Thrasymachos’ theory of justice

Introduction: concept mapping philosophical argument  –  In this post I will quickly introduce the technique of conceptual analysis as described in Thinking with Concepts of Wilson (1963, partial preview). Wilson illustrates the technique with a number of cases. Taking the first case, I will use concept mapping and structured writing to give a short account of Wilson´s approach and the case in question. The case is Thrasymachos’ defense of (in)justice in book I of Plato’s Republic, a classic piece in more than one sense.

Conceptual analysis  –   Conceptual analysis is a key methodology of the school of linguistic philosophy that flourished in Cambridge and Oxford from around 1930 onwards. Conceptual analysis can be used to answer conceptual questions (“What is truth?”) or to critically assess philosophical passages. In mixed questions, moral and factual issues must first be separated from the conceptual questions. The latter can then be clarified using model, related, or invented cases. All the while, one must beware of distortions of various types, while remaining sensitive to the underlying plausibility of the arguments used in the passage. Click on the thumbnail for the full concept map.

Thrasymachos’ definition of “right”  –  Thrasymachos is a celebrated sophist who is debated by Socrates on the nature of justice in the Republic (Plato, 380 BC). Thrasymachos equals justice to that which is right and defines right as that which is in the interest of the state’s rulers [section 338e]. These make laws accordingly, irrespective of the form of government, be it a tyranny, democracy, or aristocracy. The laws tell subjects what is right so as to serve the rulers.

Socratic method   –   Socrates is most famously known for the Socratic method (“elenchus”), which he uses for refutation. Socrates compares his role with that of a midwife. He approaches Thrasymachos´ concept of justice with a series of questions:

  • Are rulers infallible?                                                                           Thrasymachos: No
  • May they make bad laws?                                                                 Thrasymachos: Yes
  • Are badly made laws not in their interest?                                    Thrasymachos: Indeed
  • Must subjects not obey laws, because to do so is right?               Thrasymachos: Yes
  • Then it is right for subjects to do things that are not right
    (i.e. not in the rulers’ interests)?                   (puzzlement)           Thrasymachos: #%*&?!
  • Does this not contradict Thrasymachos’ definition?                     Others: indeed!

According to Thrasymachos there is no contradiction: rulers who make laws that are not to their advantage are not rulers, as simple as that.

Wilson’s comments  –  Wilson uses his method of conceptual analysis to make a number of points, e.g.:

  1. With regard to Thrasymachos’ proposition “justice is what is right”: “is” = “means”, but “means” can have 2 meanings: (a) is linguistically equivalent; or (b) is in practice identifiable. The latter may be the case, the first not.
  2. A justice that favours the ruling class cannot always be right
  3. Subjects can define too what is right. May differ from what rulers say.
  4. Whether or not ruling classes make laws that favour them is a question of fact. Suffises to ask historians/sociologists. This is not likely to say much about justice.

The first comment is interesting in that it looks at the meaning of the predicate in a proposition. The fourth comment is interesting as an expression of the realization that a proposition is in fact a question of fact rather than a conceptual issue. Numbers 2 and 3 are observations of distortion or lack of plausibility.

Criticism of Plato  –   Socrates never wrote anything. We cannot exclude that Plato, even if he was present at the debates of his teacher, used these debates for his own purpose. If he did, Thrasymachos was no more than a character in Plato’s Republic brought in for stylistic and didactical purposes. Even if this was not the case, there are so many subtleties in the formulation of the arguments that it is hard to believe that anybody, even if he is called Plato and has a perfectly trained memory, could give a coherent account of the debate and stay objectively faithful to the historical event at the same time. It is interesting to note that the Socratic argument does not appeal to moral or ethical standards, but is is factual and syllogistic instead.

Conclusion  –   Clearly, the Republic is philosophical training material that aims to preserve the essence of the debate. Philosophy is dialectical in nature. This was rediscovered by Toulmin and Perelman in the 20th century. Dialogue or debate is a powerful way of advancing truth or wisdom. This applies as much to conceptual analysis as it does to the Socratic method. The propositional structure of concept maps is highly suited for bringing out the essence of the Socratic debate and setting the stage for further internal dialogue or small-group debate.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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