Talk for the mini conference on the ethics of good life in York, April 16-19, 1998


1.1. Apologies

First of all, let me say that I am very happy to give this talk and that I am very happy about the way in which the Münster York connection is developing. I apologize for the fact that I have to start with some apologies.

(1) I am by no means an expert on the topic of the ethics of good life. I know that most of you know much more about it than I do. My main research areas at the moment are ancient philosophy, philosophy of space and time and formal logic. So please don't expect too much..

(2) I'm going to give a predominantly historical talk. I am aware of the fact that, while this is what you are usually expected to do in Germany, you might favour a systematic argument. Sorry, all I can offer is perhaps some stimulation for systematic thoughts.

(3) I am probably not going to tell you any real news about Plato. Britain has perhaps the best classicists in the world, and I guess all of you have profited from this fact at some stage of your work. I really don't have any great news about Plato. All I want to do is remind you of things you probably already know. Well, refreshing one's memories is just what Plato thinks philosophy is all about anyway.

1.2. Aims

I want to talk about the undefinability of the term "good" according to Plato. I do think that Plato held the term "good" to be radically undefinable. Instead of "undefinability of ‚good‘ " I might as well have said, the "ineffability of the meaning of ‚good‘ ", the "impossibility of communicating the meaning of the term "good"" by means of speech or the "ineffability of what being good really is". In this context I would like to show what the square root of eight has got to do with the ethics of good life. At the moment you might see no connection whatsoever between the square root of eight and good life, but after my talk I hope you will find the connection obvious.

I think that, historically, viewing Plato as holding the term "good" to be undefinable provides an interesting link between Plato's major work of his middle period, the Republic, and some dialogues of the early period. It makes these earlier dialogues, in particular the Meno and the Laches, appear more mature than they might look otherwise. In fact I don't think that they are really aporetic. I rather think that they end without a clear result because when he wrote them Plato already had a firm idea of what he was going to write in the Republic - or rather, what he was not going to write.

2. The early dialogues

2.1. Evaluative terms

As we all know, the problem of Plato's early dialogues is how to define evaluative terms such as "brave", "pious", "prudent" or "virtuous". Plato tells us in the Euthyphro (7d) why he thinks this is a problem. He says this is a problem because whether any of these terms apply cannot be decided by weighing, counting or measuring. If, on the other hand, you can tell whether a term applies by following one of these procedures, the term stands in no need for definition - Plato thinks.

2.2. Plato’s individualist ethics

Now if the early dialogues are about ethics they are about the ethics of good life. This is just typical for a pagan Greek philosopher. Like Aristotle, Plato considers questions of ethics as questions of individual life rather than as questions of living together. This does not mean that he has nothing to say about appropriate behaviour in society. It would be grotesque to say so of the author of the Republic and, later on, the Laws. But even in the Republic social justice is a by-product of individual justice, that is of just individuals happening to live together. If the individuals who make up the polis are all just, the polis cannot fail to be so, too. When terms like "brave", "pious", "prudent" or "virtuous" are at stake, the interlocutors try a lot of bad definitions; but they never even try to define these terms in terms of duties towards others. Sure enough, a brave soldier will do his duty, but this is an effect of his being brave, not a reason for calling him brave.

2.3. Definitions

In the early dialogues, Plato develops a methodology of definition which can hardly be improved upon. It is easy to pay too much attention to the elements of comedy in the early dialogues and therefore to fail to observe how well-structured they are.

- We may assume that Plato knew that circular definitions are not admissable (although I am not sure if he is explicit about this in any dialogue before the Theaetetus (209e-210d)).

- We can see from, for example, the Euthyphro and the Laches that Plato is fully aware of what a too narrow or a too wide definiens is. He knows that for a proper definition he needs at least extensional identity of definiens and definiendum.

- But Plato is also aware of the fact that extensional identity of definiens and definiendum won't do. Extensionally identical concepts may differ intensionally. I guess, all of us usually explain this taking "having a heart" and "having kidneys" as an example. Plato's example in the Euthyphro is "being pious" as contrasted to "performing acts which all gods approve of". While both concepts are co-extensional, "performing acts which all gods approve of" is not fit to stand as a definiens for "being pious" because it is intensionally inadequate: it misses what "being pious" really means and only describes a by-product of a person's being pious (this is, by the way, where the term ousia, later translated by essence, makes its entry into the history of philosophy (9e-11b)).

2.4. Primitive terms

What else would you teach your students about definitions? Well, there is something else. You might draw attention to the fact that any definiens will again consist of words and that one might ask in turn what the words in the definiens mean. So one definition might show the need for several others. But you will also teach your students that it would be pointless to go on like this forever. If there is a point to definitions they have to stop somewhere. If you want to stop defining concepts again once you started doing so, you should assume that there are primitive concepts which you need not define. Primitives may be self-explaining, their meaning might be selbstverständlich... In German or French you can point towards this by using "understand" as a an impersonal reflexive verb: Das versteht sich von selbst - cela s'entend. If this happens in your area of definition, then, lucky you are.

There might, however, arise a rather more uncomfortable situation. You cannot do without primitives - ok. Perhaps you see that in the area of definition you are interested in there is one single primitive concept. You see that this concept is so basic that you cannot define it. So far so so good. But unfortunately, the concept is not self-explaining - at least it is not self-explaining in such a way that everybody attaches the same meaning to it. Instead, intuitions about what the term applies to differ enormously. Perhaps you have a pretty clear idea about the meaning of the term but since it's undefinable you can't communicate it. I think this is the situation Plato thought he was in. In order to see why, it is useful to have a look at the typical structure of an early Platonic dialogue such as the Meno, the Laches or the Euthyphro.

2.5. The structure of an early Platonic dialogue

At the beginning a definiendum is proposed, which is an evaluative term. Socrates' interlocutor thinks he knows what the term means and can, thus, easily define it. He proposes a definiens. Socrates does not say straightforwardly that the definiens is inadequate - because, in contrast to his interlocutor he is uncertain from the very beginning. He simply exposes the proposed definiens. However, as a result of his exposition it usually turns out that the proposed definiens does not fit the definiendum: there is no more than some rough extensional overlap between definiens and definiendum; or the definiens is too narrow, or it is too wide; or it is extensionally adequate, but intensionally inadequate.

The interlocutor still thinks definition of an evaluative term is an easy task. So the same procedure is repeated two or three times. (It is worth noting at this point that the analogy Socrates draws between himself and a midwife is only fully understood if one remembers that the main task of a midwife in Ancient Greece was infanticide.)

After some unsuccessful attempts the interlocutor is highly frustrated. He is in the state of aporia. The most impressive characterization of this state is, in my opinion, the one Meno gives once he has reached aporia: He is comparing Socrates to a ray, a kind of fish that paralyses its prey by electric shocks. For the interlocutor, usually a wealthy citizen or one of his sons, this is an uneasy state. His self-confidence has just been shaken by an illiterate stone-mason. To him, the state he is in looks like a dead end. But for Socrates aporia is progress. For finally the interlocutor is just as uncertain about the meaning of the definiendum as he himself has been from the very beginning.

Only now – sometimes with another interlocutor, but one who has followed the converstaion up to then -, the real search begins, usually on a higher level of argumentation. Sure enough, it leads to problems, but the situation does not look so hopeless. Unfortunately, the interlocutor starts running out of time. So the conversation is ended for some more important business.

I am telling you this well-known story once again because of a small detail which is often overlooked: The aporia does not occur at the end of an early Platonic dialogue, but in the middle. For some reason the early dialogues come to an inconclusive end. But I would not agree with the commonplace judgement that they end aporetically.

This is important once you have a closer look at how far the discussion has got at the end of, for example, the Laches and the Meno. In fact, it has developed extremly well once the aporia was overcome. The result at the end of the Laches is this: one might think that bravery is a kind of knowledge, namely knowledge about what is good and what is not good. But this definiens is too wide. Bravery is a kind of knowledge about what is good and not good in certain circumstances. which are not easy to specify. Instead of bravery it is virtue that is knowledge about what is good and not good in any circumstances (197e-199e).

And at the end of the Meno, although Socrates is not explicit about it, it is pretty clear that virtue, according to the Laches knowledge about what is good and not good, may be innate and that a teacher of virtue could only be someone who helps to rediscover this innate knowledge instead of trying to teach something by instruction.

If you call these results aporetic I don't know what you expect!

The impression I get here is that, according to Plato, evaluative terms can be defined, but that the correct definientes always contain an evaluative primitive - the term "good". It remains unclear, however, if the term "good" is the sort of easy-to-grasp primitive which is self-explaining or if it is rather uncomfortably difficult. The early dialogues never get far enough to answer this question - perhaps on purpose.

3. The Republic

You might object that we learn a lot about good people in the Republic. You might say that this is just the qualitative difference between the early and the middle period. In the Republic we get something new: the doctrine of the tripartite nature of the soul, and the answer given there is that good people are those people the parts of whose souls coexist in harmony.

I am not convinced that there is any such qualitative difference between the early dialogues and the Republic. It is true that Socrates gets a little further there. This time he has extraordinarily patient interlocutors. And the new doctrine about the soul enables him for the first time to complete a rather big task: the definition of justice. But it is important to see that justice is defined in Republic IV, not "good". And it is a just person the parts of whose soul coexist in harmony. Now I see my impression from the early dialogues confirmed by the definition of justice in the Republic. This is because, in my view, it is not unfair to paraphrase this definition as follows:

A system is in a just state if every part of it does what is good for it to do. This happens if that part of the system of which it is good if it rules the whole system in fact rules. That part of the system of which it is good if it rules is that part of the system which knows what is really good for the whole system. (433a-444a)

Now, of course, for Plato such a system can either be a soul or a city-state. I imagine you can see that some knowledge about what the term "good" means would be quite useful to even understand this definition. And certainly, some rudimentary knowledge of what is good is required from every citizen in a just city-state. In the case of the not so clever ones the minimum is the knowledge that it is good to obey the more clever ones who really know what’s good for everyone (cf. 430d-432b; 590c-591a). So the problem from the early dialogues is still there and it has become just the more urgent.

In book VI of the Republic a point of no escape is reached: the interlocutors ask Socrates to define "good". Socrates‘ answer is very evasive. He doesn’t straightforwardly say that "good" is undefinable. He rather says that this would probably take very, very long and be very, very difficult. For the time being, he continues, he can only offer, as a kind of ersatz, some similes (505d-507a). What follows is the famous series of the three great similes, the Sun, the Line and the Cave. The message of the Sun and the Cave is that fully grasping what "good" really means is a sort of mystical experience: becoming acquainted with the form of the good, which is realized to be a sort of deity that rules the whole world. And if we fill in the theory of recollection we should say: becoming acquainted again. The story of the freed prisoner from the Cave stresses the point that everyone has to make this experience for himself, although with some assistance. It would be useless to write a book about this (as Plato makes clear in the Phaedrus (274b-279b) and in the 7th letter (341c-342a)). For reading such a book cannot replace an actual experience (in the worst case it makes some readers think they experienced what they in fact only read a - metaphorical - description of (Phaedrus 275a/b)). The sort of experience Plato thinks of here cannot be communicated. Of course its content cannot be taught by any sort instruction which aims at enabling the student to talk about the subject he has learnt (Pol. 517a-518d). If you find this too esoteric I will tell you what the Cave reminds me of. It reminds me of the film "Leningrad Cowboys Go America" by the Finnish film director Kaurismäki. The film is about a terrible Finnish folk band on a tour through America. After the first complete failure in New York City, the band‘s manager, a real tyrant, goes to a music shop, buys some sheet music, and presents it to the band, saying: "You must learn Rock’n Roll – Study this book!". Even if you don’t agree with my bizarre analogies you will probably agree that the message of the Cave is just what we suspected to be the result of the Meno anyway.

Someone might object that I have overinterpreted the elements of mysticism in the simile of the Cave. One might interpret the fact that similes replace an attempt to define the term "good" as a hint that Plato sees "good" as undefinable. But he does not make Socrates say so explicitly. So one can only be sure that Plato doesn’t define the term "good" but not that he holds it cannot be defined.

My first answer to this possible objection is that I don’t think my interpretation of the Cave is far-fetched. So it’s not only the occurrence of similes at this crucial point but also the content of the most important of these similes which speaks in favour of Plato viewing "good" as undefinable. However, I have another point in favour of my view. For this point we have to return to the Meno.

4. The geometry lesson in the Meno

There is one passage in Plato’s works where Socrates himself comments on the typical structure of an early Platonic dialogue. This passage is the famous geometry lesson in the Meno (81b-85b). Everyone knows what the passage is about: Socrates, by intelligent questioning, makes a slave boy without any training in maths solve a non-trivial geometrical problem in order to convince Meno of the doctrine of recollection. Not everyone pays attention to the form of the passage. However, the form is very interesting. Formally, the geometry lesson in the Meno is a complete small early Platonic dialogue of its own with its typical structure – it is a dialogue within a dialogue, so in this respect the Meno is like those kitschy Russian puppets you all know. While the Meno is inconclusive, the geometry lesson in the Meno is conclusive: the boy finds the correct solution. Now Socrates comments to Meno on his dialogue with the slave boy while talking with the boy. So we get something like a live report of a Socratic dialogue and the reporter is Socrates himself.

The problem is as follows: The length of each side of a square with a surface of 4 square feet is 2 feet. What’s the length of each side of a square with a surface of 8 square feet? (82c1-3) The slave’s first hypothesis is ("concluding" from doubled surface to doubled length): 4 feet. Socrates comments: He doesn’t know, but he still thinks he knows (82e). Socrates then exposes the hypothesis: If the length is 4 feet, the surface of the square is 16 feet (83a5). The boy realises that his proposed solution was too large. He sees that the solution must be somewhere between 2 and 4 (83b1). So his second hypothesis is: 3 feet (83e1). Socrates again exposes the hypothesis: If the side’s length is 3 feet, then the square’s surface will be 9 feet. The boy realises that his proposed solution is still too large. Socrates urges him to have another try. And in order to encourage the boy, he says something very peculiar: "If you can’t count it, just show it to me" (84a1). For a while the boy does not know how to go on. So Socrates has some time to play the reporter again (84a): Look, he says to Meno, now the boy is in the state of aporia. That’s a good sign. From now on he will no longer think he knows the solution although he doesn’t know it yet. Only from now on he is really looking for a solution.

The boy doesn’t give up; he overcomes the state of aporia (84d). After a little further assistance from Socrates he suddenly points towards a diagonal line which had happened to be there from the very beginning, but to which he hadn’t attached any importance. "This is it", he says (85b2), meaning "this is the solution, this is the length of the side of a square with a surface of eight feet." And right he is. Indeed, he points towards the solution, he just shows it to Socrates, he does not "count" it. Why? Well, "counting" here obviously means "describe the solution by a natural number or by a ratio of natural numbers". And in this sense the solution of the geometry lesson simply cannot be counted. It is ineffable in terms of rational numbers. The solution is "square root of eight" and that’s an irrational number – as we would say today. I doubt whether any ancient Greek mathematician would have been willing to call "square root of eight" a number. And I am not sure if even with the best mathematical training available at the time the slave boy could have communicated his insight by means of speech. This is because it is well possible that at the time the Meno was written there was no terminology for irrational lengths at all in ancient Greek. There is some terminology for them in the Theaetetus (148a/b), but it seems to be a great novelty there, and the Theatetus was probably written several decades after the Meno.

5. The geometry lesson and the undefinability of "good"

So Plato chose a problem for the geometry lesson which has a solution but a solution which is ineffable in terms of rational numbers. If I am right about the development of terminology the solution could not be communicated by means of speech at all, at the time when the Meno was written. It could only be shown. I cannot believe this is merely a coincidence. It just fits the message of the Cave too well. The geometry lesson is itself a sort of simile. The Meno is about virtue, i.e. – according to the Laches - about the knowledge of what is good and what is not good. So the ineffability of the solution (at least: ineffability in terms of rational numbers) stands for the ineffability of the meaning of "good". The geometry lesson shows what kind of solution is to be expected to the problem of how to really grasp the meaning of "good" – and what kind of solution is not to be expected. A definition of the term "good" is not to be expected. For a definition would consist of words. If there were a definition it would be possible to say what "good" means. But this, Plato thinks, is impossible. What "good" means, can only be shown. More than that: everyone has to experience it for himself and can only be guided towards the experience. This guidance is totally different from moral instruction, for who says your instructor teaches you the right thing? If you are on the right track it will reveal itself to you what "good" means, and again this is put more naturally in German by using "show" as an impersonal reflexive verb: Es zeigt sich.

This is, by the way, strongly reminiscentof the expressions Wittgenstein used to answer the question what the the relation between language and world is like (TLP 2.172, 4.022, 4.12ff, 4.461). He held the view that this relation is nothing you can talk about, because once you talk about it, you are again inside the realm of language. So the difference between "zeigen" and "aufweisen" (to reveal itself, to show) on the one hand and "sagen" (say) on the other hand was rather important to him in his early period.

I am just trying to convince you that this is a difference Plato found important as well and that he made it with respect to the term "good" which he held to be radically undefinable, i.e. the meaning of which he held to be ineffable. And I am sure you realize now why I think Plato, when writing the Meno, knew exactly what he was not going to write in the Republic.

6. Is there a problem?

Now to say that the meaning of "good" is ineffable is a very strong claim. Should we take it seriously?

This may be doubted: Didn’t a lot of philosophers give very interesting explanations of the meaning of the term "good"? Take Aristotle. Take Kant. Take the utilitarians, just to mention a few. - Well, perhaps rather don’t take Kant and the utilitarians, because what they were concerned with was not the meaning of the term "good" with respect to an individual good life but rather the meaning of the term "good" concerning our social decisions and actions (this is only roughly correct if you think about duties towards oneself in Kant, but I take it that you got my point).

So there remains Aristotle. But did he really define the term "good"? It might be more

appropriate to see his doctrine of the Mean (NE II 6-7) as a descriptive doctrine: A virtuous person – according to the Laches a person who knows what "good" means - happens to hit the middle between two extremes. But does this give us the meaning of "good"? Or is happening to hit the middle between two extremes just a by-product of being a virtuous person – just as happening to be approved of by all gods is just a by-product of being pious?

One might leave Aristotle aside and object to Plato that, of course grasping what "good" means is not learning by talking but learning by doing. You learn this by what Plato hates most: by imitating other persons. And you acquire a certain habit, an ethos, by imitating them. But this answer is problematic, too. For how do you know you imitate the right person?

Please don’t see these last sketchy remarks as anything like a full discussion of the problems involved here. All I wanted to show by them is that Plato’s undefinability thesis should be taken seriously. We have gathered here to talk about good life. And I am eager to learn from you what the moderns have to say about it. Plato’s opinion, I argued, was that you can’t talk about what "good" really means. He thought that all you can say about this, if you are extremely lucky, is something not very informative to others, namely: "This is it".

We should see this as a challenge.

Thank you.

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