McGowan: Men and the Socratic ho ti esti Question

April 3, 2024

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

When I used to bartend, people advised me to keep a dictionary handy, that and the works of Shakespeare. Patrons could then resolve many arguments by resorting to those two sources. While dictionaries are especially useful for peace in a tavern or a bar, it has not always been so.

Centuries before they arrived in western civilization, Sumerian and Chinese dictionaries had been produced. However, no English dictionary appeared in western civilization until Robert Cawdrey’s “A Table Alphabetical” in 1604. Hence, dictionaries did not exist in ancient Greece and people lacked words to classify individual objects into kinds of things. While we think red socks and blue socks are not different kinds of things, people in the ancient world thought of them as individual, particular things. 

The world of thinking changed, though, through Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Socrates intuited the need for definitions, i.e., concepts, that would enable people to sort the objects in the world; Plato, Socrates’s student, worked on creating definitions by asking the ho ti esti question, the “what is it” question; and Aristotle, Plato’s student, set about determining how definitions should be established. A definition must identify and include all objects of a kind and exclude all other objects. “Glove” can help identify objects and can include a baseball glove or a mitten, inasmuch as both serve the same function: they protect a person’s hand. The word “glove” cannot be used to refer to pants or a house. 

Plato established the ground rules for formulating definitions. His dialogues always had a ho ti esti discussion of ideas related to ethics. In the dialogue “Meno,” the “what is it” question is about virtue. In his famous “Republic,” the central question asks after the essence of justice. In the “Symposium,” the question focuses on love, what it is and what it is not.

Aristotle brought the same line of thinking to the natural world and realized that some informative statements about an object do not tell us what it is. Stumbling around at night, a person might kick a chair, or a table, or a wall, but the word “hard” does not tell us what object was kicked. In class, I used to take off a shoe and throw it into the hall. I’d ask my students, “Does the change of place, from classroom to hallway, tell what the object is?” “No,” they said, “it is still a shoe.”

So, we may conclude that knowing where a thing is, in the classroom or in the hall, does not tell us what the thing is even if it provides correct information about the object. The word “blue” does not tell us what the object is. An object’s color does not differentiate one blue object from another blue object. Blue socks and blue gloves are not differentiated by the color blue. Or, knowing the color of an object does not allow us to answer the “what is it” question. And if the last statement is true, then it is immediately apparent that race inadequately answers the ho ti esti question regarding a “human being.”

Thomas Jefferson, therefore, could write that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In a disastrous turn, though, the word “men” was treated by policy makers as exclusively masculine, not the generic, all-encompassing “man” used widely by writers, essayists and politicians. As well, policy in America used color to define people. The history of the United States shows a more developed and better understanding of “human being.”

Along the way to the development of a fuller understanding of “human being,” though, the denigration of men occurred. Thus, the Brittanica dictionary can include in its explanation of sexism this gem: “The extreme form of sexist ideology is misogyny, the hatred of women.” And never once mention the word used for the extreme hatred of men. When I taught, I used to ask my students what the hatred of women is called. About 75 percent knew the word “misogyny.”  No student, in my 40-plus years teaching, knew the word for the hatred of men.

The Oxford Language dictionary says sexism is “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex; sexism in language is an offensive reminder of the way the culture sees women.” Again, the dictionary directs readers to one sex as being victim to sexist behavior in the same way “men” in the Declaration of Independence directs people to think of liberty only in terms of men.

In other words, words have power to influence, a not-so-novel idea. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, in its simplest form, is that language shapes perception. Hear the word “yellow” three times and the eyes find yellow objects. Not using the word for the hatred of men when providing a definition of “sexism” leads a person to see sexism only when women are the burdened. All those court decisions that separated children from their fathers in divorce proceedings? Not sexism. All those men drafted into the military? Not sexism. Sara Ruddick stating in her book “Maternal Thinking” that a parent who takes care of the children on a daily basis is “a mother no matter what the sex?” Not sexism. Articles on parenting in publications never using the word ‘father?’ Not sexism.

So you know: The hatred of men is called “misandry” and a proper definition of sexism would include men, who also suffer “prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination.”

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. Citations viewable at


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabetical (1604), treating some 3,000 words. In 1746–47 Samuel Johnson undertook the most ambitious English dictionary to that time, a list of 43,500 words.”

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Chapter VI, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll,_and_What_Alice_Found_There/Chapter_VI#:~:text=%22When%20I%20use%20a%20word,master%20%E2%80%94%E2%80%94that’s%20all.%22


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