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Did Socrates actually say, "The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms"?

The aphorism, "The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms" is often attributed to Socrates, but I could not find any evidence for this attribution on the interwebs.

I did find this forum discussion on StraightDope.com - What does Socrates mean by this quote?, where one of the discussants wrote,

...I doubt that this is a quote. It does correspond roughly to the story about the Oracle that Socrates tells in the Apology. The story is roughly (and be wary of me as you ought be of the quote); the Oracle says Socrates is the wisest around, so Socrates seeks to see why this could be so. Socrates studies other possibly wise men, but he thinks that neither of them really know anything. However, he thinks he has the advantage in that, contra these others, he doesn't think he knows.

Someone asked this question on AskPhilosophers.org, and the reply he or she received is probably the most accurate answer:

QUESTION: I have heard the saying "the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms" attributed to Socrates. I can't find a dependable source for this (or for attributing it to anyone else) Can you point me to a source or let me know if you believe this attribution to be invalid ?

RESPONSE FROM NICKOLAS PAPPAS ON MAY 23, 2013: When I saw your question the phrase struck me as unknown in Plato’s writings. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, so I did a search through all his dialogues looking for some plausible Greek analogue to “beginning of wisdom.” I did not find your quote. I did notice, in the process, that it pops up around the Internet; but then so do other sayings supposedly in Plato’s works, like “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” or “Be kind, because everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” Those two don’t correspond to anything in Plato, but they are widely attributed to him. {continued...}

There is also a quote in this academic paper, The phronesis of conservation criminology phraseology : a genealogical and dialectical narrative by Friedo J.W. Herbig, in Phronimon, Volume 15, Issue 2, Jan 2014, p. 1 - 17:

An apposite truism attributed to Socrates, which can be related to the issue at hand, was in fact: "Η αρχή της σοφίας είναι ο καθορισμός των όρων", literally translated as "The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms", encapsulating the intrinsic thrust of this narrative.

As I write this Question, I'm beginning to think that perhaps I found the 'answer'. But just to make sure, I thought I would ask the question here as well.

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    I think it actually is linked to the Apology, specifically Socrates' reflections on poets. They include the thought that although they touch the souls of men, they do not really know the meaning of their words, and therefore cannot be considered wise. But asking if people (sophists in particular) actually know what the words they use mean is rather a part of the Socratic method. It is, in some way, a description of what makes him a wiseman. – Philip Klöcking Aug 5 '17 at 12:12
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    Also a quick search of Perseus doesn't match the key terms in a sentence in Plato (perseus.tufts.edu) – virmaior Aug 6 '17 at 4:55
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There's at least two reasons to suggest that Socrates never said this (though one of the reasons makes it so that it's unlikely one could definitively say this).

Reason #1: Socrates did not write anything down. What we have where Socrates speaks are three sources: (1) The Clouds by Aristophanes (wiki), the writings of Plato, and the writings of Xenephon (http://www.iep.utm.edu/xenophon/).

The most well-known (and most central to philosophy) of these three is Plato. So I'm going to limit my consideration to Plato in the rest of the answer.

Plato's Socrates should not be understood as a modern form of quotation. Much of it, in fact, appears to be more a character named Socrates that serves as a mouthpiece for Plato's own views. For this reason, people tend to divide Plato's dialogues into early and late with the early dialogues representing something we think is closer to what Socrates himself thought and the latter dialogues representing Plato's philosophical system and the critiques he sees of it (for more you can look at Kierkegaard's treatment in Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript inter alia).

Thus, it's hard to say what Socrates himself did and did not say.

On to the second reason. Working with Plato's Socrates, there's a sentiment that's partially amenable to his views, it's doubtful he would say:

The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms

First off, the similarity is that in several dialogues such as Meno and Euthyphro, a key question is "What is justice?" or "what is piety?" Thus, on a certain definition of "terms," one might think Socrates (Plato's Socrates) would be sympathetic to the idea that wisdom is about defining terms.

But the devil is in the details here. The things Socrates thinks we need clear knowledge about are not terms but ideas. Idea in the Platonic vocabulary has a special meaning relating to Plato's Forms (the two can be thought of as largely synonymous).

For Plato, justice and piety are not mere terms -- instead they are things that have an eternal absolute certain definition that stands above the divided line of the Republic. These forms are in early dialogues things that we as mere humans don't seem to know but in later dialogues are something we need to be brought to recollect and have knowledge of from before. Moreover, things in the world are flawed copies of these forms -- not phenomenon to which we assign terms. To reiterate, Plato thinks we need clarity on the forms which are not mere terms.

The distinction is important in part because Plato's metaphysics centers on these forms and it is precisely at this point where Aristotle differs in having a hylomorphic (rather than solely transcendental) essences. In the west, it is not until late medieval philosophy (Ockham and Buridan) that we get a dominant view that looks at terms (=nominalism) rather than thinking there's objectively correct concepts we are looking at.


A second feature of the quote that is all quasi-Socratic is that the Apology points out that the oracle has inscribed: "Know thyself" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythia) and that Socrates puts this to good use in the Apology in suggesting that his wisdom is that he followed this advice....

But the problem is that Socrates in Apology takes the thing he knows to be that he knows nothing -- rather than that he has solid knowledge of the definition of terms.


My conjecture is that the quote would be manufactured by a 19th or 20th century school of logic, because it's not really compatible with Plato's system or with Neoplatonism (Plotinus, Augustine) and that earlier nominalist approaches would view Socrates as an opponent rather than hijackable hero for their cause.

  • How do I give 5 upvotes? ;0) Thank you so much @virmaior - I now have 3 words to look up, and at least a half dozen books to read to better understand the concepts and philosophical debates you referenced. An ideal circumstance IMHO. – Mark D Worthen PsyD Aug 6 '17 at 19:09
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Here is my opinion about the solution of your riddle: Socrates did not talk about the definition of terms but about the awareness of the own ignorance as the beginning of wisdom (apology, reported by Plato). Ignorance may also be translated as limitation. Defining and delimiting are closely related words. Therefore your source may have mistaken one for the other.

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