THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2021
Our reaction may have differed: Today, we're going to take a guess:
Long ago and far away, we were assigned to read the Theaetetus.
This would have happened in the fall of '65, when we were a freshman at a well-known university. It happened to Jonathan Rauch maybe thirteen years later, when he was a freshman at Yale in the class of 1982.
At the start of his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch describes his reaction to, in effect, first looking into Plato:
At age eighteen, as a college freshman, I encountered Theaetetus with a jolt. I sensed that it asked an important question, yet it provided no answer. Instead, it was an exercise in relentless deconstruction, in gentle but ruthless analytical demolition. Plato’s message came through in bold relief: this business about truth, about distinguishing reality from error—it is not easy, and if you think otherwise, go away!
We have no specific recollection of our own reaction to this text, but we'll guess it was somewhat different. We don't mean that as a criticism of Rauch, who conducted a highly intelligent discussion of his new book on C-Span just last weekend.
He spoke in dialogue with Steven Pinker, who once tweeted the offensive term, "urban crime."
We do recall our general reaction to the class in which we were enrolled. The class, Hum 5, was part of our university's "general education" program. It involved a survey of the great books of the western world's tradition in the realm which is still described as philosophy.
The first semester was taught by Professor Albritton, from whom we later took the undergraduate Wittgenstein course. Through no obvious fault of Albritton's own, "taught" may not be the correct word:
In point of fact, Albritton lectured.
Each Monday and Wednesday—or it may have been each Tuesday and Thursday—500 students sat in the large lecture hall, scribbling 500 sets of notes. We wondered why the university didn't just mimeograph the lectures, then pass them out.
This would have saved the 500 students the need to scribble those notes. They could have sat and listened to the professor, imaginably paying closer attention to whatever it was he said.
It could even have saved Professor Albritton, a perfectly decent person, the need to read his lectures to us freshmen! He didn't have to leave home. We could have strayed in our dorms!
We also remember multiplying the price of tuition for each course by the number 500. Having attained this measure of income to the university, we wondered how much it could possibly cost the university to pay part of the professor's salary and to heat the room.
We were puzzled by the economics of the tedium into which we'd been thrown; we were that naive at the time. As for the tedium itself, good God! The tedium was overpowering.
Alfred North Whitehead famously said it, and we quote:
"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."
Whitehead made this frequently quoted statement in Process and Reality (1929), the tenth most important philosophy book of the 20th century. No one remembers anything else he said in this highly important book. Meanwhile, the leading authority on the book captures its essence as shown:
"The cosmology elaborated in Process and Reality posits an ontology based on the two kinds of existence of entity, that of actual entity and that of abstract entity or abstraction."
Perhaps you can see why no one ever pretends to discuss this book. (Along with Bertrand Russell, Whitehead also co-wrote the fourth most important book.)
What did Whitehead say in his book? No one has any idea! In truth, the logicians—the professional academic philosophy specialists—had already ceased to be part of the western world's faltering discourse.
That one remark has been remembered. It's all been "a footnote to Plato," Whitehead said, failing to voice the possibility that the heart of the ongoing problem could perhaps be found right there.
On Monday, we noted a surprising assessment of the Theaetetus. The assessment is offered by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and it goes 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, his greatest work on anything! After all, only the Theaetetus offers a set-piece discussion of the question, "What is knowledge?"—a question which doesn't necessarily make obvious sense.
It's all been a footnote to Plato, and this was his greatest work! With that in mind, we show you how the discussion in the Theaetetus starts, after an exhausting amount of preliminary throat-clearing.
Socrates is speaking to Theaetetus, a young student of mathematics. He mentions Theodorus, the youngster's math instructor:
SOCRATES: In the first place, I should like to ask what you learn of Theodorus: something of geometry, perhaps?
SOCRATES: And astronomy and harmony and calculation?
THEAETETUS: I do my best.
SOCRATES: Yes, my boy, and so do I; and my desire is to learn of him, or of anybody who seems to understand these things. And I get on pretty well in general; but there is a little difficulty which I want you and the company to aid me in investigating.
Will you answer me a question: Is not learning growing wiser about that which you learn?
THEAETETUS: Of course.
SOCRATES: And by wisdom the wise are wise?
SOCRATES: And is that different in any way from knowledge?
SOCRATES: Wisdom; are not men wise in that which they know?
THEAETETUS: Certainly they are.
SOCRATES: Then wisdom and knowledge are the same?
SOCRATES: Herein lies the difficulty which I can never solve to my satisfaction—What is knowledge? Can we answer that question? What say you? which of us will speak first?
To peruse the full dialogue, you can just click here. Now, let's consider that text:
In a sign of the tedium to come, Socrates establishes the fact that the wise are wise by virtue of wisdom. Also, that men (sic) are wise in that which they know.
From these observations, he concludes that wisdom and knowledge "are the same." As a minor aside, we'll suggest that, if they were really the same, we might not have two separate words.
At this point, Socrates makes a somewhat peculiar confession. His confession concerns a difficulty he says he could never solve:
Socrates could never answer the question concerning what knowledge is! In some ways, this confession may seem a bit odd.
In fact, we all know knowledge when we see it. The youthful Theaetetus proves this point without stating the point, instantly offering examples of knowledge.
Socrates doesn't deny that he has cited examples of knowledge. Eventually, though, it becomes clear what Socrates wants to find:
Socrates wants to find a simplistic definition for "knowledge." This seems to mean that he wants to find some attribute which all examples of "knowledge" possess.
Several thousand years later, the later Wittgenstein helped us see that this isn't the way these things work. (File under: "family resemblances.") It may seem strange to think that this had to be explained several thousand years later, but let's recall the inappropriate observation Professor Horwich recently offered, in the New York Times no less:
[The later Wittgenstein's] attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on—and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?
If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress—by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.
Say what? Has traditional philosophy been marked by "an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues?"
More to the point, is Professor Horwich allowed to say such things? Who gave him the right to do that?
Plato ended up talking about ideal forms and shadows on the wall of some cave. Twenty-four hundred years later, it fell to the later Wittgenstein to introduce the highly useful understanding that objects or states which share a name will be marked by a warren of "family resemblances," rather than by some one single "distinguishing characteristic."
That's a throw-away part of the later Wittgenstein's work—but, according to Horwich, Wittgenstein's later work has largely been thrown away. We won't try to settle this matter today, but we're willing to tell you this:
The Theaetetus is an unreadable, brain-jangling mess. In fairness, this wasn't Plato's fault!
Plato worked at the dawn of the west. To all intents and purposes, there was no prior work to draw on.
These were the earliest attempts to make sense out of anything much at all. But no, these attempts generally didn't make sense—unless you're a college freshman, assigned to read unreadable texts while saddled with the cultural conceit that they contain vast insight.
Simply put, they don't. But on this Planet of the Toffs, the duffers can't seem to quit these texts. Embarrassingly, the Stanford Encyclopedia tells us this about two dueling schools of thought:
The Theaetetus is a principal field of battle for one of the main disputes between Plato’s interpreters. This is the dispute between Unitarians and Revisionists.
Unitarians argue that Plato’s works display a unity of doctrine and a continuity of purpose throughout. Unitarians include Aristotle, Proclus, and all the ancient and mediaeval commentators; Bishop Berkeley; and in the modern era, Schleiermacher, Ast, Shorey, Diès, Ross, Cornford, and Cherniss.
Revisionists retort that Plato’s works are full of revisions, retractations, and changes of direction. Eminent Revisionists include Lutoslawski, Ryle, Robinson, Runciman, Owen, McDowell, Bostock, and many recent commentators.
Unitarianism is historically the dominant interpretive tradition. Revisionism, it appears, was not invented until the text-critical methods, such as stylometry, that were developed in early nineteenth-century German biblical studies were transferred to Plato.
In the twentieth century, a different brand of Revisionism has dominated English-speaking Platonic studies. This owes its impetus to a desire to read Plato as charitably as possible, and a belief that a charitable reading of Plato’s works will minimise their dependence on the theory of Forms...
Remember what the anthropologists say: We humans will always divide ourselves into tribes, with tribal warfare to follow!
Right on through the 20th century, the Revisionists battled the Unitarians about the Theaetetus! As they did, they retreated farther and farther from real events occurring in the real world.
Along the way, they subjected innumerable college freshmen with the task of trying to read, or pretending to read, the Theaetetus, a study in overpowering tedium and lack of technical skill.
Right on through the 20th century, the Duffers had their noses buried in these tired old texts. The kids were encouraged to think this made sense. When it came to the failing discourse, we were pretty much left on our own.
The logicians walked off their posts long ago. Tomorrow, they ignore an obvious epistemological problem, ripped from last week's headlines!
Tomorrow: ESPN and justified true belief. Not to mention "the Gettier problem!"