Plato: Theaetetus and Arguing with Others
When we occupy ourselves with countering other people’s ideas, are we defining our own ideas in a roundabout way or just killing time? The Western style of argumentation includes a strong oppositional facet that has produced many great and lively polemics. It was noticeable that the Pre-Socratics often included a section on the idiotic beliefs of the befuddled masses, and even today, dissertations still include a section in which the scholar explains why everyone else who has written on the topic is a dope. Of course, blogging often consists of picking apart other people’s thoughts; it’s no wonder the medium gave us a term like “fisking”. Similarly, Theaetetus is a fascinating dialogue, although it basically consists of Socrates explaining why several contemporary philosophers were dopes. So, if you’re not studying the presocratics and Socrates, it might not be as interesting as a text like the Symposium.
He never really claims to have his own ideas anyway. Socrates was the son of Phaenarete, a midwife, and considers his art a form of midwifery. Notice that we know a bit more about his mother than his father, including his belief that he took after her in profession. There’s a feminine aspect of the Socrates literary character that I’ve never seen dealt with at length, although no doubt someone’s covered it by now. His strange sex appeal to his students, his support for legal gender equality in the Republic, his brief apprenticeship under the priestess in the Symposium; one wonders if it would make much difference were Plato to describe Socrates as a she.
It’s also an interesting comparison; a midwife doesn’t give birth, but helps others to. Socrates claims the god wants him to help thinkers bring forth thought, while having none of his own; but, of course, this is nonsense: Socrates develops plenty of ideas- particularly the concept of the Forms. Also, here a midwife also plays a larger role than we might expect, helping to bring young people together as well as inducing miscarriage when she deems it necessary. In terms of thought, it seems as if Socrates induces more miscarriages than births!
That’s exactly the case in Theaetetus: Socrates swats down the young mathematician Theaetetus’s attempted definitions for knowledge like they were sluggish fruit flies without offering any of his own. Some readers, understandably, find this annoying. By now, we expect this behavior from him.
What is knowledge? First, Theaetetus defines knowledge as perception. This allows Socrates to examine the claim of Protagoras that, “Man is the measure of all things.” So, we know what we perceive. Is it that simple? For instance, we know things by memory even when not perceiving them directly. And the insane, delusional, or dreaming perceive things that are not sensible. Socrates evokes the students of Heraclitus, who see all things as being in motion, in a state of becoming; thus no characteristic exists in itself, but by becoming in relation to another characteristic. Contrasting Protagoras to Heraclitus, Socrates compares motion in space with change in form, showing that the first must necessitate the second; otherwise, the same thing is in motion and at rest. He concludes that every description of every thing, all in motion and changing, must be correct. We do not perceive, but become in relation to other things. Hence, Protagoras is incorrect.
Socrates compares the view of Heraclitus, that all things are in motion, with that of Parmenides, that all things are static aspects of the One. He shies away from criticizing Parmenides, who still seems to be the closest to his own belief, and mounts a mild attack on Heraclitus. Notice, however, that the contradiction of the argument that individuals judge the characteristics of things is that characteristics have objective existence in themselves: Socrates is alluding to the Forms, while not entirely discussing them. His point is that certain concepts that are apprehended by the soul (or the intellect) beyond direct perception. His problem with the idea of knowledge as perception is that it seems to deligitimize the soul and the divine.
However, Socrates understands that the majority of men never deal with the divine. Slaves are warped by their condition and haven’t the leisure to discuss philosophy, while philosophers are content with clever arguments and never touch on the divine and pious. How many of our arguments amount to writing on water in the final analysis, even if they do convince others? For Socrates, the point of philosophy is not to persuade; truth is everything because it brings us closer to God. Nevertheless, most of our talk does not approach the divine.
Theaetetus’s next suggestion: knowledge is true opinion. False opinion, meanwhile, can be interchanged for true opinion. Socrates wonders how likely it is that we could take ugliness for beauty or odd for even. It also seems that we couldn’t be mistaken about things we know, but this is quite often just where we are wrong. “Either there is no false opinion or it is possible for a man not to know that which he knows.” (196.C) This definition seems unsatisfying as well.
Theaetetus’s last suggestion: knowledge is true opinion accompanied by reason. True opinion that comes other than by reason is not knowledge. This discussion focuses on knowing things by their components and becomes a bit tedious. The upshot is that it’s possible to know another person perfectly well without being acquainted with his components. And it is possible to have right opinion with rational explanation that is not yet rightly called knowledge.
It’s interesting that Socrates is sometimes treated as an exemplar of Western rationalism, when he is so critical of mere reason and so dependent on wisdom by divine beneficence. A main target of this dialogue is the idea that true wisdom comes empirically, when Socrates believes it comes by daemonic grace. Socratic truth is not cold or empirical, but divine and ecstatic.
I think Socrates wants us, in the end, to also be a bit unsure of how we know anything. He remarks that Theaetetus will now be kinder and gentler “for you will have the wisdom not to think you know that which you do not know.” A recurrent theme in the text is the arrogance of those who assume they are wise. In fact, there are two drives at work in the dialogue: the Greek philosophical tradition of undermining the arguments of other thinkers and the Socratic criticism of one’s own ideas as a route to humility. It’s not clear, at least to me, which aspect wins out in the end.
1. I’m not sure if it comes through, but in the back of my mind, this post pivots off of Mr. Kain’s recent post on “positive conservatism“. I think we often wonder here about the possibility of building a body of useful knowledge through internal critique, or by entirely other means.
2. Before we put Socrates back in the grave, I’d like to cover Sophist, Statesman, and Ion, at least. Feel free to recommend others.
3. I’d also like to spend a bit more time on Confucius, who we touched on briefly.