Philosophy as Performed in Plato's 'Theaetetus.'

By Benitez, Eugenio; Guimaraes, Livia | The Review of Metaphysics, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Philosophy as Performed in Plato's 'Theaetetus.'


Benitez, Eugenio, Guimaraes, Livia, The Review of Metaphysics


I

Phylosophy begins in wonder - so says Socrates in the Theaetetus - but where does it end? The Theaetetus itself ends in such a puzzling way as to be the cause of apparently interminable dispute. Although its theme is the nature of knowledge, neither Socrates nor his interlocutors ever present a definition that gains unanimous approval. The definitions of knowledge as perception ([Mathematical Expression Omitted]) as true opinion ([Mathematical Expression Omitted] and as true opinion with an account ([Mathematical Expression Omitted]) are all rejected. This fact has understandably inclined most interpreters to maintain that the dialogue fails to reach its explicit goal.(1) Nevertheless, Socrates' attitude about the apparent failure of his conversation with Theaetetus is markedly distinct from his express attitude (ironic or not) in those early dialogues with which the Theaetetus is often compared. Whereas early dialogues conclude with self-deprecation(2) and exhortation to continue the quest,(3) the Theaetetus concludes in satisfaction, indifferent to the possibility of further study (210b11-c4).(4) As midwife Socrates has successfully delivered Theaetetus of his phantom offspring; beyond that he can do no more (210c4-5). Thus the apparently negative conclusions of the dialogue are at least not negatively intoned, and readers can barely avoid the suspicion of having missed something. One response is to argue that an authorized definition of knowledge can be found by a careful reexamination of the very arguments Socrates rejects.(5) But the fact that our suspicion is aroused by a dramatic consideration (Socrates' attitude of satisfaction) commends a search for resolution through the drama, however that might happen to bear on the problem of knowledge.

This paper examines the Theaetetus in the light of its juxtaposition of philosophical, mathematical and sophistical approaches to knowledge, which we show to be a prominent feature of the drama. These are obviously not the only grounds for understanding the conclusion of the Theaetetus, but the examination based on them has a persuasive result. Although it suggests that clarifying the nature of philosophy supersedes the question of knowledge as the main ambition of the Theaetetus, it hardly obviates Socrates' discussions of perception, opinion, and [lambda][omicron][gamma][omicron][zeta]. In fact, the characterization of philosophy presented in the Theaetetus is intrinsically related to the question about knoawlaedge. Just prior to the beginning of his epistemological investigation Socrates affirms (and his interlocutors accept) that knowledge and wisdom are the same [Mathematical Expression Omitted]; 145e6),(6) an identification of which we are persistently reminded.(7) Thus, the question about "knowledge itself" (146e9-10) cannot altogether be separated from the question of knowledge insofar as it is related to wisdom. The link between knowledge and wisdom provides transit to the digression on philosophy (172b-177c), in which connection it is worth recalling that in Plato the term [Mathematical Expression Omitted] variably used to name or describe, is never far removed from its original sense: loving wisdom or knowledge.(8) Consequently, we treat the Theaetetus as a work whose explicit question about knowledge is directly linked with the deeper issue of what philosophy is.(9)

In what follows we argue that the Theaetetus ends well not because it discretely supplies a definition of knowledge, but because it clarifies a vision of philosophy in which the failure to arrive at an unobjectionable definition of knowledge - a failure which may always be expected (cf. 146a1) - is outweighed by the intellectual and moral gains of the search.(10) The evidence for this thesis comes in three stages. First, we examine the dramatic organization of the Theaetetus, specifically the disposition of the characters toward each other and toward the general question about knowledge. …

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