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Polyphemus, the White King, and Protagoras

Query: in the Apology who is said to be wiser than Socrates?

He bears the same name as the one who blinds Polyphemus (Odyssey ix). As well as the one the messenger and Alice told the White King they had seen on the road (TtLG vii). And in Protagoras the one who is the measure of all things (Plato, Theaetetus 151e-152a, 160c-d).

Outline of this page ...

Russell's Theory of Descriptions and the Meaning of Proper Names

The clearest instances of propositions not containing apparent variables are such as express immediate judgments of perception, such as 'This is red' or 'This is painful', where "this" is something immediately given. [Note 1]

To which instances the authors will add 'This is Socrates', but only in the case where Socrates "expresses an immediate judgment of perception" of himself.

In other judgments, even where at first sight no variable appears to be present, it often happens that there really is one.

Take (say) 'Socrates is human'. To Socrates himself, the word 'Socrates' no doubt stood for an object of which he was immediately aware, and the judgment 'Socrates is human' contained no apparent variable.

But to us, who only know Socrates by description, the word 'Socrates' cannot mean what it meant to him; it means rather 'the person having such-and-such properties', (say) 'the Athenian philosopher who drank the hemlock'. (Whitehead, Russell, Principia Mathematica *50)

This is not correct: that "the word 'Socrates' no doubt stood for an object" (propositions of "no doubt" in philosophy aren't). I do not define my own name by giving myself an ostensive definition. Indeed, I don't define my name at all, unless someone else asks who I am (which might happen in many different contexts), e.g. Socrates might describe (identify) himself as "the son of the stonecutter Sophroniscus" (Plato, Greater Hippias 298b-c) or as "Socrates of the deme Alopece" (Plato, Gorgias 495d-e) or as "the husband of Xanthippe" (Plato, Phaedo 60a, Diog. L. ii, 9-10) or as "a heavy-armed infantryman who fought for Athens at Amphipolis, Delium, and Potidaea" (Apology 28e) or as "the friend Chaerephon" (Apology 21a) or as "a contemporary of Crito" (ibid. 33d-e), and so on.

For 'Socrates', in many contexts the description "the Athenian philosopher who drank the hemlock" would not be at all useful to us, e.g. if what we wanted to know is the contributions various philosophers have made to logic, where a description such as Aristotle's "There are two things which may justly be credited to Socrates, inductive argument and general definition" (Metaphysics 1078b27, tr. Guthrie) would be the description which was wanted. For "thus play I in one person many people" applies to all men, and thus various descriptions of those "people" may be given (none absolute, none defining outside any context).

Now in all propositions about 'the so-and-so' there is an apparent variable ... Thus in what we have in mind when we say 'Socrates is human' there is an apparent variable, though there was no apparent variable in the corresponding judgment as made by Socrates, provided we assume that there is such a thing as immediate awareness of oneself. (Principia Mathematica op. cit.)

Regardless of whether or not "there is such a thing as immediate awareness of oneself", that awareness is not the meaning -- the use in the language -- of the name 'Socrates', either for Socrates or for anyone else. If by 'Socrates' we mean an object, namely his body, that object cannot be the meaning of Socrates' name, for when Socrates dies we say his body dies, not that the meaning of his name dies (PI § 40); if the meaning died, then the word 'Socrates' would now be meaningless. And if by 'Socrates' we mean Socrates' body and soul, these can only be "defined" by their qualities -- but who would be given such definitions? In the past maybe someone who was looking for Socrates in the public places of Athens and asked, 'What does Socrates look like?' But now to the question 'Who was Socrates?' we might well answer with various descriptions of the qualities of his soul (i.e. way of life and death, method of philosophizing, ethics, things like this) we find in Xenophon and Plato and other ancient sources (cf. PI § 79).

[Russell's "Theory of Descriptions" ('There is no entity which is both golden and a mountain', in Moore's words), and Russell's "On Denoting".]

What does Plato mean by 'worth knowing'?

Query: in the Apology, how does Socrates describe a wise man?

As one who doesn't ever think he is wise when he is not. And yet, that meaning of 'wise' isn't clear, because Plato says that no man is wise. And yet Socrates lived a particular way, and, being a man who was guided by reason, he must have reasoned that was the best way of life for him to live. And so Socrates must have reasoned that he "knew himself" well enough to know what the good was for him both as man and as an individual man. And surely, as we normally use the word 'wise', knowing that is to be wise. But if that is so, then what does Plato mean by 'wisdom', i.e. what does Plato think is "worth knowing"?

Can anyone know what the good is for man without knowing what the essence of moral virtue (such things as bravery, holiness, justice, and temperance) is, much less what "goodness in itself" is? For that kind of knowledge -- namely absolute knowledge (Note that what is absolute is independent of all change -- i.e. it is unchanging, and only knowledge of that does Plato's master Heraclitus says is knowledge) -- like the essences of things (The 'essence' of a thing is "that without which the thing cannot be what it is") -- is the kind of knowledge Plato is looking for, and that kind of knowledge is what Socrates does not find in Plato's Socratic dialogs.

And yet, doesn't Socrates reason, as the Greeks did, that the good for a thing is existence in accord with the specific excellence that is proper to that thing? And so, for example, man is a rational thing, and therefore the good for man is a life of reason, from which it follows that ethics (Plato's "no small matter, but how to live") must be directed by reason. And wouldn't knowing that be what we normally call 'wisdom' or 'being wise'?

Plato presumes (if that is what he does) -- he does not demonstrate -- that the foremost Greek moral virtues (namely self-control, piety, courage, justness, and wisdom [Note 2]) are the moral virtues proper to man, but, rather, what Plato asks about is: "What are these virtues as such? For example, what is the essence or defining common quality of all things pious, for which reason they are all called pious?" He does this because, he thinks, that without knowing that he has no standard against which to measure any act to know whether or not it is pious (Euthyphro 6d-7d). And how can anyone act correctly (i.e. piously) towards the gods without such a standard?

Plato extended the method of Socratic (common nature) definition beyond ethics to metaphysics, which was an extension Socrates did not make. The reason for this was taken from Heraclitus: that only what is unchanging can be the object of knowledge and so be wisdom (in the broad sense of the Greek word 'sophia'). And so Plato asks not about this or that cat for these are born, live and are passing away, but, rather, about the essence of all cats ("cat-ness" or "cat-hood").

But it is not necessary to know that (if it can be known, for it may simply be an undefined combination of words, for perhaps we simply don't use the word 'cat' that way) in order to have what we normally call knowledge of the nature of cats, e.g. to know how to care for cats and what behavior to predict of them. Plato's Socrates, it seems, would have to say that he doesn't know "what a cat is".

For otherwise how could Socrates say that he doesn't know anything "worth knowing"? Isn't it worth knowing what the specific excellence proper to man is, and therefore that "a life without reason is not worth living" (Apology 37e-38a), and isn't it worth knowing which way of life is the good (rather than an evil) way of life for man? Thus it really is perplexing -- What does Plato's Socrates mean when he says that he knows only his own ignorance (Phaedrus 235c; cf. Diog. L. ii, 32) and "nothing of much importance" (Euthydemus 293b) or "worth knowing" (Apology 21d)? Isn't knowing his own ignorance worth knowing (for as in Memorabilia iv, 6, 1: "those who don't know what they think they know are misled themselves and mislead others") -- for Plato say that that knowledge is Socrates' wisdom, the only wisdom man can have?

The trouble seems to be that if Socrates has demonstrable knowledge of anything, it is only knowledge of this world, the world of impermanence (change) -- and that type of knowledge is not what Plato seeks, because it is not knowledge of the eternal (the Absolute) and therefore not knowledge of Reality. Nevertheless, Plato does have Socrates say, "I know many things, but none of much importance" (Plato would not dispute that Socrates knows his own name), and although there is much that Socrates does not know that would be worth knowing, as we normally use the word 'knowledge', Socrates' statement that he knows nothing of much importance is surely false [Note 3].

And so the Platonic paradox, that Socrates both knows some things worth knowing but does not know anything worth knowing.

Language, nonsense, Socrates, and logic

Query: on the undefinable nature of God.

Book title: "... and other self-mystifications". Imagination can create objects, "abstract objects" -- that is, that were not there before (like Macbeth's dagger) -- they were imagined. Names and false analogies seem to allow us to grasp hold of ghosts. Thus "the indefiniteness of God" is grammar -- but if and only if "the riddle does not exist" (TLP 6.5); otherwise it is an expression of the mystery of existence -- as perceived = conceived by man (a cat is not perplexed, but neither is it complacent).

Query: what is the importance of not knowing?

What is the danger of acting in ignorance? Of being misled oneself and misleading others (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1)? Lichtenberg's "What is a man to do if sees that he does not see the whole of the plan? Work on that part that he does see" (quoted in DW p. 115) -- but that means you are not working on the plan, but following a standard that is independent of the plan, e.g. Socratic excellence which can be demonstrated independently of any particular plan, so long as that plan is rational, which there is no way to know; however, even were the plan irrational, the philosopher would not choose to live an irrational life. Greek philosophy is rational, and philosophy is Greek wisdom.

Query: philosophers as followers of Apollo.

Apollo was the god of truth, reason, method, proportion, order. Pythagoras, at the root of whose name is "Pythian", was a follower of Apollo too.

The concept 'concept' (a maid-of-all-work word)

Query: why is love such a difficult concept for Helen to learn?

Because the word 'love' is not the name of an object, but instead of an object-less phenomenon: it cannot be defined by pointing to it or touching or hearing, tasting or smelling it. My example: a mother caressing her child -- but there is no third object named 'love'. Helen Keller had to learn the meaning of "abstractions" ('love', 'think') by means of her teacher's metaphors: but is that the universal (or usual) method by which to teach someone to learn to use non-name-of-object words, i.e. by means of metaphors? ("Forms of life")

Query: explain what Plato says about Forms or concepts.

If 'concept' = 'common name of a common nature', and if 'common nature' = 'essence' or 'absolute', then 'concept' = 'Form'. That is the difference between a common nature definition and "definition by making a list of examples" (Euthyphro 5c-d).

Query: how is time defined as a concept and the philosophies behind it?

Here the word 'concept' in a different sense: maybe (a) to contrast ideas with reality, abstractions with physical objects or phenomena ("Time isn't real"), or (b) to state what the metaphysical hypotheses of the philosophers have been (how philosophers have "defined time").

There is no essence of concepts: the word 'concept' is defined in various different ways. Sometimes it is used as a synonym for 'notion' or 'idea', sometimes to mean 'common name', sometimes (as I defined 'concept') to mean 'rules for using a word'. Wittgenstein: "The word 'concept' is too vague by far" -- i.e. if we want to use that word, we must specify what we are going to mean by it.

Query: Protagoras, responded Socrates, if truth and knowledge are relative in the way Protagoras claimed then no one is wiser than anyone else.

For Plato's response see Theaetetus 151e-179b. Musings: "that no one is wiser than anyone else" -- because no one thinks -- i.e. can think -- himself to know anything he doesn't know. -- Why? because there is no criterion for distinguishing between what one knows and what one only thinks one knows but does not.

That may not be what the query is after, but it is related: If the truth of every proposition is relative to the perceptions of the perceiver, then no one knows more (i.e. "is wiser") than anyone else ... But that notion seems easily enough "reduced to absurdity"? Examples: How would -- i.e. could -- anyone [ever] be taught [or have learned] to use the words 'taller' and 'shorter'?

Why Socrates' sole concern was ethics (and the logical tools its study required)

Query: Socrates. Man as a moral being.

Precisely: man as an ethical being (for it is possible to be interested in man from various points of view) because -- apart from the logic for his methods of definition and cross-questioning (dialectic) -- the ethical aspect of man is Socrates' sole interest in philosophy.

According to Aristotle, Socrates "neglected the world of Nature ["as a whole" (tr. Ross), i.e. both the natural sciences and metaphysics], seeking the Universal in the ethical sphere and fixing thought for the first time on ethical definitions" (Metaphysics 987b, tr. Robinson). Plato has Socrates say: "Shall I tell you why? I must first know myself, as the Delphic inscription says; to be curious about the which is not my own concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous" (Phaedrus 229e-230a, tr. Jowett). Thus Socrates says in Plato's Apology: "I spend my whole life in going about and persuading you all to give your first and greatest care to the improvement of your souls [i.e. yourselves only as moral persons], and not till you have done that to think of your bodies or your wealth (Apology 30a-b, tr. Church, rev. Cumming) and of other "extraneous matters" (Phaedrus, op. cit. tr. Hackforth).

Man as a rationally moral being: ethics is reflection, not instinct or habit, nor unquestionable categorical-conscience or value. The ethical self of man, in Socrates' view, is or can be (man, having "discourse of reason" has that possibility) rational, and that is why Socrates believed that moral virtue is knowledge: that neither bad habits nor base instincts are sufficient to overpower knowledge of the good --

-- a view which Aristotle said is not in accord with common belief. But does man commonly know what the good is for man? namely, in the Greek view, life in accord with the specific excellence that is proper to man, which is reason (rationality)? Or does he not more commonly know of himself as a beast of appetites, willful and pleasure seeking, and imagining those to be the good for man (Callicles in Gorgias 491e-492c), thus mistakenly thinking himself wise when he is not?

Between man and beast

Query: wisdom according to man's view.

The wisdom of "this world and all it loves", life seen sub specie aetatis, the this-worldliness of Callicles in Plato's Gorgias (491e-492c), that "satisfying every appetite with what it craves", that "luxury and intemperance and license" is happiness (i.e. the good) for man? According to philosophy, that might be a donkey's wisdom, if a donkey were not without wisdom ("discourse of reason"). Whether philosophy can prove that man's life should instead by looked at sub specie aeterni, that care for the ethical aspect of man -- and not to care for body beyond what is needed for the soul's well-being -- is wisdom (Plato, Apology 30a-b, 36c), I don't know. But what philosophy can do is to refute false claims to wisdom. Socrates may be without wisdom, but he knows that he is, whereas other men do not know even this, but think themselves wise when they are not.

Life seen sub specie aeterni, philosophers have always thought, is the source of the riddle of our existence: we live our lives in the present ("this world"), of course, but men have never thought the meaning of our life lies there.

Between man and beast. As I think I wrote correctly, "Socrates was always aware of his state of mind, never allowing himself to drift off into unconsciousness of the eternal." That is why Socrates could say that virtue is knowledge only -- because Socrates was fully rational whereas most of us are half beast, and beasts are only conscious of the present. (To augment Xenophon (Memorabilia i, 6, 10), it was in this that Socrates was closest to the gods.)

Where 'because' does not indicate a cause

Query: I am wise only because I know that I don't know.

Note that here 'because' ≠ the cause of anything (cf. RPP i § 217) -- but rather Socrates' wisdom isn't caused by his knowing that he doesn't know: his wisdom is knowing that he doesn't know. More clearly phrased, then, Socrates would say, "I know when I don't know. And that is my only wisdom."

And where the explanation of meaning really is a common nature definition rather than a list

Query: wisdom as rationality in the Apology of Socrates.

With respect to the oracle of Apollo, the principle that "wisdom is obedience to God" is not directed against rationality. Rather, the wise man obeys because the gods (by definition) both know what is good (in contrast to man who is often mistaken about what the good is for man), and are purely rational (in contrast to man who is half-rational, half-beast) they want that only good be done. ('The wise man does what is good' is a tautology; we don't call 'wise' the man who does what is contrary to reason or who does evil because he thinks he knows what he doesn't know.)

But no proof is offered in Plato's defense of Socrates to the jury that reason (rationality) is the excellence that is proper to man. But that it is assumed to be that excellence is shown by this: that Socrates puts the god's words to the tests of experience and reason to discover their meaning (21b-c).

Do the moral virtues define the good for man, and not the good for man define the moral virtues?

Before I thought: "That the moral virtues (piety, fairness, self-control, bravery) are the good for man is a tautology: they are used as examples to explain what we mean by 'good' in the context of moral virtue -- but good (whatever that is when it's at home) is not used to define them." But that is incorrect, because from the beginning: (1) The good for man is life according to the specific excellence that is unique and proper to man. (2) What is unique and proper to man -- and indeed is defining of man because without "discourse of reason" man would be fully a beast rather than man -- is the use of reason. (3) Man must reason about what good conduct -- 'good' in the sense of 'right rather than bad or evil' conduct -- is for man. (4) Men commonly believe that brave acts are good and cowardly acts bad, but, philosophy asks, does that thesis stand up under the tests of reason and experience (to the cross-questioning of theses in Socratic discussion)? And so on for all the recognized virtues.

Above I wrote "good (whatever that is when it's at home)", but we have said what it is when it's at home: the good for a thing is the specific excellence or function that is proper to that thing. It is what that thing will aim for, if it knows what it is.

"Socrates, I think you are too ready to speak evil of men ... I would recommend you to be careful."

Socrates has asked why, if moral virtue can be taught, the wisest and most virtuous men of Athens, namely such as Themistocles, Pericles and Aristides, had not taught it to their own sons. To which Anytus responds by warning (indeed, threatening) Socrates that discussions such as these do men harm rather than good (Meno 94e-95a, tr. Jowett).

At his trial Socrates was convicted of teaching the young, by his own example, to question whether men really know the things they presume they know, thus undermining the youths' moral character by making them skeptical of authority and tradition.

Query: what was the Greek wisdom?

According to Greek tragedy, "Better that you had never been born; best now that you die soon" (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus). That might be called "empirical wisdom", the lesson of experience. But that wisdom is not the Greek philosopher's, for it presumes that death is to be preferred to this life, which is something man neither knows nor can know (Plato, Apology 29a), because man knows only this life, only this side, not the other side, not what lies beyond death, if anything. Myth tries to imaginatively explain what there appears to be no natural explanation for, whereas philosophy limits itself to the natural light of reason seeking natural explanations, going no further.

Query: who popularized philosophy?
Query: how did philosophy arise?

"Who brought philosophy down to ordinary people from the heights of the learned where it had formerly only been?" The earliest philosophers, Thales and the other pre-Socratics, were not only metaphysicians; they were also sages (men with something to say about our life, about how it should be lived). But the thoughts of sages, as Plato describes them, are not what -- since the time of Socrates -- we have meant by 'philosophy'. Nevertheless, the Greeks were in many cities a disputatious people -- in the sense of 'fond of discussion', of hearing, questioning, sorting out what is true, what false (Maybe travel, trade, climate and the topography of Greece itself encouraged this, although it did not in Laconia) -- and so many philosophical questions were already "popular" and discussed not only by the playwrights but also by their audiences and by youth in the gymnasia (where there was instruction for the intellect as well as training for the body).

Possibly Socrates is the intended target of the query, and if, as may be possible, all or rather many men can be brought to question whether they know what they think they do, it does not seem that Socrates practicing his methods in the streets of Athens had that effect, because he was found guilty of the charges at his trial, suggesting that there were more closed-minded than open-minded men in Attica.

The closed-minded are not willing to engage in philosophical discussion but cling to tradition and authority, imagining that any skepticism towards those must undermine the social order. In The Clouds Aristophanes' shows the common view of "Socrates" as an inventor of new gods to displace the old, and as a teacher of sophistry to the young, making the worse appear the better reason. (Although in The Frogs Aristotle shows the absurdity of imagining that the Athens of Aeschylus, the Athens of certainty rather than doubt, can be revived.)

Philosophy cannot really be "popularized" -- In music maybe "the populace wants the popular" (Rob. Schumann), but there is nothing corresponding to "popular music" in philosophy. An easy to follow, unchallenging line of thought would not be philosophy. And yet at the same time, asking how we should live our life, what the good is for man, is a question that belongs to every human being, not only to the learned.

"Silencing thought" (an example)

"Spiritual temptations are more insidious than carnal temptations": "pride of intellect" that presumes to "play god to God" (A. Pope), that presumes itself able to judge the ways of God (Isaiah 55.8) from man's ethical point of view. A hubris, not merely pretentious, but sinful.

"Men who are unable to face this awful truth may argue that the punishment of mortal frailty by such everlasting torture is inconsistent with the mercy of God; but we must remember that if God is Merciful he is also Just and besides it is a sin of intellectual pride on our part to attempt to assess the morality of His motives." (Marshall, George Brown's Schooldays (1946) xxxiv, p. 142, 138)

In contrast, philosophy says: dare to trust the natural light of reason and experience to discover the truth about things ... which is most, most often that we have no idea what the truth is (But that is not the point! for it might have been otherwise).


Note 1: About grammatical categories ("parts of speech") in Wittgenstein's logic of language. The word 'pain' is not a name-of-object-word but instead a psychological-word. And the word 'red' is not a name-of-object-word either, but neither is 'red' a psychological-word.

Even when speaking in the first person, the location of one's pain is pointed to, not the pain itself because there is no thing named (even as a common name) 'pain'. The grammar of the word 'red' is also not the name of no thing: there are red-colored things (pieces of paper, sunsets) but nothing named 'red' apart from red-colored things. And note that although there are painful red shoulders, there are no red pains. In a word, neither the proposition 'This is red' nor the proposition 'This is painful' can "express immediate judgments of perception" because neither pain nor red can be perceived.

These are grammatical remarks, that is, remarks about our language, not about the natures of pain or red. [BACK]

Note 2: Why wisdom, or, knowledge, belongs to that class is perplexing, because placing it there looks like a class- or category-mistake, for knowledge can, after all, be an excellence proper to man, without being a moral excellence proper to man.

As to the relation between wisdom and the others, this is remarkable: that courage, piety, justice and temperance all must be guided by wisdom because they can all be undertaken mistakenly as well as wisely (Here wisdom = knowledge of the good: Virtue is knowledge: Those who do not know what is good will, in their ignorance, aim for what is not good). If one is mistaken about what is brave in a particular case, one may do what is harmful (foolhardy, reckless) or even evil (cowardly) rather than good. And the same applies to self-control, correct conduct towards the gods, and equity -- they must all be directed by wisdom and by nothing else. (The limits of Know thyself: why Plato seeks the essence/s of moral virtue/s: in order to have a universal standard so as not to be mistaken in the particular case. To know the essence of a virtue would be to be wise, according to Plato.) [BACK]

Note 3: It may be that Plato is over-stating Socrates' ignorance for emphasis, for he does use that rhetorical method (hyperbole) in Gorgias 518e-519a, but it may be too that at the time he wrote the Socratic dialogs, Plato thought that "knowledge is one thing, always the same", whereas only later did he see a fundamental difficulty with that view (Philebus 13e-14a). [BACK]

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