Monday, April 10, 2023

there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough - what is knowledge? - Theaetetus and Parmenides

The epistemological crisis of Greek philosophy has surprised me.  The early attempts to systematically understand, without the help of the revealed truth of religion, difficult concepts like existence and virtue led, almost immediately, to the question of whether anyone can understand the truth of anything.  Early philosophers picked radical positions: all perception is false, says Parmenides (skepticism); or maybe all perception is true, even if people perceive things differently, says Protagoras – “man is the measure of all things” (relativism).

Theaetetus is Plato’s Socratic dialogue that hits the problem directly.  The big question is “What is knowledge”?  Is it perception, or belief, or true belief?  Socrates, as usual, takes apart each suggestion, which perhaps leaves us closer to an answer in the end, and perhaps not.

“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” (150c) says Socrates, curiously comparing himself to a midwife, barren himself but aiding in the birth of wisdom in others.  In this dialogue, his companions are a mathematics teacher, who does not quite see the point of the discussion, and a teenage math prodigy, Theaetetus, who throws himself into the discussion, taking it entirely seriously and, unlike so many of Socrates’s companions, offering useful ideas and arguments.  The real Theaetetus will become one of the great Greek mathematicians.  I have been impressed by the variety of characters, with a variety of attitudes, that Plato uses in his dialogues.  This time he seems to want to show the Socratic method as a pure, cooperative, search for truth, an ideal of philosophizing.

I singled out Theaetetus for the readalong because of its focus on the ideas of the pre-Socratic Parmenides and the sophist Protagoras.  I would now add Parmenides, in which a teenage Socrates attends a reading by Zeno and Parmenides, who are visiting Athens.  Who knows if this really happened.  Parmenides, we may remember, argued that the universe was a ball of motionless grey goo and that any perception to the contrary was error and illusion, while Zeno ingeniously and outrageously proved the non-existence of motion through his aggravating paradoxes.

Plato hates both the relativism of Protagoras and the meaninglessness of perception of Parmenides and spends his life developing the theory of the Forms to combat it.  He wants some fixed truth out there somewhere, so he invents a world of immaterial Platonic concepts that interact in complex ways to create what we perceive as reality.  Parmenides is an imagined debut of the Forms, with the prodigal young Socrates taking them straight to the enemy:

Pythodorus said that, while Socrates was saying all this, he himself kept from moment to moment expecting Parmenides and Zeno to get annoyed; but they both paid close attention to Socrates and often glanced at each other and smiled, as though they admired him. (130a)

What happens next is that Parmenides, using what we now call the Socratic method, thoroughly dismantles Socrates’s idea of Forms.  He tears Socrates apart.

For a simple example, keep in mind that Socrates is interested in the Form of Largeness, and the Form of Beauty, and the Form of Difference, and similar abstractions.  Parmenides asks:

“What about a form of human being, separate from us? Is there a form of huma n being, or fire, or water?” (130c)

Socrates is not sure.  How about “’[t]hings that might seem absurd, like hair and mud and dirt’” (130d).  No way, says Socrates.

“That’s because you are still young, Socrates,” said Parmenides, “and philosophy has not yet gripped you as, in my opinion, it will in the future, once you begin to consider none [?] of the cases beneath your notice” (130e)

All credit to Plato, writing such a convincing assault on his own ideas, or at least an early version of them.  Amazing.

Parmenides spends the second half of Parmenides demonstrating how he thinks Oneness and Difference and Largeness and so on interact to do I do not know what.  I did not understand this section at all.  Win some, lose some.

When I last approached Plato and Greek philosophy seriously, twenty-five years ago, I did not recognize the epistemological problem at all.  I doubt I knew what the word epistemology meant.  Who knows what I will find when I return to Plato twenty-five years from now.

If I were on schedule, I would mention that next month, in March, we will focus on the character of Socrates, especially as portrayed in the “death of Socrates” dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo).  But it is now April.  Still, next up, the Socrates of Xenophon, and then his great death.



  1. This is my first attempt a philosophy at 76 yo and I'm struggling, but what joy this journey is. Tonight I will finish Phaedo, and tomorrow look for the Xenophon. If you have time could you tell me the edition you are using.

  2. It is a struggle. A dialogue may begin with something of high interest and then turn into something incomprehensible.

    Fortunately that entire "trial and death of Socrates" section is wonderful, sometimes quite beautiful.

    I knocked together a Xenophon post, finally. I read an old "Library of Liberal Arts" edition of Recollections of Socrates and a newer Cornell University Press edition of The Shorter Socratic Writings, of which I think only the "Apology" is clearly worth reading.

  3. I'm fond of some of the content of these early heavyweights but less of their forms so it's been a pleasure to read (or occasionally reread) such things through your more reader-friendly mediation. That being said, I'd be happy to join you if you offer up an ancient Greek or Roman historian offering for one of your future readalong options.

  4. You should think about joining in in June when we do Cynicism. It is the perfect match of form and content, and the most literary month, since the texts will be the fragments of Diogenes the Cynic and the satires of Lucian (I recommend Selected Satires of Lucian tr. Casson).

    If you know these texts you know what I mean and if you do not they will be a revelation, and huge fun. This will also be the most fun month.

    I would join in if someone else organized a readalong of the historians. I have barely read the Romans at all. A good idea.

    1. I'll try and join you in June for a few titles then. Does sound like fun.