Theaetetus and Knowledge:
A Brief analysis of the central arguments put forward in the four major sections of Plato’s Theaetetus and its significance to the field of Epistemology.
The nature behind knowledge, what justifies a belief and the essence behind truth is a philosophical field of study known as Epistemology. Epistemology serves as an important topic in modern philosophy, while being essential for the history of not only Western Philosophy but its culture and insight to some of the greatest minds in the past and how they influenced present society. The Socratic dialogue of Plato’s Theaetetus, dating back from approximately 360 BCE, is often regarded by scholars as the origin, as well as quintessential dialectic work, to the field of Epistemology.
Plato’s written works are well known for being entirely written in the context of dialogue between two or more Greek philosophers. In the case of Theaetetus, the dialogue is primarily between Socrates and Theaetetus, a Greek philosopher and a young Mathematician. The story of Theaetetus is introduced in the text when Euclides’ report of a discussion between Socrates and Theaetetus is read aloud by a young servant. Throughout the dialogue between Theaetetus and Socrates, the central issue of knowledge is discussed when Socrates proposes the fundamental question to epistemology, “what do you think knowledge is?” (Levett, 146c)
Along with his conversational partner, Theaetetus, Socrates establishes that knowledge is essentially the same as wisdom, and that the trust of a man is dependent on their profession’s relevance to the claim. Both of these realisations serve as the foundation for the following dialogue in which Theaetetus remarks that “…knowledge is simply perception” (151e).
Socrates further elaborates on Theaetetus’ response by applying the claim of a Greek Philosopher, Protagoras, that “Man is the measure of all things” (152a), a quote which further builds on the premise.
Essentially, the claim of Protagoras suggests that truth is subjective to the individual, provided that knowledge is, in fact, sensory perception. Therefore it would seem that, under the new premise of knowledge, only the individual perceiving such an experience would be able to know of it, without certainty that another individual is capable of experiencing from precisely the same perspective. In a sense Protagoras’ claim denotes that knowledge and truth is independently egocentric – a claim which entirely supports Theaetetus’ original answer.
After Protagoras’ claim has established relevance to the premise, Socrates continues by pronouncing the belief of another Philosopher, Heraclitus, concerning the Universe’s flux and contingency, by stating that “…nothing ever is, but all things are becoming” (38). Socrates’ statement about the flux and contingency of the Universe is a rather simple paraphrase of Heraclitus’ quote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”
With both of these theses established by Socrates in the dialogue, so is the conclusion that knowledge is not perception in its entirety. Plato himself agrees that perception is in a flux of becoming, rather than being, which corresponds with Heraclitus’ thesis, as well as perception being relativist. However, Plato argues that knowledge does not coincide with the realm of becoming, like that of perception, but rather with the realm of being. Myles Burnyeat, in The Theaetetus of Plato, considers a notable foundation for what coincides with knowledge from Plato’s conclusion in the premise that knowledge is perception. Burnyeat’s foundation states that “it [knowledge] must be always of what is and it must be unerring” (8).
Considering Plato’s conclusion on the first premise formed by Theaetetus, the second rule by Burnyeat, that knowledge must be unerring, is safely abided by Protagoras’ thesis. However, the first rule by Burnyeat is broken when comparing the relevance of both perception and knowledge to Heraclitus’ thesis. Plato’s reason as to why knowledge is in the realm of being is that knowledge is recollected from the memory, whereas perception creates a memory. However, as well structured as the argument is, the basis of it is still fallible, for Plato assumes that the theory of Protagoras correlates with knowledge. If one is to assume that Protagoras’ theory of relativism is true, then it is proposed that this too is the case of Heraclitus’ thesis.
Socrates and Theaetetus soon quickly evolve their premise into Theaetetus’ new suggestion that “knowledge is true judgement” (187b). Throughout this section of the dialogue, the central argument is often skewed into a different area of discussion, particularly the argument as to whether one can make false judgement. Although these rather off-topic discussions have some relevance to the central point, Plato makes is blatant that his intent behind the lengthy and unnecessary dialogue is to provoke the reader into analysing the discussion and interpret their conclusions individually. Since the topic as to whether judgement can be false or not is imperative for understanding Socrates’ final conclusion of the new premise, this will be investigated briefly before continuing further to the final chapter.
Socrates quizzes Theaetetus about judgement with a logical puzzle (188a-d). In this short puzzle, Socrates serves two major points to the table which are logically fallible; the first (1) point being that something which you know is instead something which you do not know, and vice versa for the second (2) point. Both of these points are formed in Socrates’ question to Theaetetus:
But a man certainly doesn’t think that things he knows are things he doesn’t know, or again that things he doesn’t know are things he knows… then in what way is false judgement still possible? (188c)
With these four points established in this quiz of Socrates, it then brings one to analyse whether or not these establishments are entirely valid, or if they have a crack in their argument. The fundamental flaw seen in the puzzle is that Socrates’ assumption that man cannot think that things which he doesn’t know are things that he does know, is genuinely false. Man can think that they know of something, when in reality they don’t know of it at all; man can ultimately make false judgement on what they know and do not know. This is considered a false judgement by Socrates to assume that man is incapable of false judgement, and other fallacies in judgement are riddled throughout the dialogue, leaving the logical discussion between Socrates and Theaetetus in this chapter rather redundant.
It is interesting to note that ‘judgement’ derives from the Greek noun Doxa and its verbal counterpart Doxazein, which can subsequently translate to ‘belief’ or ‘opinion’. With the three of these differing translations, the intuition naturally presumes that one is capable of holding a false belief, opinion or judgement, and this intuition is reinforced through observing the constant bickering between Religions, the daily quarrels between two people or perhaps the Jurys’ conviction in the court of law. So long as there are two subjective opinions to one objective fact, there must be false Doxa.
After Theaetetus agrees that their conversation regarding false judgement is inconclusive unless they both resolve what knowledge is, Socrates continues by briefly proving that knowledge is not, in fact, true judgement. Socrates depicts the scenario in the court of law (200d-201c) as an example which clarifies the distinction between true judgement and knowledge. In this example, Socrates mentions the orator, or lawyer, as the man which convinces the jury whether or not the accused is guilty. Instead of teaching the jury of events, however, the orator uses rhetoric, much like a sophist, to convince them whether or not to convict the accused, depending on which case the orator supports. While the persuasion of an orator is to use witnesses and other pieces of evidence to recollect the events which took place, they are undoubtedly recollecting, as well as the jury determining, that only the accused and witness knows of the event being constructed.
In the case that the event is accurately reconstructed for the jury, and the judgment is correct, the judger in particular does not know of what took place, instead they only judged correctly because of people’s retelling of events. Of course it could be argued that it is possible to gain knowledge of an event from somebody’s recollection, but, as mentioned in the first premise that knowledge is perception, knowledge only seems to be embedded in the state of being, or engraved firmly into the knower’s memory. This moment of clarity leads Theaetetus to conjure up the third, and final, premise that not only is knowledge true judgement, but also an account of the event.
Interestingly enough, Socrates also admits to a vague memory of somebody claiming that knowledge is true judgement with an account. However, he believes that he had heard of the theory in a dream (201d), which excuses the reason as to why his recollection is vague. An invaluable observation to consider when interpreting this chapter is that the word ‘account’ derives from logos. Although this derivation is common amongst the majority, if not all, of the English translations of Plato’s Theaetetus, the word logos can just as equally be translated into justification or reason. Perhaps logos is commonly translated into ‘account’ in such texts because of the fact that Socrates essentially differentiates true judgement from knowledge by claiming that knowledge is obtained from a record by the memory, or an account, as opposed to reason. Regardless, the situation of interpreting logos is important to consider while viewing Theaetetus.
Socrates continues recalling his dream to Theaetetus, opening the basis of the argument with the analysis of words, letters and the construction of language. Throughout this analysis, Socrates acknowledges that letters have no meaning, but rather names (or definitions), yet the constituents of such letters compose a word with meaning, and an “account being a complex of names” (202b). For example, the word ‘lamp’ is the description, or account, of a particular object which is a light source, yet the individual letters in-themselves offer no intrinsic value. Socrates then asks Theaetetus as to whether or not he agrees to the following statement; “Now when a man gets true judgement about something without an account, his soul is in a state of truth as regards to that thing, but he does not know it” (202b-c). Both of these beginning truths become the foundation for the final chapter, and Socrates continues to elaborate on the relevance of languages’ elements.
The elaboration is given by the affirmation that the letters, or ‘elements’, grant an account of a syllable (203a), which then proceeds to Socrates to presume that the compounding of letters cannot be known, unlike the individual letters, which are unknowable. This presumption is reached because of the previous statement that letters have no essential meaning, but rather are just entirely intended for the composition of language, which consequently creates a constituent that can be known. The issue which arises in this establishment is how it is possible for an element, which is essentially unknowable, to compound into something which is conversely knowable. How is it that an account can be compiled from elements with no account, or value, at all?
This issue is never resolved by Plato and, consequently, the original question, “what is knowledge?” is never truly answered. Then what is it, one might ask, that makes this Socratic dialogue of any importance to the field of Epistemology, or even Philosophy in general? Among all, one must understand that the very reason as to why Plato wrote this extensive dialogue is because it evokes the reader to think for themselves. Plato intended for Theaetetus to expand the minds of his colleagues, and with the privilege of having an English translation our minds can undergo the same intellectual transformation. Not only does Theaetetus expand the mind, but it also expands the question of what knowledge is, allowing scholars to elaborate further on epistemology, while using Theaetetus as the pillars, the foundation, of epistemology, as well as being an extraordinary insight to the great minds that have made Western civilisation what it is today. Theaetetus, while ultimately inconclusive, is an insight to what has flayed Western Civilisation into shape; a testament to the intricacies and complexity of Philosophy; a journey to the peaks of mankind’s unparalleled ingenuity.