Elenctic Definitions

Part of the Modern Studies in Philosophy book series


In the Socratic dialogues1 there are scattered remarks about the nature of definitions and the criteria for good definitions. There are also examples of what Socrates seems to believe are good definitions—of courage in the Protagoras (360D); of quickness in the Laches (192A). The definition of courage in the Protagoras emerges in the course of the Socratic elenchus. The definition of quickness in the Laches does not; it is stated flatly, without defense or argument, as if it was obviously a paradigm of a correct definition (La., 192A-B). Such definitions as the one of courage in the Protagoras I shall call “elenctic definitions” meaning a definition (typically of an ethical term) in the purported discovery of which the Socratic elenchus plays an essential role. To correspond to the division of dialogues into the Socratic and the later ones, I shall distinguish elenctic definitions in the Socratic dialogues (Socratic definitions, for short) from elenctic definitions in the later dialogues (Platonic definitions, for short). My object in this essay is to explain the nature and availability of elenctic definitions.


Specific Difference Definite Description Correct Definition Dictionary Definition True Definition 
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  1. 3.
    See F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge (London: Kegan Paul, 1935), pp. 184–85.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    See Richard Robinson, Plato’s Earlier Dialectic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1941), p. 55.Google Scholar

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© Gregory Vlastos 1971

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