THE THEAETETUS AND THEE: Rauch and Pinker cause us to dream!


But also, the Theaetetus: Over the weekend, we found ourselves reading the Theaetetus!

Rather, we found ourselves trying to read the Theaetetus. Soon, we found ourselves skimming the Theaetetus, desperately seeking relief. 

Before long, we sought the mercy of an overview of the ancient text.  Along the way, we found ourselves marveling at the Theaetetus—and at the apparent cast of thousands who continue to study it. 

Why were we skimming the Theaetetus? While we're at it, what is the Theaeteteus?

The backdrop goes like this:

Over the weekend, we watched a C-Span book event which actually filled us with hope for the nation's future. In the hour-long session, Steven Pinker joined Jonathan Rauch in a discussion of Rauch's new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.

Admittedly, "a defense of truth" makes for a strange battle cry. That said, the discussion briefly filled us with hope.

You can watch the full discussion here. Serving as Rauch's interlocutor, Pinker opens like this:

Welcome, everyone! My name is Steve Pinker. I am a cognitive scientist and a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and I am very excited to be able to talk to Jonathan Rauch about his forthcoming book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, a book that I had particular interest in and resonance with because I have written a couple of books with similar themes...

In perhaps the first half hour of the ensuing discussion, we'd say there's a fair amount of overthinking, with a dollop of excessive theorization thrown in.

Eventually, though, the rubber hits the road. Twenty-three minutes into the session, Pinker offers this overview of Rauch's book:

"I think your treatment both of trolling culture, primarily from the right, and cancel culture, primarily from the left, are both brilliant, timely, essential reading." 

"Every college president should read [the book]," Pinker soon adds. "They're the ones who actually need to read it, to be reminded of things that are all too often neglected on college campuses."

Steven Pinker is very high on Jonathan Rauch's new book. Quickly, let's add a key point:

Later in the discussion, Rauch says that he regards "trolling culture"—the assault on "the constitution of knowledge" which is primarily coming from the right—as a more serious threat at this time than "cancel culture"—the assault which is primarily coming from the left.

Pinker says he agrees with that assessment. At this point, the right is more dangerous—worse. Rauch and Pinker agree.

But Rauch says something else. He says that "cancel culture" is especially dangerous because of its effects within the academy. Pinker says he agrees with that assessment as well.

At any rate, ever so briefly, it happened! By the end of the hour, Rauch and Pinker had us imagining that intelligent responses to our blue tribe's current excesses are now being formed on the left. 

Pinker named some organizations which are being formed to push back against the dumber aspects of emerging blue tribe culture. For the briefest of moments, we were able to imagine a less dumb day ahead—a day with saner, sounder "daily logic."

As the weekend proceeded, our ability to harbor such thoughts began to fade away. But for the first time in a long while, we'd been able to imagine effective pushback starting to form against some of the impulses which now pervades our failing public discourse.

In this, the age of Donald J. Trump, the lunacy of much that has taken hold on the right is quite easy to spot. But alas! For denizens of our own blue tribe, the dumbness of some of our own emerging instincts are easy to ignore.

It has long been known that Professor Pinker is smart. Rauch, a former journalist turned author, offered a careful assessment of our failing intellectual culture as the discussion went on.

Briefly, we imagined pushback emerging within the academy—pushback built upon our crying need for an improved Daily Logic. But will that pushback come from our logicians—more generally, from our philosophy professors? 

Consider the nightmare we stumbled upon when we started to read Rauch's book.

After watching this C-Span event, we purchased Rauch's book and we commenced to reading. And right there, in his opening paragraphs, Rauch offers an admiring overview of that aforementioned ancient text.

That the heck is the Theaetetus? Rauch's book starts as shown:

In the public square of Athens, a homely, snub-nosed, bulgy-eyed  old man encounters a homely, snub-nosed, bulgy-eyed young man.  Hailing the young man and remarking on their resemblance, Socrates begins a conversation with Theaetetus and sets out to determine  whether they also resemble each other in their love of philosophy. Theaetetus protests that he is no great intellect; philosophical puzzles make him quite dizzy, “wondering whatever they can mean.” Ah! Then you are a philosopher: “This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher,” insists Socrates. “Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”

With that, in a conversation imagined by Plato 2,400 or so years ago, the old man commences to lead his new friend on an expedition into the densest thickets of epistemology. What is knowledge? What is error? How does error arise? Why is error even possible? Each question would seem to have an obvious answer, yet each obvious answer collapses upon examination.

Trust us! Nothing "collapses under examination" in the Theaetetus! But in the first few pages of his book, Rauch describes the wonder he felt when he read the book as a college freshman.

This inspired us to try to read the Theaetetus again. Before long, we were skimming hard, while suffering flashbacks of our own first year in college (though we were lucky to be there).

How do contemporary philosophy professors regard the Theaetetus? To our amazement, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy starts off exactly like this:

The Theaetetus, which probably dates from about 369 BC, is arguably Plato’s greatest work on epistemology. (Arguably, it is his greatest work on anything.) Plato (c.427–347 BC) has much to say about the nature of knowledge elsewhere. But only the Theaetetus offers a set-piece discussion of the question “What is knowledge?”

Arguably, the Theaetetus is Plato's greatest work! Or at least so the passage says, damning with faint praise. 

Meanwhile, the leading authority on the topic offers this overview of the antique text:

The Theaetetus is one of Plato's dialogues concerning the nature of knowledge, written circa 369 BCE.

In this dialogue set in a wrestling school, Socrates and Theaetetus discuss three definitions of knowledge: knowledge as nothing but perception, knowledge as true judgment, and, finally, knowledge as a true judgment with an account. Each of these definitions is shown to be unsatisfactory.

Socrates declares Theaetetus will have benefited from discovering what he does not know, and that he may be better able to approach the topic in the future. The conversation ends with Socrates' announcement that he has to go to court to face a criminal indictment.

Trust us! Nothing "is shown to be unsatisfactory" in the Theaetetus! Nor will anyone "be better able to approach the topic in the future" after perusing the text.

In truth, the Theaetetus is an unreadable mess, as anyone can discern simply by clicking this link. The text was produced at the dawn of the west. We'd say this fact very much shows.

Anyone can discern this fact—anyone except our modern-day philosophy professors. Those worthies continue to stage debates about the unreadable antique text. This help us see that we're basically on our own in our pursuit of an improved state of daily logic.

In the C-Span book event, a professor of psychology joined a former journalist in challenging the wayward tribal instincts which undermine our discourse. There were no logicians around!

Where have all the logicians gone? What are they doing wherever they're found? We'll continue discussing that question this week, even as we review the embarrassing ways our own blue tribe is currently inclined to misfire.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we humans are inclined to reason rather poorly. In his own incoherent way, the later Wittgenstein tried to help—but according to Professor Horwich, the academy decided to throw him under the bus. Werewolves of London again!

Ever so briefly, Rauch and Pinker had us dreaming that the current state of play might somehow be improved. Then we began to review the Theaetetus. 

Within minutes, we were skimming. It may be Plato's greatest work, one source unreliably said.

Tomorrow: Professor McWhorter gets it right—but also, the Theaetetus!


  1. So no "cancel culturing" anti-war pacifists, unless you cancel military spokespeople as well?

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  2. This post makes it so clear Somerberry hates women.

    1. This comment makes it so clear you don't care about women yourself.

  3. It's worth noticing, dear Bob, that there is absolutely nothing 'Left' about your liberal-hitlerian cult. It's an utterly hitlerian, far-right zombie cult.

    As for "the lunacy", here is incomparable Howie Carr quoting a recent monologue of your Demigod Rapist Joe:

    "So it is a process to try to figure out how we how we uh deal with the mad rush of non-Americans, those who didn’t help, those who are not on the priority list, just any Afghan any Afghan to be able to get out of the country and so my guess is that no matter what under what circumstances we any anyone there’s not a whole lot of Afghanis uh there’s a whole lot of Afghanis that just assume come to America whether they’re any involvement with the United States in the past at all rather than stay under Taliban rule or any any so what I was saying is that we have an agreement that they will let pass through the checkpoints that they the Taliban control and let the Americans through."

    Oh dear, talk about lunacy, dear Bob. And the nuclear codes, dear Bob, remember your nuclear codes concerns?

    1. Howie Carr should spend his time plagiarizing those who praise Biden for getting 120,000+ refugees out of Afghanistan so safely, instead of plagiarizing know-nothing Right-wingers.

    2. It's bad enough Howie Carr is a serial plagiarizer. What's worse is that he plagiarizes from people who are morons.

    3. Please stop referring to Biden as a rapist. It dilutes a term that should be reserved for actual criminals. Biden's accuser had her claims investigated and found to be unsubstantiated. Beyond that, she never claimed he "raped" her. That means that you are libeling the president and throwing around a word that has strong meaning, and that is offensive to those who have suffered rape (male or female).

  4. “In the C-Span book event, a professor of psychology joined a former journalist in challenging the wayward tribal instincts which undermine our discourse.”

    While trying to sell books, the two men agreed with each other about everything. Shouldn’t the discussion have included someone who didn’t agree with the two? For example, Rauch and Pinker use the term “cancel culture”, and apply it to the left.

    What do they mean by the term? What does Somerby think they mean? Its use is problematical because it is a buzzword that is often used simply as an anti-liberal epithet without specific meaning. One should be wary of its use in a supposedly serious discussion. No leftist academic was present to debate its use.

  5. “In truth, the Theaetetus is an unreadable mess, as anyone can discern simply by clicking this link.”

    The link is not to the text, but to a discussion of the text.

  6. Everyone is talking about the awesome job Joe Biden is doing with getting refugees out of Afghanistan quickly and safely.
    I was speaking with some people this morning who say Biden is the best President the USA has ever had.

    1. Yes. That Biden is the best President this country has ever had is quickly becoming a concensus.

    2. Biden killed more children this week that Covid did. But he is the best president of my lifetime.

    3. DC insiders say he smells really good.

    4. Considering children are largely resistant to covid, that isn't saying much @5:31 pm. How many children did Trump kill (counting immigrants and asylum seekers)? What happens to children when their parents die of covid? Have conservatives stepped up to take care of covid orphans? Not so's you'd notice. Conservatives only care about controlling women's bodies (much like the Taliban) and not caring for children once they are born.

      Consensus is spelled wrong, @3:53.

    5. How many children did Trump kill (counting immigrants and asylum seekers)? I have no clue. 500? 10,000? A million? None. Maybe there is some sort of data resource from which we could divine an answer or some kind of ballpark figure. What happens to children when their parents die of covid? I'm not really sure. Probably foster care or they go live with a relative like an aunt or an uncle I would think. Have conservatives stepped up to take care of covid orphans? I don't have the slightest clue. Maybe. I'm sure some would if you asked them nicely. Conservatives only care about controlling women's bodies (much like the Taliban) and not caring for children once they are born. Totally!

    6. The answer is NOT "none." I can tell you what conservatives do about children in need. Very little. And if you ask them nicely, they still refuse, citing "personal reponsibility" even for little kids. They didn't even help after Katrina or the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico (Trump withheld the aid authorized for that disaster). Conservatives want kids to go to school during covid without masks or vaccinated teachers. Opposition to abortion has nothing to do with children. It is about oppressing women.

    7. "Opposition to abortion gas nothing to do with children. It is about oppressing women."

      I'm going on record stating the number of Right-wingers who know that is approximately all of them.

    8. Conservatives opposition to abortion has nothing to do with oppressing women, it has to do with getting votes from people who are opposed to abortion. You really shouldn't stop being naive. They would advocate women get abortions every day if it kept them being elected.

      11:28/fool - half of right wingers are women.

  7. The new Netflix show, The Chair, with Sandra Oh, is about professors being subjected to close scrutiny by students, and ultimately canceled (fired) for trivial misunderstandings that could have been addressed by an apology, had the administration not caved to student pressure.

    It may be that this kind of protest is what conservatives have in mind when they talk about cancel culture, but this isn't coming from the left. It is coming from the "consumers" of education who are upset about the teaching they are receiving. Students are sometimes leftist and sometimes conservative, depending on the issue that gives rise to their discontent. The "caving" happens because of financial pressures on the institution, not because of political concerns.

    It used to be that administrators did not bow to student demands because they understood that in four years (at most), that set of students would be gone (graduated) and the issue would die without requiring change. Ivy leagues and private colleges are more sensitive to financial coercion from donors and the need to maintain a positive image and avoid negative optics. The broadcasting of trivial incidents by the media (including social media) makes ignoring students much harder in this time period than previously. But this is not the fault of the left.

    Pinker and Rauch no doubt talked about strengthening speech protections for faculty. That seems like a good idea to me. It would also give the breathing room for students to learn from the response to their attacks, instead of being permitted (like spoiled children) to have their way even when it is wrong. That is too much power to cede to students.

    Meanwhile, I believe that some men consider the women's movements to address sexual assault and harassment and earn an equal wage as part of "cancel culture" because the punishment for wrongs against women tends to be removal or firing. So, I agree with mh's call for better definition of what constitutes cancel culture. Women are neither left nor right on these issues, except to the extent that one or another party supports their efforts to redress grievances.

  8. "Trust us! Nothing "is shown to be unsatisfactory" in the Theaetetus! Nor will anyone "be better able to approach the topic in the future" after perusing the text."

    Here, Somerby criticizes Wikipedia (which he quotes above), calling it "the leading authority" when it is no kind of authority at all, just a handy summary of a wide range of things written and edited by unknown authors. No one in academia is taught to great Wikipedia as any kind of authority and it may not be cited as a scholarly source. Only Somerby gives it any weight.

    Somerby ignores that both Socrates and Theatetus are being voiced by Plato -- neither is expressing his own words. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy considers this dialogue important because it is the first place where Plato discusses knowledge. All the Greeks say some important things and other things that are utterly ridiculous or even abhorent (consider Plato's ideas about the proper place of slaves).

    Rauch talked about the impact of reading Theaetetus, not his correctness or intelligibility, but the ideas raised and their stimulation of his own imagination. Rauch was perhaps responding to the ideas of philosophy, not to being given correct answers by a historical figure.

    Plato wasn't a logician. Pinker and Rauch were not pretending to be either. But why were any logicians needed during their discussion of a book that was not about logic (in the formal sense)? We have different methods for discerning truth these days, scientific method for one. The larger purpose of Rauch's book was to defend truth, not to use logic to extend assumptions (established truth) into unknown areas.

    If Somerby were serious about examining the modern notion of truth, there are others he would be reading and mentioning here. That he does not, suggests that his purpose is to mock Pinker and Rauch and Plato. Note that once again, Somerby fails to examine the arguments themselves, preferring a kind of ad hominem in which he declares a book's content, or a conversation, to be muddled and the authors to be frauds (since they pretend to expertise he has declared they do not have). This isn't any kind of philosophical discussion and the tossing about of names of ancients changes nothing about the emptiness of Somerby's arguments.

  9. "The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we humans are inclined to reason rather poorly."

    Somerby keeps saying this, as if Robert Frost would agree or would permit his words to be used to further Somerby's aims. Steven Pinker would not agree with Somerby either. That's because Pinker knows the cognitive psychology literature on human reasoning. Further, Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist and he would recognize that the survival of humanity and our position as apex predator on this earth both depend on the advantage given to our species by the way our brain works. We are flexible enough to adapt to environments and events that have resulted in extinction of many other species. We survive because we are not bound by the kind of rules of logic developed by logicians, which would handicap us in dealing with the unpredictability of life. Our minds work as they do because they have evolved to give us the best chance to overcome obstacles and dangers. Psychologists study such things. Logicians study how to teach machines to perform limited tasks in well-defined circumstances.

    Somerby should be reading better books, starting with one that describes how people actually think. There are several easy-to-understand books on cognition. Instead, he keeps rereading his old college texts, as if stuck in a time warp created by his own obsession with discrediting his Harvard professors. Pinker did his best work elsewhere (Berkeley and MIT). These days, Harvard only hires tenure-track professors after they have become famous elsewhere. Thereafter, their job is to attract donors to increase Harvard's endowment. Somerby needs to move on and learn something that can be considered recent knowledge. He won't find it on C-SPAN.