Monday, September 30, 2013

Conceptual Definition vs. Ostensive Definition

The first definition of piety that Euthyphro provides is a definition by example, or an ostensive definition.  He says that what is pious is what he is doing (prosecuting the wrongdoer) (5d).  Socrates rejects this definition because it is the wrong kind of definition.  Socrates wants a conceptual definition.  A conceptual definition of a term provides a set of criteria that when met, the term is applied correctly.  In other words, a conceptual definition gives a set of conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to use the word accurately.  Contrast these two definitions for 'governor':

Ostensive definition: Jerry Brown is the governor.
Conceptual definition: The governor is the top political leader in the state in the executive branch of government.

In the first case, an example is provided, but we don't have any general knowledge or information about what a governor is.  In the second case, we get some abstract and general information about what a governor is.

Socrates is concerned not just with finding examples of piety; he also wants to identify the abstract form, or the general conditions that define piety. 

The Socratic Method, The Socratic Question

The Socratic question is the question about who exactly Socrates was in real life.  He did not write anything down himself.  All we know about him comes from the writings of others.  Some of these sources are very dubious.  Plato wrote the most complete record of Socrates's life, but we have no way of knowing how far he stretched the truth.  One thing is known for sure; Socrates was not a pretty man.  In spite of this fact, he was quite popular with young men.

The Socratic method is a method of questioning.  Socrates does not lecture or give speeches.  Rather, he asks questions of his pupils.  He asks very pointed and critical questions, sometimes even leading his interlocutor into a philosophical trap!  Today we use this term to refer to any kind of questioning that a teacher does in order to encourage a student to give the answers to questions on his or her own.  Sometimes it still means leading students into a trap by asking leading questions.  Don't worry, I won't try to trap you!  But it's not a bad rule in general to be wary of leading questions when you're dealing with philosophers.

What is Pious?

The main question that arises in Euthyphro is about what is pious.  In everyday language, being pious (having the quality of piety) means being reverent and respectful to god(s).  Euthyphro equates piety with justice.  In other words, he thinks that what is just is decided by what the gods love.  What the gods love is the first conceptual definition of pious that Euthyphro offers.  Before offering this conceptual definition, he attempted to provide an ostensive definition of pious; this kind of definition is also called a definition by example.  In other words, Euthyphro tried to define the word by providing an example of something that is pious.

Socrates dismantles the first conceptual definition offered by Euthyphro (that what is pious is what the gods love) by pointing out that the gods disagree often and that some things will be both god-loved and god-hated.  But to say that a thing is both god-loved and god-hated is a contradiction!  Clearly this definition is unacceptable.

Euthyphro then amends his definition.  He says that what is pious is whatever all gods love.  At this point, Socrates asks if being loved is like being seen, carried or led.  Euthyphro agrees that they are all alike because something is only loved, seen, carried or led if there is someone or something else that is doing the loving, seeing, carrying or leading.  Then Socrates asks if pious things are pious because they are loved or because they are pious.  They agree that pious things are pious simply because they are pious.  Pious people and pious things do not need to have any other person or thing acting upon them in order for them to be pious.  Yet now we have a circular definition.  Euthyphro first says that pious things are things that are loved by all gods.  Second, he says that the gods love pious things because they are pious.  He attempts to define piety in terms of what the gods love.  Then he says that the gods love it because it is pious.  The definition refers only to itself.  It creates a circle of reasoning.  It is the same thing as saying, "I like coffee because it's good and it's good because I like it." or "That is morally wrong because it's morally wrong".  In technical terms, circular reasoning makes the mistake of assuming the truth of the conclusion as a premise for an argument.  If we are to define piety in terms of what the gods love but also assume that the gods love it because it is pious, then we assume the truth of our claim when trying to explain it.

Philosophy as Argumentation and Basic Logic

Hello and welcome to Phil4: Intro to Ethics!  In an ethics class, we ask questions about what is good, what is moral, how we should live and to whom we have moral obligations and why.  In a philosophy class, we try to answer these questions with arguments.  Remember that in philosophy, an argument does not just mean conflict or simple contradiction.  Here is the Monty Python sketch we watched today about arguments.

Here is another link to a post about basic logic.