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Andrew Barnes 



The intersection between definition and rhetoric first occurs in written form in Greek philosophy. Aristotle informs us that Socrates was the first to philosophize about definition. He notes, “And when Socrates, disregarding the physical universe and confining his study to moral questions, sought in this sphere for the universal and was the first to concentrate upon definition" (Aristotle, Metaphysics, ₴987, line 1). Gorgias by Plato, is the famous work in which the concepts of dialectic are established and demonstrated through a conversation between Socrates and several other interlocutors. The ability to philosophize about definitions requires the ability to draw distinctions between things, that is, to be able to distinguish one concept from another through an articulation of that which makes each thing different from another. Socrates, demonstrates this process through an extensive interrogation of Gorgias by focusing on defining rhetoric.

Socrates through this discussion of Gorgias’s occupation is able to demonstrate that there are two types of definitive claims: definitions that are axiomatic and definitions that are based on essence. Axiomatic definitions are definitions of a thing that can be distilled from premises and formal logic. Definitions of essence focus on that which is unique to that thing and only that thing. This understanding of definition is again demonstrated by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus. Socrates engages in dialogue, this time with Phaedrus. Phaedrus has just heard a wonderful speech about love and Socrates seeks to understand what is meant by love. In order to structure the conversation, Socrates requests that, “since we are to discuss the question, whether the lover or the non-lover is to be preferred let us first agree on a definition of love, its nature and its power, and then, keeping this definition in view and making constant reference to it, let us enquire whether love brings advantage or harm" (Plato [no date given], Phaedrus, ₴237D, line 1). Definition plays an important role for Socrates. It is the foundational structure by which interlocutors can engage in question and answering the reveal knowledge about the world. This is Socrates’ vision for a dialectic. And while there are other rules and techniques that are to be used during a dialectical session, definition is at the heart of such a project.

Plato in Laws, offers a view of definition that differs from the Socratic dichotomy of axiom and essence. Plato argues that there is the thing as it exists, there is the definition of that thing (as ascribed by human beings) and there is the name of a thing (Plato [no date given, Laws, ₴895d, line 4). This differs from Socrates. Dialectic is the path to the truth and at the center of the dialectic is definition and so for Socrates, the ability to define is the ability to know the truth about something. Plato seems to suggest that there can be a truth about something, the thing as it exists, without requiring a definition.

Aristotle even seems to be suspicious of definition. In Eudemian Ethics, he engages in a discussion of the concept of good. He states, “'good' has many senses, in fact as many as 'being.' For the term 'is,' as it has been analyzed in other works, signifies now substance, now quality, now quantity, now time, and in addition to these meanings it consists now in undergoing change and now in causing it" (Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, ₴1217b.2, line 6). Aristotle argues that there is a plethora of goodness, depending upon that which we are ascribing said quality. It is here that Socratic definition falls short for Aristotle. Definition, whether axiomatic or essential, can only be applied in a limited instance e.g. the essence of goodness is different for kisses, music and nature. Aristotle therefore prefers to philosophize about such concepts as goodness as Forms.




Comments (2)

Kelly Elmore said

at 12:36 pm on Sep 28, 2009

I know that the Greeks used genus and species to talk about definitions. Genus being the larger group the defined item belongs to (the things that are similar), and the species being the things that make the defined item different (the distinctions). This seems important, as a large part of being able to make fine distinctions between things is being able to see which things are similar enough to be separated only by find distinctions. Plato talks about genus i in _Phaedrus_ at 263C: "he must not be mistaken about his subject; he must have a sharp eye for the class to which whatever he is about to discuss belongs." So before the dialectic method of finding distinctions (species-finding) can begin, the genus must be known. Hope this helps a bit.

Sam Perry said

at 9:52 pm on Sep 28, 2009

This entry on definition really calls to mind how in debted later philosophers and theorist are to Plato and Aristotle. Kenneth Burke deals with defintions being socially constructed through idea of consubstantiality. Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of heteroglossia in The Dialogic Imagination mirrors the Aristotelean ideas about the multiplicity and room for movement in the defintion making process. Of course, Derrida relies heavily on Plato to formulate his ideas about discourse and the play in meaning. To my mind the continued discussion of definition in the work of late modern and structural thinkers, post structural and post modern thinkers indicates the difficulty of the subject, and particularly the difficulty of creating precise definitions through language.

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