Socrates' Conception of Knowledge and the Priority of Definition

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Date

1999-09-03

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Virginia Tech

Abstract

Throughout the early Platonic dialogues, Socrates repeatedly tells his interlocutors that if, as they claim, they truly have knowledge concerning some morally significant property, then they should be able to define the nature of that property. Invariably, the interlocutors fail to furnish him with such definitions, leading him to conclude that they, and all humankind, are ignorant of any knowledge about such property. This leads him to encourage his interlocutors, and us, to adopt a sense of intellectual humility and to dedicate their lives to studying these properties in an effort to gain moral insight.

Many scholars have cited Socrates' demand for definition as evidence that he accepts a Priority of Definition principle - an epistemological principle asserting that a person must first know the definition of a property before she can know anything else about the property. Many of the scholars who make this ascription also argue, for various reasons, that such a principle is erroneous. If these scholars are correct and Socrates does accept a flawed Priority of Definition principle, then his epistemology, along with his whole philosophy, suffers devastating harm. Students of the early dialogues must consider whether Socrates does, in fact, accept the principle and, if so, whether the principle is incorrect.

The thesis will examine the issues that arise from the ascription of a Priority of Definition principle to Socrates. The study will first examine textual evidence supporting the ascription along with texts that bring the ascription into question. It will then outline three general philosophical criticisms of the principle. Finally, this study will examine a number of different understandings of Socrates' conception of knowledge. Hopefully, an understanding can be discovered that preserves his philosophy by effectively showing that either (1) Socrates does not accept the principle, or (2) he does accept the principle but the principle is not philosophically problematic. If such an understanding can be discovered, then Socrates' conception of knowledge is saved from the criticisms raised by scholars. Otherwise, his whole philosophy will be placed in a very troubling light.

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Priority of Definition, Socratic Paradox, Socratic Fallacy, Socrates, Epistemology, Plato

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