The unexamined life is not worth living” Apology

Socrates (470 -399 BC)Socrates

Although Socrates  famously claimed to know nothing, he clearly did believe that it was important to understand the meaning of the words you used. What’s more he used a method, the elenchus (literally: refutation) which we can use today in our quest for wisdom. The elenchus can be summarised in 4 steps:-

1. Think of a word or concept that is in need of clarification

The elenchus is best suited to disputed, ambiguous, ethical terms (like tolerance,  or the good life).


2. Offer a provisional definition

Not just a synonym, but an account that helps distinguish cases of X from cases which aren’t X, and which will help us attain X. The definition will provide

Necessary conditions -  prerequisites e.g. to be reading this, you need to be human

Sufficient conditions - guarantees e.g. being unmarried and male are jointly sufficient for being a bachelor.


3. Try to refute the definition

Look for exceptions, which can be either:

i) Examples which are cases of X but which don’t fit this definition

ii) Examples which fit this definition but aren’t examples of X


4. Refine or alter the definition to take into account the exceptions

If you can adapt your definition – else start from scratch. Continue until you can find no exceptions!