Plato and Definition

What conditions does Plato expect a good definition to meet? Is he right to impose them?

In this essay we will be discussing the conditions Plato requires a definition to meet in his dialogue Meno. We will analyse the reasons for Plato placing a great importance upon the definition of terms before going on to try and set out these conditions in a clear manner. We shall then examine whether his conditions lead to a successful definition or if they are actually self-defeating and actually lead to the proposition that a great many terms are indefinable.

1. Why is the issue of definition so important to Plato?

Plato’s Meno is superficially concerned with the question ‘Is virtue teachable?’ However, before such a question can be answered, the character Socrates stipulates that the term ‘Virtue’ must be defined: “I’m so far from knowing whether it is something teachable or isn’t something teachable that I don’t even happen to know at all what in the world virtue itself is. 1” Through this pretext, Plato uses Meno to pose two questions regarding the definition of virtue. The first is of the form ‘Is X Y?’ For example, ‘Is virtue justice?’ or, more immediately, ‘Is virtue teachable?’ Whilst Meno opens the dialogue by posing a question of this type – “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is something teachable?” – Socrates reproaches him for this and replaces the initial question with one of another form. This is a question of the form ‘What is X’, or, more specifically, ‘What is virtue’.

Plato seems to take it as self-evident that this question supersedes any other question about ‘X’. Socrates operates upon this principle when proclaiming that in order to know if virtue is teachable one must adequately define it: “And as for that about which I don’t know what it is, how would I know what sort of thing it is?

Plato, Meno

Oxbridge Essays

Or is it possible in your opinion for anyone who doesn’t know at all who Meno is to...