Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography

Socratic Queries

Query: philosopher who is wiser than Socrates.

Many have thought themselves to be -- indeed, all have thought themselves to be -- for all have thought themselves to have "gone beyond" Socrates and his "wise ignorance".

Topics on this page ...

On this page are philosophical questions-and-answers about Socrates' method, ignorance and wisdom, and Wittgenstein's contrary views. The general background is the distinction between sense and nonsense in language, in my jargon called "logic of language".


Models that don't Describe the Facts

Query: Philosophical Investigations: proper names, numbers.

Is '2' a proper or a common name? On the model that "All words are names and the meaning of a name is the object the name stands for" (PI § 1) that question can be asked. Is there more than one 2 (in which case '2' is a common name) or is '2' the name of e.g. a Platonic "form" or "idea" and therefore(?) a proper name?

How do you know when a model of how things work is not itself working? Perhaps language does not work the way that model says its does [Maybe not all words are names, and maybe the meaning of name is not an object of any kind]. The model should be made to conform to the facts, not the facts to the model (Myson), although sometimes Plato's method was quite the opposite.

[But if there are philosophical models of how language works, then are there not theories or "theses" in philosophy (PI § 128)? We attach the word 'theory' to many different things. Even what Socrates called "an account of what you know" (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1) can be called a theory, because it is a thesis offered for agreement or refutation in dialog.]

Query: criticism of philosophy.

Is there an essence of philosophy? We can criticise this or that philosophical notion or philosopher's work, but philosophy as such? -- i.e. Is there philosophy per se?

An attack on logic (consistency, standing to reason) might be called a criticism of philosophy. But an attack on reason would either (1) be itself unreasonable (in which case it would not be what we call 'criticism'), or, (2) if it were reasonable, perhaps pointing out the limits of reason (e.g. concept-formation, points and frames of reference, percepts and concepts, things like this), then that criticism would simply be philosophy.

That is, philosophy can only be criticised -- because criticism itself must use the tools of philosophy, and therefore itself be philosophy -- from inside philosophy. There is no, as it were, philosophical point of view outside philosophy.

Again, we don't call a simple, blunt rejection of philosophy or of anything else 'criticism', much less 'refutation'. Albert Schweitzer tells the following story (as an Alsatian he was, at this time (1871-1919) in the history of Europe, a citizen of Germany).

Manuscript entrusted to Mr Ford

In September 1917, just after I had [been allowed by the French authorities to resume my work as a medical doctor] in Lambaréné, we received orders to embark at once on the next ship to Europe, to be placed in a prisoner-of-war camp.... It would have been useless to consider taking the sketches for The Philosophy of Civilization [Part I] with me. They might have been confiscated at any customs inspection.

I therefore entrusted them to the American missionary, Mr. Ford, who was then working in Lambaréné. He admitted to me that he would have preferred to throw the heavy packet into the river, because he considered philosophy to be unnecessary and harmful. However, out of Christian charity he was willing to keep it and send it to me at the end of the war. (Out of my Life and Thought, tr. A.B. Lemke (1990), Chapter 14, p. 162-163)

Mr. Ford's attitude was neither reasonable nor unreasonable: he offered no criticism of philosophy. His religious beliefs guided his life, and that was that. (A philosopher who attacks philosophy is himself philosophizing -- i.e. using the very tool he says is unusable. Wittgenstein is an example of this.)

"Most men would steal if they had the chance and feel none the less honest if they weren't found out." (Marshall, This Sorry Scheme (1925), xi)

But there all many kinds of scoundrelly deeds and much wrong-doing to "feel none the less" about besides theft. Ah, Mr. Ford, you're a better man than I am, a man in whom there is truly a unity of thought and deed.


Background. What in my jargon is called "logic of language" is based on Wittgenstein's redefinition of the word 'grammar' (conceptual revision), which he called (in an explanation he gave to G.E. Moore) his own "jargon".

Wittgenstein's redefinition was, however, a natural extension of the concept 'grammar' -- i.e. of our normal rules for using that word (the rules we learned at primary school) -- but done for the sake of philosophy: problems in philosophy direct logic of language investigations (PI § 109), rather than for the purpose of language-teaching (or the Philosophy of Language or Linguistics).

I wouldn't like to use jargon except where it's necessary to avoid misunderstandings, and I think the only jargon I do use is the words 'grammar' and 'language-game' .... And possibly [no, actually!] the way I define the word 'concept' to mean 'rules for using a word'. And there are a few words I use only in a restricted sense, e.g. 'nonsense' (to mean 'undefined language' only, not 'foolishness').

Of course, how quotation marks are used in philosophy might also be called an instance of jargon.

Socratic Queries (Winter Reflections on Fall Logs)

... if you will take my advice, you will think very little of Socrates, and much more of the truth. (Plato, Phaedo 91b)

Neither Socrates nor any other philosopher is an authority, much less a master, for neither exists in philosophy. But, as we find him in Xenophon, Socrates is a companion who tries to make his companions better both by his words and by his deeds. To recall the method but discard the one who taught you is a bit ungrateful, as it would be to use Wittgenstein's ideas without remembering him. There is, however, as Plato warns, always the danger of trying to lean on a authority in philosophy (nonetheless Plato puts Platonic ideas in Socrates' mouth) rather than on the tests of reason and experience alone. "Himself said it" is not a reason in philosophy.

Wittgenstein, although a deeply religious man, was [like C.D. Broad] an accidental philosopher. He did not know, as I did, from his earliest years that he wanted to think about philosophy. And indeed, after his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he did not think about philosophy in all its parts. Instead, for Wittgenstein "philosophy" became logic -- and nothing more. He, obviously, took logic very seriously, but like Etienne Gilson, he "never mistook philosophy for religion". "If a man's religion is at stake, then his whole life is at stake," Gilson said -- and that is exactly what Wittgenstein could have said. And exactly what a philosopher would never say, because a philosopher would never mistake religion for philosophy by consigning both ethics and metaphysics to the former. This limitation must always be remembered.

Query: Wittgenstein: language, syntax, semantics, Philosophical Investigations.

Rather than "form" in the remark ("If I had to say what is the main mistake made by philosophers of the present generation ..."), you could write "syntax": that when language is looked at, what is looked at is the syntax [form] of the language rather than the semantics [use] of the language. (cf. LC p. 2) Note.--The word 'noun' is not defined by syntax but by meaning. Wittgenstein's concept 'grammar' concerns meaning (semantics) not form (syntax).

Query: 'round circle' incorrect grammar?

If 'grammar' = 'syntax', then No, 'round circle' = adjective + noun is not incorrect grammar. Cf. 'square circle', 'spherical circle', 'incongruous circle' ... But we don't always use the word 'circle' to mean a geometric figure, e.g. "the Vienna Circle", so it is difficult, maybe impossible, to find adjectives that are either without meaning or which add no meaning. In Wittgenstein's sense of the word 'grammar', which includes meaning, then Yes, because it is a pleonasm ... although not in every case I can imagine, but only if we are talking about geometric figures, where 'round circle' would be akin to a tautology, although it is not a proposition. (On the other hand, Why is a circle round, for must a circle be round?)

Query: why do people say 'round circle'?

Meaning is determined by context (Why?) But on the other hand, this is not too strong a statement, that we very often speak without thinking about the form of expression we are using (Unless just that fact has struck us); we often simply repeat the forms of expression we commonly hear other people use (e.g. few people would say 'inner city' rather than 'slum' otherwise). We tend to use the forms of language that the people we live with use, especially if we have lived with those people all our lives. And thus if we live among people who use the form of expression 'round circle', we may use it too. "If you live with a lame man you will walk with a limp" (Plutarch). Cf. the expression 'moral and ethical'.

The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either. (The Devil's Dictionary

And so Ambrose Bierce is teasing us (although it is possible to be interested in a phenomenon or purported phenomenon in a variety of ways (PI § 108), there are not two phenomena here, only two names for the same phenomenon or purported phenomenon). The difference in meaning between 'freedom' and 'liberty' -- there is no difference. As between 'morals' and 'ethics' (The first word is Latin in origin, the second Greek; that is the only difference). This is different from the example of the distinction between the Morning Star and the Evening Star when it was unknown that both were the planet Venus.

Thoughtlessness, ignorance? -- Look at the particular case and see (Wittgenstein). Everyone says 'We are going round in circles' -- why? do we also say 'We are going round in squares'? (In some places in Britain articles are commonly dropped: e.g. "Where is he now?" -- "He's going round circle".)

Query: what new definition of meaning did Wittgenstein give?

In the context of Bertrand Russell's use of the word 'grammar', the word 'use' occurs. It is not an extraordinary idea that in many cases the meaning of a word is its use in the language (Think of the word 'the', for example). It is, however, mistaken to infer too much from [to see too much in] the word 'use' in the following passage from Russell:

That a word "must have some meaning" -- the word, of course, being not gibberish, but one which has an intelligible use -- is not always true if taken as applying to the word in isolation. What is true is that the word contributes to the meaning of the sentence in which it occurs; but that is a very different matter. ("Introduction to the Second Edition" of The Principles of Mathematics [ca. 1930s], p. x)

That form of expression, 'intelligible use', was already there (and long before Russell, of course). What was new, however, was Wittgenstein's rejection of the identification of verbal with nominal definition; he rejected the use of 'meaning' in nominalism's sense of 'the meaning of a name is the object the name stands for'. That was not a new definition of 'meaning', however, namely: the 'meaning' is 'the use in the language'. It was a change of focus, but only a selection from among our many meanings of 'meaning'.

Wittgenstein discussed the topic of meaning and use at the "Moral Science Club" meetings of 16 and 23 February 1939 [Wittgenstein in Cambridge (2008), Documents 245 and 246, p. 294-297], although without, so far as I can see based on the minutes of the meetings, making anything clearer.

Query: definition of language as a system of naming by Plato.

That was the notion Wittgenstein rejected. (The query may be about Plato's Cratylus and the Origins of Names.)

Defining self-control ('self-control')

Query: answer the question in a Socratic method: what does discipline mean to me?

Give an account [i.e. explain] to others of what you know, or think you know, about the phenomenon of discipline = self-control = (sometimes) temperance: "The defining common nature of self-control is ..." And then subject your account to cross-questioning (as in Socratic dialectic) to see if your account is refuted by any contradictions hidden in it. This will show that you do not know what you thought you knew; or, contrary-wise, that you do. (Plato's own try at "defining self-control".)

The question for the Socratic discussion with oneself: Is there a Socratic definition -- i.e. essence -- of 'discipline'? Because if we ask for a definition of 'discipline', then how is that word to be defined except by pointing to examples of acts, ways of life (and yet those particular pointed-to acts are not the meaning of the word 'discipline', for that word is not a proper name); the common name 'discipline' is used differently in our language than a common name that names a common nature.

Our remarks take their light from [are guided/directed by] the particular philosophical problem (PI § 109), not from a lexicographer's point of view -- i.e. in philosophical investigations an explanation of meaning is not given for its own sake (as if to ask "What is the definition of the word?") and so the question of where the limits of the definition of a word such as 'self-control' are, i.e. which actions are essentially defining of it, does not arise (and no criterion are set for answering that question by Wittgenstein's concept 'grammar'). The limits only need to be clear in the particular philosophical problem at hand: a word's meaning is the use in the particular case (This again is Wittgenstein's chosen/selected meaning of the word 'meaning').

Our normal use of explanations of meaning (ibid. § 560): they are not given to satisfy the lexicographer/dictionary-compiler's need but only so that "Now I see how to go on" (ibid. §§ 151, 154, 123).

If the meaning of a word is whatever that word suggests to me ("means to me"), then a word "may have all sorts of meanings, and I don't wish to say anything about them" (cf. BB p. 65). The Socratic method cannot make use of that meaning of 'meaning', because Socrates' method requires, as I myself am looking for, an objective distinction between sense and nonsense (between 'meaning' and 'meaningless', between 'language with meaning' and 'mere sound without sense').

If the meaning of language amounts to no more than "what[ever] I am inclined to say" (PI § 258), then, like Cratylus (although for Protagoras' reason, that the individual is [i.e. would be] "the measure of all things"), there would be no reasonable reason to speak -- because communication would be impossible, mere subjective rumbling and roaring. We cannot cross-question shifting sand. (And this is why Wittgenstein's "logic of language" is important to philosophy.)

Query: definition of wisdom using Socratic method.

Then (1) we begin with a question ("What is wisdom?") and our answer will be a thesis (proposition, i.e. statement of what wisdom is) to cross-question in discussion, to agree to or refute the truth of, once its meaning is made clear to us. Or (2) we begin with a thesis: "Wisdom is such-and-such", as stated by someone who claims to know what wisdom is. (Socrates' method of philosophical enquiry.)

Query: do all philosophies begin with a metaphysical statement?

I tried to show that Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations does not. Descartes' work does not begin that way: he begins by asking if he there is anything he cannot doubt. Socrates begins by asking: how can it be that I am "the wisest of men" (or, that "no man is wiser" than I am), as Apollo's oracle has said, when it seems clear to me that I am not wise?

Query: Wittgenstein: to know something is to know how to explain it.

No, that was the definition of 'know' Socrates selected, not Wittgenstein: because, if we simply describe how we use the word 'know' then one can know many, many, many things without being able [or readily able] to "explain" them. (Just try e.g. to give an account of how to balance a bicycle or how an orange smells. But don't you know, then? "Every explanation I can give myself, I can give you too. And when I do this, I do not tell you less than I know myself" -- and therefore if I cannot give myself and you an explanation, then don't I know what I'm talking about if I say that I know how an orange smells? No, not according to the rules of this game -- that is, the "language-game" with the combination of words 'knowing how an orange smells'.)

Query: how did Socrates prove others know nothing?

Nothing "worth knowing", i.e. nothing most important for man to know. How? Socrates asked others for an explanation of what they knew: Socrates' criterion: if anyone knows anything he can explain what he knows to others. And if he cannot explain it, then he does not know what he claims to know.

Query: man assumes that he knows himself.

But the persons, whether youth or reputedly wise men, Socrates questioned did not know what they assumed they knew, namely themselves: "... I felt sure that I knew that already; for I could hardly know anything else if I did not even know myself," Euthydemus answers when questioned by Socrates in Xenophon: Euthydemus did not obey the Delphic precept because he assumed he had no need to, that he already knew himself both as man [i.e. according to the shared qualities of the human species] and as an individual man [i.e. his own limits]. Socrates thinks to replace that conceited ignorance [i.e. confidence that one knows what one does not] with philosophical perplexity [doubt, self-questioning] (Meno 84c).

Query: Tractatus Logico Philosophicus Übersicht.

A perspicuous view [of the various uses of the words] of our language is really what a dictionary should give us, but ours does just the opposite by making it look as if the tools of our language were all used the same way: "words are names and the meaning of a name is the object, idea or phenomenon the name stands for".

Query: giving examples when you do not know a definition.

According to Aristotle this would be "induction" (the discovery of Socrates): when you have gathered "enough" or "sufficient" examples, then what all those examples have in common will be the definition: "definition by induction". Does it very often happen this way, however? Do most words have general definitions? If there is no general [essential, common-nature] definition, then giving examples is not a substitute for "when you do not know a definition" -- it is, instead, the only way -- and the correct way -- to give a definition. That definition is not defective; our language, our life, just is that way. [Examples have many roles ways in logic.]

Query: definition by essence of the thing being defined.

"Define a word by stating the essence of the thing the word names." But that is not how it works, because even if by the word 'name of a thing' we mean only 'name of a perceptible object' such as water (as opposed to 'name of an abstract object'), things in themselves do not have essences. "Essence belongs to grammar" (PI § 371) -- What does it mean? That if there is an essence of anything, that is only because of the definition we have chosen to make for that thing: we have selected some facts, and that means that we have also deselected other facts. All definition involves an element of discretion: "there is always an element of choice" (M. O'C. Drury). For example, What is the essence of water? Any particular concept is one way of dividing up reality -- one way, not the only way.

Concepts are made by and for us partly in response to perceived reality, as seems clear in the case of names of objects that the human body and mind are able to perceive and conceive. But only by design are words given essential definitions, and most of our language was not invented by design but grew up as part of our natural history. For example, What is the essence of games? Only if things in themselves (as opposed to the way human beings conceive them) had essences could there be induced essential definitions such as Plato's Socrates seeks. And Plato knew that, but he chose to replace the reality which stood before him with a metaphysical theory of his own creation.

Why we talk about language (Philosophy and language)

Query: the rules governing the meaning of words are called?

Well, I don't know: are there "rules" of sense and nonsense? But I think the query seeks the word: 'grammar'.

Query: understand a word without knowing its meaning.

Maybe it is only after getting into muddle after muddle after muddle that anyone can understand "why we are talking about these things". It may be difficult to understand someone who is philosophically troubled or perplexed if you are not troubled or perplexed yourself.

But by 'not know the meaning' we sometimes mean 'not able to put the meaning into words [or, in quite the right words]', or as in the next query, 'not be able to give a general [or, essential, or common nature] definition'.

Query: "family resemblances" and how it relates to the Socratic search for truth.

Query: why does philosophy not have a general definition?
Query: why philosophy cannot but be undefined.
Query: discuss that philosophy could be said to be meaningless.

If 'to have a meaning' means 'to have a general definition', then many or most words are "meaningless", and, very well, then the word 'philosophy' is "meaningless". But that is only one meaning of the word 'meaning', and it is not a terribly helpful one if it results in most common words being classified as meaningless. Contrast that with: Ask for the use -- i.e. a description of how we actually use the word 'philosophy' as a tool of our language -- which is a more helpful definition of 'meaning' in philosophy.

But the first two queries are not philosophically stated, because the conclusion comes at the end not at the beginning of an investigation. For example, why not define 'philosophy' as 'love of wisdom'; is that not a general definition? Yes, it is -- but it is also rather too general to be useful to us. Does everything we call 'philosophy' have a common nature, a defining one-thing-in-common? And if it does not -- why is that? Words are tools; what work do we do with the word 'philosophy'? That work has been ill-defined since the earliest history of the word 'philosophy'.

Query: philosophy is meaningless because it is defined in various ways.

By 'meaningless' does the query mean that "There is no real definition of philosophy"? Does essential (or, defining common nature or quality) definition = real definition? Only in metaphysics (cf. "the essence of the world"); elsewhere, only words -- and only some of those -- have essential definitions, and only phenomena -- and only some of those -- have real definitions (hypotheses e.g. about their cause).

Query: when not to say 'I know'.

When you don't know? But the word 'know' is used in many, many ways.


Socrates' wisdom. Descartes' doubt.

Query: answer to this philosophical question which says how do you know you know

Descartes' criterion "clear and distinct ideas" is not a criterion for knowing/not-knowing if knowing is a public event, which it must be for Socrates' method of cross-questioning (dialectic). What can only seem right to Descartes can also only seem wrong to Descartes (PI § 258): seeming isn't knowing; in contrasts with knowing. (Grammatical remarks.)

Query: ignorance is when you think you know something you do not.

Maybe we should call that "un-socratic ignorance". Plato called it "conceited ignorance", and I called it "presumptuous ignorance".

Query: compare and contrast ignorance (the absence of knowledge) and philosophy (the love of wisdom).

This is important: 'ignorance' defined as 'absence of knowledge' versus 'ignorance' defined as 'thinking you know what you don't know'. Plato's "philosophy begins in wonder" = begins in ignorance, in the first sense of the word 'ignorance'. ["It is ignorance that make philosophy possible?" Philosophy begins and ends in ignorance: it begins in conceited ignorance and ends in learned ignorance, except in the case of Socrates the wisest who never thought he knew what he did not know.]

Query: The greatest ignorance is to reject something you know nothing about. What does it mean?

It may mean being "closed-minded", i.e. unwilling to take an interest in or to look at things from another point of view. However, there is not time enough to examine every idea or ideology under the sun, and so it seems we need a principle or principles of selection ... which are? How do I decide? At first blush I would say by asking: Based on my world-picture, is the idea plausible, reasonable, unprejudiced (There are exceptions, e.g. sometimes we read to inform ourselves about points of view we would never ourselves adopt)? That seems to be the danger of what the "coherence theory of truth" describes, that it seems to make us closed-minded.

How do you decide which news stories to read, which speakers to listen to, which subjects to study at school? If there is a general principle, it seems that induction would have to be tried to find it. "Look to particular examples" would be the only answer, then.

Response to my remarks: "Telling me that you don't know doesn't help me." But asking you for a general principle or principles of selection is the only response: you have to think this through for yourself.

Query: compare Descartes' and Socrates' method of truth.

Their methods of seeking the truth in jargon terms: (1) For Descartes: Rational -- not 'rational', for that word simply means 'ruled by reason', but 'Rationalism' which means 'guided by reason alone' -- i.e. not reason also subjected to the test of experience (just as axiomatic geometry is guided by reason alone, which was also Plato's method for reasoning in philosophy) --. (2) For Socrates (in Xenophon): rational and "empirical" -- i.e. based both on reason (rational) and on experience (empirical) of life. [Socrates' dialectic versus Descartes' introspection, contrasting methods.]

Query: is it possible to doubt all things?
Query: is it possible to doubt everything; Descartes?

Because I had earlier seen only the first query, I had thought that this query was about the ancient Greek skeptics. But it seems that it was about Descartes. And yes, that was Descartes' project in philosophy: can I find something, anything, that I cannot doubt, and which therefore I can use as the foundation stone of all my knowledge?

Query: is Socrates' wisdom worth having?

The distinction between what you know and what you only think [fancy, complacently -- i.e. fatuously -- imagine] you know is the beginning of all wisdom. And it cannot be otherwise: we do not call someone who thinks he knows what he does not know 'wise'. But Socrates' wisdom goes far beyond logic-philosophy; his wisdom culminates in complete dedication to the good -- in "always choosing the better rather than the easier way". Socratic wisdom is not merely Socratic ignorance (as essential as the latter is). [There is nothing more worth having than "Socrates' wisdom".]

Query: what does Socrates mean by wisdom?

That question is the place to begin, by not assuming that the meaning of the word 'wise' in "no one wiser that Socrates" is obvious, because it certainly isn't that.

Is there a general definition of the English word 'wise'? ... But more, that word suggests nothing definite to me, not even an "impressionistic definition" (or what would it be -- an white-bearded old man sitting on a mountain top). I'd like to say: its meaning is indefinite, vague, cloudy -- That the word 'wisdom' has no clear meaning (You cannot say: It has no meaning whatever; it is not like a random combination of letters, e.g. 'qxumr'). Or, if it has a general definition, then that definition is so general that it is unhelpful.


Wisdom and sophia - Greek and English words

Query: so I asked myself whether it was better to remain as I was without either their wisdom or their ignorance.

And Socrates thought it better to remain as he was: without the "wisdom" of the artisans (which he would not have called "worthless") -- but also: without their ignorance. Because it is more important for "Know thyself" not to be ignorant -- i.e. not to think you know what you do not know (Because "no one seeks to know what he believes he already knows" (Meno 84c; cf. Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1: "Those who do not know are misled themselves and mislead others") -- than to have the "wisdom" that the artisans had.

Here it is clear that 'wisdom' = 'knowledge' -- but in the case of the artisans: 'knowledge of how to do skilled manual work', rather than 'knowledge of how to live our life' -- e.g. of "what piety is", for if we know that, then we know how we must live in order to be in a correct relationship to what is holy; otherwise we can only guess, which is not knowledge. For is not 'knowledge of how to live our life' what 'wisdom' means in "... that with respect to wisdom he is truly worthless" (Plato, Apology 23b)? So we find that the Greek word translated by the English 'wisdom' includes more types of knowledge than the English word 'wisdom' does, because we do not call the knowledge of carpentry or of stone-work or of any other type of craft 'wisdom'. Compare the Greek words translated by the English words 'goodness' and 'beauty'.

[The word 'wisdom' in Plato, according to Diogenes Laertius (iii, 63).]

Query: what is Socrates definition of wisdom based on his examinations of others?

The query expresses two misunderstandings.

First, Socrates does not "define wisdom" in Plato's Apology; he only says what his examination of himself and others has led him to believe the oracle's words "no man is wiser than Socrates" mean -- namely, not that Socrates is wise but that no man is wise: Socrates is everyman. This e.g. is not Socrates' "definition of wisdom": "Wisdom is knowing that you don't know something"; although that is part of what a wise man knows, it is hardly all that he knows; it is part of the answer to how man should live his life, but far from all. (Note, however, that Xenophon's Socrates does know how man should live, and therefore is wise, as Xenophon records the oracle's words in a different way from the way Plato does. Xenophon's Socrates does "know himself", in contrast to Plato's Socrates in Phaedrus [230a] who is still seeking that knowledge.)

Second, the query asks for a real definition as in: "Men say many things, claiming that different things are wisdom, but what is wisdom really?" General question: But is that the logic of our language, for is it not the case that: before we can say what wisdom is, we must define the word 'wisdom', for otherwise we do not know what we are talking about. (And it is not from mere stubbornness that I refuse to call anything other than the definition of a word a 'definition', as in my precept: "In philosophy we define words, not things". Because if you use the form of expression 'Socrates' definition of wisdom', you are glossing over a fundamental distinction made in "logic of language" investigations -- namely, the distinction between a conceptual and a real investigation: failing to make that distinction is a principal source of philosophical confusion.)

One the other hand, as to defining the particular word 'wisdom', cf. my remarks about the word 'excellence': it is not nonsense to say that this rather than that is wisdom. What is nonsense is to ask: "What is the true meaning of the word 'wisdom'?" (But is there a general definition of the word 'wisdom'? For example, this query is nonsense: "What does knowing truly mean?" because there are many meanings of the word 'know', not just one -- i.e. there is no one defining characteristic of knowledge. Is the case different with the word 'wisdom'? -- But if there is no general definition of 'wisdom', then in what way is it different from the case of 'knowledge'? That's a nice question.)

Query: wrong interpretation of the oracle.

This is a very important question to ask: what if Socrates was wrong -- (then) what else might the god have meant? (Xenophon, as noted above, does give a different meaning, a very different meaning, to the oracle's words from the one Plato gives.)

Query: oracle sent to find out who is the wisest.

Yes, I think you could say that Apollo's oracle -- i.e. that Apollo -- sent Socrates forth with that aim. Go forth, man, and know thyself. (Cf. the serpent in the Garden.)

"Trees and open country" (Plato)

Query: why does Socrates say "trees and open country won't teach me anything, whereas men in the town do"?
Query: is Socrates a physicist?

Precisely because he is not concerned with "physics" (i.e. the natural sciences and maths) but with how we should live our life (ethics). That is the meaning of Phaedrus 230a: what is amoral cannot teach us morality; what is amoral knows nothing of ethics, because ethics is not merely holding values, but instead "discourse of reason" applied to evaluating values. Ethics is rational, but trees and e.g. donkeys are not.

Trees can't be engaged in dialectic (discourses of reason). How shall they teach, then? Not by using "the Socratic method".

Query: Socrates and "What can trees teach us?"

If it be said that by observing the changes of the seasons, the grazing and pasturing of beasts, sowing and reaping, and so on, trees and fields can teach man things, then, of course, that thesis must be examined in dialectic -- and dialectic is conducted with human beings, not with trees and fields. That is why trees and fields "won't teach me anything" (Phaedrus 230d), although they may suggest theses to be examined (i.e. cross-questioned, to be agreed to or refuted). Maybe analogies can be drawn (i.e. similes thought-up, comparisons invented) between phenomena of nature and the excellence that is proper to man -- but apart from natural phenomena suggesting theses (or cross-questions) for dialectic, man must look to himself in order to "Know thyself".

Or so I would suggest, but if someone does not agree with my account, then we should enter into dialectic on the topic -- i.e. cross-question that thesis. (Although, as always in philosophy: one must begin by trying to think this topic through for oneself -- i.e. hold discourse/dialectic with oneself (Plato, Apology 38a). The only difficulty here is not to stop thinking before we have thought all the way through to the end, because the conclusion of an argument only comes at its end, its very end.)

Query: circumstances that led to Socrates' statement that "the unexamined life is not worth living for man".

If, as Socrates' questioning of him shows, man does not know what he presumes himself to know [Circumstances, namely (2) man's absence of wisdom, as discovered by (1) Socrates seeking to understand of words of Apollo's oracle at Delphi], then, if it is important for man to know some things, then man should seek to know/discover those things, and not seeking to know those things translators have called "the unexamined life".

Query: Socrates, ignorance and knowledge.

That form of expression points out that wisdom is a branch of knowledge (if anyone is wise, that is, of course). A wise man is a knowledgeable man, but 'wise' and 'knowledgeable' are not equivalent, but rather wisdom is a sub-branch of knowledge, specifically 'wisdom' = 'knowledge in ethics [of how we should live]'.

Query: Socratic wisdom is knowledge of your own ignorance.

Yes, you might say that. But you have to give thought to what 'knowledge of your own ignorance' means in the particular case of Socrates. What is Socrates calling 'to know [anything]'?

Query: what does this mean, I am wiser than this man?

Plato, Apology 21a-d. On the other hand, in this case 'wiser' does not = 'more knowledgeable', but instead: 'of sounder judgment'.

... and this ignorance, which thinks it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable. This, I take it ... is the degree, and this the nature of my advantage over the rest of mankind, and if I were to claim to be wiser than my neighbor in any respect, it would be in this -- that not possessing any real knowledge of what comes after death, I am also conscious that I do not possess it. (ibid. 29a-b, tr. Tredennick)

To think you know what you do not know is the greatest of sins against philosophy, and yourself.

Did Socrates say we should question what is accepted as common sense?

What is or is not sound judgment, we don't know until we look [examine] and see [whether we refute a given propositional-thesis or fail to refute it] (Plato, Apology 37e-38a).

If by 'common sense' we mean what a particular "community of ideas" (namely our own) regards as sound judgment, then the query is correct: Socrates said that the examined life (which is the life of the philosopher) is the life that questions "what everyone [in the community of ideas thinks he] knows", e.g. that the earth is round or flat. Or, in other words, we should question whatever our community of ideas takes "judicial notice" of; for instance, a court of law does not take evidence-testimony to establish that the earth is not flat and therefore that a disappeared ship did not sail over the edge of the world and into oblivion; no one in our community of ideas is required to prove that not to be a possibility. Cf. witchcraft; practicing witchcraft in some communities of ideas (e.g. Saudi Arabia) is a crime, whereas in others there is no such thing as witchcraft (The view that there is, is regarded as superstition). Cf. the proposition "There are fairies in the forest".

Query: wisdom, philosophy.

The word 'philosophy' is in origin Greek and unique to that language, but the word 'wisdom' is not; thus what did the word 'sophia' mean to the Greeks? What might be meant by the combination of words 'wisdom philosophy'? Is it a pleonasm? Or might it be used to mean Life-philosophy in contrast to Nature-philosophy, the two-part (cf. the Stoics' three parts of philosophy) division [classification scheme] used by Albert Schweitzer (whose writings are never about Logic per se, and given that Logic is the tool of reason used in all subject-matters which demand critical thinking, a justification might be given for not classifying Logic as a branch or division of Philosophy).

Query: the branch of philosophy that studies critical thinking.

Critical thinking or "the art of reasoning", the study of which is often or historically called 'logic'.

Query: do I agree with Socrates that he possesses a unique wisdom in knowing that he does not know?

Many queries come from students asking me what they themselves think. Why not think about it for yourself -- is it fear that what you yourself think may not win you a good mark from your professor? Very well, then, this is how I (who never won good marks in philosophy) would answer your professor: That the very foundation of philosophy is to distinguish, as Socrates did, between what you know and what you do not know -- and not to suppose that you know what you don't know. We who are Socrates' heirs should share this wisdom of his ... but my own experience of discovering myself time and again presuming that I know what I do not know, shows me that I do not share this wisdom. Socrates did not think he knew what he did not know. And in this he may have been unique (Apollo's oracle at Delphi said that he was).

Query: Socrates does not think that he is the only person with this wisdom.

Why would he. But how many others with this wisdom would there be? I am not among those who never think they know what they do not know. And you?

Query: "know thyself" meaning.

Think for yourself: imagine that you have made the pilgrimage to Delphi for the first time and for the first time you see the words 'Know thyself!' written on Apollo's temple there. -- The combination of words/signs is an aphorism; now, what do they suggest to you as a possible meaning -- i.e. use to put them to? Dare to think for yourself! "What does it mean to 'know thyself'?" Those words have no meaning in themselves. (On my account, the meaning Socrates gave to those words: "Know thyself!".)

Query: bare facts of the life of Socrates.

We don't really know much about him: he was an Athenian, tried and executed by the state in 399 B.C. [There is a record of the charges against him: misinstructing youth and holding false beliefs about the gods]; he had a friend named Chaerephon (This is found in Aristophanes as commonplace knowledge); the rest belongs to literature (Plato, Xenophon) and legend (Diogenes Laertius, Plutarch), although I do believe that a distinction between the historical and literary Socrates in Plato can be made. I have made my own picture of him, which I have selected from the ancient writings, but I could not claim that picture is the historical Socrates, nor that the historical Socrates, if he were known, would be more important to me than my picture of him. [In answering who Socrates was, we make for ourselves a picture from the facts, but not (as a photograph does) of them.]

Query: Delphic oracle, Socrates, Apology: no one was wiser than he.
Query: Socrates says that he is not wise, yet the Delphic oracle says that no one is wiser than Socrates.

Did Apollo's oracle say that Socrates was wise, or only that no one else was wiser than Socrates? I think the second, and that Socrates took this to mean that knowing that you are not wise is as wise as a human being can be [is capable of being]. Of course you still owe us a definition of 'wise'.

Query: why does Socrates claim to know nothing?

N.B. in Plato's Apology he claims: to know nothing worth knowing -- i.e. not to possess wisdom.

Query: what wisdom does Socrates claim to have?

Is recognizing that you are without wisdom a "claim to having wisdom"? Would that not be a strange thing to say. And yet we might say that, so fluid is our concept 'wisdom'.

Query: did Socrates talk to goats?

No, according to Plato's Phaedrus 230d, for a goat cannot not teach Socrates (for the excellence proper to goats is not the excellence proper to man, and also: goats are amoral, whereas that is not a possibility for man) how man should live his life, unless we want to characterize the "men in the city" of Athens who thought they knew what they did not know as goats. (That query came from university's server; I wonder why the querier imagined such a strange thing. Socrates was not like Francis of Assisi, who spoke to all life (and to all of everything else as well). Nor did Socrates, like his later follower Diogenes the Cynic, seek to imitate animals in the simplicity of their way of life; nor did Socrates study animals, as a fabulist, in order to take example from their noble qualities and also in order not to repeat their follies.)

Who would be equivalent to the poets of Plato's Apology (22a-c) -- for Socrates questioned politicians, artisans, and poets -- in the experience of most of mankind (which knows little of poetry and the fine arts)? Would it be those who have claimed to have had religious revelations inspired in them by God or a god?

Query: ignorance is wisdom.

Only in Orwell's Ministry of Truth, only in 1984.


Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 29 June 2016 : 2016-06-29

The URL of this Web page:
https://www.roangelo.net/logwitt/socratic-queries.html

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Site Search | Bibliography | Site Map