On Philosophy

March 29, 2007

Socrates And Conceptual Analysis

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

There is an approach to philosophy that understands philosophy as an investigation of our concepts. And it is this approach to philosophy that is sympathetic to appeals to intuition, and to understanding logical or conceptual possibility as relevant to questions of identity, supervenience, dependence, causation, ect. Such philosophers understand philosophical inquiries and problems as simply vehicles for investigating their relevant pre-existing concepts, with the idea that we already know the answers in some sense, since they are our concepts, and that philosophical investigation is thus just a way of getting the answers out.

I am opposed to this approach to philosophy, and I see an investigation of our concepts as basically a pointless task, since our concepts may not reflect reality, and thus may not be useful, and it is a different kind of investigation that investigates whether our concepts are decent approximations to the real world. But I have already given arguments against this approach in other places, so today I will look at the issue from a different perspective, that of the first systematic philosophers, the ancient Greeks, specifically Socrates.

Socrates is famous for showing through his pointed questions that people knew less about things than they pretended to. For example, he might ask a respected priest what piety was, and then by his pointed questions show that the priest could not in fact form a coherent definition of piety. Which seems to indicate that the priest doesn’t in fact have a coherent concept of piety; rather he has an incomplete and contradictory one, which he only pretends is coherent. And I think the same thing can be said about most of our concepts, that they contain contradictions, and are really only rough approximations to reality we have come to have almost haphazardly.

But how would a philosopher who treats their work as an investigation of concepts react to Socrates’ revealing that the priest is in fact ignorant of what piety really is? Obviously if they accept that the priest really doesn’t know what piety is, and only thinks that he knows, then their entire approach to philosophy must be discarded, as they can’t guarantee that they are better off than the priest, all they can be sure of is that they haven’t met a Socrates who can reveal their ignorance. So they probably interpret Socrates’ encounter with the priest as revealing only that the priest didn’t have complete access to his own concept of piety. And perhaps this is the way Socrates himself viewed the issue, since he (or possibly Plato) thought that people already had known everything at some point before they were born, but that when they born they forgot these things, so that learning was really a process of recalling what was already known. Thus the priest already knows what piety is, it is just that access to that knowledge is in some way blocked.

But if this is what our philosopher thinks then we must ask where this knowledge comes from. Hopefully our modern philosopher doesn’t believe that there is some universe of forms and that the individual forms have imprinted themselves somehow on the minds of everyone. Given that we are constrained to some degree in our speculation by science there are really only three possibilities, if we are to assume that everyone’s concepts are coherent and complete, if not fully accessible to them. The first is that we are explicitly taught concepts at a young age in a way that is consistent and complete, and that we simply forget this teaching later. Obviously this isn’t a live option, because then we could simply appeal to our teachers or a dictionary when there is some question as to, for example, what knowledge is. Secondly, there is the possibility that we are simply born with our concepts, perhaps due to genetic knowledge. Although this option is at least possible (or more possible than the last one) the empirical evidence doesn’t support it. Perhaps we are born with certain ideas about three-dimensional space, and what people look like, but certainly not about things like knowledge. And finally we have the possibility that we learn our concepts form our real world observations of the content of our concepts, for example that we might lean what justice is from our observations of real justice. If this were the case then our concept of justice could be consistent and complete for the same reason that our concept of red is consistent and complete; because it is based on something real and error simply doesn’t have room to creep in. But this possibility, although better than the other two, is still not a viable option. No one ever observes justice itself; people observe situations that consist of various moving colored objects, which they are told are just. This doesn’t bring justice to their attention in the way red is brought to our attention by such demonstrations. Rather, they must construct an idea of what justice is on the basis of these examples. And this means that the concept is likely to be inconsistent and incomplete, just as someone would be poor at math if you only showed them some sample sums, told them that those sums were addition without ever telling them the rules of addition, and then let them come up with their own ideas about what addition was.

So, given that pre-knowledge is out of the question, I think that the fact that people couldn’t answer the questions posed to them by Socrates, and that philosophical problems are problems and not immediately answerable simply by introspection on our concepts, reveals that our concepts are incomplete and inconsistent. Now it is possible that the kind of philosophical investigation that attempts to investigate our concepts actually improves them, making them more consistent and more complete. But I fail to see how that matters. It certainly won’t make them better reflections of reality, nor will it put us in a better position to deal with disputes arising from different conceptions of something like justice. And so conceptual analysis and its associated kind of philosophy still seem pointless.

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