Defining and categorizing has always seemed to be at once the simplest and most difficult thing imaginable. I especially enjoy Socrates discuss the topic in his dialogs. It’s interesting to see some (what seem to me to be) silly options tossed out to describe the way to think of a definition, and know that even today we struggle with the same issue, just later on in history.
I’d like to step through the points discussed by Socrates and his fellow debater, and hopefully clearly state some of Socrates’ thoughts on what makes (or doesn’t make) a definition.
Socrates discusses the definition outright in the Meno. The discussion begins when Meno brings the problem of virtue to the table. The question: can virtue be taught? Socrates wants clarification on what a virtue entails. Meno suggests that since what is virtuous for a man is different than what is virtuous for a woman, it must be the case that virtue is different for each individual. What’s virtue for a man isn’t what virtue is for a woman, or a child, and so on and so forth.
This concept actually starts further back than Meno, back in the mind of Protagoras. Protagoras is famed for his statement that “man is the measure of all things”, possibly claiming for himself the title of the first relativist. During a time when philosophers were attempting to discover what it meant for the world to exist, how exactly to dice it up and understand it, and beyond that how to quantify the world that was there, everyone had a different set of answers. And honestly, when set against the backdrop of “everything is water” and those crazy atomists (seriously, what were they thinking?) Protagoras”s idea doesn”t sound so bad.
Socrates disagrees with Meno and, in turn, Protagoras, particularly because this form of relativism doesn’t allow for the forms to cascade down and affect all things. Due to Socrates” understanding of reality through the forms, he wants to say that a definition is something much more concrete, actually absolute, which can be applied to any situation and any circumstance. In some way, he means to say, everyone”s virtue is related in some way, whether apparent or not, and can thus be traced back to the forms.
In a related discussion Socrates and Euthyphro are discussing piety when it once again becomes advantageous to define exactly what piety is. Euthyphro, much like Meno, suggests a way of defining piety which doesn’t satisfy Socrates. Euthyphro tries using an example to define piety, but being that this doesn’t actually describe piety in a categorical and universally ascribable way, Socrates is not satisfied. He instead would have a definition which covers all instances of piety, in all examples and stories.
Socrates wants to define a definition as something which can apply to all instances of the defined thing, in such a way that it descends from the forms and thus contributes to real knowledge. Any alternative, according to Socrates, is not real knowledge.
And I still have not decided whether or not I agree with him.
Try reading a little Foucault ;-).
He’s got some fine things to say about definitions and labels.
I’ll have to do that. Thanks Scott.