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Cause, definition, and explanation in Plato

Thomas Allen Blackson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The aim of this dissertation is to take a fresh look at Plato's thought on cause and definition and the connection of these topics to explanation. I trace and examine the development of his thought from certain early definitional dialogues through parts of the Hippias Major to Socrates' autobiography in the Phaedo and beyond to the Timaeus. The result of my investigation is a very different interpretation of Plato's views from the one currently accepted by scholars. Commentators on Plato have made a mistake by trying to see him as anticipating Aristotle's Doctrine of the Four Causes. Plato does not suppose, as Aristole is often claimed to suppose, that the Greek noun 'aitia' has several senses. Furthermore, Plato does not distinguish kinds of "causes" (aitia) and kinds of "explanations" (aitiai) in the way that many suppose Aristole does. Plato's views on cause and definition, and the connection of these topics to explanation, are different from those of his famous pupil, Aristotle. Perhaps the most striking difference between their views concerns cause and definition. In the Hippias Major, Plato supposes that the search for definitions is a search for definitional ways to specify causes. He firmly renounces this view in the Phaedo, and he never again thinks of definition in this way in his post-Phaedo searches for definitions. Thus, far from proposing, in the style of Aristotle, that definitions specify a kind of cause and that definitional explanations are acceptable, Plato concludes in his post-Phaedo dialogues that definitions, as such, do not specify causes at all and that definitional explanations are not one of many possible kinds of explanation.

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Recommended Citation

Blackson, Thomas Allen, "Cause, definition, and explanation in Plato" (1988). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8822640.