On Euthyphro’s Frustration (An Occasional Philosophical Note #1)

Note: with this post I am beginning a series of shorter posts to lay out specific foundational issues illustrated in basic philosophical texts which, for my purposes, I will take at face value (i.e., I am not “deconstructing” them or some such, but using them to ponder basic problems about the prevailing premises, preoccupations, and direction of Western philosophy). 

In Plato’s The Euthyphro, the character Euthyphro struggles trying to supply what Socrates wants: an essential definition of piety. For Plato, this is a definition consistent with the Platonist metaphysics of universals (or forms) as the primary reality — abstractions grasped by intellect alone as being “real” while our immediate experience of concrete objects and events delivers, at best, an unreliable concatenation of particulars.

Euthyphro’s efforts fail in increasingly interesting ways, of course, and finally, out of frustration, he abandons the conversation. The dialogue drips with Socratic irony: Euthyphro (as every introductory philosophy student learns) is prosecuting his father for the neglectful murder of a slave, and this action bespeaks of a man well advanced in wisdom. Socrates alone knows that he is not wise, and has implored Euthyphro to teach him. We are to see Socrates as the wise one, of course, and Euthyphro as a pretender.

But why should we attribute Euthyphro’s frustration and ultimate abandonment of the project at the end of the dialogue to his lack of wisdom, or insight, or ability? If we make the contrary supposition that Plato, and Aristotle in a somewhat different way, were wrong, because there are no “universals” (only universal ideas, or universal statements), then Euthyphro’s frustration is explained and perhaps justified.

Suppose, furthermore, that all knowledge obtained by human means really is local (as an anthropologist like Cliffort Geertz or the philosopher Paul Feyerabend would insist): tied to specific concrete practices, problem-solutions, events, personalities. In that case, the situation in Western philosophy is far more serious. For it follows that the Platonist premise of free abstractions as primary metaphysical realities, in some kind of hierarchy with the Good at the very top, and abstract certainty achieved through pure intellection as the primary criterion for knowing, threw the entire philosophical enterprise off track around 2,400 years ago! In that case, all the “system-builders” turn out to be wrong; the “system-smashers” turn out to be right. That the “quest for certainty” seems always to have ended in skepticism if pushed with sufficient ruthlessness, or to have devolved into some kind of anthropological cultural relativism or compromising pragmatism which (possibly sensibly) has relaxed requirements for knowing, is a telling further consideration.


About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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