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.

Myles Burnyeat’s long Introduction to the Theaetetus belongs in the minority tradition that the anonymous commentator tells us of. It stems from Plato’s school, the Academy, in its sceptical period; and here we must remember that ancient sceptics are not doubters but enquirers, committed to the continuing process of argument and questioning and always suspicious of claims to have reached a firm view on anything of philosophical importance. It is no accident that the sceptical Academy made the Theaetetus central for their view of Plato. Nor is it an accident that Burnyeat, who has been publishing articles on the Theaetetus over the last twenty years, has also been prominent in renewing our knowledge of ancient scepticism, and distinguishing it from the very different modern varieties. Like the members of the sceptical Academy, Burnyeat does not ask what Plato already believes about knowledge for him to make Socrates argue this way with Theaetetus. Rather he asks just what Plato is doing in presenting just these arguments. Plato’s concerns appear in the arguments, and his background beliefs are relevant only insofar as we need them to elucidate the arguments. They are not needed to inform us of something which is unaffected by the arguments. On this approach, the Theaetetus no longer appears as a left-over from the Republic. It appears independently, and far more interestingly, as a dense and far-ranging discussion of knowledge, and as the source of major epistemological issues and debates from the Hellenistic period to modern times.

Burnyeat sees the function of his Introduction as being that of encouraging the reader to find in the first dialogue, Socrates’s dialogue with Theaetetus, the spur to a second dialogue, between herself and Plato. This makes the Introduction tricky to write. On the one hand, Burnyeat is urging us to think that what we see is what we get: the arguments. Plato wants us not to infer a hidden doctrine but to engage in argument ourselves – to use a phrase which has dated, for no very good reason, to ‘do philosophy’. But on the other hand the reader needs some orientation, or she will fail to engage with the demanding agenda that Socrates throws at Theaetetus. What is the modern reader to make of Protagoras’s ‘secret doctrine’, the puzzles about false belief, the highly peculiar passage at the end on elements and compounds?

Burnyeat solves this problem brilliantly, by writing an interpretative introduction which in effect constructs a third dialogue between the Introduction and the reader, compelling the reader to think for herself about the first dialogue and what it is about. Conclusions about the first dialogue will of course determine the form that the second dialogue takes, and Burnyeat, alive to this effect, keeps the reader aware of modern preoccupations with knowledge and their relation to what Plato might have had in mind. Burnyeat always makes it clear which interpretation he favours, but, even in the many cases where he has extensively argued for it elsewhere, he tries to avoid ‘coercively’ presenting it to the reader as being obviously right. The reader is given competing alternatives and sent back to the text to work out for herself which is right. So the second dialogue is stimulated by the way that the third dialogue follows the pattern of the first. It is clear which interpretations Burnyeat would prefer that we adopt. But we are not to adopt them just on his authority. ‘This was what I thought myself,’ says Socrates at 185e after making Theaetetus struggle through to a distinction, ‘but I wanted you to think it too.’

Potential readers, of course, may or may not be pleased that Burnyeat is making them do so much work – particularly as the dialogue’s parts increase in difficulty and the introduction’s discussion of options gets longer and more complex. He informs us (at length, and often brilliantly), guides us and displays the alternatives. But, like Theaetetus, we have to respond. And we may find this tiresome. If we are accustomed to modern philosophy books we may even find it absurdly pretentious and self-conscious. Why doesn’t Burnyeat just tell us what he thinks? Why doesn’t Plato have Socrates just tell Theaetetus what he thinks?

The reason is that here the dialogue’s form is most appropriate to its subject, which is perhaps why in this dialogue Socrates is so explicit about his midwife role. One lesson to emerge from the dialogue is that knowledge must be first-hand. The jury at a trial, even if they are being told the truth by someone who witnessed it, cannot know that the defendant committed the crime; only an eye-witness can know that. Scholars have got excited over the fact that this example appears to commit Plato to there being some mundane knowledge of matters of fact, without courtesy of Forms. But more important is the point that Plato is implying: that, whatever kind of knowledge we are talking about, it is its being first-hand that makes it knowledge. Beliefs which I pick up from you, whether about a crime, geometry or the Theaetetus’s argument about logos, don’t constitute knowledge just because they’re true, and I believe them, and I have good reason to believe you, and you know them. Modern theories of epistemology have tended to concentrate on locating privileged epistemic routes whereby knowledge, once identified, can be passed on. Plato seems to think that, no matter how excellent the epistemic route, it alone never answers the question of whether I know something. There is a further question to be answered, about me. Did I see it, if it’s the kind of thing one knows by seeing? Can I work it out, if it’s the kind of thing one knows by working it out? If I lack the appropriate first-hand relation to it, then it is merely a secondhand belief.

To us this may sound wrong. It has highly restrictive consequences as to how much I can know, for a start, especially where empirical knowledge is concerned. And it runs right up against another plausible condition of knowledge: namely, that it can be transmitted from one person to another – not by any old efforts, of course, but by the right kind of transmission. Plato thinks that there is such a privileged kind – teaching. But he never explicitly reconciles the teachability condition with the first-handedness condition. He tends, however, to be highly sceptical of what currently passes for teaching, and it is fairly clear that he is readier to redefine teaching, or to limit what conventional teaching can achieve, than he is to reject the idea that there is some kind of special first-hand relation that the knower must stand in to what is known.

This is not the only respect in which the Theaetetus’s assumptions about knowledge may strike us as unfamiliar. We find a tendency, which is uppermost in parts of the dialogue, to connect knowledge with the ability to explain, and to have mastery over a field, practical or intellectual, by way of having mastery over the basic elements of that field. Socrates finds it obvious, for example, that someone who can correctly spell the first syllable of ‘Theaetetus’ but gets ‘Theodorus’ wrong not only does not know how to spell ‘Theodorus’, but does not know how to spell ‘Theaetetus’ either. To have knowledge of a letter, it is implied, is to have knowledge of all the combinations into which it can enter. As Burnyeat frequently points out, this tends to sound wrong to us; we are used to the modern assumption which he puts as, ‘knowledge is compatible with mistakes: not of course in the sense that one can know p when p is false, but in the sense that one can know an object o and still make mistakes about it.’

Why does Plato think otherwise? One reason is that he associates knowledge with expertise; the expert is the person who does not just get one knowledge-claim right, however excellent his grounds, but who understands the first principles and structure of the area in question, and so can be relied on to come up with the right answer every time. The model of expertise arguably plays a role in Plato’s extremely ambitious model for knowledge in the Republic. It forces us to recognise a large difference from modern epistemological concerns. As Burnyeat stresses, our modern conception of knowledge is more ‘democratic’: you don’t need to be an expert to know quite a lot. There are many things which everybody can know.

By this point it is tempting to think that with assumptions about knowledge that differ so much from ours, Plato is not really talking about what we call knowledge at all, but about something else – namely, the kind of expert mastery just described. It has become fashionable to label this ‘understanding’, and to emphasise that if we approach Plato from a modern epistemological perspective we are liable to misconstrue him. Certainly the continuing appeal to Plato of the expertise model, and his tendency to think of types of knowledge – geometry, for example – on the lines of an overall grasp based on an understanding of first principles and structure, make this an appealing option. If we had only the Republic, we might well infer that Plato was only, or mainly, interested in this, and not in mundane knowledge of matters of fact at all. And if so, perhaps it would be a mistake to think of Plato as an epistemologist at all, if that is defined by modern concerns with democratically-available knowledge of mundane fact.

The Theaetetus, however, is interested in mundane knowledge of fact as well: whether the jury can know what the criminal did, or whether we can have knowledge of the sun, or of Theaetetus. And, once having demolished the thesis that knowledge is perception, Socrates spends some time, though with uncertain upshot, exploring the idea that perception might provide an alternative epistemic route, of the kind that would explain the possibility of mistake in cases where we have knowledge. (Burnyeat’s discussion of these passages is among the best in the book.) So Plato is interested in ‘our’ concern – namely, knowledge of particular matters of fact – and in the question of what it is that makes such a belief amount to knowledge.

Is Plato then in a muddle? Or is he concerned with two distinct things that we classify either as knowledge or as understanding? Or are we the ones with an insufficiently broad notion of knowledge? Have we been conditioned by 20th-century textbooks into focusing on knowledge of particular matters of fact and ignoring those problems to which Plato’s response is an account of what we label as understanding? Getting into the spirit of the thing, I will not answer these questions for you, but urge you to read the book and work out your own answer for yourself.

Burnyeat’s long-awaited systematic Introduction precedes a reprint of the 1928 translation of the dialogue, by M.J. Levett. Burnyeat praises the translation for its ‘skill, tact and grace’, and it reads well, though some may reasonably continue to prefer the recent translation by John McDowell in the Clarendon Plato Series.