Friday, October 09, 2015



D. R. Khashaba

13. Aristotle famously said that two things may be attributed to Socrates, universal definitions and inductive reasoning. I doubt that Aristotle had any ground for this attribution other than his misreading of the Platonic dialogues. Socrates did not invent or discover inductive reasoning which, it seems, is an inbuilt propensity in the human mind. Socrates often employs inductive reasoning, but it was not distinctive of his practice and he did not theorize it. However that may be, the assumption that Socrates is to be credited with the introduction of inductive reasoning is not of much consequence, unlike the assumption concerning definitions. This latter assumption introduced into the history of philosophy an error of interpretation which, supported by the formidable authority of Aristotle, has come to be accepted as unquestionable, and has seriously perverted the mainstream interpretation of Socrates’ position and of the Platonic dialogue. Any unprejudiced reading of the early dialogues (sometimes called the ‘definition dialogues’) will show that the proceeding of Socrates in these dialogues cannot be the proceeding of any sane person seeking a definition. It is true that these dialogues regularly start with a ‘what is x?’ question and it is true that ‘Socrates’ frequently helps his interlocutor with a sample definition, but then the discussion proceeds, not towards finding a definition, but towards elucidating meanings, clearing obscurities, disentangling entangled notions. Sometimes in the course of the examination a reasonable workable definition is proposed that could be accepted as good in specific contexts, but Socrates invariably finds the proposed definition inadequate. Why? Because Socrates is intentionally leading to the perplexity (aporia) pregnant with two profound Socratic insights: (1) The meaning (reality) of a creative idea can never be defined or explicated in terms extraneous to the idea. This is one signification of the principle of philosophical ignorance: we can never have theoretical knowledge of the inner essence of things. (2) An idea can only be understood in the immediacy of its self-evidence in the mind.

This may be a good place for me to explain my customary proceeding in these notes occasioned by my reading the contributions to A Companion to Plato (ed. Benson, 2006). Usually upon first looking at the title of a paper, I immediately explain in a note my position on the theme dealt with. Then while reading the paper I may or may not (more often not) have something to say. Thus I wrote the above note upon looking at the title of R. M. Dancy’s “Platonic Definitions and Forms”.

14. The ‘Theory of Forms’ is another fiction we owe to Aristotle. I have dealt with this often and extensively and have no desire to revert to it. If the reader is interested, he may refer to Chapter One of Plato: An Interpretation (an extensive preview is available in Google Books).

15. I just can’t let this go by. Dancy finds that ‘equal’ being treated in the Phaedo “as in some way parallel to ‘beautiful,’ … is peculiar because with ‘that’s equal’ we expect a complement unpacking ‘equal to what’ whereas we expect no such complement with ‘that’s beautiful’” (p.82). The peculiarity comes from Dancy’s smuggling in the impostor “that’s equal”: nobody ever says “that’s equal”; we say “those two are equal” which is the same as “this is equal to that”. Socrates was fully justified in taking ‘equal’ to be (not only ‘in some way’ but fully) parallel to ‘beautiful’: Equality and Beauty are both mind-born intelligible Forms that have no being in the physical world. What Dancy says in the lines following the ones I quoted completely reverses Plato’s understanding of the intelligible Forms: it is not the Beautiful (auto to kalon) that is relative but the many instantiations outside the mind.

Cairo. September 9, 2015.


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