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Socrates' definitions of ethical things (phenomena) in contrast to Wittgenstein's definitions of words. The principles, method and aims in philosophy of the historical Socrates, contrasted with Wittgenstein's and Plato's.

Socrates' Logic of Language

Ever and anon we are landed in particulars, but this is not what I want. Tell me then, since you call them by a common name and say that they are all [shapes] ... what is that common nature which you designate as [shape]? What is the quality in which they do not differ, but are all alike ...? (Meno 74d, 72c; tr. Jowett)

The common nature that justifies the common name

In Plato's dialogs, Socrates is not looking for the conventions for using a common name, e.g. the common name 'shape'. He already knows as much about those as anyone else does, because he can already point to examples of shapes. But examples are not what Socrates is looking for [Note 1]. What he does seek is the common nature that justifies calling all the particular shapes by the common name 'shape', because that nature is not evident. What do all shapes have in common that makes them shapes?

Wittgenstein's answer to that question is to ask, What do all games have in common? and to show (by induction) that there is no one defining thing; and therefore that the meaning of the word 'game' is not a common nature the word 'game' stands for. And the same appears to be true for the word 'shape' and most other common names.

That is Wittgenstein's logic of language versus Socrates' logic of language. But Wittgenstein's logic is an end in itself, whereas Socrates' logic is not.

Platonic preconception versus Socratic ignorance

The most basic presumption about language meaning of both the historical Socrates and Plato is that words are names and that the meaning of a name is the thing the name stands for. And so they seek to define things rather than words. The difference is that what Socrates seeks to find through the method of induction, Plato presumes must be there to be found, that a common name must name a common thing. That is the difference between Plato's method of preconceptions and Socrates' determination to never think he knows what he does not know (Plato, Apology 22d-e).

It is of course a preconception that the meaning of a common name must be a common nature it names: it is not the result of investigation -- indeed, in Plato's dialogs Socrates does not find common natures. It is instead a requirement that Plato imposes on his investigations (PI § 107). That is the difference between metaphysical-philosophy and logic-philosophy: the latter simply describes the verifiable facts in plain view, even if those do not answer a preconceived question.

Socrates and logic and ethics

For the historical Socrates logic is only a tool for investigations in ethics, and thus the question is: Why does Socrates want to know the common nature that a particular ethical term is presumed to name? Because, Plato explains, that common nature would serve as a standard (as of measurement) in ethics (Euthyphro 6d-7c), so that if we knew what all instances of e.g. justice had in common, then we would always know what we must do if we are to be just. (Wittgenstein's response to the problem of the meaning of common names is of no use towards that end.)

Defining an ethical term (a common name) by identifying the common nature (essence = that without which a thing would not be what it is) of the things it names would provide a guide to what is to be called by that term in every set of circumstances. Indeed, Socratic definition = Socratic guide in ethics.

[Metaphysics, knowledge, and the logic of language]

[If words name hidden essences, then by discovering those essences, the philosopher can extend human knowledge. That is the presumption (and project) of metaphysics. But, according to Wittgenstein, that presumption is a misunderstanding of how our language works (its logic). For although there are indeed words that are the names of objects or natural phenomena (e.g. 'cow', 'thunder'), the natures of the things those words name do not normally interest philosophy -- whereas the words that do interest philosophy (e.g. 'justice' and 'soul') are not words whose meaning is explained by pointing to their bearers (PI § 43); the meaning of those words is not the essence of a thing named, but a convention for the use of a word.]

What justifies the use of a word?

For Socrates the questions "How is a word used?" (e.g. which things are called by a particular name) and "What justifies the use of the word?" are different questions. For Wittgenstein they are the same question. For Wittgenstein, a "language game" -- i.e. a use of language compared to a game played according to rules -- is not justified; it is not based on grounds (PI II, xi, p. 226; cf. OC § 559). It is simply a way of life for logic to describe (not justify or explain).

That view of Wittgenstein's is of course also a preconception, because there sometimes is a relation between concept-formation and general facts of nature (i.e. sometimes there are grounds).

But for Socrates how we use our language does stand in need of justification, and that justification must be given in the form of a Socratic definition: our justification for applying a common name is our being able to "define" the name -- not by describing a word's use in the language (or "grammar" in Wittgenstein's jargon) -- but by "giving an account", i.e. identifying the common nature that the common name names.


Outline of this page ...


To 'know' means to 'be able to explain (and defend against refutation) what you know to others'

[Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1; Plato, Laches 190c]

... the picture of himself which he drew at his trial ["myriad poverty" (Plato, Apology 23b)], going tirelessly round the city, in obedience as he said to the will of Apollo [ibid. 23b, 28e-29a, 29e-30a, 37e], and questioning one class of citizens after another -- poets, politicians [ibid. 21a-d ], craftsmen -- in order to discover wherein lay their claim to wisdom and knowledge. [Note 2]

[Differences between the Greek word 'sophia' and the English word 'wisdom'.]

The Greek word logos ("logic")

[Socrates] had one simple criterion. If a man knew anything, he could "give an account (logos)" of it [to others], and in his hands that maid-of-all-work among Greek words takes on the meaning "definition" or something closely approaching it. (Guthrie p. 436)

"And that which we know we must surely be able to tell?" (Plato, Laches 190c, tr. Jowett) "Socrates held that if a man knew anything, he could explain what he knew to others." (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1)

[History of the Greek word 'logos' = 'logic'.]

"... definition or something closely approaching it." Does Socrates have a logic of language? I have defined 'a logic of language' as 'a verifiable way of making the distinction [an objective way of distinguishing] between language with meaning (sense) and nonsense [in philosophy]'. Is Socrates' criterion (an account = an essential definition) an example of one such way? That is affirmed by what Socrates' method for testing accounts [explanations] is, namely the basic test of reason: Is there a contradiction in sense in the account?

[For the test of truth, Socrates adds to this the test of verifiable experience. Criticism of Plato's "true belief plus an account" which is not what Socrates means by 'account'.]


Socrates' Method in Philosophy (according to W.K.C. Guthrie)

[The Socratic method of] inquiry [or induction] consists of two stages.

The first is to collect instances to which both parties to a discussion agree that the name under consideration may be applied, e.g., if it is piety, to collect instances of agreed pious acts.

Secondly, the collected instances are examined in order to discover some common quality in them by virtue of which they bear that name ...

This common quality ... considered as pious ... will provide ... the definition of piety ... (Guthrie p. 432-4)

The Socratic Method, as found in Plato (in contrast)

  1. But what Guthrie describes is not the method Plato uses in the Euthyphro, because it is not Socratic induction: Plato is not interested in collecting particular examples, much less in seeking the common nature among them. Likewise in the Laches, Plato cites few examples, and if a common nature is sought, it is not sought by examining those examples. Regardless of whether he is examining courage, piety, or justice, Plato simply wants to guess at what the common nature of the particular ethical virtue is.
  2. In the definitions of 'dialog' and 'dialectic' in Diogenes Laertius (iii, 48), the method is: (1) a proposition (thesis) is offered for discussion, and then (2) cross-questioned to test whether it clear in meaning and true. For example, Socrates asks Euthyphro "what piety is", and Euthyphro's answer is examined [Cross-questioning of the thesis] to see if it hides a contradiction [Refutation of the thesis] or does not [Agreement, acceptance of the thesis].
  3. There is another requirement for a Socratic definition which Guthrie does not yet mention. For example, a definition of 'piety' must state not only what all pious things have in common but also what differentiates all pious things from all things that are not pious.
  4. A common-nature definition of the word 'piety' might be 'doing one's duty towards God' or 'correct conduct towards the gods' (Gorgias 507b; Laches 199d-e), but although that may say what all pious acts have in common, such a general definition (PI § 71) could not serve as the absolute standard (Euthyphro 6d-e) Socrates seeks in ethics, because it does not tell us what in every set of circumstances the correct conduct is. It is not a Socratic guide.

Socrates' Method as described by Frederick Copleston

What was Socrates' practical method? It took the form of "dialectic" or conversation. He would get into conversation with someone and try to elicit from him his ideas on some subject. For instance, he might profess his ignorance of what courage really is, and ask the other man if he had any light on the subject.

Or Socrates would lead the conversation in that direction, and when the other man had used the word 'courage', Socrates would ask him what courage is, professing his own ignorance and desire to learn. His companion had used the word, therefore he must know what it meant. (Copleston, History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome I, xiv, 3, 2, p. 106)

Copleston seems to regard "Socratic ignorance" as a pretense. I do not. Socrates' ignorance is real, not ironic. His intention is to rid men of false conceit not merely to make fools of those who think they know what they do not know. An ignoble Socrates would be of no use to Western philosophy.

[In] Xenophon at [Memorabilia iv, 2, 24 and Memorabilia iii, 9, 6] ... not knowing oneself is equated with not knowing one's own ignorance. (ibid. p. 471)


A logic of meaning versus a theory of meaning

Preliminary: how Wittgenstein defines the words 'definition' and 'meaning'. A definition is a rule for using a word. (The form of expression 'definition' DEF.= 'rules for the use of a word' would clarify that this is a rule of grammar rather than a statement of fact, unless it were used to state a fact about the English language). The meaning of a word is a set of rules for using that word as we normally do. (idem.) That is Wittgenstein's logic of language. (Whether or not there are rules to serve in definitions and meanings is another matter.)

Plato's theory of meaning

In contrast, Plato does not have a logic of language (because his distinction between sense and nonsense is not verifiable), but a theory about language meaning. According to Plato's method of preconceptions, only the unchanging [eternal] is reality and only reality is knowable; and therefore the meaning of a common name, if the meaning of language is knowledge, cannot be an ephemeral individual but must be the eternal Archetype or Pattern of the individual. And as no such Things exist in the perceptible world, the meaning of language must be suprasensible, reality otherworldly. (Plato's theoretical meanings, "Theory of Forms")

The historical Socrates does not define 'meaning' and 'definition' the way Plato does, but does Socrates instead have a logic of language -- a way of verifiably distinguishing language with meaning (sense) from nonsense (language without meaning)?

As a working hypothesis about the English language, the proposition that the meaning of a common name is the common nature it names can be put to the test (induction and falsification by anomaly). But that is not what Socrates does in his discussions, for otherwise it seems he would have to conclude as Wittgenstein does that a common name may not name a common nature. Rather, Socrates holds to his definition of 'meaning' -- and concludes that his examinations simply have not yet found the meanings he seeks, but that he must continue to seek them.

Neither does Wittgenstein always succeed in describing the use (rules, conventions) of a word in the language -- but he does not for that reason give up his definition of 'meaning'. He talks about rules, but he doesn't state a lot of rules. In many cases there may be no general rule (as with his example games), and he does not even try to define such words as 'beauty' and 'good' and 'justice'.

Workable logics of language

Both philosophers have logics of language, i.e. definitions of 'language meaning', which, if workable, make a verifiable distinction between sense and nonsense. Wittgenstein's "logic of language" is not an hypothesis about what the meaning of language really must be, but a way of identifying the conventions that give language meaning (It is a selected definition of the word 'meaning').

Socrates is not seeking conventions for using words, but the true nature of ethical things, e.g. of justice. He wants to define justice, not to define a mere word. But that assumes that it is possible to identify justice independently of the conventions for using the word 'justice' -- i.e. that it is not nonsense to speak of an unconceived phenomenon (as if "percepts without concepts" were not blind, as if phenomena without concepts were not invisible; concept DEF.= convention for using a word, spoken sounds, marks on paper).

The proposition that the meaning of a common name is the common nature it names can be either a definition of the word 'meaning' or a theory of language meaning, depending on whether there is a "must" in the proposition, which there is in Plato. But the conclusion of induction comes at its end, not at its beginning, and by that method of examination it may turn out that the "meaning" of some or many or most words is not found. When Socrates says he knows only his own ignorance, that is not idle.

Neither the logic of Wittgenstein nor the logic of Socrates is entirely workable. Wittgenstein's "primitive language games" analogy is of no use to ethics, and unless there are no philosophical problems, of limited use to philosophy.

Socrates took no interest in metaphysics, but in logic and ethics only

"Socrates interested himself in ethical matters [Plato's "no small matter, but how to live"], neglecting the world of Nature, seeking the Universal in the ethical sphere and fixing thought for the first time on ethical definitions" (Aristotle, Metaphysics 987b, tr. C.E. Robinson); [Socrates gave] "no study to the nature of the universe as a whole" (tr. A.E. Taylor).

Or in other words, Socrates created no cosmology; his interest lay in ethics and logic, not metaphysics.

On the other hand, the Delphic precept "Know thyself" commands man to seek to identify the specific excellence that is proper and unique to man (because to live in accord with that excellence is the good for man), and that is an inquiry about "the world of Nature", namely the nature of man.

And, according to Xenophon, Socrates also "discoursed about providence" (Diog. L. ii, 45), about the providentially designed nature of things.

Man, "life and all that has to do with us", is the subject of ethics (Diog. L. i, 18), but questions about providence and the nature of man (his specific excellence and function) belong to metaphysics. (Cf. Socrates' two tests: reason and experience: ethics reasons from the facts.)

Aristotle says quite clearly that Socrates "was busying himself about ethical matters" (Metaphysics 987b 1-3). And again, "Socrates occupied himself with the excellences of character, and in connection with them became the first to raise the problem of universal definitions" (ibid. 1078b17-19). (Copleston, I, xiv, 3, 4, p. 107-108)

Plato, not Socrates, invented the notion of supranatural Forms (imperceptible common natures or essences)

Unlike Plato, who made out that the Forms are something apart from sensible things, Socrates did not separate the Forms from the particulars of sense (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1078a, tr. Robinson); [Socrates] did not regard his universals, or [general] definitions, as separable from things; his successors made the separation, and called this class of objects "Ideas" (tr. Taylor; cf. Guthrie p. 352-3). [Note 3]

[It] is a mistake to suppose that in occupying himself with "universal definitions" Socrates was concerned to discuss the metaphysical status of the universal ... (Copleston, I, xiv, 3, 2, p. 105-106)


"The universality of ethical values" (Guthrie)

The Socratic standard of judgment in dialectic is not reason alone, because Socrates looks for wisdom -- i.e. knowledge of how to live our life -- in the facts of public experience. Socrates asks, What is the specific excellence that is proper and unique to man's nature? and he answers: rational moral virtue, because (a) "discourse of reason" (rationality) is the specific excellence proper to man, and because (b) what is unique to man, in the question of how to live his life, is his knowledge of good and evil (moral virtue).

Nomos versus Physis

One feature of the ... speech of his contemporaries seemed to Socrates particularly harmful ... they made constant use of ethical [terms] -- justice, temperance, courage, areté and so forth. Yet ... it was being asserted by Sophists ... that such [terms] had no basis in reality. They were not [given by nature (physis)], but only "by convention" [or "custom" (nomos)], varying from place to place and age to age ...

In such an atmosphere ... there was much confusion in the meanings attached to moral terms.

[But if] these terms corresponded to any reality at all, [Socrates] thought, then one meaning must be true and the others false. (Guthrie, p. 431)

What Socrates seeks to find by the method of induction is the "true meaning" (physis), which will be the common nature named by the common name, whether that name is 'piety' or 'courage' or 'self-control' or 'justice'. (That is the Socratic "definition" Guthrie calls "an account".) Wittgenstein, in contrast, seeks only to find the conventions for using those words (nomos).

By 'universality of judgments' about the worth = rightness or wrongness of things ("value-judgments"), Guthrie seems to mean that, if e.g. piety has a common nature [essence], then that nature is the universal standard of measurement (the key to all doors) Plato seeks in Euthyphro 6d-7d, namely the knowledge of what is and what is not pious in every set of circumstances.

Guthrie gives examples of Sophistic definitions:

"Justice is obedience to the established laws." "Justice is obedience to the dictates of nature, which are often contrary to the established laws." "Justice is the right of the stronger." "Justice is a device of the weak to frustrate the stronger."

Rhetorical assertions of this kind, thought Socrates, must be replaced by inductively based conclusions if we are to have any hope of finding out what justice or virtue is and living up to it. (ibid. p. 439)

[Whereas] the ordinary man [as well as the philosopher who makes no explicit distinction between sense and nonsense] is still in very much the position in which Socrates found him, of throwing general terms around freely without pausing to think whether he knows what they mean, [Plato] intended to endorse the lesson of Socrates that we would never get anywhere unless we did that very thing -- i.e. take the trouble to find out exactly what they mean. (Guthrie, The Greek Philosophers (1950) v, p. 93-94)

[Socrates] was not only teaching elementary logic but taking his stand on a much bigger question, the universality of value-judgments, in which he was opposed not only by the Sophists but afterwards by Aristotle ... (Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy iii (1969) p. 436)

Two Puzzles: the universal and the useful

What would a both universal and particular guide look like?

'Piety' cannot be defined as "doing one's duty to the gods" (Gorgias 507b) or "dealing aright with gods" (Laches 199d-e) relative to every individual and set of circumstances -- if the meaning of 'piety' is the common nature of piety. Because what is relative to this or that individual or circumstance is not absolute (as a common nature is) -- i.e. independent of specific circumstances. Therefore what exactly is being looked for as a universal guide to correct conduct?

What is the relation between usefulness and the ethical terms?

Xenophon's Memories of Socrates identifies the good with the useful, which Guthrie calls Socrates' "non-moral identification of good with useful" or good with the "truly beneficial". In that context, how are the moral terms ('piety', 'justice') to be defined?


Socrates and Logic, his contribution according to Aristotle

What was the "elementary logic" Socrates taught'? It was a method or "right way to the goal" (Guthrie, p. 449). Socrates did not claim to have knowledge "but only a certain insight into the right way to look for it" (ibid. p. 466). What was this insight?

[Aristotle] (Metaphysics 1078b27): "There are two things which may justly be credited to Socrates, inductive argument and general definition." (Guthrie p. 425)

Aristotle declares that there are two improvements in science which we might justly ascribe to Socrates -- his employment of "inductive arguments and universal definitions" [Metaphysics 1078b27-9] (Copleston, I, xiv, 3, 1, p. 104, [104n1]) (A.E. Taylor's account of Aristotle on Socrates and Induction: induction was "first made prominent in philosophy by Socrates".)

Aristotle: Socratic induction ("inductive argument")

Induction, Aristotle tells us (Top. 105a13), is [being led] from the observation of particular instances to grasp a general characteristic shared by all the members of a class. (Guthrie p. 426-7)

The word 'grasp' suggests a mysterious process, but that is just the opposite of what Socrates seeks: for Socrates, to 'grasp' = to 'put into words' that can be tested in cross-questioning against the standards of reason and experience.

Socrates wants to discover the defining quality of an ethical class, e.g. {piety}, {justness}, {courage}, {self-control}, given by nature itself, for it seems that quality must exist if, as he believes, moral virtue is knowledge of the good --.

And only what is absolute (universal, as a common nature is) is knowledge. Why, can't we know e.g. what is pious in a particular case without knowing what is pious in every case? The question, as always in philosophy, is: How do you know? Socrates sets a criterion for knowing (i.e. selects a definition of the word 'know'), namely being able to give an account of what you know to others, an account that can be defended against refutation when cross-questioned for clarity and consistency with experience. Why must an account be a definition stating what the quality common to all is? Because an account = essential definition, like a standard of measurement (weighing, calculating, using a ruler) is indisputable (conclusive, decisive, objective, verifiable); it cannot be dismissed (refuted) as mere custom or opinion, the practice of some individual or denomination or other.

But induction from examples given by natural language risks committing the Fallacy of Some therefore All, which Plato takes care not to do in the Socratic dialogs, where for every suggested general definition he seeks out an anomaly (contradiction) that falsifies the definition.

The method of Socratic refutation is to seek out hidden unclarity (nonsense) and contradictions in philosophical theses.

Wittgenstein to Moore: what mattered was not whether his results were true, but that "a method had been found" (PP iii, p. 322). But that is a strange thing to say, because the worth of a method is shown by its results. And if Socrates' method does not yield the sought results? Socrates, it seems, has found only a method for refutation, not for discovering an answer according to a preconceived pattern [model or presumed kind] of truth.

Induction and Socrates' method of General Definition

Induction leads to definition because a definition consists of a collection of these general characteristics, selected [according to two requirements: (a)] They must be essential to membership of the class, not accidental attributes of certain individuals within it. [(b)] They must be collectively sufficient to mark off [Note 4] the class of objects to be defined from all other classes of objects whatsoever. (Guthrie, p. 429-30)

Induction is not a method of proof, but a method of discovery. (Although it can be a method of disproof -- seeking anomalies.) The philosophical question is whether deduction also belongs to "the logic of discovery".

Socrates' logic of language - Summary

To define the word 'meaning' for Socrates, words are names and the meaning of a name is the thing the word names and the thing named by a common name is the common nature of the things it names, the common nature that distinguishes the things called by that name from all other things.

And we can give a definition of 'meaningless' for Socrates, namely that if we cannot say what the common nature named by a common name is, that name is meaningless, and therefore we are not justified to use that name (because using that name would be an instance of thinking we know what we don't know). "And that which we know, we must surely be able to tell?" When we cannot "tell", then we don't know what we are talking about: our speech is nonsense (meaningless sound).

That is Socrates' logic of language, his way of distinguishing sense from nonsense, and knowledge from ignorance.

In Plato's dialog, Euthyphro cannot define 'piety' (or 'holiness') when Socrates questions him. In other words, he does not know what the common nature of piety is because he cannot "tell" -- i.e. put into words -- what it is, and therefore he does not know what he thinks he knows (Euthyphro's ignorance is "conceited ignorance", the opposite of Socratic ignorance).

What kind of necessity is this? The foundation of Socrates' logic (comparison to Wittgenstein)

Socrates held that all things named by a common name share a common nature (or they are misnamed). But that is a presumption, not the result of looking and seeing, i.e. of induction (PI § 66). And logic should descriptive of the facts in plain view only. But maybe for Socratic logic it is this way:

"How do I know that all e.g. holy things have a common nature which we call 'holiness'?" That is not a question. (I.e. it is nonsense; because there is no justification for calling things 'holy' otherwise.)

I would like to say: "I must begin with the presumption that a common-name names a common nature." Nothing is possible prior to that; I can't give it a foundation. (cf. PG i § 81, p. 126-127)

An alternative logic to Wittgenstein's logic

If Socrates' logic is a logic of language, then is Wittgenstein's logic an alternative to it. The two logics can be compared: they are both projects in philosophy: they say: Look at things this way! Socrates' project is not: Look and see if we find a common nature, and if we do not, conclude that there is none! but rather Look for the common nature until you find one because that nature is the meaning of language! Wittgenstein's project, in contrast, is: Rather than in facts of nature that may explain concept formation (which is what common natures would be), look for the meaning of language in our conventions for using language! (PI II, xii, p. 230)


The criterion of providential design

There appears to be another element to Socrates' logic:

[Socrates] was convinced that nature was providentially designed, [Xenophon, Memorabilia i, 4, 4ff., iv, 3, 3ff.] ... to understand the nature of anything was to understand the function or purpose [ergon] which it was intended to serve. A definition must state not only what we might regard as the [essence], but also, and primarily, the ... work that the object in question has to perform.

[For Socrates] everything, from a horse to a knife, has its own [work to perform] and therefore its own areté ["virtue"] or distinctive excellence. (Guthrie p. 442)

But what then is man's function or purpose -- what was man designed for? The Socratic answer is: to be rational, to be guided by reason to the life of moral virtue. Would that function belong to a "definition of man"? Does the "design" follow necessarily from the facts of nature -- is that how it is known?

But Socrates was concerned only with defining ethical terms, and thus is the view that "nature was providentially designed" a view belonging to the historical Socrates or only to Plato and Xenophon -- because it is certainly an instance of thinking you know what you don't know? Providence [divine design] is not necessary to Socratic ethics; for Socratic ethics it is enough to know the specific excellence proper to man, nothing more. (If the wind blows a pattern in the sand, we call that pattern a design. But we do not call the wind a designer. The design -- i.e. the excellence proper to a thing -- may be a matter of fact without its also being an intention. And that is all we know.)

[If] we want to learn what is areté as such, the supreme or universal excellence which will enable us ... to live the span of human life in the best possible way, we must first [obey the Delphic command "Know thyself"], for with that self-knowledge will come the knowledge of our chief end. [cf. First Alcibiades 128b-129a, 124] (ibid. p. 466-7)

What is a thing's "chief end" unless a thing's end [purpose, function] is existence in accord with the excellence that is proper to its nature? But that case the notion of "intended end" seems equivalent and superfluous (although according to Copleston, for Aristotle final cause ≠ intende end, but often the final cause = formal cause; e.g. a sharp knife has realized its excellence regardless of what it is intended to cut, a pear or an enemy).

That the specific excellence proper and unique to man is reason is clear, for only man's reason could prove the contrary, as it is also clear that the good for man is to live according to reason rather than according to the irrational (i.e. unquestioned instinct), thinking he knows what he does not know, and therefore being misled himself and misleading others (ibid. Memorabilia iv, 6, 1).

[Contrariwise, is the myth of Epimetheus and Prometheus and the gods correct, that skill in the arts (the gift of Prometheus) is the distinctive excellence proper to man? But man without skill in the crafts is imaginable, but man without reason would not be man but instead only an animal wanting discourse of reason. In other words, reason is the defining quality of man, i.e. what we identify as his specific and unique excellence (areté). (In the myth, mastery of fire may be seen simply as needed for skill in the arts or crafts, but I think that instead fire is a symbol of reason (the intellect), that reason was the gift of Prometheus and from the gift, not of fire, but of reason, imagination and insight, the arts arose.)]


Socrates' logic of language, its method in brief

To summarize: there are two parts to the method of Socrates' logic of language. (1) Look for the distinctive excellence proper to man ("Know thyself") in order to know what the good is for man; this will tell what terms -- namely the terms of ethics or "how man should live his life" -- need to be defined. (2) To define an ethical term, look for the common nature (guiding essence or Socratic definition) it names, using the methods of induction and question and answer and cross-question. Whatever you cannot define in this way is unknown by you.

Does 'unknown' = 'meaningless'? For Socrates as for Wittgenstein, 'meaningless' = 'undefined', but what they mean by the word 'meaning' is different.

For Socrates, if what the common nature of piety is, is unknown, then the word 'piety' is undefined or meaningless (Of course it is nonetheless an English word, the name of a moral virtue, and therefore not "mere sound without sense", not meaningless in that sense of 'meaningless').

In contrast, for Wittgenstein most words do not have "meanings" in Socrates' sense of meaning = common nature or essence. To the contrary, for Wittgenstein it is not that the word's meaning is unknown, but that, as the facts in plain view show, the word simply -- if preconceptions (requirements, not results) about how one thinks things must be can be set aside -- has no "meaning" = essential meaning. (The word nonetheless is not meaningless, as Wittgenstein uses the word 'meaning', if the word has a use in the language.)

Socrates asks for an account of what (you think) you know (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1). As by his own standard does Wittgenstein: "The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know" (BB p. 45; cf. PI §§ 210, 208); logic asserts only "what anyone knows and must admit" (Z § 211; PI § 599), which is what the facts in plain view are. Only that and nothing more?

Theories and Logic

Theories about the nature of things (Greek providence or Wittgenstein's theories about the causes of philosophy) are not part of logic, because logic is not based on any particular mythology or metaphysics but rather solely on publicly verifiable facts.

And Socrates' thinking about "Know thyself" is not based on the picture that all things have been designed by God ("providentially designed") with an end (function) in mind, because that picture does no more than give a mythical explanation for what is readily observed, namely that countless things do have characteristic functions, both natural things (e.g. the nests of birds) and man-made things (e.g. woven baskets, written language). The origin of these distinctive functions is not the concern of logic (but rather of natural history, metaphysics or myth). Likewise Wittgenstein's later logic of language does not require the acceptance of his metaphysical theories and worldview.

The excellence that is proper to a thing is the good for that thing

What is the logic ("grammar") of the proposition 'Existence in accord with the specific excellence (areté) that is proper and unique to a thing is the good for that thing'? Can that proposition be "significantly negated" (or is its contradiction nonsense) or is it a tautology? Is it a way of looking at things, a frame of reference, akin to a classification scheme, a "world-picture" -- or is it a statement of fact (or maybe of metaphysics)? 'What is the good for man?' What is the grammar of that question?

That the distinctive excellence proper to a thing is the good for that thing is a foundation (viewpoint) of Socrates' thinking in ethics. "I must begin with ... Nothing is possible prior to that." The only way to divorce an ethics from its foundations is to invent a different ethics. The same is true of a logic of language. Socrates' successors did not go beyond him; they just went someplace else.

Can a logic be divorced from its inventor's aims -- "What is your aim in philosophy" (PI § 309; cf. ibid. § 564: a method has "not only rules but also a point")? For Wittgenstein the answer should be clarity: to distinguish language with meaning from nonsense, whereas for Socrates it is not only clarity but (primarily) knowledge in ethics. Socrates' answer to the Delphic precept "Know thyself" is to know the excellence that is proper to man as such -- i.e. such things as the use of reason, creativity, wonder (philosophy), and ethics -- and to oneself as an individual man. To live in accord with that excellence is the good for man. That is why Socrates seeks definitions = knowledge of man's moral excellence (piety, justice, temperance, courage), namely in order to know how to live.


The point of Socrates' negative findings

Wittgenstein [in conversation with M. O'C. Drury, dated by Drury "1930(?)"]: It has puzzled me why Socrates is regarded as a great philosopher. Because when Socrates asks for the meaning of a word and people give him examples of how the word is used, he isn't satisfied, but wants [a general] definition. Now if someone shows me how a word is used and its different meanings, that is just the sort of answer I want. (Recollections p. 115)

Had Wittgenstein been speaking in Meno 74d he would have said: "We are landed in particulars -- and this is just what I want." But the aims of Wittgenstein and of the historical Socrates in philosophy are very different, despite the many similarities. [For Wittgenstein "Socrates" = Plato.]

To be rid of false conceptions

[Socrates was unshakably convinced that] if there was to be any hope of attaining [knowledge], the debris of confused and misleading ideas which filled most men's minds must first be cleared away. Only then could the positive search for knowledge begin.

[The] man who has rid his mind of a false conception is already nearer the truth. (Guthrie p. 449)

Is Wittgenstein's logic an advance over Socrates' logic?

Is Wittgenstein's logic of language a mere alternative to Socrates' logic of language, or is it an improvement, for doesn't it go further than Socrates' logic towards "getting rid of false conceptions" (Guthrie p. 449)? For isn't Wittgenstein's logic a true description of our language use -- the "truth" being that the meaning of a common name is usually not a common nature that it names (BB p. 19-20)?

But does Wittgenstein's logic, then, give clear techniques for defining the ethical terms 'piety' and 'justice' and so on? It most certainly does not do that. It does not even understand why there is a need to define those ethical terms, namely because otherwise men contradict one another, become angry and fall out with one another (Euthyphro 7d, Phaedrus 263a-b) -- and don't know how to live.

Simply describing our use of words like 'piety' and 'justice' -- i.e. looking at language Wittgenstein's way rather than Socrates' way -- does not resolve the problem of justification in ethics. Wittgenstein simply sets the problem aside. But in Socrates' view, it must be reality that justifies our concepts; it must be reality that says what piety and justice are, not mere conventions. Socrates was convinced that the good can be known, that there is truth and falsity in ethics (Of course, it may not be that general definition is the only way to that truth).

Wittgenstein and Bouwsma: defining 'good'

Definition of good? What would one do with this? Law courts have a use for definitions. Physics has a use for definition. It is hard in any case to see what a definition here could be like. What one can do is describe certain aspects of the uses of the word 'good' ...

The use of a word in such a case is like the use of a piece in a game ... What you do with one sort of piece [e.g. the queen in chess] is intelligible only in terms of what you do with it in relation to what is done with the other pieces.

So the word 'good' is used in a terribly complex game, in which there are such other pieces as 'ought to do', 'conscience', 'shame', 'guilt', 'bad', etc. And there are ... no strict rules for the use of any and yet the uses are interdependent ...

The use of the word 'good' is too complicated. Definition is out of the question. [Note 5]

Wittgenstein defines words by the rules for their use in the language, but where there are no strict rules, are there definitions? There is no reason to regard Wittgenstein's logic as an improvement from Socrates' point of view. From that point of view, only a logic that did give techniques for defining moral terms would be what Socrates was looking for. (Is there reason to presume that such a logic cannot be invented (if we do not assume Wittgenstein's point of view)?)

Note that the words Wittgenstein mentions as grammatically interconnected with 'good' -- and indeed the word 'value' itself -- are not words Socrates uses in ethics; he does not think in these terms = use these concepts. But instead Socrates connects the word 'good' with 'useful', 'beneficial', 'excellent' (or 'virtuous').

Unlike Plato's suprasensible "the Good" and Wittgenstein's indisputable "absolute value", which cannot be put to the tests of reason and experience to be agreed to or refuted in discussion, Socratic ethics is public: as Socrates defines 'know', if we know, we can tell others what we know.

Socrates' mission in philosophy

Socrates always reduces the Sophist to silence -- but does he do this rightfully? It's true that the Sophist does not know what he thinks he knows; but that is no triumph for Socrates. It can't be a case of "You see, you don't know it!" -- nor triumphantly "So none of us knows anything!" (CV p. 56, remark from 1947)

Or maybe it is (Apology 23a-c) [Note 6]. Either way it would not be a triumph for Wittgenstein to say: "You see, Socrates' method can't define these words either!" What was Socrates doing in philosophy?

[Socrates'] mission was not to impart any body of positive doctrine, but to bring home to men their intellectual need, and then to invite them to join him in the search for truth by the dialectical method of question and answer. (Guthrie p. 447)

Although in Guthrie's account, in both Xenophon and Plato, Socrates does have a few ideas to impart (namely, about a standard for knowing in philosophy, and about "Know thyself", and moral virtue is knowledge), which are not, in my view, refuted in Plato's dialogs.

To make man aware that he is not wise (Apology 29a)

In Guthrie's judgment, Socrates' mission was to make men aware that they are not wise, by showing men that they do not know what they think they know -- and therefore that they need to seek to know (no one seeks to know what he thinks he already knows). [Note 7]

If Wittgenstein really did not see this --.

Is Wittgenstein guilty of logicism?

Am I coming to the view that Wittgenstein's philosophy is "logicism" -- i.e. an attempt to treat philosophical problems as if they were problems in another discipline, namely, logic? Because didn't Wittgenstein "reduce" philosophy to logic -- i.e. didn't he claim that philosophical problems are "really only" logical (i.e. grammatical) problems? [Note 8]

What is clear is that Wittgenstein's philosophy has nothing to say to Socrates except: Look at this some other way! Stop asking these barren questions which lead to no answers! (CV 61, remark from 1947)

What would Wittgenstein's say to Socrates' claim that it is not the common name but the common nature that he is asking about? That the Socratic presumption that the meaning of a common name is the common nature it names is not consistent with the facts in plain view, facts which show that there is no nature to ask about, but only a name. "And that is not an answer to but a rejection of the question" (PI § 47).

Philosophy and Language

Your questions refer to words; so I have to talk about words.

Your questions were posed in the language (words, sentences, etc.) of every day. They had to be expressed in this language, if there was anything to ask! (cf. PI § 120)

Philosophy is "discourse of reason", which means discourse of words. Everything that is said is said in language, and so we have to talk about language. But that doesn't mean that language is what interests philosophy. Philosophy isn't "talk about language" (as theology is "talk about the gods"); you couldn't define 'philosophy' as talk about language (maybe you could define 'logic' that way).

Parallel definitions of 'definition'

Is Wittgenstein's response to the question of common names responsive to Socrates? Socrates and Wittgenstein define the word 'definition' differently; and these definitions are the foundations of their logics; they are "parallel lines" of thought. Socrates' "common natures" belongs to his logic of language, just as Wittgenstein's "relation between grammatical rules and sense and nonsense" belongs to his logic of language. Is all they can say to one another: Look at this another way!?

Therefore, it seems, that if we looking for a response to Socrates' problem of universal standards in ethics through the definition of ethical terms, we will not find that in Wittgenstein.


Wittgenstein and Socrates have different missions in philosophy

From where does [my] investigation get its importance, since it seems only to destroy ... all that is ... important? What [I am] destroying is nothing but houses of cards ... (PI § 118)

Both Socrates and Wittgenstein seek to "rid men's minds of false conceptions", but despite that similarity, their views of the end of this philosophical task are different. Because for Wittgenstein, destroying "houses of cards" (false conceptions) is the end (the aim) of philosophy -- whereas for Socrates, it is only the beginning, not the end of philosophy (either its aim or culmination).

[Philosophy's beginning is also philosophy's always, because there is always the danger in philosophy of thinking you know what you don't know. But that doesn't mean that philosophy's beginning is also necessarily philosophy's end (culmination). And indeed Xenophon's Socrates is different: absent is the Socrates who knows only his own ignorance. And there is some point to this.]

Wittgenstein's later view is that philosophy has to fall silent because it has nothing to say once the "houses of cards" are destroyed (PI § 118), because that is all philosophical problems are: false conceptions, misconceptions ("houses of cards").

The negative results of Plato's Socratic dialogs are not a refutation of philosophy itself, but only the results of subjecting proposition to the tests of reason and experience by cross-questioning them: They are the results of today's philosophical discussion only, not the results of everlasting to eternity. Tomorrow there will be new propositions (theses) and new questions about the older propositions.

What is the attraction of Wittgenstein's philosophy?

A philosopher says: "Look at things this way!" (CV p. 61, remark from 1947)

But if this is a question of choice, then why is Wittgenstein's philosophy -- this philosophy which solves not a single philosophical problem, certainly not the problem of concept formation and common names, certainly not the problem of the "universality of good and evil", and certainly not "the riddle of existence" -- why is this philosophy attractive to anyone? Because it promises to thoroughly clear away false conceptions? It does promise that: "My aim is to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is [clearly, in plain view] nonsense" (PI § 464) [Note 9] "What is your aim in philosophy? -- To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle" (ibid. § 309), because philosophical problems are nothing more than a mind mystified by language (ibid. § 109). But --.

Plato's dialogs, July 1931

Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling: what a terrible waste of time! What's the point of these arguments that prove nothing and make nothing clearer? (CV p. 14)

"... that prove nothing and make nothing clearer"? Even to show the need for a standard of measurement in ethics (Euthyphro 6d-7c), if not to find one, is not to prove nothing. Even to ask what the meaning of a common name is if there is no perceptible common nature (Phaedo 65d, Parmenides133c) is not to make nothing clearer.

[To Drury in 1930:] I want my philosophy to be businesslike, to get something done, to get something settled. (Recollections p. 110)

But what of 'piety' and 'justice' and the other ethical terms Socrates was seeking to find common nature definitions of? In the case of those words, we do not "get something done". Describing the use of those words in the language yields no guiding rules, but only rules so general as to serve for nothing more than orientation.

What is the case with the words of ethics (which concern "no small matter, but how to live") is even more the case with the word 'beauty', a word which has no grammar (in Wittgenstein's jargon), and the word 'good' for which Wittgenstein also offered no general definition at all.

It seems a damning criticism of a logic of language if it has no method for determining the meaning, by its own definition of 'meaning', of such common, but important in our lives, words. If a common word of our language is "grammarless", doesn't that count against Wittgenstein's logic? No more or less than the absence of a common nature counts against Socrates' logic.

The limits of their two logics of language

To define a word Wittgenstein needs rules of grammar, Socrates an essence. But if Wittgenstein's logic of language cannot define word like 'good' and 'beautiful', does that make his logic of language worthless? It only shows that there are limits to its usefulness. It may, as it defines 'meaning', mark off false paths in the case of trying to define those words, but it does not direct us to the true path.

There are limits to the usefulness of both these philosophers' logics of language. That's all. But those limits need to be made clear.


How to dismiss the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Socrates

Of course a very different account can be given of Socrates' logic of language:

... in [Socrates'] hands [the Greek word 'logos'] takes on the meaning 'definition' or something closely approaching it. (Guthrie, p. 436) [Socrates does not ask for a mere list, but for] the essential nature [of the things listed.] (ibid.) If they do not share such a common quality, then he claimed it would be improper to go on applying the same word to them all. (ibid. p. 432)

Which kind of definition does the Socratic logos "closely approach"? (1) Rules or conventions for the use of words, or (2) hypotheses about the nature of the things named by a word, as e.g. for the word 'piety' or the word 'justice', a definition saying what the nature of piety or justice really is? The second kind of definition.

For the Platonic Socrates it cannot be the case that there is no common nature: the meaning of a common name is the common nature of the things it names, despite any and all appearances to the contrary. And that necessity is not the result of investigation; it is a requirement set for the investigation; it is an attempt to force reality to conform to a preconception. It cannot be falsified.

Wittgenstein's criticism is that the existence of common natures is a myth which is damaging to the philosophical understanding.

Adequacy of Wittgenstein's logic of language

Likewise Wittgenstein's kind of definition, namely "the meaning of a word is its use in the language as stated in rules or conventions of grammar" (BB p. 65, PI § 43), is a requirement, not the result of an investigation, because if there are no rules then a word (e.g. 'beautiful') should be meaningless in Wittgenstein's logic. But it is not.

"This and the like are called 'games'" (PI § 69) oughtn't to count as a definition, not if grammar is about rules, which it is. It is, however, a description of language use, a sometimes adequate explanation of meaning, though. So Wittgenstein calls it a definition.

[The concept 'use in the language' is too vague by far.]

An Evasion of Induction

When Plato generalizes the historical Socrates' principle that an ethical term names an common nature to all common names and furthermore identifies common natures with absolute archetypes, that is what Isaac Newton called an "hypothesis" or unfalsifiable speculation. Newton wrote of his fourth rule for reasoning in philosophy, "This rule we must follow, that the argument of induction may not be evaded by hypotheses". If Plato's theory were falsifiable, for most words induction would falsify it. (We might also speak of an evasion of the evidence in plain view. The thesis 'The truth is hidden' is a world-picture, but it is also an "hypothesis".)

The fallacy of evaded induction may apply to any generalization made by Socrates or by Wittgenstein.

A Method has an End in Mind

Wittgenstein's method has clarity as its end, but Socrates' method has the knowledge of truths presumed to exist as its end. Look for the essence (because there really is one to be found). Look for the excellence or function of a thing (because there really is one to be found). If essences and functions are not presumed to really exist, then Socrates' method loses its justification for being.

In Wittgenstein's logic the principle that language is like a game played according to strict rules can be useful even if it is a fiction -- because in grammatical investigations, "grammar" (description of language use) is whatever we find when we look, even if we don't find any rules. But for a Socratic investigation, if we do not find essences or functions, then our investigation has failed to discover the truth.

Conclusion of the dismissal

These two very different accounts of Socrates' thought can be given. I think the first is much better, because it tries to understand Socrates' thought as a logic of language, and does not present Socrates as thinking he knows what he does not know, but only says what he seeks to know. The second account seems to want only to dismiss Socrates' (or at least Plato's) thought as a closed-minded philosophy.

A second account might also be given of Wittgenstein's logic of language, e.g. that sense and nonsense are determined by public conventions [rules of grammar] for using language -- and then to ask: to what extent do those conventions really exist, and if they don't exist then how can they in practice make an objective distinction between sense and nonsense?

And are those conventions the proper subject of philosophy rather than general facts of nature that can explain concept-formation (PI II, xii, p. 230), that is, isn't logic merely the handmaid of metaphysics, not the whole of philosophy?


Endnotes

Note 1: Nor is Socrates seeking the various similarities among shapes. If I remember aright, Plato has Socrates use this metaphor: "I asked for the plate whole, but instead you bring me only the broken pieces" (cf. Meno 77a-b, tr. Guthrie). If Socrates had not seen what Wittgenstein called "family resemblances", then he would not have called instances of a common name's application "pieces of a broken plate".

And on the other hand, Socrates need not have found the myriad similarities between shapes compelling; he need only have had a list of shapes (squares, triangles, circles, and so on). Compare the concept 'game' -- are the similarities (resemblances) between hopscotch and "Old Maid" so compelling that those activities necessarily belong in the same category?

[Plato offers "definitions of shape" in Meno 75b-76a, and in 76a states "... shape is that in which a solid terminates, or more briefly, it is the limit of a solid" (tr. Guthrie); in 75d-e he says that understanding this definition requires knowing the meaning of the words 'end' in the sense of 'boundary' or 'limit' and 'of something being bounded or coming to an end'. (Plato's proposition does not state the essence of shape, however, because figures can be drawn in the night sky with a lighted punk, figures which are not the limit of anything, solid or elsewise.) Before that he defines 'shape' as "the only thing which always accompanies color" (75b), to which Meno objects, But what "if somebody says he doesn't know what color is?" (75c) (Plato's later view of the question of shapes is found in Philebus 12e-13a.)] [BACK]

Note 2: W.K.C. Guthrie. A History of Greek Philosophy iii (Cambridge: 1969) p. 436 = Socrates (Cambridge: 1971) p. 116. (To find the page in the latter edition, subtract 320 from the page number in the former edition.) I have changed Guthrie's single quotes (' ') to double-quotes (" "), because the latter are commonly used where I now live -- and because here as everywhere else I use single quotes to distinguish between a sign and the use of a sign in the language rather than to indicate a direct quotation or in place of the expression 'so-called'.

Views on Plato and Socrates

I have relied on W.K.C. Guthrie's account of Socrates because: (1) it is fundamentally consistent with my own picture of Socrates (although not consistent in all ways, because Guthrie attributes far more of Plato's ideas to the historical Socrates than I ever would: in my view Plato's work after the Apology shows only the development of Plato's own philosophy, not the philosophy of the historical Socrates. As to Plato's Apology, I accept that as more or less a portrait, not historiography, of the historical Socrates). And because: (2) I used to find it impossible to follow the arguments in Plato's dialogs, maybe (a) because of Plato's frequent conceptual confusion (which in those days I did not have Wittgenstein's logic of language to help me with), and (b) because I do not know ancient Greek (As Guthrie's remarks show, the language of the ancient Greeks does not translate simply into English, but instead a translation requires much explanation, as e.g. in the case of the words 'good' and 'beautiful'), and (c) because Plato's interests were at that time not what I wanted from philosophy (They did not "heal the wounded understanding" of the vagueness and confusion and faux metaphors that surround it); but I have in later years tried to understand many of Plato's dialogs and made selections and written comments about them, as well as contrasted the Socrates of Plato with the Socrates of Xenophon and the historical Socrates. [BACK]

Note 3: Plato expanded the Socratic search for common natures beyond ethics into nature-philosophy (metaphysics). But Socrates was not Plato's principal teacher in philosophy, but instead the ideas of Heraclitus and Parmenides were the foundations of Plato's thought: their teaching that "everything we perceive is in flux (having the mere appearance of reality), but behind the flux is an unchanging reality that is the true object of knowledge" is the origin of Plato's imperceptible (suprasensible) Archetypes or Patterns). [BACK]

Note 4: to mark off as "the limits of a field or other territory [are marked off] from those of its neighbor ... This is the primary meaning of [the Greek] verb translated 'define' in Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle". (Guthrie p. 430) [BACK]

Note 5: O.K. Bouwsma. Wittgenstein: Conversations, 1949-1951. August 28, 1949. It is not clear who is speaking here, the author or Wittgenstein or both. What can be said is that Bouwsma's "conversation" is not inconsistent with Wittgenstein's thinking.

The rule 'the queen may move in any direction through unoccupied squares' does not tell us how to play chess with the queen. To know that we must know how to play chess: we must know the board, the moves of the chessmen, all the rules -- including those of winning and losing -- of the game.

A thinker is very much like a draughtsman whose aim it is to represent all the interrelations between things. (CV p. 12, remark from 1931; cf. "bird's-eye view")

Does Epictetus state a definition of 'good' when he lists examples of the things that a good man thinks and does -- can we say: this and this and this is what we call (what we mean by the word) 'good'? Maybe we want to say: "That is a definition in Wittgenstein's sense, not in Socrates' sense" -- but might not someone else give a contrary list to define 'good' ('good man') differently (cf. Russell's Theory of Descriptions)? No.

Because if anyone asserts the principle that "The good man helps his friends and harms his enemies" (Republic 332a-d), then following Socrates, Plato will question that assertion, asking whether the good man harms anyone, for if the good man does harm, then what does the bad man do? The good man seeks to make men better, not worse. Thus Plato refutes the claim (made by Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein) that ethics is ultimately irrational, because assertions even about the foundations of ethics (e.g. "What is the good for man?" or "What is a good man?") are subject to refutation in Socratic dialog.

Does ethics seek a definition of 'moral good'? If there were a Socratic definition of the ethical term 'good', would we then everywhere know how to live our life (to be always pious, brave, temperate, just and so on)?

Xenophon's account questions whether the word 'good' is used differently in ethics than it is used elsewhere (moral good versus non-moral or practical good), holding that in every case: good = useful for the function a thing is intended for. What function are the moral virtues intended for? Being pious and just is living in accord with the excellence that is proper to man (which is man's function); maybe we could say that the moral virtues have that function. In Xenophon's classification scheme (categories), nothing is good in itself -- i.e. useful, but not for anything in particular. [BACK]

Note 6: According to Apology 23a-c, it is a "triumph" for Socrates because it shows that he is accomplishing the task he believes Apollo has assigned him, to make men aware that they are not wise. What "can't be" is.

Plato's dialogs' results show that the Platonic Socrates' interpretation of the oracle at Delphi's words is correct, that: no man is wiser than Socrates -- because no man is wise.

Socratic wisdom, awareness of ignorance, and knowledge

Was to make men aware that they are not wise all the historical Socrates' mission in philosophy was? I would say that knowing that one does not know is both the beginning and the end of man's wisdom, which I think that is the view of Plato's Apology. (Why Socratic ignorance is also Socratic wisdom.) But in Guthrie's view, the discovery of ignorance is not the end of Socratic philosophy. And the accounts of Aristotle and Xenophon support that view. (Note that the thesis "I know only my own ignorance" is subject to refutation, and may not be in all respects true.) [BACK]

Note 7: W.K.C. Guthrie. The Greek Philosophers, from Thales to Aristotle. New York: 1950. Page 74.

The benefit of Socratic ignorance

Do you suppose then that he would have attempted to look for, or learn, what he thought he knew, though he did not, before he was thrown into perplexity, became aware of his ignorance, and felt a desire to know? (Meno 84c; tr. Guthrie, Jowett)

One should bring home to [one's companion] those [contradictions] that are due to himself alone. If you follow this rule, your [companions will blame] their confusions on themselves and will turn to philosophy. (Theaetetus 167d-168a)

When cross-examination shows contradictions in a man's opinions, from this refutation he learns modesty, and purged of his prejudices is made to think he knows only what he knows ... (Sophist 230b-d)

If we go on like this, either we shall find what we are after, or we shall be less inclined to imagine we know something of which we know nothing whatever, and that surely is a reward not to be despised. (Theaetetus 187c, tr. Cornford) [BACK]

Note 8: See Etienne Gilson's "Logicism and Philosophy" in his The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1937). But if we accuse Wittgenstein of logicism or even logomachy, haven't we to accuse Socrates of it also? What does a philosophical, in contrast to a logical, treatment look like when it is not myth-making (metaphysical speculation) or nonsense? If you can show us that -- we'll grant you the rest. (Plato's example: the essence of man. | Constructive versus destructive philosophical thinking.)

Philosophy puts all thinking to the test through criticism of the language used. (Or so I would have said at one time. But how concepts and language are related is not so simple as that.) But in Guthrie's view, for Socrates, unlike for Wittgenstein, destructive criticism was not the aim of philosophy, which is instead knowledge in ethics.

Kierkegaard modestly called himself a Christian auditor: "An apostle proclaims the truth, an auditor is responsible for discovering counterfeits" .... (M. Muggeridge, A Third Testament (1976), p. 138-143)

For Wittgenstein as well the philosopher is only an auditor, i.e. someone who checks the account books (PG ii § 11, p. 295; i § 44, p. 87) of discourse for nonsense. There are no philosophical propositions, no truth to proclaim.

[Logicism is not the only possible misclassification. Is the TLP's "The riddle does not exist" [6.5] an example of scientism, i.e. of trying to treat philosophical problems as if they were scientific problems? The "propositions of natural science" are the only language with sense [6.53], and therefore any question that is not a natural science question is nonsense. (The death of metaphysics is greatly exaggerated.)] [BACK]

Note 9: 'Where does the light go when it goes out?' (M. O'C. Drury, The Method of Philosophy)

Language and Concepts

Drury cites the question 'Where does the light go when it goes out?' as an example of obvious nonsense (he does not say how it is obvious. Suppose someone said, "It's not obvious to me"), which he calls "merely a tricky combination of words". Wittgenstein: we follow a false grammatical analogy (PI § 90). But what makes you think that the analogy is linguistic? Why shouldn't a child ask where the light goes, imagining that light returns to its source like a mouse returning to its box. Plato: where does the soul go when it leaves the body? The mouse returns to its box. The light returns to the light source, the light bulb. Where does a breeze go when the wind dies? You cannot capture a breeze in a box, no more than light, yet you can capture air. A mechanical analogy.

"The word 'light' is not the name of an object. Nor is the word 'soul' (or 'mind')." Those are rules of grammar, statements of fact about the English language, if they are true. Drury says that to distinguish sense from nonsense you need to know the rules for using a word. What are the rules for using the word 'light'? And where do those rules come from? How do you know what the rules are? We learn to use the word 'light' in the presence and absence of light (PI § 43, 2nd paragraph). "You can't capture light in a box, like a small animal." You cite differences -- do those differences belong to the grammar of the word 'light'? When you ask "What is light?" -- are you asking about the grammar of a word (are you asking for a definition = rules for the use of the word 'light' in the language) or about the nature of the phenomenon light? (Conceptual versus factual investigations.) N.R. Hanson: "seeing is theory-laden": Seeing light is seeing that ... Is it a very general fact of nature (PI II, xii p. 230) that a beam of light can't be captured in a box like a lightening bug?

For the contrary is logically possible (i.e. it can be described); thus the question 'Where does the light go when it goes out?' is not nonsense, but is based on a false premiss about the nature of light (why shouldn't light be like water to steam? The picture is not nonsense); thus the analogy may be suggested by a fact of nature as by grammar.

"A picture holds us captive..." (ibid. § 115), but does the picture of things leaving, going elsewhere (or returning to somewhere) have its origin in our language (grammatical analogy)? Cf. "Things don't just vanish into thin air." [Between concepts and phenomena and Phenomena and objects] [BACK]


About W.K.C. Guthrie

William Keith Chambers Guthrie (1906-1981) studied at Trinity College, Cambridge (BA, 1928). After 1931 he was at various other colleges of Cambridge University until 1973. But C.D. Broad described a peculiarity of Trinity College: ancient philosophy was in those days studied exclusively in the classics department, not in the philosophy department, and the two departments did not intermingle. Guthrie had a stroke in 1979 which he said had put an end to his work in the history of philosophy (Aristotle: an encounter (1981), p. xi).

I think Wittgenstein's philosophy reflects that he came to philosophy through questions in the philosophy of mathematics rather than through classical studies (he claimed to have never read a word of Aristotle) or the eternal questions. (To Drury: "puzzled why Plato is regarded as a great philosopher".)


[See also: Eduard Zeller's account of Socrates, as well as the other pages about Socrates on this site.]


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