The Socratic Fallacy

Platonism dogs me.  I read the first pages of the Lysis early my freshman year of high school and decided that I would be a philosopher.  When I started in college at Wooster a little later, my first class was a History of Ancient class, taught by Jim Haden, a most remarkable man.  He was devoted to Plato, wholly devoted, and I became devoted in my own small way too.  The next term I took a class taught by Jim and by Tom Faulkner (who taught Greek) on Socrates.  That class left a mark.  In between, Jim introduced me to Plotinus.  I would eventually write my dissertation on Plotinus (with Deborah Modrak, a most remarkable woman).  So, although most of my writing has been on other topics, Platonism has never stopped mattering to me, nattering at me.

This Fall, I begin my Intro to Phil class with Plato’s Theaetetus.  That has become a central text for me and is wedded to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.  (My intro class ends with the Blue Book:  the class’ subtitle is:  The Flux.)  Teaching those texts together makes Geach’s charge that Socrates’ “What is X?” question embodies a fallacy un-ignorable, since Geach’s charge is anchored in the Blue Book.  What Geach says is that Socrates’ constraints on appropriate answers to the X-question are illegitimate, fallacious.  Geach’s crucial point:  we know heaps of things without being able to define the terms (i.e., answer the X-question thus constrained) in which we express our knowledge.  Since we do, we need not engage in answering it.  Without detailing any more of what Geach says (his discussion focuses on the Euthyphro; Geach’s paper is “Plato’s Euthyphro:  An Analysis and Commentary”), I will simply assert that I have always found Geach’s charge convincing.

But the question for me is this:  is the fallacy (indeed, it is a fallacy) really Socrates‘?  In the past, I have pushed students to notice that although it is true that Socrates asks the X-question and constraints it, his interlocutor’s invariably accept the X-question and those constraints.  We could say, in fact, that the question thus constrained seems (once Socrates explains it) to be the exact form of the interlocutor’s philosophical ambition, just the trick the interlocutor believes he can turn.  In this way, the X-question thus constrained makes contact simultaneously with the interlocutor’s supposed knowledge and all-too-real pride.  The interlocutor’s conviction that he can answer the X-question thus constrained can be seen as the Interlocutor’s Fallacy.  Maybe, just maybe, we do not have to understand Socrates as taking the X-question thus constrained to be fully legitimate.  Maybe he is up to something else.

Now, I am not advancing this idea; I’m just tinkering.  But two things make the tinkering perhaps more than a mere pastime.  (1) In the Theaetetus, after asking the X-question, rejecting Theaetetus’ list answer, and explaining the constraints, Socrates asks, “Or am I talking nonsense?  (146e; Levett trans.)  That can be read as a fidget–and it is true that Theaetetus responds, “No, you are perfectly right”–but it could also be read as a hint to Theaetetus (who certainly seems less proud than the typical interlocutor) to be on his guard, to wonder about the X-question and its constraints. (Unfortunately, he does not take the hint.)  (2) More interesting, Bernard Williams, in his introduction to the Theaetetus, takes up the Geach’s charge (without naming Geach) and concedes that “the general point is well taken”.  He then construes the three famous attempts at a definition of ‘knowledge’ (as Levett denominates them) instead as three suggestions about the nature of knowledge, and he contends that Socrates rejects Theaetetus’ list as an answer to the Knowledge-question because it does not “give any insight into the nature of knowledge.”   On the other hand, the first suggestion, that knowledge is perception, while “certainly not a definitional formula” does hold out hope of providing insight into the nature of knowledge.

I want to register discomfort here.  While I can see why Williams thinks that the list provides no insight, he himself notes that paying attention to the list reveals that the first suggestion had better be that, the first suggestion, and not the first definition, since the different skills or expert knowledges listed by Theaetetus imply the hopelessness of knowledge is perception as a definition.  (Geach notes this too.)  So, is it quite true that the list does not provide any insight into the nature of knowledge? And if this is no provision of insight, then how is the first suggestion supposed to be a provision of insight?  It is true that the first suggestion may seem to open up a possibility of testing that is not as clearly open with the list, and we might hope, even expect,that the testing will reveal something about the nature of knowledge.  I wonder:  perhaps it is only when we offer a theory (of knowledge) that we seem to make progress in having a theory (of knowledge)–offering a theory opens up a problem space for work and in which suggestions about the nature of the theoretical object hold out the prospect of insight (and may provide it even if they are rejected, perhaps even in the rejection of them).  If something along those lines is right (I am certainly not sure it is), then the problem with the list is that it seems to open up no problem space and so seems not to hold out the prospect of insight.

Williams’ complaint–the list answer provides no insight–resembles the complaint against procedures of Moore’s that they refute without insight.  Is the complaint there that Moore’s refutations are not contributions to the theoretical activity to which they respond, and so they offer no insights into the theoretical object (the nature of time, perception, etc.)?  –Need philosophical investigation provide insight?  What of Wittgensteinian reminders, Platonic Recollections, Kierkegaardian qualitative dialectics–and so on?  I do not deny that we can call each of these insights, but don’t we have to vary the sense of the term when we do?  Isn’t each of these differently situated in or around the supposed problem space that surrounds the theoretical object?

Anyway, Williams judges his suggestion suggestion a way around Geach’s charge of Socratic Fallaciousness.  Is it?  We can express knowledge without having any suggestion about, any theory of, the meaning of the terms in which we express our knowledge.  So why do I need to make a suggestion?  From whence any compulsion to open up a problem space?  The claim that I don’t know what I’m talking about without a suggestion can be shrugged aside.

How may a Socratic conversation begin?

9 responses

  1. your comment about opening up (or not opening up) a problem space with a theory puts me in mind of §1 of the investigations. one of the puzzles is what the nature of wittgenstein’s rejection of improvements upon the initial, naive or rough augustinian picture is (words name objects; the objects are the meanings of the words), given that he indicates clearly enough what sorts of problems one would have to try to deal with (what does a verb or a conjunction name? etc), and makes no effort to try to engage with serious attempts to work out those problems.

    • I do read those sections, or at least I am tempted to read them, as deliberately refusing to open up a problem space– a problem space around the theoretical object, the meaning of a word, and that compels theories or proto-theories like words name objects and those objects are the meanings of the words . His rejection of that problem space is ultimately Fregean (in a sense of that term that allows Frege to preach to Frege), but that is a story long in the telling.

  2. I wonder if we can understand Socrates’s constraining the X-question as he does as driven by his conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living, and as aiming—not at a definition, but at a search for one. Keeping in mind that the kind of knowledge Socrates is after, both for himself and for his interlocutors, is first and foremost self-knowledge, perhaps we can say that his dismissal of interlocutors’ list-answers is meant to shake a complacency on their part, a satisfaction with themselves and their knowing, and to help them to acknowledge their ignorance. That it is self-knowledge that is at stake for Socrates seems to me to make Geach’s charge less convincing, for when it comes to such things as love, piety, justice or (self-) knowledge, to be able to discern genuine manifestations thereof or indicate different species still seems short of knowing what it means truly to know oneself, or to be truly loving, pious, and just. This requires self-examination, and maybe, just maybe, that is what the constraining of the X-question is supposed to prompt?

    • We are thinking in complementary ways. As I said in a previous post, Socrates targets the double-ignorance of his interlocutor, the interlocutor’s thinking that he knows when he doesn’t. The problem in this is not the simple not-knowing; it is the prideful taking oneself to know (and not to know just any old thing, but something the knowing of which confers a kind of specialness or superiority on the knower). While I do not want to say that Socrates does not care about the nature of piety in his conversation with Euthyphro, I do want to say that he is more concerned about Euthyphro’s arrogating knowledge of the nature of piety to himself. You might say (to recur to terms familiar to us from other conversations) that Socrates is concerned about his own, but especially about Euthyphro’s how in relation to piety, E’s subjective relationship to it, and not as much or as centrally with the what of piety. Understanding Socrates in this way makes Geach’s charge less pressing, since, as you say, it is more E’s failure of self-knowledge that drives the conversation than his failure to know the nature of piety. (Or something like that?) Thanks as always, D.

  3. We’ve often talked about this idea, Socrates playing the devil’s advocate. He leads the other along on a chase he knows is senseless. It leads me to wonder what Socrates is up to when he claims his ignorance (rather, what Plato is up to in writing Socarates this way.) Is he claiming he doesn’t know anything ‘in the way others would have him know’? That is, Plato’s saying something about knowledge itself when he claims his ignorance (more importantly, the way the word is understood).

    • I suspect so, Marcus. Socrates does not always demur when knowledge is attributed to him. Sometimes he accepts the attribution but with a qualification like–“I have human knowledge”. Whatever knowledge Socrates takes himself to have, he does not think that it makes him special. The final paragraph of the Foreward to Cavell’s Must We Mean What We Say is important here. I will quote only this snippet: “No man is in any better position for knowing…than any other man–unless wanting to know is a special position.” If wanting to know is a special position, then notice that what makes Socrates special is an acknowledged lack, not an acknowledged possession. Socrates’ knowledge does not specialize him. (Of course, you could say, “But his knowledge of his ignorance does!” And that would be right, but it wouldn’t change anything essential, although it might help us to see a difference between what knowledge and ignorance come to in relation to the self, and what they come to in relation to the not-self. (D’s comment bears on this, I think.)) Thanks! (When will I see you again?)

  4. I’m wondering how to connect the following idea to the present issue:
    ‘To know what a chair is is to know what it is to sit on a chair; to know what X is is to know what it is to account for X.’
    Is that what Geach is criticizing? Is this what Socrates is propounding?

    • I apparently need to clarify:
      What I had in mind was the question: “How much (or what) we need to know to qualify as knowing what is X”?
      Geach is justified, it seems to me, in claiming that we don’t need to be able to give a definition. But on the other hand, ability to give examples is also not always enough. They need to be the right examples, at the right time, in response to the relevant type of confusion, and so on.
      So I thought we can distinguish between:
      1) Knowing the facts about X. – And accordingly say that, for instance, knowing what Malaria is requires that we know what are the symptoms of malaria, what causes malaria and so on.
      2) Knowing the grammar of X. – Accordingly we can adopt Wittgenstein’s point when he says that to know what a chair is is to know what it is to sit on a chair.
      It seems to me unjustified to say that knowing what X is indeed requires that we know the facts about X. On the other hand, there seem to me to be some justice in the Wittgensteinian claim that knowing what X is requires knowing the grammar of X. I also thought that it may be possible to understand the requirement Geach ascribes to Socrates in either way.

      Now, as it is part of the grammar of “chair” that thus-and-such is what it is to sit on a chair, it is also part of the grammar of “knowledge” that thus-and-such is what it is to account for knowledge. And this is where things become less clear to me: unlike Wittgenstein’s point about the chair, it doesn’t seem right to say that we know what knowledge is only if we know this part of the grammar of “knowledge,” namely that thus-and-such is what it is to account for knowledge. I personally am not sure at all what it is to account for knowledge, but I think I would qualify as knowing what knowledge is (would I?!!!).
      Perhaps we need to distinguish between more and less essential parts of the grammar of things, or between parts that are more and less criterial. – I don’t know.

      • I lost track of this question, Reshef, sorry. But I do appreciate the clarification. Let me think some about this, since I am currently working on the Socratic Fallacy material for tomorrow’s class.

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