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Socrates and Plato on asking ‘what is x?’

By Kath Jones


The Socratic elenchus is a method of philosophical enquiry attributed by Plato, in his dialogues, to his teacher Socrates. It is a method that uses a dialectic technique of questioning and answering to try to discover the truth of the issue under investigation. For Plato’s Socrates, the fundamental question for human beings is that of how to live, thus the enquiries he initiates concern our understanding of what it is to act ethically. In order to begin to enquire into how to act in a virtuous manner, however, Socrates claimed that we must first know what virtue is. We must, that is, first understand the meaning of virtue before we can consider its application it to any particular kind of action; we must first be able to answer the question “what is x?” before considering whether a particular action or kind of action is an instance of x. This requirement leads to what is known as the ‘Socratic Paradox’: if we have to first establish what x means before we confirm or discount cases of it, then how can our enquiry ever commence; how can we begin in asking questions about x if we don’t yet know what x is? Philosophy has continued to grapple with the Socratic paradox since Plato’s formulation of it. This presentation will explain how the paradox is produced out of the elenchus and consider the ways in which Wittgenstein’s account of family resemblance sheds new light upon this age-old issue. [From the Author

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