MONDAY, AUGUST 30, 2021
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!