The earliest Greek philosophers didn’t really ask ‘what is?’ questions. Rather than quibble over the meaning of words, they tried to solve specific problems by creating bold explanatory theories. And, if critical discussion revealed that an explanation drew untenable or illogical consequences, then they’d try to create a better one.
Beginning with Socrates, however, this explanatory approach to knowledge started to fade into a descriptive one. After he recognized that the Ionian’s purely materialistic philosophies failed to account for the consequences of our words, thoughts, and intentions, he turned his gaze from the heavens to the soul — to problems a bit closer to home; to things like justice, beauty, and goodness.
Naturally, then, Socrates became interested in what everything is in and of itself. If, for example, someone claimed that people ought to be happy, he would ask what happiness is, and then watch ’em stumble to describe it.
Description & the Problem of Universals
We all know what things like happiness, heartbreak, and hope are like, but does anyone know what they really are? Is happiness, say, made of some kind of substance? Does it have a shape? Does it exist apart from someone who is happy? What about cars? No two cars are really the same, but we all know what we mean when we say ‘car.’ But, is a car no longer a car if it loses its headlights? Its doors? Steering wheel? What if we got rid of every actual car, would the concept of car still exist? If so, where would it exist? And what would its existence be like?…