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Plato's Socrates

by Thomas C. Brickhouse, Nicholas D. Smith

Buy the book: Thomas C. Brickhouse. Plato's Socrates

Release Date: January, 1996

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Thomas C. Brickhouse. Plato's Socrates

A Full View of the Character of Socrates

This is a very good book. I give it 4 stars because it is not told in such an engaging manner (so it gets 5-stars for content and 3-stars for style). But it does give you a complete version of the early Socrates, and it shows how Plato's attitudes influenced the presentation of Socrates in various dialogues.

The book covers several areas of Socrates' approach, breaking it into six chapters. Each chapter covers a separate aspect of Socrates' thought: his method, his epistemology, his psychology, his ethics, his politics and his religion. The argument is directed to showing that much of Socrates' approach is based on his religious views, so that one can't separate the Socratic argument and method from Socrates' conception of piety and god. The two make the argument that Socrates is essentially a religious thinker, that his religious attitude was central to Socrates' method.

This interpretation is reasonable as far as it goes. My interest, however, is epistemology. Here I find the approach conventional, lacking in some important points. I can't really fault the authors because all Platonists I have read so far remain silent on this subject. Brickhouse and Smith have a section discussing "The Procedural Priority of the Definition," and it is a good in so far as it points out the importance to Socrates of defining terms. However, the discussion never gets to the "meta-theory" of the notion of definition; it never discusses what Socrates' actual notion of definition entails or whether it is or ever was suitable to describe real activities.

I find Socrates' apparent notion of definition, one that tries to define terms using models of geometric or arithmetic measures or of physical attributes of things, to be a deficient formula of definition. Wittgenstein showed that some definitions simply don't work that way. This formal notion of definition doesn't apply well to words like "garden" (are there absolute physical properties all gardens reduce to), "weed" (are there general properties of weed other than as a plant not wanted by the gardener in his garden), or "piety," "goodness," or "virtue."

It should be remembered that Socrates never arrived at satisfactory definitions for these or many other value concepts that interested him. And the modern heirs of Socratic formalism, the positivists, have thrown out the notion of value as it relates to philosophical description. This indicates one of two possibilities: either Socrates' notions about values were inconsequential because the very idea of value lacks a basis in real (formal) description, or his notion of formal description was deficient because it could not satisfactorily encompass the real values that he wanted to discuss.

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A very insightful modern view

Brickhouse and Smith go directly to the relevant issues in today's Socratic studies. Following the arguments of Vlastos, Kraut and others, this collection of six essays is both well-thought and insightful. Their documentation or counter arguments and commentaries is very thorough, and lends itself well to deeper investigation. A great book for scholors as well as for those reading Plato for the first time.

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