Class #2

Elements of Western Philosophy


Lecture PowerPoint Deck

Our first reading is a Western rather than a Chinese philosophical text: Plato's "Euthyphro" - access it from the link above. The purpose of discussing a Platonic dialogue will be to a establish a "baseline" that will allow us to compare our Chinese philosophers with a very simplistic model of some foundational features of Western philosophy, a model that I will build in class.

Plato (c. 428‑347 B.C.) was probably the single most influential figure in the history of Western philosophy. More than any other person, Plato set the agenda of issues that has come to define what "philosophy" means to us.  Plato lived in Greece and was a student of Socrates, who first demonstrated the importance of philosophy by using it to such irritating effect that the assembled citizens of Athens decided to have him put to death in 399 BCE. Plato was also the teacher of Aristotle, whose ideas are on a par with Plato's in terms of later influence. We are reading a selection from Plato's writings to get a picture of the nature of early Western critical thinking. This will allow us to sharpen the view we get of Chinese philosophy by contrast.

Plato's philosophy is expressed through a series of dramatic dialogues, in which the leading figure is Socrates. The "Euthyphro" is one of the earliest and simplest of these dialogues, but it includes a number of the issues which became central to Plato's thought and to philosophy in the West.

In the "Euthyphro", the action begins as Socrates arrives at the Porch of King Archon, where lawsuits of certain types were prosecuted. Socrates has come to answer the indictment for impiety which will lead to his death. There he meets Euthyphro, who is known as a prophetic seer. Euthyphro is a man without doubts. He has arrived, full of self-righteousness, to file an accusation of murder against his own father. Socrates could never leave people like Euthyphro alone.

The most characteristic feature of Socrates, as we know him through Plato, is that he proclaims himself in perpetual doubt, seeking for someone who can show him certain truth. The "Euthyphro" shows how Socrates' claim of doubt is a powerful intellectual tool, able to undermine every attempt which Euthyphro makes to claim certain knowledge. 

In class, we will use the "Euthyphro" to derive a set of general axioms and corollaries that are common to much of mainstream philosophy in the Western tradition. Throughout the course, we will use these features as touchstones for contrastive analysis of the foundations of the philosophical enterprise in China. Therefore, it will be valuable for all your work in this course if you take the time to read the "Euthyphro" with careful attention, questioning what features of the basic undertaking of "philosophy" this dialogue reveals.

 Here are some questions to help you focus on key aspects of the "Euthyphro"

-- What it is that makes Socrates "philosophical" while Euthyphro is not. 

-- What sorts of questions does Socrates ask and what answers Euthyphro give? 

-- What are the central issues which Plato was dealing with when he wrote this dialogue, and what does giving "definitions" have to do with these issues? 

-- What does Socrates do with each of Euthyphro's definitions--what is the "punch line" of each stage of the argument?

-- What is the "Euthyphro" trying to teach us?