Doing Philosophy

Julia Annas

  • The ‘Theaetetus’ of Plato translated by M.J. Levett and Myles Burnyeat
    Hackett, 351 pp, £20.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 915144 82 4

‘The common reproach against me is that I am always asking questions of other people but never express my own views about anything, because there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough.’ So says Socrates at 150c of Plato’s Theaetetus, presenting himself as the barren midwife who can help deliver others of beliefs – in this case about knowledge – and test them by argument, but who does so ad hominem, uncommitted to a philosophical view of his own. An anonymous commentator on the dialogue, writing probably in the late first century BC, notes of this passage: ‘Some say, as a result of passages like these, that Plato belongs in the sceptical Academy, since he holds no beliefs.’ Socrates perhaps, but Plato holds no beliefs? And, especially, no beliefs about knowledge?

If we look at dialogues other than the Theaetetus, we are reassured that Plato does hold beliefs – quite a lot, and philosophically distinctive, especially about knowledge. In the Republic, for example, we find that the person most entitled to claim knowledge is the philosopher, and to achieve this she must complete many years of demanding intellectual studies in order to grasp the system of Forms in the light of the Form of the Good. The ambitious knower is rewarded for long struggle by achieving understanding of a teleological and hierarchically-structured system of a priori connections. Most people, even in ideal conditions, have scant hope of achieving such demanding standards. When in the Theaetetus we find Socrates testing young Theaetetus’s suggestions as to what knowledge is, it is surely natural to think that Plato has the Republic’s conditions for knowledge in mind in some way. But in the actual dialogue we find the following main suggestions: knowledge is perception, knowledge is true judgment, knowledge is true judgment with a logos (whatever that is; let us just fill in with ‘account’). Each suggestion is extensively discussed; much attention is given to problems of perception, false belief and parts and wholes, but Forms are nowhere mentioned, and although Plato distinguishes senses of ‘account’ he nowhere mentions the one he puts to extensive use in the Republic. The upshot of the dialogue is negative: we have failed to find what knowledge is, says Socrates. Or rather, Theaetetus has; he never claimed to have a suggestion.

Are we to interpret Socrates’s ignorance by way of Plato’s beliefs? The most robust form of this response, current since the 1930s in the work of F.M. Cornford, takes it that Plato knows perfectly well all the time what knowledge is; he told us that in the Republic, and the Theaetetus is designed to lead us to ‘this old conclusion’ by showing that accounts of knowledge are doomed to failure if they leave Forms out. Plato has the answer up his sleeve; the arguments demolish positions that he himself does not take seriously.

Few scholars would now accept the Cornford view as it stands; most have a considerably reduced view of what Plato holds about knowledge at the time of writing the Theaetetus. Yet not many of them question Cornford’s most important assumption: that, faced with an ignorant Socrates, what we need to do is to postulate a Plato who holds philosophical beliefs outside the dialogue, beliefs which render what Socrates does in the dialogue philosophically respectable. Shrinking or expanding the amount that we attribute to Plato does not alter this assumption.

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