In this short essay I shall try to describe the role which definitions play in acquiring of knowledge and its development. I shall mainly concentrate on Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue.
Plato’s interest in definitions began by embracing Socrates’ concern for definitions. As it is clear from all dialogues which bear Plato’s signature, where Socrates, here a literary figure, represents a way of obtaining true knowledge of the things and issues which are of concern to the dialogic context of the debate. Socrates is a philosopher whose main concern is to find the truth of the assertions and statements which his contemporaries hold without examination as to their implicit and unarticulated assumptions. Socrates wants to show his interlocutors that probably what they take as knowledge is a mere opinion. That what is presented as knowledge upon closer examination may turn out to be an unfounded and unsupportable fiction or to put it in contemporary parlance an expression of certain prejudice.
The main concern of the Euthyphro is the quest for knowledge regarding what piety is. Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for murder. His decision to prosecute his own father has led to a family outcry who accuse him of impiety. Even Socrates is puzzled by such a decision. Socrates wants to know what justification he brings forward to support his decision. Euthyphro justifies his action by appealing the will of gods and the knowledge he has of piety. But what is piety or impiety and who is pious and the impious?
The quest to find the nature of piety is the essence of Euthyphro dialogue. It is a quest for true knowledge so that both may avoid acting in an impious way. Socrates’ pertinent questions and taking upon himself the role of an ignorant student lead Euthyphro to constantly call into question the position he is standing on “for whatever proposals we put forward keep somehow moving around and won’t stay put” as Euthyphro is forced to admit (11b). Unable to stay put and under the constant perceptive vigilance of Socrates’ questions which seem to defy any ground from where one can safely say that piety is X, the dialogue has to end in a fiasco. Socrates remains unconvinced by the answers given while Euthyphro by the end seeing that he could not maintain any stable position excuses himself and leaves.
So what is the importance of this dialogue for the definitions and the quest for knowledge in Plato’s philosophy? R.M. Dancy in his book Plato’s Introduction of Forms which adheres to a traditional developmentalist approach to Plato’s theory of forms (Plato developed his theory of forms in his later dialogues not the earlier ones among which belongs Euthyphro) argues that ”in the definition dialogues, it is natural to see the main philosophical import in the failed attempt at definition”. In other words the definitions are attempted but never completed, because “the demand for definition is always subordinate to another question” (p. 26).
Although Dancy rejects the claims that the discussions of definitions in the early dialogues presuppose Forms, it seems to me that the quest for definition is a quest for the Form or the Idea of what, in this dialogue, piety, or impiety for that matter, is. The immediate questions could not be resolved without some Idea as to what piety or justice or courage is? To act in a pious way is to know first and foremost what piety is. Plato through Socrates in this dialogue (as in Meno where the Doctrine of Recollection is put forward according to which knowledge is recollection of the Forms with which we are acquainted prior to embodiment) is not satisfied with bringing instances of pious acts. The fact that something can be exemplified does not give us a definition of the essence of what truly piety is. Socrates remarks explicitly: “You see, my friend, you didn’t teach me adequately earlier when I asked what the pious was, but you told me that what you’re doing now is pious” (6d). Few lines below Socrates is even clearer as to what he wants: “…what I urged you to do wasn’t to teach me about one or two of the many pieties, but rather about the form itself, by virtue of which all the pieties are pious” (6d, my emphasis). And since we are sailing in murky waters as regard the attainability of such knowledge we may never be sure whether we are acting in a pious or impious way.
Plato through Socrates’ voice takes the stance that he does because Euthyphro attributes his relatives’ condemnation to his action as impious to their lack of knowledge. Euthyphro is accusing his relatives of ignorance: If they knew better they would not condemn his prosecution of his father: “Little do they know, Socrates, about the gods’ position on the pious and the impious!” (4e).
What comes out of this dialogue is that for knowledge to be possible it must be approached by way of defining concepts we use and the Form or the Idea to which these concept refer to. To know if Euthyphro’s prosecution of his father is a pious thing to do, we must know what piety is. And to know what piety is we must know the Form of piety. Hence the quest for knowledge in Plato is linked to the quest for definitions which describe with some accuracy the Form of what is so and so as well as to the Form or Idea as such.