Saturday, June 14, 2008

Socrates and belief holism

In a post Thursday, Dan wrote about Leibniz:

"Leibniz writes, “In every true affirmative proposition, whether necessary or contingent, universal or particular, the notion of the predicate is in some way included in that of the subject (FW 111-2).”

"As he develops this line of thought, he ends up meaning something much stronger and controversial: (a) the complete concept of any substance S includes all the predicates P true of it; (b) the only way that one can refer to S is through its complete concept; and (c) for each S there is and can only be one complete concept (tantamount to saying that no two complete concepts do or could refer to the same thing)."

He goes on to make a point much different from what I am about to make. I know no more about Leibniz than any sophomore who has taken a history of modern philosophy survey. So I am making no claim about what Leibniz thought.

However, when Dan say that Leibniz's claim from FW 111-2 means "the complete concept of any substance S includes all predicates P true of it," I am thinking that sounds like the conceptual or belief holism to which I think Socrates is committed. So you are asking, "just what is conceptual holism?" It is the doctrine that concepts are not discrete, atomistic entities, such that you could acquire or understand one concept without also acquiring or understanding a bunch of concepts related to it. To understand the concept "tree," you would need to understand the concept plant, something about the concept animal, something about different cells that distinghuish trees from grasses or other plants, and so on. To be sure, you might be able to identify trees good enough to build a shelter, or to make a fire, but you would not understand the concept unless you understood a host of related concepts. So I take it when Leibniz says "the complete concept of any substance S includes all predicates P true of it," I take that to express a commitment to conceptual holism.

Socrates, I believe, was committed to conceptual holism. That is what, in my view, motivates some of his elenctic examinations. He asks an interlocutor about some moral concept that arises in their conversation. With Euthyphro, Socrates comes to ask him about the relationships between piety and justice. With Charmides (I am going from memory here) about relationships between temperance and courage (or wisdom). Socrates' view is, in my view, that if a person understands, has, the concept piety, for example, that person would be able to identify all predicates true of it, i.e. the web of concepts related to it. So when he examines interlocutors to see if they understand what they are claiming, he asks them about the closely related concepts. And if they are confused about them, it entails that they are confused about the main concept under discussion.
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