Universal Definitions

Ever since Plato wrote his early (Socratic) dialogues, a certain idea has been dominant in Western philosophy: the idea that we should strive for universal and trans-historical definitions of concepts. This is exactly what the Socratic dialogues attempt to do, but they end without a solution. In this essay, I want to challenge this Platonist conception and defend the oppositethe Nietzscheanargument.

In his late work, The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche speaks critically of the ‘Egyptianism’ of philosophers. Egyptianism is the thinker’s tendency to rip out concepts from their context and history, mummify them, drain all vitality and dynamism from them, treat them as static, unchanging entities.

You ask me what all idiosyncrasy is in philosophers? … For instance their lack of the historical sense, their hatred even of the idea of Becoming, their Egyptianism. They imagine that they do honour to a thing by divorcing it from history sub specie aeterniwhen they make a mummy of it. All the ideas that philosophers have treated for thousands of years have been mummied concepts; nothing real has ever come out of their hands alive. (Nietzsche, 1889/2007, p. 17)

The Platonic approach to philosophy, with its emphasis on definitions, is the perfect example of this: Plato tries to find such universal truths hidden behind the everyday usage of words like “piety” (Euthyphro), “justice” (Republic), “courage” (Laches), “temperance” (Charmides), “knowledge” (Theaetetus), “love” (Symposium), and so on. For Nietzsche, Plato and his followers ignore history because that’s what you have to do if you want universal definitions. Every concept has a history and “only something which has no history can be defined” (Nietzsche, 1887/2006, p. 53.) because “that which is cannot evolve; that which evolves is not” (Nietzsche, 1889/2007, p. 17). Plato would think that if this were true, then knowledge would be impossible, but there’s no reason to be so demanding. Perhaps this means that no ‘certain knowledge’ is possible, but so what? Is this such a disaster?

In fact humanity has accumulated quite a respectable amount of knowledge without ever succeeding in finding universally agreed formal ‘definitions’ of most of the major subjects of human interest. Do we have universally agreed definitions of ‘law’, ‘morality’, ‘religion’, even ‘science’? If the Platonist insists that a definition-based form of certain knowledge is ‘necessary’, one should ask why. Nietzsche’s suspicion is that the ‘necessity’ in question is a need which is rooted finally in the philosopher-king’s ‘need’ to claim to have certain indubitable knowledge in order to justify his rule and crack the whip over the subject population in the ideal city. (Geuss, 2017, p. 189.)

Perhaps you’ve experienced this elusiveness of living concepts. When you try to abstract some concept you use every day, it becomes hard to define:

… you have surely noticed the curious fact that a certain word, which is perfectly clear when you hear or use it in everyday speech, and which presents no difficulty when caught up in the rapidity of an ordinary sentence, becomes mysteriously cumbersome, offers a strange resistance, defeats all efforts at definition, the moment you withdraw it from circulation for separate study and try to find its meaning after taking away its temporary function. It is almost comic to inquire the exact meaning of a term that one uses constantly with complete satisfaction. For example: I stop the word Time in its flight. This word was utterly limpid, precise, honest, and faithful in its service as long as it was part of a remark and was uttered by someone who wished to say something. But here it is, isolated, caught on the wing. It takes its revenge. It makes us believe that it has more meanings than uses. It was only a means, and it has become an end, the object of a terrible philosophical desire. It turns into an enigma, an abyss, a torment of thought. (Valéry, 1977, p. 139)

I’m sure anyone familiar with Begriffsgeschichte or the Cambridge School of intellectual history can appreciate just how useful a historical treatment of concepts can be. We can learn a lot from studying how the meanings of terms change depending on context. We can benefit from not treating philosophy as a chain of arguments stretching back to the Presocratics because that’s not what the history of philosophy tells us.

  • Geuss, R. (2017). Changing the Subject: Philosophy from Socrates to Adorno. Harvard University Press.
  • Nietzsche, F. (2006). On the Genealogy of Morality. Cambridge University Press. (Original work published 1887)
  • Nietzsche, F. (2007). Twilight of the Idols with the Antichrist and Ecce Homo, Wordsworth Editions. (Original work published 1889)
  • Valéry, P. (1977). An Anthology. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: