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Meno 71 76 Notes

Classics Notes > Plato’s Meno and Euthyphro Notes

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Socratic Definition and Socratic Inquiry, Meno 71-76 The key discussion in this opening part of the Meno centres around the notion of definition, as Socrates puts it, "if I do not know what a thing is, how should I know what sort of thing it is?" They are seeking a definition of "excellence", but the word definition itself is rather ambiguous because there are several different levels of what it means to define something. Locke argues there are two types, the nominal and the real. The nominal is a simple dictionary definition which signifies, rather superficially, what a thing is by verbally naming it. On the other hand a real definition categorises things in a much more meaningful way and really gives the essence of it so that all and only the thing which is being defined is captured. Obviously what Socrates would prefer is a real definition because this is the only one which would carry any weight in philosophical terms. David Charles, however, has seen that Socrates at times seems to ask for three different types of definitions. Firstly there is the sort of definition which consists of a list of attributes or facts about a thing that would sketch an outline of it, but would have to be based on some sort of prior knowledge or experience of that thing. This makes the inquiry problematic because Socrates makes the assumption that the one cannot know what X is like until one knows what X is. The example he gives is that a person could not possibly know whether Meno was handsome or rich unless he had met Meno. Therefore a better sort of definition is required, a conceptual one which would tell us everything we would need to know about something and put us in a position to make assumptions about it in a way which a simple list of attributes or facts could not. This sort of definition could be made a priori; that is without any previous work, for example with the phrase, "all bachelors are unmarried men", which is true because it is the definition of the word bachelor. An even more precise definition is again the real definition, which would give the true essence of something by relating how it is relevant to the real world because it does not just manipulate ideas or words like a conceptual definition. A common example to illustrate the difference is that witches can be defined conceptually but not in a real way because they don't exist in the physical world. The problem in the Meno is that there is no consistent theory of definition, sometimes Socrates asks for the signification of a word and sometimes he asks for the essence of it; something which becomes more clear when Socrates attempts to define colour and shape. Another example of this is when he asks for a definition of the "beeness" of bees and he uses words such as kalo and lego, which seem to imply he is asking for a signification of the term and not just the essence of the bees. It is not until Aristotle that distinction is made between these sorts of definition. The discussion itself starts with Socrates disavowal of knowledge with regard to knowing anything at all about excellence, "I share my fellow-citizens' poverty as far as this matter is concerned, and I reproach myself for not knowing anything at all about excellence." This prompts him to ask the question which arises in most Socratic dialogues, how Socrates can possibly talk about a subject or thing about which he claims to know absolutely nothing at all. This is a point which the Meno will try to defend throughout its course.

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