Knowledge and Virtue in Plato's Theaetetus: Part Two

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

18. It is important to understand the full implications (and ambiguity) of Theaetetus' response that "knowledge is simply perception." (151e) The word perception (aisthesis) could mean at this point, to Theaetetus, either perception of concrete objects with the senses or perception of ideal objects (such as mathematical relations) with the mind. The ambiguity places the discussion at the midpoint of the divided line, balanced between opinion and knowledge, as visible geometric constructs are so balanced. Depending upon what Theaetetus means, the argument can proceed above the divided line to the forms (universals) or below the divided line to the particular objects of the senses. Either way, the speakers are not "masters" of the argument, but its servants. A philosopher is free of the water-clock, but is not free of the argument. Socrates and Theaetetus will have to follow the argument wherever it goes. The ambiguity has been troubling Theaetetus for quite some time. What he obviously has in mind is immediate perception or direct seeing for oneself of geometrical or arithmetical demonstrations, demonstrations that are both noetic and sensory (one can draw them on paper). Just as the eye-witness gives the most reliable account in court (though he depends on his memory), so knowledge means, according to Theaetetus, being an eyewitness to the truth (as concretely displayed). (See Gadamer's discussion of this whole issue in his Idea of the Good.)

19. One might ask if the geometer knows the Pythagorean theorem even when he is not picturing it to himself. Similar refutations will emerge in subsequent discussion, including the problem of seeing versus remembering. What Theaetetus has in mind is something like Heraclitus' saying, "I prefer things which can be seen, heard, and perceived." (Fragment 55) The question of direct versus hearsay evidence, of great importance in courts of law, may, ironically, have something to do with knowledge. The Theaetetus itself, as the prologue indicates, is itself a hearsay account -- a hearsay account that may paradoxically enable the hearer or the reader to see something for himself or herself. In any case, Theaetetus does not yet grasp the meaning of his own expertise; he is not "wise" about what he has learned. He does not yet realize that pure mathematical relations (which are the true objects of mathematical knowledge) are separable from concrete drawings, images, and constructions. So he does not yet "see" that when he is seeing geometric constructs with his eyes, he is also -- more importantly -- seeing noetic forms with his mind. He is, in a sense, seeing both sides of the divided line. His ambivalence at the juncture between sense perception and mathematical understanding is further complicated by the effect of certain popular Protagorean teachings, teachings which scorn expertise in mathematics. Theaetetus' regard for Theodorus (a friend of Pythagoras) and his youthful susceptibility to sophistic persuasion and public opinion tip the balance of the discussion toward understanding "perception" (which could also mean the "I see" of sudden insight) as sense-perception of concrete particulars. Theaetetus, who should know that the content of mathematics is not subjective, lets the argument fall into the domain of subjectivity, unaware that seeing essences might be different from seeing drawings.

20. One could make the case that as long as the argument looks for knowledge in the sphere of opinion -- in the dark, as it were -- such looking is doomed to failure. There is no way within the flux of opinion to find knowledge, except in the negative sense to find that it cannot be found there. Heraclitus wrote: "Eyes and ears give bad testimony to men, if men's souls do not understand what their eyes and ears are telling them." (Fragment 107) Perception and opinion are meaningless unless some stable meaning (logos) is discovered above and beyond changing perceptions and opinions. The bottom half of the divided line makes no sense without the top half. Meaningful speech (unless one babbles like certain Heracliteans) and moral conduct (construed as more than expediency) also depend upon something staying the same within change. Socrates is quite justified in maintaining that "knowledge is sense-perception" is tied to a "metaphysics" of absolute motion or pure flux (an extreme doctrine more to be associated with the followers of Heraclitus than Heraclitus himself).

21. The whole point of Socrates' refutations is that all such talk (which will hardly stand still long enough to be refuted) presupposes the very stability and universality that it denies. Even Socrates' defenses of the "position" are humorous and self-refuting. It is humorous when Socrates has Protagoras "share" with only initiated disciples (lest the public find out) the view that knowledge cannot be shared. It would be of curious significance if the many would find out the secret that all knowledge is secret (private and relative to a particular subject). Even "truth is subjectivity" seeks a kind of common and public acceptance. It is especially ironic that absolutizing "private understanding" should become so popular and common (recall Heraclitus' saying that there is no such thing as a private understanding). (Fragment 2) What must be kept in mind is that Protagoras and other sophists were less interested in creating new epistemologies than in debunking old ones, in order to undercut absolutes in politics and morals and to relativize political laws and institutions. Their purpose was to deny the existence of absolute and unchanging standards in order to justify persuasive techniques of appealing to and manipulating public opinion for private gain.

22. One should be mindful that much of the perceptual and metaphysical theory that Socrates creates in order to destroy later on can be rehabilitated and reinterpreted more favorably in the light of the divided line. Socrates is not denying the fact of motion or the subjectivity of sense perception. He is denying that they can be the basis of moral and political order. The means for regulating practical affairs cannot be found within practical affairs. Socrates is trying to get Theaetetus and Theodorus to see that principles of morality exist on a plane higher than that of concrete affairs. Such principles govern and are "mixed" with concrete affairs, but they are not identical with them.

23. Let us return to the Theaetetus digression. We saw before that it lifts the dialogue above the divided line and does it to an extreme. In the digression, thought is opposed quite absolutely to sensation, even unreally so. It is possible that neither thought by itself nor sensation by itself will yield knowledge. The truth may lie somewhere between Parmenides and Heraclitus, as the Sophist will show. The conversation following the digression reveals an attempt to mediate these two extremes of perception without insight and thought without perception.

24. In the Theaetetus digression, the philosopher and the politician are deliberately caricatured in order to "illustrate" (as geometric drawings illustrate geometrical proportions) the difference between sensation (with its consequent subjectivity) and thought (with its consequent universality). The difference between the contemplative philosopher and the pragmatic "man of the world" is the difference between interest in universals and interest in individuals. The philosopher is seen as soaring above private and parochial concerns. The pragmatist is seen as the prisoner of subjective self-interest. The pursuit of wisdom raises the philosopher above all concrete individuals, including himself.

25. It is obvious that the ethereal philosopher is not Socrates. Socrates indeed knows his way to the law courts, has served valiantly in war (as Theaetetus will), and is involved in a kind of ongoing privately political mission. Moreover, if we recall the first episode of the dialogue, we hear Socrates' inquiring whether (with reference to young Athenians) "there are any rising geometricians or philosophers in that part of the world." (143d) It is apparent that Socrates is concerned about a particular city (which he rarely left) and particular practitioners of philosophy. Attachment to a particular city or to particular individuals (friends) is not the attitude of the digression philosopher, who makes the whole earth his home. In addition, Socrates asks Theodorus which Athenian citizen is the father of Theaetetus, a concern of no concern to the philosopher of the digression. That Theodorus does not know, while Socrates wishes to know, is significant; Theodorus is more speculatively detached than Socrates. Particulars are not important for the digression philosopher. Universals are not important for the digression pragmatist. Both particulars and universals are important for Socrates.

26. In the Gorgias, Socrates refers to himself as the only true politician. We have no reason to believe that, in the digression, Plato was intending to promote a completely "unpolitical" philosopher. The philosopher, who ascends to the sunlit world of the forms, is expected, if he is worth anything, to descend once again to the dimly lit region of opinions and practical affairs. The trial is Socrates' final chance to educate Athens. Socrates represents, for Plato, the best citizen who ought to rule and not to be executed, who is at home both in the realm of ideas and in the realm of practical affairs. But the existence of Socrates -- a mix of the worldly and the otherworldly -- is not sufficiently arousing to awaken both Theaetetus and Theodorus to the reality of the forms. More drastic measures are required. It is necessary to draw as graphically as possible -- in bold and oversimplified opposition -- the distinction between aisthesis and noesis, practicality and contemplation, subjective opinion and expert knowledge. Man himself is not the measure. Even the expert is not the measure. The measure is beyond man and his immediate interests. The measure or standard is the ideal form (paradigm) itself. By making the philosopher so lofty (the whole earth is his concern) and the practical man so lowly (he absolutizes his own life, his own property, and his own interests), Socrates hopes to turn the attention of Theaetetus and Theodorus upward. The whole conversation must be dragged out of the cave of sensation and opinions to the sunlit realm of pure dialectical reasoning. It is hoped that the radical and unreal absolutizing of pure thought will overcome and offset the absolutizing of sensation and generate new ways of thinking in Theodorus and Theaetetus. Socrates is quite aware, for his own part, that the divorce between the two realms is neither possible nor desirable in this life. Just as pragmatic action presupposes standards, so contemplation presupposes particular existence, bodily goods, friends, and conversation. The "philosopher" who does not know his neighbor is not a genuine philosopher, because he does not speak with others. The philosopher in the digression is, in a Pythagorean sense, already dead (or preparing for death). His body is in the city, and his soul is above the city. One must be careful not to identify Pythagorean mysticism or Orphic mysteries too readily with either Plato or Socrates. The philosopher's soul needs his body, as the forms need speeches.

27. The caricature becomes evident when Socrates says --

Neither is he conscious of his ignorance. For he does not hold aloof in order that he may gain a reputation; but the truth is, that the outer form of him only is in the city: his mind, regarding all these things with disdain as of slight or no worth, soars -- to use the expression of Pindar -- everywhere "beneath the earth, and again beyond the sky," measuring the land, surveying the heavens, and exploring the whole nature of the world and of every thing in its entirety, but not condescending to anything which is within reach. (173e - 174a)
Here he seems to be speaking of the geometer (who measures the whole earth) and the astronomer (who studies the skies above). In this regard, Socrates cites Thales, who fell in a well while studying the skies. What Socrates does not mention (and the reader should keep in mind) is that Thales' study of the sky paid off as a windfall profit in the olive-pressing business. (Note that Socrates mentions the husbandman in 178d.) Geometry and astronomy are applicable to practical affairs. The caricature continues:
For the philosopher is wholly unacquainted with his next-door neighbour; he is ignorant, not only of what he is doing, but he hardly knows whether he is a man or an animal; he is searching into the essence of man, and busy in inquiring what is proper to such a nature to do or suffer different from any other... (174b)

28. One could infer (and it will be borne out later in the dialogue) that neither definitions by themselves nor judgments about particulars (doxa) suffice for knowledge. The passage contains a certain amount of Socratic irony. Just as a baboon or any other animal might be conceived to be the "measure" if sense-perception is absolutized, so a person might even forget he or she is a person, if pure consideration of universals, without participation of particulars, is absolutized. Somewhere between baboon and god lies human being -- and human knowledge, which after all is what is being looked for. Without knowledge of particulars, a person could cease to know he or she exists (in which case the adage, "Know thyself," taken from the temple at Delphi, would have little meaning). The Socratic jest is that one so detached from concrete human affairs would seek to define human existence.

29. Such a one is so far above human everyday concerns that "When he is reviled, he has nothing personal to say in answer to the civilities of his adversaries, for he knows no scandals of any one, and they do not interest him." (174c) He is above it all and, in a sense, "beyond good and evil." But is being beyond good and evil the same thing as being good? He does no evil, but it could equally be said that he does no good. He is purely contemplative and completely detached. He is far removed from the philosopher-king. The digression is a magnificent dream, and an inhuman one. The philosopher thinks his dream-world makes him more "wide-awake" than the pragmatist with his worldly preoccupations. The pragmatist, in turn, thinks the philosopher is fast asleep. By using a dream of being wide-awake, Socrates is trying to awaken Theodorus and Theaetetus from their pragmatic slumber, so that they might look at what has been so far overlooked -- the noetic and transcendent aspects of mathematical and philosophical reasoning.

30. The next passage clearly differentiates between definition and particular judgment. Particular judgment has to do with statements of fact. Definition has to do with universals. The practical man is concerned, he believes, only with particulars; but the predicates of his judgments presuppose some understanding of the meaning of the terms used (definitions). Nevertheless, he does not seek to define clearly the words he uses, such as "right and wrong," "wealthy and happy." Socrates says:

But, O my friend, when he draws the other into upper air, and gets him out of his pleas and rejoinders into the contemplation of justice and injustice in their own nature and in their difference from one another and from all other things; or from the commonplaces about the happiness of a king or of a rich man to the consideration of government, and of human happiness and misery in general -- what they are, and how a man is to attain the one and avoid the other -- when that narrow, keen, little legal mind is called to account about all this, he gives the philosopher his revenge... (175c - 175d)

The philosopher seeks to understand happiness or wretchedness or human nature in general. Thus, we see that definition is a matter of the way forms are related to one another, not how they are related to sensible things. Whereas statements about particulars require and presuppose some knowledge of the meaning of the words used and sense-perception itself makes no sense without such a pre-understanding, the joining together or separating of general forms (dialectic or thought) does not require the visible presence of particular objects, as geometric reasoning does not presuppose drawings, etc. Thought begins on earth, but it need not return to earth. Nor does philosophical speech, though it requires actual words and actual speakers, have to be speech about actually existing things. Thus, mathematical and higher forms can be considered apart from concrete sense experience. The play of ideas in speech can take place independently of particular referents. Even the understanding of right and wrong, though aimed at the reorganization of private and public affairs, is an attempt to find out what forms belong and do not belong together, above and beyond the vicissitudes of immediate perception. Just as Athens is not the ideal city, so the knowledge of justice is an insight that looks beyond particular experience. This knowledge is achieved in the give and take of human conversation, even though its ideal content is beyond human conversation. What is looked for is "music of discourse" (176a), a harmony consciously attained by fitting words together that belong together, pointing beyond speech to the arrangement of forms in themselves.

31. The latter part of the digression is even more transcendent. Plato is pulling out all of the stops. There is great emphasis upon the Pythagorean theme of the soul seeking release from imprisonment in the body. Philosophy as escape is actually very un-Socratic and even un-Platonic (Plato is not Plotinus). "Wherefore we ought to fly away from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and to fly away means to become like God, as far as this is possible..." (176b) It is possible that Plato is having Socrates voice a Pythagorean theme for the benefit of his Pythagorean friends, to remind them of certain transcendent Pythagorean views. Theodorus and Theaetetus might be receptive to such talk. It is possible, in addition, that the notion of an evil as well as a good paradigm was directed to certain Parmenidean thinkers of Megara, such as Eucleides who recorded the conversation and who himself did not believe in the existence of evil. Perhaps Theodorus and Theaetetus can be edified out of their Protagorean hypnotic suggestion. We find in the digression a prototype of Aristotle's view that the best human life is neither practical nor productive, but imitates the purely contemplative activity of God.

32. I do not believe that it is Plato's intention to "escape" from the world and to leave behind political and practical concerns. Plato does not always have Socrates say what either he (Plato) or Socrates means. Very often, Socrates says what he says for the benefit of his listeners -- what will work for them. He tailors his speeches to the presuppositions and predispositions of his listeners, and he generally has some therapeutic purpose in mind. The digression seems made to order for Pythagoreans who have been paying too much attention to Protagoras and not enough attention to Pythagoras. Socrates emphasizes contemplative purity in order to correct the focus of Theodorus and Theaetetus and to get the conversation on a higher track. If the philosopher in the digression seems to be gaining altitude too quickly, Theodorus and Theaetetus are gaining it too slowly; and it behooves them to hasten their progress. For Socrates, who normally has plenty of time (leisure) to discuss such matters, unlike the lawyer who must trim his speeches by the water-clock, is now himself under certain time constraints. His conversation must be shortened because he is to appear shortly to answer Meletus' indictment. Thus, Socrates the philosopher, who does not constrain himself by artificial limits to discourse, is constrained by others who so constrain themselves. The philosopher is a free man in mind only. His body is subject to indictment and imprisonment by unfree fellow citizens. Time and place do not inhibit the mind of the philosopher, but they hold back his body.

33. The Theaetetus is a conversation (invented by Plato) that takes place at a certain time and place before Socrates' trial and death, that is recorded and recalled at a later time by Eucleides, and that surpasses all times and places -- as the soaring overview of the philosopher in the digression. It may be significant that a conversation considering the value of eyewitness or other accounts is itself a hearsay account. In one sense, the truth of an account (such as the Theaetetus) does not depend upon factual reliability -- what Socrates really said to whom and under what circumstances (it is Plato's fiction, in fact). A fictional account can nevertheless be a true account (in a philosophical sense). An eyewitness account, though perfectly in accord with the facts, may possess little truth. Thus, Plato's story may reveal more truth about Socrates than a faithful re-telling of an actual conversation with Socrates. The same is true of Plato's Apology. On the other hand, even though philosophical truth does not depend upon eyewitness accounts, it does depend upon there being an account (real speeches). The philosophical endeavor that transcends space (roams the whole earth) and time (is not bound by the clock) depends upon real speeches between real friends at a particular time in a particular city. Plato is jesting in the digression when he has Socrates say that the philosopher is unacquainted with particulars, that he does not even know his neighbors -- fellow citizens; for it is with one's fellow citizens, in questioning and answering, that the philosophical enterprise takes place. A midwife is not a pure spectator. Contemplation of the forms takes the philosopher beyond space and time (in the mind), but it is bodily interaction and communication with others in space and time that makes contemplation possible in the first place. The story (account) points beyond itself, but someone must tell the story.

34. Neither Theaetetus nor Theodorus seems to grasp the point of the digression, though Theodorus seems favorably impressed by its lofty tone. Theodorus is less flexible than Theaetetus and less able to think beyond definite subject matters, but he is personally closer to the truth. Many of Socrates' statements to Theaetetus are meant for Theodorus. Theodorus is more comfortable with direct statement than he is with question and answer. Theaetetus has the courage to face Socrates in debate, but he has trouble facing the argument. Socrates himself, faced with the fate of the philosopher in the digression as he is about to be dragged into court, is about to face death. It is one thing for Theaetetus and Theodorus to discuss geometry as free men without time limitations. It is another thing for Socrates, who has little time left, to be so well composed as if he had all the time in the world.

35. Just as thinking is escape from involvement in practical affairs, so the digression is an opportunity to escape from the exigencies of the conversation. In the main conversation, Socrates is not a free man. He is constrained both by the argument and by the needs of the interlocutors. Socrates cannot say whatever he wishes. He must say what is helpful in delivering Theaetetus of his error. Even the digression, which ostensibly unchains the thinker from the argument, is linked inextricably to the good of Theaetetus and Theodorus. The contemplator of the digression is alone and free. He needs no friends. Socrates, by choice, is not alone. By working out the truth in conversation with others, he remains tied to the moment. Socrates is not beyond good and evil; he is not detached. His philosophical career is one of doing some practical and particular good. His self-chosen task is to ask and to answer the right words at the right time in relation to the needs of particular persons. Appropriate speech mirrors the timeless harmony of forms by its very timeliness. The philosopher of the digression is one who finds the delights of contemplating the forms sufficient in itself. The philosopher of the concrete argument -- Socrates -- goes back down into the den to extricate his fellow citizens. The appeal of the blessed and removed philosophical life, however tempting and transcendent, is but another tool in the hands of the master midwife Socrates to assist in the self-transformation and redirection of his friends. Theodorus and Theaetetus must not simply be told they are looking in the wrong place (too low) for knowledge. This they must see for themselves, with careful prodding from Socrates. The midwifery of Socrates, that elicits both insight and self-improvement, shows once again that for Plato knowledge is bound up with virtue and that the Theaetetus dialogue is both epistemological and ethical. One could reasonably doubt that Plato ever "outgrew" Socrates. One cannot doubt that, at the end of their conversation with Socrates, though knowledge has not been "defined," Theodorus and Theaetetus are improved men who know more and better what they are about.

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