A Definition of Philosophy Based on Socrates’ Behavior in the Plato Dialogues

My younger sister, Jennifer, just asked me what I was doing. I answered that I was writing an essay on Philosophy. She replied “Philosophy of what?” That is the perfect example of how many people think of philosophy, only as the core of something else.

For instance, “The Philosophy of Dance”. In that phrase, Philosophy would mean “Essence”. But what is philosophy itself? Since I have only just begun to study philosophy, I don’t claim to know what it is, but I do think that because the more one studies philosophy, the more questions it raises, philosophy is a very elusive thing which might even be improbable, if not entirely impossible, to define.

To define something is to pin it down, and it must be definite, a certainty. Can one ever really be certain of what philosophy is? I think philosophy is a lot like a lizard that loses its tail as soon as you catch it, and it leaves you chasing after it again. With that being said, I feel one can only come very close to the essence of philosophy, and only by asking many questions.

In the dialogue titled “Euthyphro”, Socrates asks Euthyphro about the nature of piety and impiety. Euthyphro responds by giving examples of pious actions. Socrates is not satisfied with this answer, and continues to ask questions because he wants to know the nature of piety itself “what is characteristic of piety which makes all pious actions pious and all impious actions impious? (Arthur 5).” Like piety, Philosophy is not easy to define because one can describe what philosophers do, but not exactly what Philosophy itself is.

The word Philosophy is Greek for “love/pursuit of knowledge”, but for Socrates philosophy is so much more than that. Socrates does not merely love knowledge. For Socrates knowledge is a way of life, in fact, the only way. When faced with the opportunity to escape death on the condition that Socrates quit “philosophizing”, Socrates would rather die. Socrates also mentions that people should not fear death since they don’t know what it will be like. This shows that Socrates mind is always open to new possibilities. In Socrates time, many people simply believed what they were told, but Socrates did not just accept any answer.

Socrates spent most of his life as a drifter who was passionate about asking people questions. Socrates believes that was his purpose in life, and he says “I must set the god’s command above everything. So I had to go to every man who seemed to possess any knowledge, and investigate the meaning of the oracle (Arthur 14).” And so, I believe that based on what Socrates does, philosophy is asking questions, and never taking anything for granted. Socrates never just assumes anything, he asks as many people as he can in order to be absolutely certain. In order to really begin to know and understand something, one must ask many questions about it. It is only through this process of questioning that we begin to learn.

By asking questions, one can gain possible answers and learn more about the topic s/he is trying to learn about. I say “possible answers” because, like Socrates, the person who is asking the questions should never assume that the answer they receive is the correct one either. There are many (maybe even an infinite amount) of answers to one question, especially when that question is about such an abstract concept.

In applying this concept of philosophy to everyday life, I might ask “Is the ocean blue?” One can look into an ocean and see that it LOOKS blue, but as Socrates implies, Appearance and Reality do not always coincide. In order to test my hypothesis, I can gather samples of ocean water, read about the ocean, and ask as many people as possible if the ocean is blue. However, there are many oceans, and therefore just as many answers to my question. The answers I receive will be as varied as the people I ask. People in Hawaii would probably agree that the ocean is blue, but people in New Jersey might say the ocean is brown! Some scientists might say that the ocean is colorless, and what one might perceive as blue is actually just the reflection of the sky. (But is the sky really blue?). Until I examine all of these possible answers, I can never really be absolutely certain if the ocean is blue or not.

My example above concerned the color of the ocean, but it also raises questions about the color of the sky. I believe that a good question should elicit further questioning, according to Socrates’ actions. If Socrates were alive today (one can’t be too sure if his immortal soul is still around or not) he might even ask “but is the ocean really there at all?” This just goes to show that Socrates never just assumes anything. Yes, one can see, feel, and experience the ocean with all the other senses, but is it real or just an illusion? This might even become an endless cycle of questions, but the more I answer, the closer I come to knowing my subject.

To conclude, based on Socrates’ actions, I think that philosophy is the science of asking many questions, which in turn raises more questions which must be answered in order to know or understand something.

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