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Volume 10, 1984

Jeffrey Gold
Pages 573-588

Socratic Definition
Real or Nominal?

In Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates frequently asks questions of the form “What is X?” seeking definitions of the substitution instances of X (e.g., Justice, Piety, and Courage). In attempting to elucidate Socratic definition, a number of interpreters have invoked a distinction between real and nominal definition (the distinction between the definition of a thing and the definition of a word. In using that distinction, several interpreters have pointed out that, when Socrates asked his “What is X” question (e.g., “What is Justice?”), he was not seeking a nominal definition (a definition of the word ‘διχαιοσύνή’), but rather a real definition (a definition of the thing, Justice). My purpose in this paper is to argue that the preceding interpretation of Socratic thought is mistaken, i.e., I shall argue that there is no real/nominal distinction to be found in the Socratic dialogues.

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