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To What Extent Can Definitions Help our Understanding? What Plato Might Have Said in His Cups

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This article argues that philosophical definitions are overrated as sources of understanding or wisdom. Socrates gives a standard argument in their favor which is often still proffered. Still, that Socrates's definitions never succeed invites an ironic reading of that argument. Plato also gives crucial arguments against treating definitions as important to understanding, and those objections have current versions. That raises an issue: What did we think definitions would do for us anyway? That question invites a reassessment of definitions that makes them less central and gives them a more humble, though still dangerous, role to play, one that requires they be integrated with surrounding examples and our own complex educations toward wisdom.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2012-10-01

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