For Socrates, and for much of the Western philosophical tradition that his philosophical wanderings founded, the first question to be asked in any inquiry is the question “What is X?” When Meno asks Socrates in the Platonic dialogue “Meno” whether or not virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice, Socrates stops him and says that one must first know what virtue is before one can possibly have anything to say about it. Socrates’ approach is the same in his inquiry into piety in the Euthyphro and into justice in the Republic. The preeminent question for Socrates is one of definition for he believes that only when armed with a definition, does the philosopher have any hope of arriving at anything approaching truth, knowledge, or wisdom.
On the surface, Socrates’ emphasis on definitions, which is to say getting at the “thing” that makes something a member of a category of similar somethings, seems reasonable and as good of a place to start as any other, but in beginning where he does, Socrates accepts a set of assumptions about the “thing” he is defining without ever referencing or examining these assumptions. Later in the “Meno,” Meno picks up what will be my primary line of inquiry when he asks of Socrates, “And how will you inquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of inquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?” In responding to Meno’s initial question of whether or not virtue can be taught with “What is virtue?” Socrates grants that there is such a thing as virtue in the first place that can be defined. But why does Socrates feel so confident?
There is a paradox inherent within Socrates’ use of language of definition: to be able to talk about something and try and get at what makes “it” what it is, one must initially talk about the “it” without having yet defined the “it,” but if “it” has yet to truly be defined, how is it that anyone is able to make any sense of the “it” that is the subject of discussion in the first place? Without a definition, how is it that anyone has any idea what is being discussed? Socrates says repeatedly throughout the “Meno” that he does not know what virtue is, but if this assertion is intended to communicate anything in particular in reference to virtue, namely that Socrates does not know what this particular thing “virtue” is, Socrates and Meno must already have some shared common understanding concerning that to which the word virtue refers. If they do not, then Socrates is saying nothing more than “I know nothing about nothing.” In using the term virtue, Socrates has already implicitly admitted that he knows something of virtue, namely that he understands what Meno is referring to, that Socrates can identify virtue among other things or if not that, at the very least, grants that there is such a thing as virtue that might potentially be defined. When Socrates says, “I do not know what virtue is” he is not saying it in the way that he might say “I do not know what 德 means.” If neither Meno nor Socrates knows what the Mandarin symbol 德 means and they do not have access to a resource where they could find out, as is also the case with virtue, what dialogue is there to have?
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