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The Socratic Fallacy GERASIMOS SANTAS IN AN INTERESTING ESSAY on Plato's Euthyphro in a recent issue of The Monist, t Peter Geach attributes a pair of assumptions to Socrates and says: The style of mistaken thinking--as I take it to be--that comes from accepting these two assumptions may well be called the Socratic fallacy, for its locus classicus is the Socratic dialogues. (371) The assumptions: Let us rather concentrate on two assumptions that Socrates makes: (A) that if you know you are correctly predicating a given term 'T' you must "know what it is to be T," in the sense of being able to give a general criterion for a thing being T; (B) that it is no use to try to arrive at the meaning of 'T' by giving examples of things that are T. (B) in fact follows from (A). (371) Geach goes on to argue that the "Socratic fallacy" is a fallacy: We know heaps of things without being able to define the terms in which we express our knowledge. Formal definitions are only one way of elucidating terms; a set of examples may in a given case be more useful than a formal definition. (371) In addition, Geach seems to suggest that the Socratic fallacy accounts for the fact that the Socratic dialogues usually end up in aporia: We can indeed see in advance why a Socratic dialogue so often ends in complete failure to elucidate the meaning of a term 'T'.... But if there is no initial agreement either on examples of things that certainly are T or on criteria for predicating 'T', then the discussion is bound to be abortive.... (372) How harmful the rejection of examples may be we see from the Theaetetus. Theaetetus, asked what knowledge is, gives some instances of knowledge--geometry and shoemaking and the various crafts. Socrates objects that these are only examples, and he wants to know just what knowledge is.... But of course any knowledge is t The Monist, L (July, 1966), 370-372. [127] I28 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY knowledge of so-and-so; and a correct definition would have to run "Knowledge of so-and-so .... " with the "so-and-so" occurring over again in the definiens. (372) And finally, Geach suggests that the Socratic fallacy can have morally harmful consequences as well: I am sure that imbuing a mind with the Socratic fallacy is quite likely to be morally harmful. Socrates, let us suppose, chats with an ingenuous youth and says that he has been puzzled about what injustice is. The youth says, "Well, that's easy; swindling is unjust." Socrates asks him what swindling is; no, examples will not do---a formal definition is required. Failing that, we don't know, do we?, what swindling is, or that it is unjust. The dialogue, we may suppose, ends in the usual aporia. The ingenuous youth decides that perhaps swindling is not unjust; he turns to ways of villainy, and ends up as one of the Thirty Tyrants. After all, a number of Socrates' young men did end that way. (372) Geach is by no means alone in attributing these assumptions or some variant of them to Socrates. He has eminent authorities on his side, Robinson and Ross, among others. Robinson, citing the last two sentences of the Lysis, says: This is surprising because it seems to imply that (C) until you know what X is you can never say whether this is a case of X. That (D) our knowledge of X is prior to our knowledge of its cases is implied also in the Euthyphro (6E), where Socrates says that when Euthyphro has told him what X is he is going to use it as a paradigm or pattern to determine which things are X and which are not. In fact the impression vaguely given by the early dialogues as a whole is that Socrates thinks that (E) there is no truth whatever about X that can be known before we know what X is. He never explicitly says so; but nor, on the other hand, does he ever set any limits to the priority of this question. (Plato's Earlier...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 127-141
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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