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A Problem For The Socratic Method Of Obtaining Answers

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Peter Geach’s essay on the Socratic fallacy poses a large problem for the Socratic method of obtaining answers to the What-is-F? question. He claims that Socrates makes an error when he refuses to accept examples as knowledge, primarily citing the Euthyphro as the source. In my last essay, I examined whether or not Socrates commits the Socratic fallacy in two of the early dialogues, namely, the Euthyphro and the Laches. So, I shall begin by giving a brief recapitulation of my previous essay as well as outlining Geach’s Socratic fallacy. Additionally, I will bring up an objection that Beversluis raises to my view. Then I shall explain the importance of the fallacy and the theory of the fallacy within the Socratic dialogues as it relates to our ability to obtain knowledge of F and the theory of Recollection. Afterward I will look to William Prior’s essay and determine why he thinks the Socratic fallacy is not actually a fallacy and consider some possible objections one might against his claims. Finally, I will discuss some possible limitations to the main argument I make within this paper, as well as some topics for further discussion. In this essay I will argue that the Socratic fallacy is in fact a fallacy, and a very serious one at that (given how we are able to obtain knowledge), and that while Socrates does seem to commit this fallacy in the Euthyphro, this seems to be one of the only early dialogues in which this occurs.

In his analysis of the Euthyphro, Geach identifies a problem in the methodological approach to the What-is-F? question. The Euthyphro has Socrates and Euthyphro discussing what piety is. In an attempt to give an answer to this question, Euthyphro states that what he is doing now namely, prosecuting his own father for murder is pious (5E). Socrates rejects this as an answer saying that he wishes to know “what this form [piety] is” (6E). In essence, what Socrates is looking for here, is a formal definition. In his paper, Geach claims that this is a grave mistake on Socrates part. In his search for knowledge of piety, Socrates has made the errors that Geach enumerates as:

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A) In order to define any given term ‘T’, you must know T to be able to give an account of it and,

B) You cannot arrive at the true meaning of ‘T’ by giving examples of T (371).

What the Socratic fallacy assumes, in essence, is that the only way to elucidate a given term ‘T’ is through a formal definition. Therefore, in rejecting Euthyphro’s knowledge-claim of piety through an example, Geach believes that Socrates is upholding A and is searching solely for a formal definition. Geach thinks this is a problem because “[w]e can know heaps of things without being able to define the terms in which we express our knowledge” (371).

It seems to me that Socrates very obviously commits this fallacy in his rejection of Euthyphro’s example. However, some disagree that this rejection holds as much gravity as Geach supposes. Beversluis argues that what Socrates is doing here when he rejects Euthyphro’s example is that Socrates is simply not accepting the “example as an answer to the What-is-F? question” (213). That is to say, this example alone does not provide a satisfactory answer for the question of what piety is. While I concede that a single example is not sufficient to answer the question, I think what Geach is attempting to prove is that in rejecting the example, Socrates is rejecting that this example can have any part in arriving at knowledge of piety.

In regards to the other early Platonic dialogues, I examined the Laches to determine whether Socrates commits this fallacy here as well. I arrived at the conclusion that Socrates does not commit this fallacy here, Laches appeals to an example of a soldier standing his ground as courage (190E), which Socrates does not reject. Additionally, Socrates employs many examples of his own to prove why Laches example is lacking when it comes to defining courage (191D – E). That Socrates accepts some examples and provides many more of his own is not a point that I think should be highly contentious, it seems many others have held similar views (Beversluis 213, Prior 98).

Now that I have shown Socrates to commit the Socratic fallacy within the Euthyphro, but not in other early dialogues such as the Laches, I shall examine the importance of the theory of fallacy itself while analyzing it’s relation to knowledge claims. Firstly, Beversluis and Prior posit that there seems to be a large difference among the Platonic dialogues of the meaning of knowledge (within the dialogues themselves) pre and post–Meno (Beversluis 218, Prior 101). Not only can this indicate where among the Platonic corpus the Socratic fallacy is more likely to arise, but also, depending on the definition of knowledge, the Socratic fallacy may be applied in different ways. This also creates a problem for the Socratic fallacy, as applying a definition of knowledge post-Meno may not in fact be the sort of knowledge Socrates is looking for and the definition of knowledge pre-Meno seems to be in flux as most of the early Platonic dialogues end in aporia. Another important thing to note in regards to the theory surrounding the fallacy is that there seems to be a lack of textual evidence on Geach’s part to suggest that the Socratic fallacy is such a massive setback in the Socratic method as he seems to think (Beversluis 212). Additionally, with the pre and post-Meno distinction in mind, it may only be possible to examine the early dialogues for the Socratic fallacy, those that are arguably Socrates’ point of view rather than Plato’s (Prior 100). This further distinction creates the difficulty of ascribing the Socratic fallacy to any one thinker (namely, Plato or Socrates) if at all.

To me, the importance of the Socratic fallacy rests with the importance of accepting examples as a mode of grasping the knowledge of a F. The only method for obtaining knowledge of the F in the What-is-F? question that Socrates describes is the theory of Recollection. Of course the theory of Recollection has to do with the theory of Forms, both of which are only mentioned in the later dialogues, so it may face similar issues to the ones described above (at the very least one should be wary about applying these terms to the early dialogues), but seeing as the question of what the object of knowledge (Beversluis 218) is in the early dialogues may be in dispute, the possibility of the object (F) being a Form, is at least a potentiality. In addition, it seems very clear that Socrates’ What-is-F? questions are meant to get at the essence of the Form, the term of which just happened to come about in the later dialogues. In the Phaedo Socrates and his companions argue that learning is recollection (73B). They go on to describe that there is a knowledge that has existed within us since before we were born and within the soul (76C) and that when we perceive particular things within the world and we think of another thing, that other thing is the Form and the process Recollection (74D – 75B). That is, if we see two sticks and their similarities remind us of equality, these sticks share a part of some Form, namely, the Equal, and in remembering the Equal by perceiving the sticks, we have recollected the knowledge that was given to use before birth (75C). Thus, if our only way of gaining knowledge of F (the Forms) is through experiences or particulars, real-life examples of things that remind us of the Forms, ought to be an adequate way of finding out the essence of a Form. Of course, a single example will not do, but it is the commonalities that exist among examples of Forms that can give us criteria to fit the Form. These in turn, can help us come up with a formal definition, which can then be applied back to the examples to see if all the examples of the Form fit the definition, which can then be reflected back again and so on and so forth, until we use both formal definitions and examples to find out the true essence of the Form, using this reflective equilibrium. Thus, one can see, in determining the answer to What-is-F?, the importance of both the examples and the formal definitions of F as they are correlated.


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