Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Labor Pains of Theaetetus

“All that is true of their art of midwifery is true also of mine, but mine differs from theirs in being practised upon men, not women, and in tending their souls in labor, not their bodies. But the greatest thing about my art is this, that it can test in every way whether the mind of the young man is bringing forth a mere image, an imposture, or a real and genuine offspring. For I have this in common with the midwives: I am sterile in point of wisdom, and the reproach which has often been brought against me, that I question others but make no reply myself about anything, because I have no wisdom in me, is a true reproach; and the reason of it is this: the god compels me to act as midwife, but has never allowed me to bring forth. I am, then, not at all a wise person myself, nor have I any wise invention, the offspring born of my own soul; but those who associate with me, although at first some of them seem very ignorant, yet, as our acquaintance advances, all of them to whom the god is gracious make wonderful progress, not only in their own opinion, but in that of others as well. And it is clear that they do this, not because they have ever learned anything from me, but because they have found in themselves many fair things and have brought them forth.” (150b-d)

The Socratic art of midwifery is meant to bring forth the genuine idea that explains the transcendental conditions for the possibility of knowledge. Plato first hints at this question in the Charmides, when he wonders aloud “whether a science of science can exist” and whether “he who has this science or knowledge which knows itself will become like the knowledge which he has” and “know himself.” (169e) In the Theaetetus, Socrates complains: “doesn’t it strike you as shameless to explain what knowing is like, when we don’t know what knowledge is?” (196d) To cover his shame, Plato attempts three abortive ascents up the dialectical ladder from phenomenal perceptions to formal concepts: perception (151e-187a); true belief (187b-201c); and justified true belief. (201d-210a) Plato first rejects knowledge by perception because if all perceptible things were always changing into something different, and nothing ever remains the same, then it would be plainly impossible to consistently name or judge anything at all. (182a-183a) Plato then rejects knowledge by true belief because, if all knowledge were true beliefs, then there could be no knowledge of false beliefs, and every belief would be trivially true. (187e)

For Plato’s final explanation, Socrates proposes that the truth of any belief may only be discerned through a concept of justification. He distinguishes the thought of the first simple elements that cannot be known from the thought of the final complex combinations that we presume to know in our concepts (logos). (202a) Since, every proposed justification must be constructed from some combination of terms, propositions, premises, and valid inferences, Socrates suggests that “no account can be given” of the simple elements. (201e) The unknowability of these simple elements also renders every complex compositions of simple elements equally unknowable. The result is a part-whole logos paradox: any complex concept is either (i) identical to the unknown combination of simple elements (203d), or (ii) different from this combination by some further addition above the parts (204a); yet if the concept is (i) identical to its elements then it is just as unknown as its simple elements, but if it is (ii) different than its elements then any further addition must likewise be either a simple element that is thinkable but unknowable or not a simple element and hence unthinkable. (205c-e) Regardless of whether we affirm that (i) the whole is identical to its parts or (ii) the whole is not identical to its parts, the unknowability of simple elements seems to render knowledge of complex wholes impossible. (cf. Seung 1996 145-169)

The part-whole paradox of the Theaetetus recalls Plato’s typical description of the construction of concepts by the metaphor of constructing the simple elements of letters into the complex composites of words: in the Cratylus, Socrates searches for the essential names that “express the true forms of things in letters and syllables” (390e) that have been genetically transmitted from the gods to the ancient poets (391d-394d); in the Theaetetus, he describes how, in a dream, he learnt that letters may be combined to make syllables, syllables to make names, names to make descriptions, and descriptions given for accounts of justified true belief (201e-205e); and – most emphatically of all - in the Phaedrus Socrates prescribes Theuth’s “recipe for wisdom and memory” to preserve “living speech” from being emptied into the dead writing of “external marks.” (274b-277c) The part-whole paradox thus threatens a skeptical circle (209e) in which all knowledge is apparently derived from non-knowledge, knowledge has no definite foundation, and all pretensions to knowledge results in ignorance.

Socrates admits that the idea of a “perfectly true definition of knowledge was no better than a golden dream” but recommends three remaining interpretations: (i) the phenomenal “image of thought in spoken sound”; (ii) the composition of complex wholes from simple parts; and (iii) the meaning that marks an essential identity and difference. (208c) Plato suggests that “an ‘account’ means putting your differences into words, but illustrates its inherent danger to be like grasping at the Sun: “if you get hold of the difference, distinguishing any given thing from all others, then, so some people say, you will have ‘an account’ of it, whereas, so long as you fix upon something common to other things, your account will embrace all things that share it.” (209d) This example of the Sun recalls the allegory of the Cave in the Republic (514a) that was “the last thing to be seen and hardly seen is the idea of the Good.” (517b) There Socrates described the idea of the Good as that which “gives their truth to the objects of knowledge, and the power of knowing to the knower” but also warns that “it is right to deem light and vision sunlike, but never to think that they are the sun” for the Good itself is “not essence but still transcends essence in dignity.” (509b)

The transcendental condition of Knowledge is, like knowledge of the Good itself, a kind of knowledge that knows knowledge, but, whose brilliant activity of knowing itself, casts a blinding light to all knowers whose eyes have been dimmed by amusements in the shadows of non-knowledge. Since we cannot grasp this pure self-identity of Knowledge transparently by naked thought, we must instead seek to “grasp its difference from all other things.” (208e) This requires a dialectic that treats “its assumptions not as absolute beginnings but literally as hypotheses” to “enable [thinking] to rise to that which requires no assumption.” (511c) Plato most expressly attempts to traverse this “vast and hazardous sea” of grasping all differences in the enigmatic dialectical exercises of the Parmenides: “whenever you suppose that anything whatsoever exists or does not exist or has any other character, you ought to consider the consequences with reference to itself and to any one of the other things that you may select, or several or them, or all of them together.” (136b) (See my essay Plato’s Contest) J.N. Findlay has suggested that Plato may have meant the Theaetetus as a criticism of Aristotle’s axiomatic and linear-deductive model of knowledge. He writes “the ultimate and unutterable is none the less that without which the derivative and utterable would not be utterable at all, and that is therefore, in a manner, shares in the utterability of the latter, just as the latter after the fashion shades into the utterability of the former.” (1974 228) Whomever mistakes the unutterability for apodictic certainty, he says, accepts “the most vicious of circles” in which thought is directed as by a “blind man” leading thinking through the “most absolute darkness.” (209e)

Analytic interpretations of Plato have no less eagerly mined the Theaetetus for the ancient roots of knowledge and skepticism. Francis Cornford judges the aporetic ending to amount to a rejection of any attempt to construct a theory of induction by mixing the formal concepts of justification with the material content of perceptible things. (1935 154) T.K. Seung alternatively interprets Socrates’s dream story, like the Meno paradox, to suggest an inspired recollection of a ‘pre-definitional’ direct intuition of the Ideas themselves, and concludes that, if knowledge is circular and anti-foundational, then the circle of knowledge must revolve in a circuit of Identity and Difference, which anticipates the later dialectical dialogues, the Parmenides, the Sophist, and the Philebus. (1996 145-169) Gail Fine similarly reads Plato’s skeptical circle as suggesting a system of the elements of knowledge in which: “one does not understand a discipline’s elements until one understand the system to which they belong; conversely, understanding any system consists in understanding how its elements are interrelated.” (1979 386) Plotinus seems to have anticipated Seung and Fine in his description of how heavenly system itself resolves the part-whole paradox by “ceaselessly reintroducing the known forms into new substances, thus ensuring perpetuity not to the particular item but to the unity of the Idea.” (Enneads, II.1.i) In each case, the labor of knowing Knowledge itself requires nothing less than giving birth to a world of thought:

“Come then to me, who am a midwife, and the son of a midwife, and I will deliver you. And do not bite me, as the women do, if I abstract your first-born; for I am acting out of good-will towards you; the God who is within me is the friend of man, though he will not allow me to dissemble the truth. Once more then, Theaetetus, I repeat my old question—‘What is knowledge?’ Take courage, and by the help of God you will discover an answer." (151b-c)
For more on Plato and dialectical logic, see my lecture Plato, Logic, and Ontology

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