Answer: 'Love is really ...' (Both question and answer are undefined combinations of words -- i.e. nonsense.)

But the reply is the old one: "That 'love' is the name of an object -- of any kind -- is a false account of the grammar of the word 'love'. We do not learn to use the word 'love' that way, and we would not -- indeed, could not -- teach someone else to use the word 'love' that way." Cf. the grammar of the word 'mind': "Our mistake was to ask what the mind is, rather than asking how the word 'mind' is used." Cf. There is no "real definition of kindness", although the word 'kindness' is the "name of a phenomenon/a". So I wrote but forgot.

The "theory of abstraction" is, like the concept 'God', "an asylum for ignorance" -- i.e. if we cannot explain something, then our ignorance can find sanctuary in such notions. They give us the illusion that we have explained what we have not explained, that we know what we do not know. But "the theory of abstraction" is above all based on the picture that: To know the meaning of a name is to know the object the name stands for; so, in other words, the meaning of the name must be the object's essence [if not an evident essence, then an occult one], because [surely] if we do not know a thing's essence, then we do not know the thing, and so it's name is meaningless ("sound without sense"). Plato's explanation of "why we don't know what we once did, but still sort of know" was rather different from the "theory of abstraction" -- but it was nonetheless a metaphysical theory -- i.e. picture that cannot be compared with what it is said to be a picture of.

Question: is the word 'thunder' the name of an object or the name of a phenomenon? In the sense that you cannot see thunder, thunder is not an object (in the way that a book or a river or a cloud is); there are no picture-books of thunder. However, in the sense that thunder is an easily identifiable sound, 'thunder' is the name of an object (and is defined ostensively, which again shows that not all ostensive definitions are visual). In any case, the concept 'phenomenon' is so fluid that almost anything can be classified as such. [The innocent looking word 'name' in the expression 'name of a phenomenon' is always there, waiting to lead us up the garden path. We say 'name of a phenomenon', but we think 'name of an object'.]

We define words, not "concepts"

In an earlier draft of the page Plato's Phaedrus - Selections and Comments, I wrote: "we define words, not concepts". And this is a search query that was directed (or misdirected) to that page: "Plato, real definitions, concept".

Question: Is there, in addition to physics (the natural science, which is, as Drury describes it, answerable to the anomalies of experience, and thus not allowed to float free of reality), also a metaphysics -- something halfway between physics (natural science) and philosophy (logic), akin to both -- i.e. (1) making statements about reality ("the world") that are demonstrably true or false -- but (2) being truth-tested by logic alone? What is an example of such a proposition (for I have never seen one)?

Something like this: ... having to look for a solution again because you have mislaid yours (cf. OC § 532) -- i.e. forgotten that it ever existed.

To respond to the query. In the context of Plato, 'concept' would mean 'Form' [or, 'Platonic Idea' or Socratic 'common nature']. But the combination of words 'real definition of a Form' is nonsense [undefined language] -- for what would a statement of fact about something unknowable to us be? Because, according to Plato, the Forms are unknowable "so long as we keep to the body": our soul in its present imprisoned state is only able to witness mere shadows of ... something or other.

[A simple summary of the way out of this particular perplexity.]

Ideals that are lived are not lost

No one who is always striving to refine his character can ever be robbed of his idealism, for he experiences in himself the power of the ideas of the good and the true. (Albert Schweitzer, Memoirs of Childhood and Youth, tr. C.T. Campion (1925), p. 76-77)

I have maintained two ideals since my youth. One to "grow old learning new things", the other to "grow daily in goodness", or, as I would have put it into words then: to study philosophy and to become a decent human being. The first is rather easy as it is now a habit and therefore sweet to me (Epictetus), and it is also an enthusiasm (although that is not necessary to sustain it: I have learned to study even though I no longer experience restful sleep). I do think about philosophy every day.

As to the other, that ideal is not easy to accomplish -- and I have only occasionally made some very modest advances (sometimes from the weariness and wariness of age, but sometimes also through thinking a question in ethics all the way through). But I have never stopped trying "to chose the better rather than the easier way". I have never left off wanting to become better, always drawn forward by what is higher rather than by what is lower. I cannot, however, say that "every day I find myself growing in goodness", for the bad habits formed in the time of ignorance are so very second-nature to me.

But only if I live these ideals every day will they continue to live in me. As it happened to turn out the ideals of my youth are also ideals that are suited to manhood and therefore have, so far, always been possible for me. That my ideals were never "dreams and vain fictions of my own devising" (cf. Isaac Newton's "hypotheses") has made it far easier for me than for many others. In these humble ways, then, I have always been a disciple of Socrates.

One says: things look different in the morning than in the evening. Attitudes are often different. Moods change. Circumstances or health may radically change: the world may become far more hostile, possibilities far more limited, and this overnight. But that concerns illusions, not ideals. (What is to be done when I can no longer live according to my ideal -- i.e. no longer think about philosophy -- I don't know. I must wait to see. I don't know what to think of the legends of the Stoic philosophers in old age (Diog. L. vii). Even now I can no longer remember what I have written the day before. If I did not think with a pencil and paper, I would not remember most of my thoughts, and a few are worth my remembering.)

There are gifts, but education must also be wanted

Note: Words that follow "Query" are Internet searches that were directed to this site, and which I have responded to here.

Query: why was Socrates was so well-educated.

He had the opportunity (There were school teachers (for "Music", i.e. for all the gifts to man from the Muses of the intellect, and "Gymnastic", i.e. healthy training of the body) and books of learned men and philosophically-minded men to discuss their ideas with) and because Socrates had the natural gift to be -- and because he had the desire to be: No one who does not want to be well-educated will ever be well-educated. (Cf. Being born with perfect pitch is not enough to make someone a friend of music.) But we call many things 'being well-educated', and Socrates knew no foreign languages, had traveled very little, had little knowledge of physical science. One might say he wasn't well-educated by our standards.

What he did know something about, however, was philosophy's methods (i.e. how to cross-question assertions of knowledge, setting the standard for agreement in discussion or refutation through the discovery of the contradiction that demonstrates that someone does not know what he thinks himself to know); Socrates knew about logic as a tool for ethics. And that is why we remember him, not for his great learning, for he was not a scholar like Aristotle. The examples he drew on were quite humble. Critias says that "your favorite topic is the cobblers, builders and metal workers", which Socrates replies "supply illustrations of justice, holiness, and so forth" (Xenophon, Memorabilia i, 2, 37).

What Socrates truly was is an original thinker, credited by the ancients with revising the Greek concept areté ("excellence, fineness") to make ethics a part of philosophy where before philosophy had been only metaphysical speculation (the pre-Socratics) or indifference to the true and the good (the skepticism and Sophistic claim to make "the worse appear the better" reason). Socrates made logic ("the art of reasoning") explicit (at least for those who examine it) -- specifically logic's branch of definition (and therefore, for us, questions of language meaning).

The [only] ripeness [of age] that our development must aim at is one which makes us simpler, more truthful, purer, more peace-loving, meeker, kinder, more sympathetic. (Schweitzer, op. cit. p. 77; cf. Plato's Theaetetus 210b-c)

It seems we must say "more" this or that, because, from observation, if particular qualities -- and the longing for them -- are not present to begin with, they will not come magically or naturally with age.

The great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up ... "Grow into your ideals, so that life can never rob you of them." (p. 76-77)


General Definitions. Examples. Having the confidence that one knows.

Query: Socratic must define to know.
Query: meaning of 'etymology' and give examples.

Here we can speak of there being both a logical [the "must" imposed by both Plato's and Xenophon's Socrates] requirement -- and, strange to say [but very telling for philosophy], a psychological requirement [The feeling of comfort or discomfort: Yes, 'I know what a simile is' = 'I can give a general definition' [A simile is a comparison using 'like' or 'as'] versus No, 'I do not know what art is' = 'I do not have a general definition'].

'I know my way around' versus 'I don't know my way around very well', or, 'I can give a general definition' versus 'I can only give some examples, and I don't always know whether something should be classified under that word [e.g. 'art'] or not'. We want to know our way around. [Maybe that is peculiar to our life form, or perhaps all life forms crave this security.] -- And we assume that if we don't know our way around it is because we are lacking some necessary knowledge. Thus our craving for a general definition. [Well, it may or may not be that way; but if that is a true account it is significant for philosophy: craving = instinct.]

In the second query 'meaning' = 'general definition'. The searcher demands of the engine [as the teacher has demanded of the student]: "State the general definition of 'etymology', and then give examples of it." But why are examples demanded -- why isn't a general definition sufficient? Because examples make our meaning clear; a general definition states a rule; it is a formula; [Lane Cooper uses the word 'standard' in his translation of the Euthyphro] -- but how is that formula to be applied [that rule or standard to be followed]?

The idea behind the query: (1) there must be a general definition [This is the assumption of assumptions -- and the misconception of misconceptions, always assumed, without question. (Why? cf. being unable to imagine an alternative: "But if there's no general definition [or, essence], then isn't the word be meaningless?" Wittgenstein: Very well, then it is "meaningless" -- but nonetheless it has a use in our language; most words are "meaningless")], and (2) that examples are given only as sample applications of the general definition [Examples, so it is claimed, are not part of the definition] -- (3) but always with the assumption that: examples by themselves are an inadequate explanation of meaning: they leave one not really knowing what the word means; and here 'knowing' is very close in meaning to 'understanding', and also 'absence of discomfort'.

Someone says: "I don't feel that I really know what art is", e.g., although they can often use that word well enough -- i.e. they know what goes in that category, except perhaps its edges are blurry -- for some people far more blurry than for others. "I don't know what art is, but I know what I like" is said by someone who assumes that the word 'art' must have a general definition which he simply doesn't know. Where the edges of the concept are blurry, one must rely on family likenesses -- or unlikenesses. cf. "I don't know what a game is, not really." And here: 'to really know' means 'to be able to give a general definition'.

Query: is bridge a sport?

We simply don't use language that way, i.e. with strict definitions for most words, e.g. 'sport'; must an activity involve exercise-type movement for it to be classified a sport? Isn't {the class of all sports} -- i.e. 'sport' -- a fluid concept? We may set limits for our particular purposes -- but not as if those limits were already there, waiting for us to discover them. No, we make rules -- i.e. new or fresh rules, rules where there weren't rules before -- if we find need for them, e.g. for clarity: governments may need legal definitions. But normally our use of words is not like a game played according to strict rules (BB p. 25) (and thus there is the consequent unclarity our thinking may -- and very often does -- have because of this).

Are applications of a word justified by "family resemblances"? In which sense of 'justify'?

Note: there is related topic: "definition by family resemblances", a discussion of whether there is such a thing or not. Another way to discuss that topic is to ask whether Wittgenstein's metaphor makes anything clearer, because it is intended to make a distinction between common nature definitions and the usual case. (Note that where there is a way to distinguish one "family" from another, there is a common nature definition and where there is no such way, then what does the word 'family' in 'family resemblances' make clearer? There are indeed resemblances among, in Wittgenstein's own example, games, but whether those resemblances are compared to the resemblances among family members or to something else hardly matters. All that can be said is this: that for most words of our language there are no common nature definitions but we can only note resemblances among particular uses [applications] of a word. That is what we find when we look at language (PI § 66), nothing more.)

Cf. We say "I can't define x" -- [And that's exactly the form of expression we use, as if the question were of a real definition of x rather than of a definition of the word 'x'. That is always our assumption] -- "but I know it when I see it" -- where 'know' = 'recognize' [The assumption, maybe: because I have "abstracted" the term's essence = real meaning]. We say "... but I can recognize it when it see it." -- Question: after the fact [of "recognizing" it], we may be able to point to family resemblances; however, can we justify [the application of the word] by [pointing to] family resemblances -- i.e. 'justify' in the sense of logically compel the application of the word?

If there are concepts of that type, then they are different from the concept 'beauty' [from the grammar of the word 'beautiful'], where even if we can point to family resemblances, the family resemblances don't -- and grammatically can't -- compel the application of the word 'beautiful'.

But if we define 'justify' that way [and note that we call many different things 'justification'], then there are no such concepts [apart from cases where there are essential [or, general] definitions]. At most, in the case of e.g. the word 'chair', we might say, "Come, come, any reasonable man will admit that we call this [pointing] a chair [or, classify this [pointing] using the common name 'chair']. If you do not agree in this case, then it seems that you have not mastered the English language." However, does 'what any reasonable man will admit' = 'what we are logically compelled to admit'? Only in cases where there are essential definitions, as e.g. with the word 'simile', is there logical compulsion: e.g. you must admit that this comparison uses the words 'like' or 'as'.

Are the grammars of 'art' and 'religion' more like 'beautiful' or more like 'chair'? Is the grammar of 'art' closer to 'beautiful', and the grammar of 'religion' closer to 'chair'? Here we point to paradigms [extreme-case models] and say "more like", "less like". -- But suppose we said: "More or less like ...? In the case of x I really don't know [i.e. I am puzzled]." -- But then what would we need to know in order to know? Might examples, for example, be sufficient? Well, are we talking about logical possibility or logical necessity when we say 'might' here? cf. the grammar of the word 'game': commercial fishing is like volleyball in that it uses a net, but commercial fishing is not therefore a game (even though a net is essential both to volleyball and commercial trawling).

What we should not say here -- or at least, this should only be the conclusion of our investigation, not its beginning and not its hasty conclusion -- is that this is another case where we must simply recognize -- and accept -- that there is no rule, that we are dealing -- as is often or even normally the case with natural language -- with a great deal of vagueness -- and the [objective] conceptual confusion [and subjective mental confusion] that vagueness produces. Suppose we ask, But why shouldn't a concept simply be intentionally vague, e.g. the concepts 'art' and 'religion'? -- cf. "Stand roughly over there!" e.g. -- but that command is not vague; it is as precise as we wish it to be. Whereas the cases we are dealing with here seem unintentionally vague -- that is, the cases of words for which there are no general [or, essential] definitions. Does that make them less useful? That question will, I think, have to be decided from concept to concept [from particular case to particular case]. Some four-legged tables wobble more [worse] than others, and thus are less useful than others (PI § 79).

There is no essence of art or of religion -- but not as if that statement were about "things" rather than simply about concepts -- i.e. about rules for using words of our language. Words only have essential meanings "by definition", as e.g. in the case of the word 'simile'. There is no "thing" named 'simile' that has an essence; rather, there is a general rule for applying the word 'simile' [namely: By 'simile' we mean 'a comparison using the words 'like' or 'as' ']. Essences of the Platonic type are metaphysical pictures to which there is no corresponding reality in experience. Plato's picture ["Forms", or, "Ideas"] is not at all a helpful picture in this context: because it leads us away rather than toward the truth (which here means: a true description of how we in fact [i.e. judged by the test of experience] use these particular words [concepts], rather than an attempt to explain concept-formation [Plato asked: how is it possible that these concepts exist, because experience does not seem to justify their existence? But that is not the concern of logic of language studies (Again, as again: what do you yourself want from Philosophy -- e.g. a description of the facts in plain view (knowledge) or metaphysical speculation about what is hidden from view?)]).

Can family resemblance [by itself] justify the application of a word? Wherever we can point to family resemblances, we can also point to dis-resemblances. If there are likenesses, then there must logically also be unlikenesses -- or we would have identity rather than likeness. [Note, however, that any two similes are not both called similes because they are in every respect identical; rather, they are only "identical" in meeting the essential requirement to being similes: comparison using 'like' or 'as'.]

On the other hand, it seems there must be indisputable cases (cf. "Any reasonable man must admit ..." above), because if there were no such cases, then the words of our language would be like the words of Humpty Dumpty's language. It would be a language without rules of sense and nonsense: words might mean anything or nothing at all. But such a language would not be what we call a language [or, in other words, what we classify using the common-name 'language'. Note that these two forms of expression are equivalent: 'what we call language' and 'what we call 'language' '].

In this context, however, we must remember that if we make a rule in order rid ourselves of a particular case of vagueness in the application of a word -- all we are doing is inventing jargon [a jargon use for the word]; we are not determining the word's "true meaning". Kierkegaard spoke of "conceptual revision", saying that revising the concepts that are common currency was the task of the thinkers of each age. I have given as examples Socrates and Wittgenstein. Socrates selected the meaning of the word 'know' that would be useful to his work in philosophy (one out of many meanings of our word 'know' -- not its only meaning, not, as it were, that word's "true meaning" [or, essential meaning; the word 'know' does not have a general definition]). And Wittgenstein revised our concept 'grammar' to make it useful for his work in philosophy. Note, however, that with conceptual revision (or, reinvention), family resemblances are still clearly recognizable. Otherwise it wouldn't be a reinvention but an entirely new invention [new concept] simply using an old sign [a sign already in use].

The absence of a general definition is the usual case, not the exception

Query: how does the word 'religion' illustrate the problem of language?

But what you are regarding as a problem is the normal case. Absence of a general definition is only a problem if we assume [and therefore feel] that there must be a general definition. But we do not, after Wittgenstein, regard the absence of a general definition as a problem (because we have set aside the notion that the meaning of common name "must" be the common nature (or, essence) that it names; the word 'must' indicates that this was a pre-conception, a requirement brought to our investigation, not a result of an investigation).

In ethics, however, Plato's Socrates identifies a problem that in some cases arises where there is no general definition -- this is why he asks Euthyphro for a standard: because if we disagree about the application of a word in ethics "we may become angry and fall out among each other, becoming enemies" (7d). [But this may also happen outside ethics, as it sometimes does in the case of the words 'art' and 'religion' -- and indeed, even in the case of the word 'game' (or, 'sport'). One topic of Plato's Phaedrus is "words about whose meaning we are at variance".]

Often, pointing out similarities and dissimilarities is an expression of disapproval. As in the case of the word 'religion', a word for which there is no general definition: to express disapproval a word such as 'cult' is introduced: "That is a cult, not a religion" as in "That not a real religion" or "That is not really religion". -- But not because classifying it as a religion would break the rule laid down by the general formula that is our common usage -- because there is no such formula. Contrast: "No, that is not -- i.e. by definition, it is not -- a simile, because the word 'like' or 'as' is not used in making the comparison."

Maybe in such cases we image that a decision to classify this or that as a religion is really only a question of facts rather than of expressing approval or disapproval, and therefore rather than saying "That is a bad religion" we say "That is not a religion". But our presupposition is that religion per se is good; otherwise we would not object to calling some religious practices bad religion. Compare the word 'murder': why don't we speak of good and bad murder, as many people speak of good -- not merely morally justifiable, but also morally mandated -- and bad killing? [But this is general semantics rather than philosophy.]

A general definition is a formula: like a sign-post it points out the way. It makes one feel that: "Now I can go on" without worry about vagueness and confusion in this case any longer." But is it only a feeling, for, after all, you may still get lost [you may at some point misapply the formula or find that it gives no guidance]? cf. "The sign-post is in order -- if, under normal circumstances, it fulfills its purpose" (PI § 87). [And, now, is there only one type of sign-post?]

General definitions versus examples

Query: Socrates, giving an example of something without first giving an account of what that thing is.
Query: why should we give examples?

That is the method of induction: work from the known to the unknown, so to speak: from examples, which are induced, deduce a general definition.

What would be the point of the beginning with a general definition and then adducing examples -- unless those examples were needed to clarify the meaning of the general definition [or in order to demonstrate that the student had learned how to correctly follow the general definition's formula or rule] -- in which case, wouldn't the examples given be part of the definition. Here 'definition' would mean "explanation of meaning" (cf. PG i § 32, p. 68-69, PI § 560). -- Thus note the "inherent ambiguity" [the many different meanings of the word 'definition'] of the word 'definition'; we call many different things by the "name" 'definition'.

Examples show how a word is used, or demonstrate that someone has learned how to use a word. We give examples for instruction (to explain the meaning or "define") and sometimes for testing (to see if someone has understood the explanation of meaning, whether the explanation was given in [the form of] examples or in a general definition). [cf. "form of" and "type"; both forms of expression suggest that there is -- or "really" is (i.e. even if we cannot say what it is) -- a general definition. Language sets countless traps for us; in his logic of language Wittgenstein tries to put up some warning signs.]

Question: is there a general definition of the word 'definition'? A chapter of my Synopsis is titled "Types of definition" -- was I wrong to call it that? Doesn't the word 'type' suggest a common nature, some defining way in which they do not differ from one another (that is, an essence behind all the differences) but are all alike? Should I have used a title like "Different meanings of the word 'definition'" or "Different things we place in the category named 'definition'"? Would that be clearer?

Is my statement 'There are many meanings of 'meaning'' equivalent in meaning to the statement 'There is no general definition of the word 'meaning''? (Is it equivalent to the statement 'There are many types of meaning'?) What do all shapes have in common, as Plato asks in his Meno (72c) -- because do we not feel (i.e. are we not subjectively convinced) that circles, square, triangles, polygons, that all shapes have something in common, and that it is because of this thing they have in common that we call them all shapes? But then what is this "thing"? Just try to put it into words.

"A shape is the outline of a thing." But, then, when we draw a circle with chalk on the blackboard, what thing is that circle the outline of? "A shape is a closed figure, the lines of which do not otherwise intersect [overlap]." But, then, is the a pentagram not a shape [for its lines intersect]? is the figure '7' not a shape [for it is not a closed figure]? "A shape is things like this", I say -- i.e. I say that as I point to examples. Wittgenstein: do I know any more about it myself; or is it only other people I cannot tell "in what way shapes do not differ but are all alike"? (cf. PI § 69)

"What are some types of shapes?" "What are some examples of shapes?" If we put the question that way, we do not get into difficulties. We instruct a small child by nothing more than giving it examples; then we test to see if the child can go on by itself [whether or not it "understands"]. And do I have or feel the need for anything more than examples? And that is one usefulness of Wittgenstein's notion of family resemblance or likeness, because once we are accustomed to it, we are no longer troubled when there is no general definition of some word in common usage ["common currency"]: we simply recognize that there is none, and therefore we do not wander in an inescapable maze of confusion in seeking to know whether such-and-such "is really a religion" or "is really art", or delude ourselves that we have discovered the "real meaning of a word" when all we have done is to select [i.e. stipulate, because we are violating common usage] one out of many possible meanings. [The nebulosity of philosophical questions such as "What is the essence of art?" is the nebulosity that arises out of demanding that there be an essence [a general definition] where there is none, as if to ask: "What is the essence of x where x doesn't have an essence?" (cf. "The meaning of a common name is the common nature the name names, but there is no common nature named by this common name.") The nebulosity of the mysterious "theory of abstraction".]

What would a general definition of the word 'definition' be? Wittgenstein suggested 'an explanation of meaning' (of which there are many types). But we do not call only rules or conventions 'definitions'. We also call propositions such as 'Malaria is a disease caused by ...' -- which is, after all, a proposition [statement of fact, hypothesis] -- definitions. "What was first used as an hypothesis will later, if verified, be used as a definition." But such propositions are also like [akin to, resemble] rules [conventions]: they do, for example, tell you the meaning of the word 'malaria', as that word is used by doctors at least. But do you want to speak of 'types of definition' or of 'different meanings of the word 'definition''? Wittgenstein: say whichever you like, but don't let your form of expression prevent you [blind you] from seeing the facts [hide the facts from you].

Query: did Aristotle teach Socrates under a grove of trees?

Aristotle was born in 384 B.C., fifteen years after Socrates had died, and the Lyceum was not a "grove of trees". So it would have to be "Socrates (ghost)" or "Socrates in Dante's first circle". Maybe the Scholastics would like those pictures. But Socrates did not philosophize by lecturing nor by listening to lectures, but by his method of dialectic (i.e. the cross-questioning of a suggested answer to a question, usually refuting that answer by counter-examples, then amending the answer, and either agreeing to the amended answer or cross-questioning it further). Plato, in his defense of Socrates (Apology, tr. Tredennick), has given us this description of Socrates in Dante's Inferno, questioning the dead to see if any is wise: If, as some say, "death is a removal from here to some other place" (40e) "... I [would] like to spend my time there, as here, in examining and searching people's minds, to find out who is really wise among them, and who only thinks that he is" (41b).

Stories that are myths [didactic], stories that are history [historiography], and stories that are told for both reasons

Query: the story of the shepherds at Christmas Eve.
Query: the story of Socrates and the oracle.

These queries came from different visitors, but on the same day, in my server logs. Seeing them in proximity, they immediately suggested this question to me: What, if anything, is the difference between these two stories? Is the story of Chaerephon visiting Delphi also a myth [For the shepherds at Christmas, see the visit of the wise men at Christmas]? That is, was it invented by Plato, not for the purpose of recording an historical event, but for the purpose of giving an account of the origin of philosophy? Philosophy -- that is, philosophy as it was understood by Socrates: as a rational (but tested not only by reason [logic] -- e.g. contradiction in dialectic [refutation] -- but also by experience), natural-language based, way of thinking, concerned above all with how we should live our life -- as distinct from philosophy understood as metaphysics or formalism or anti-rationalism (including the intrusion of religious authority of any kind).

Should I have said "the word 'philosophy' defined as" rather than "philosophy understood as"? Which form of expression is correct? Did Socrates redefine the word 'philosophy', or did he "understand philosophy" differently from other thinkers [See Diog. L. i, 14]?

If Plato's Apology, with a representative early Socratic dialog such as the Euthyphro, is combined with Xenophon's Memorabilia (particularly iv, 6, 1 and iv, 6, 13) -- and if we strip away Plato's literary-dramatic skill, and the occasions when Xenophon obviously uses Socrates to express Xenophon's own ideas and when Plato obviously has Socrates express Plato's own ideas -- then [according to me, who decides what is obvious, although not arbitrarily but nonetheless not indisputably] a clear portrait of the Socratic philosophy emerges.

The story of Apollo's oracle then need not be history, because it serves a purpose ["teaches a lesson"]. However, there is also Xenophon's version of the story of Chaerephon's questioning the Delphic oracle, although without the statement "no one is wiser". So that there is some reason to regard this story as not only mythical (or, told for a purpose) but also historical (or, told to record an actual event). [In philosophy, however, stories are always told for a philosophical purpose. Amusement and biography per se are not philosophy, even if written by a philosopher.]

"No one is wiser than Socrates." But what would anyone have to be in order to be wiser than Socrates? Impossible to say without a definition of 'wisdom' [or, 'being wise']. Being able to answer all the "questions without answers", for instance? But that is a more or less arbitrarily set limit, one of many possible conventions for using the word 'wisdom'; -- but the actual grammar of that word is vague. The Socrates of both Plato and Xenophon seeks "definitions" (The requirements set for definitions are not identical in these two writers, and in Plato they are never met although in Xenophon they more or less are) of the things needed to live our life as we ought to live: such things as courage, temperance, holiness, justice -- but also, Socrates wants to know what wisdom itself is. For he says, the man who knows what wisdom is will also be brave, self-controlled, pious and just. If anyone knows what wisdom is -- i.e. if anyone is "able to give an account of what he knows" of wisdom, then he is wiser than Socrates.

That is, of course, if it isn't nonsense to ask "what courage, temperance, etc., are" rather than how we use the words 'courage', 'temperance', etc. However, not much could be done in philosophy if philosophers did not "revise our concepts" -- i.e. select meanings for our words they could use as tools for their thinking. This selection is jargon [To select is to invent jargon]; it is not the only possible selection. But that is often the way philosophy works. And, pace Wittgenstein, philosophy, despite the conceptual confusion which according to him it embodies, is not therefore worthless.

The question is this: what does a "healed understanding" (Kant) look like? Is it simply the absence of conceptual confusion? No, not for Socrates, and as I thought in my youth and still think now: Every step that his followers on the Path of Philosophy have taken away from Socrates has been a false step.

If I recall aright, according to Russell's friend Whitehead "all philosophy is a footnote to Plato". I will not disagree. But I would point out that sometimes the best part of a book are its footnotes. (And the best footnotes lead back to Socrates.)

Nonsense also is not a matter of form

We could if we wished, use what, according to the query, Plato said as an example of: "It is a contradiction; -- but it has a use in our language. And that is possible because nonsense, like meaning, is not a matter of form, but of use." The so-called Principle of Contradiction is useful -- indeed, essential -- in the context of refutation in argument; but it is not a guide to whether a given combination of words is sense or nonsense.


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