Inductive Reasoning and the Socratic Method

Looking back on the philosophical career of Socrates, Aristotle would say that Socrates' great contributions were his quest for definitions and inductive reasoning. Aristotle (who St. Thomas Aquinas would later praise as “the master of those who know”) was surely right about Socrates. Socrates sought definitions of terms like justice and virtue, love and piety. He thought that unless one could define these terms that one didn't know what love and virtue were. He used inductive reasoning, starting with particular statements like “This generous action is virtuous,” hoping to establish more important generalizations like “All generous actions are virtuous.”

Inductive Reasoning

Socrates thought that a definition of a philosophical term provides a needed objective basis. For without the definition of an ethical term, there is no foundation for making ethical judgments. Plato's early dialogue Euthyphro provides an excellent example of this through Socrates' cross-examination of Euthyphro in an attempt to elicit a definition of piety.

Euthyphro is a prominent religious figure about to bring charges of impiety against his own father, who has been involved in the death of one of his servants. At the same time, Socrates must also concern himself with the definition, since someone has brought an indictment against him for impiety. In both cases, a vote of guilty on the charge of impiety could be a capital offense. Socrates decides to learn what piety is from Euthyphro and use that knowledge in his own defense before the court.

Socrates adopts his usual position of ignorance, saying that he needs Euthyphro to explain what it means to be pious or holy. Euthyphro first answers Socrates by defining piety as “prosecuting the wrongdoer,” as he is doing with his father. Impiety would be not prosecuting him. To this Socrates replies, “I did not ask you to tell me one or two of all the many pious actions that there are; I want to know what the concept of piety is which makes all pious actions pious.” In other words, Socrates is saying, “Don't give me an example of piety; I'm asking for a definition.”

Euthyphro tries to offer a second definition. This time he says, “What is pleasing to the gods is pious.” But Socrates replies that the Greek pantheon of gods often quarrel with one another about right and wrong, better and worse. As a result, the same act will be pleasing to one god, but not to others. So Euthyphro's own definition has led to self-contradiction. After two tries at a definition, it is apparent that Euthyphro doesn't know the meaning of the term. But shouldn't he know what piety and impiety are before he prosecutes his own father on the grounds of impiety?

Euthyprho amends his previous definition, this time saying, “Piety is what all the gods love, and impiety is what they all hate.” This definition, more general than the first, is an improvement, for it says what “all” Gods like and dislike. But Socrates asks, “Do the gods love an act because it is pious or is it pious because the gods love it?” The latter cannot be the case, for this would mean that what causes or makes the act to be pious is the god's love of it. This would mean that if god loved murder, murder would be pious. So it must be that god loves it because it's pious, not the other way around. But even if Euthyphro accepted this formulation, he would be giving an attribute of piety, not a definition of it. We need the “essence” of piety.

Socrates placed high regard on the correct definition of terms. In Plato's Cratylus, he says, “If we assign names as well as pictures to objects, the right assignment of them we may call truth, and the wrong assignment of them falsehood. … There may also be a wrong or inappropriate assignment of verbs; and if of names and verbs then of the sentences, which are made up of them.”

Socrates asks again. But Euthyphro says, “Another time, then, Socrates, for I am in a hurry, and must be off this minute.” Euthyphro cannot stand the test of Socrates' rigorous cross-examination. The dialogue ends without a definition of piety. But Socrates has shown his dialectic method and the importance of definition in ethics. Behind his quest for the definition is the idea that if you cannot define the term, you shouldn't use it.

What Socrates is interested in when it comes to definitions is a general account.

Socratic Method

Like other dialogues, Euthyphro shows that one of Socrates' lasting contributions to philosophy is his skillful method of cross-examination. What is now known as the “Socratic Method” is his manner of attaining knowledge. The method was designed to force one to examine his beliefs and the validity of such beliefs. In fact, Socrates once said, “I know you won't believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.”

The Euthyphro ends in skepticism and irony. If Euthyphro is so sure that he is doing a pious act by prosecuting his father, then why is it that he cannot even describe what piety is?

The dialogue also shows something about the effect Socrates had on his fellow citizens. Socrates can be seen as a nuisance, constantly irritating others with his logical inquiries. Euthyphro handled the cross-examination with a good spirit, but not everyone did. With his questioning Socrates is a slayer of idols. At times, nothing of a conversant's original position is left standing, as the search for truth clears away false opinions like a scythe clears away unwanted brush. All opinions must stand the test of critical examination.

How did Socrates compare himself with his mother?

His mother was a midwife, a woman trained to assist women in childbirth. Socrates thought that he, too, acted as a kind of “midwife” in seeking to help others give birth to ideas through engaging in philosophical discussions with them. In a manner of speaking, the questions he puts to Euthyphro cannot elicit the correct answer. His dialectic, however, eliminates some of Euthyphro's bad offspring.

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