History of Philosophy – Lesson 8: Socrates and the Problem of Universals

“A dog, for instance, likes a bone; he likes a number of bones. Now the question is: Why doesn’t it occur to him to start a bone store, or to start a science of bones, boneology, and find out where do bones come from and how do you get them? And the trouble is the poor dog can’t get the idea of boneness, you see; he gets this bone, and then the next one, he forgot the first one, and then the next one, and so on. And so his problem is he’s enmeshed in particulars and he can’t rise to universals.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 8.
(The “Universal Man”, by Gerald Gladstone. Socrates was probably not thinking of that when looking for a proper abstraction of man, but I guess it’s a nice mnemonic for the topic of universals. Original source: SimonP; CC BY-SA 3.0 / Desaturated from original)

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the influence of Socrates in the history of thought. He taught Plato, who taught Aristotle; only that would show his importance, but, of course, he did much more. Most of what we know about Socrates, however, is through Plato’s dialogues, so the truth is we do not know much about him. Scholars tend to agree that the first dialogues represent mainly the historical Socrates, while the middle and the final dialogues represent Plato himself. Be that as it may, as a fictional character, a true philosopher, or just a man of character, Socrates has been teaching all of mankind for millennia. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This could be considered his motto; today it is mine.

Socrates’ life marks a definitive shift from metaphysics to ethics as the fulcrum of philosophical thought in Antiquity. The vibrant political environment of Athens in the Age of Pericles demanded an answer to the relativism of the sophists. Socrates wanted an objective and absolute ethics, and for this he had to ground knowledge and morality on first principles.

Socrates apparently considered himself on a divine mission to awaken people from their complacent and irrational slumbers. He wanted people to examine and delve into their hasty assumptions and misconceptions. His method of doing this — the Socratic method — was based on an intense sequence of questions and answers that, if endured (which rarely occurred), would lead to truth or to contradiction (aporia), solving the problem in question or exposing its poor formulation.

The problem with this method was that it bothered many who he interviewed, for it made them confront their own ignorance. Finally, used as a message to all with supposedly anti-democratic ideas (knowledge could not be reached by the masses, but only by a select elite), he was arrested, falsely accused of corrupting the youth and denying the gods, and condemned to death. The “Apology of Socrates” was the first ancient philosophical text I have read, and his integrity at the time of his death has made a mark on my soul that I hope will never efface.

What he had found during his discussions was that people used concepts that were not clear or properly defined. In emphasizing the importance of definitions, Socrates established the crucial problem of human knowledge: True knowledge should focus not on particulars, but on universals. Irrelevant differences between individuals must be abstracted, giving rise to those characteristics common to all units of a given class — their essence.

Leonard Peikoff explains the issue with masterful expressiveness:

“Socrates believed, and Plato believed, and Aristotle believed that the thing that made man distinctive from the animals, everything that was distinctive about him, derived from his ability to grasp universals. They said that’s what it means to say man is a rational being — he can abstract, he can grasp common denominators, he can conceptualize, he can classify — and, therefore, he can generalize, he can grasp laws, he can apply to all the other particulars he has never encountered the information he gets from merely some particulars, he can predict the future, he can satisfy his desires and control his environment. But if you take away that one crucial capacity, the ability to grasp universals, you are left with animals, who merely are able to perceive particulars and react to them, but can’t abstract universals, and therefore can’t draw conclusions, can’t formulate principles, and are comparatively helpless.”

Knowledge, in short, is conceptual knowledge. Until man rises to the conceptual stage, we will never find agreement among ourselves. Socrates knew this when he died in 399 b.c., and we have not yet learned.

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