- Theaetetus (dialogue)
The "Theætetus" (Greek: Θεαίτητος) is one of
Plato's dialogues concerning the nature of knowledge. The framing of the dialogue begins when Euclides tells his friend Terpsionthat he wrote a book many years ago based on what Socratestold him of a conversation he had with Theaetetus when he was quite a young man. Euclides had seen Theaetetus being carried off the battlefield with a case of dysenteryand a minor war wound. Euclides says that Socrates correctly prophesied that Theaetetus would become a notable man if he lived long enough. The dialogue is read aloud to the two men by a slave boy in the employ of Euclides.
In this dialogue, Socrates and Theaetetus discuss four definitions of
knowledge: knowledge being the enumeration of the species 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 are shown to be unsatisfactory. The conversation ends with Socrates' announcement that he has to go to court to answer to the charges that he has been corrupting the young and failing to worship Athenian Gods.
Midwife to knowledge
Socrates asks Theodorus if he knows of any
geometrystudents who show particular promise. Theodorus assures him that he does, but that he does not want to over-praise the boy, lest anyone suspect he is in love with him. He says that the boy, Theaetetus, is a young Socrates look-alike, rather homely, with a snub-noseand protruding eyes. The two older men spot Theaetetus rubbing himself down with oil, and Theodorus reviews the facts about him, that he is intelligent, virile, and an orphanwhose inheritance has been squandered by trustees.
Socrates tells Theaetetus that he cannot make out what knowledge is, and is looking for a simple formula for it. Theaetetus says he really has no idea how to answer the question, and Socrates tells him that he is there to help. Socrates says he has modelled his career after his midwife mother. She delivered babies and for his part, Socrates can tell when a young man is in the throes of trying to give birth to a thought. Socrates says his work is especially difficult because he himself is barren, and, as it turns out, all the bastard notions he has helped deliver had to be killed (152b,c). Theaetetus ventures that "knowledge is nothing but sense perception".
Socrates thinks that this idea must be identical in meaning, if not in actual words, to
Protagoras' famous maxim "Man is the measure of all things." Socrates wrestles to conflate the two ideas, and stirs in for good measure a claim about Homerbeing the captain of a team of Heraclitanflux theorists. Socrates dictates a complete textbook of logical fallacies to the bewildered Theaetetus. When Socrates tells the child that he (Socrates) will later be smaller "without losing an inch" because Theaetetus will have grown relative to him, the child complains of dizziness (155c). In an often quoted line, Socrates says with delight that "wonder (thaumazein) belongs to the philosopher". He admonishes the boy to be patient and bear with his questions, so that his hidden beliefs may be yanked out into the bright light of day.
Examining the offspring
When Socrates sums up what they have agreed on so far, it becomes problematic that knowledge is sense perception, for Socrates raises the question that "When the same wind blows, one of us feels cold and the other not?" As a result he introduces the idea of Heraclitean flux to act as a defence to the wind objection. Heracliteanism shows that "Nothing is in itself just one thing...Everything is in a process of coming to be". Thus as there is no fixed meaning in things, but they draw their meaning in a referential difference to other things, the wind objection can be incorporated into Theaetetus's claim that "Knowledge is sense perception". As a result they can then continue their inquiry as to the truth of this claim. It is important to note that the Heraclitean doctrine of Flux is not the same as the Protagorean doctrine. The Protagorean is radical truth relativism whereas the Heraclitean is radical reality relativism. It serves as a supporting theory to the Protagorean interpretation of Theaetetus's claim, in order that they might fully inquire as to the validity of this premise. Socrates admits that it is unfortunate that Protagoras is dead and cannot defend his idea against people such as himself. He says that the two of them are "trampling on his orphan" (164e) but the charge remains.
Abusing the "orphan" of Protagoras
Since Protagoras is dead, Socrates puts himself in the sophist's shoes and tries to do him the favor of defending his idea (166a-168c). Socrates continues to find more ways to misinterpret and misrepresent him - "mistreat his orphan." Putting words in the dead sophist's mouth, Socrates declares that Protagoras asserts with his maxim that all things are in
motionand whatever seems to be the case, is the case for the perceiver, whether the individualor the state.
At the end of his speech, Socrates admits to Theodorus that if Protagoras were alive to defend his idea, he would have done a far better job than Socrates has just done. Theodorus tells Socrates that he must be kidding, that he has come to the task with boyish vigor. Theodorus does not claim to be a disciple of Protagoras, but never contradicts Socrates repeated assertions that he is a friend of Protagoras. Socrates admits he has used the child's timidity to aid him in his argument against the doctrine of Protagoras (168d).
Socrates, not at all certain that he has not misrepresented Protagoras in making each man the measure of his own
wisdom, presses Theodorus on the question of whether any follower of Protagoras (himself included) would contend that nobody thinks anyone else is wrong (170c). Theodorus proves to be helpless against Socrates' confusions. He agrees that Protagoras concedes that those who disagree with him are correct (171a). In making Protagoras a complete epistemological relativist, where every person's individual perceptions are his reality and his truth, both Socrates and Theodorus paint Protagoras as maintaining an absurd position. Socrates says that if Protagoras could pop his head up through the ground as far as his neck, he would expose Socrates as a speaker of nonsense, sink out of sight, and take to his heels (171d).
The absent-minded philosopher
Socratesthen proceeds to explain why philosophers seem clumsy and stupid to the common lot of humanity. Socrates explains that philosophers are open to mockery because they are not concerned about what interests most people: they could not care less about the scandals in their neighbors house, the tracing of one's ancestry to Heracles, and so on. It is here that Socrates draws the classic portrait of the absent-minded intellectualwho cannot make his bed, cook a meal, or drape his cloak like a gentleman (175e). Socrates adds a big bifurcation to this speech, saying that there are only two kinds of lives to be lived: a divinely happy one, lived by righteous philosophers or a godless, miserable one, such as most people live (176-177). Socrates admits this was a digression that threatens to drown his original project, which was to define knowledge. Theodorus, the old geometer, tells Socrates that he finds this sort of thing easier to follow than his earlier arguments.
The men of flux
Socrates says that the men of flux, like Homer and Heraclitus, are really hard to talk to because you can't pin them down. When you ask them a question, he says, they pluck from their quiver a little
aphorismto let fly at you, and as you try to figure that one out, they wing another one at you. They leave nothing settled either in discourse, or in their own minds. Socrates adds that the opposite school of thought, that teaches of the "immovable whole" is just as hard to talk to (181a,b). Socrates says he met the father of the idea, Parmenides, when he was quite young, but does not want to get into another digression over it.
The mind as a bird cage
Perhaps the most delightful talk in the dialogue comes near the end, when Socrates compares the human
mindto a birdcage. He says it is one thing to possess knowledge and another to have it about one, on hand, as it were (199a). Socrates says that as a man goes huntingabout in his brainfor knowledge of something, he might grab hold of the wrong thing. He says that mistaking eleven for twelve is like going in for a pigeon and coming up with a dove(199b). Theaetetus joins in the game, and says that to complete the picture, you need to envision pieces of ignoranceflying around in there with the birds. But if this is the case, how would you be able to distinguish between the birds representing real knowledge and the ones representing false ones? Are there other birds that represent this type of knowledge? Socrates comes to the conclusion that this is absurd and therefore he discards the birdcage analogy. Socrates concludes the dialogue by announcing that all the two have produced is mere "wind-eggs" and that he must be getting on now to the courthouse.
Significant references in the dialogue
In this dialogue, Socrates refers to
Epicharmus of Kosas "the prince of Comedy" and Homeras "the prince of Tragedy", and both as "great masters of either kind of poetry".rf|1|Plato1 This is significant because it is one of the very few extant references in greater antiquity (Fourth century BC) to Epicharmus and his work. Another reference is in Plato's "Gorgias" dialogue.
* "Summon the great masters of either kind of poetry- Epicharmus, the prince of Comedy, and Homer of Tragedy", "Theaetetus", by Plato, section §152e. [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Plat.+Theaet.+152e] (translation by
Benjamin Jowett[http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/theatu.html] ). There is some variability in translation of the passage. Words like "king", "chief", "leader", "master" are used in the place of "prince" in different translations. The basic Greek word in Plato is "akroi" from "akros" meaning topmost or high up. In this context it means "of a degree highest of its kind" or "consummate" (cf. Liddell & Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon). [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?layout.reflang=greek;layout.refembed=2;layout.refwordcount=1;layout.refdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0171;layout.reflookup=a%29%2Fkroi;layout.refcit=text%3DTheaet.%3Asection%3D152e;doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3D%233631;layout.refabo=Perseus%3Aabo%3Atlg%2C0059%2C006]
elected secondary literature
* Cornford, F.M., "Plato's Theory of Knowledge: The Theaetetus and The Sophist". Dover, 2003 [first published in 1935] .
* Klein, Jacob, "Plato's Trilogy: Theaetetus, The Sophist and the Statesman". University of Chicago Press, 1977.
* Benardete, S., Commentary to "Plato's Theaetetus". Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
* Burnyeat, M.F., "The Theaetetus of Plato" (with a translation by Jane Levett). Hackett, 1990.
* Campbell, L., "The Theaetetus of Plato". Oxford University Press, 1883.
* Heidegger, M., "The Essence of Truth". Continuum, 2002.
*The full text is available from [http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=1726 Project Gutenberg] or the Perseus Project in both [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0171%3Atext%3DTheaet. Greek] and [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0172:text=Theaet.:section=142a English] .
* [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-theaetetus/ Chappell, Timothy. "Plato on Knowledge in the Theaetetus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2005 Edition)]
* [http://books.google.com/books?id=1kWHlFf0bLAC&dq=cornford+theaetetus&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=VBwBobl_VN&sig=4qa_52Si97M_a3LSIDZEwa_yKzo Cornford, F.M., "Plato's Theory of Knowledge" at googlebooks]
* [http://journal.ilovephilosophy.com/Article/Does-Plato-offer-a-comprehensive-refutation-of-relativism-/269 Does Plato's Theatetus Offer a Comprehensive Refutation of Relativism]
* [http://www.theaetetus.net/ A Discussion of Theaetetus' Contributions to Euclid's Elements]
* [http://platogeek.com/work/5 Theaetetus Bibliography]
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
Look at other dictionaries:
Theaetetus — could mean:* Theaetetus (mathematician) (c. 417 B.C. – 369 B.C.), a Greek geometer * Theaetetus (dialogue), a dialogue by Plato, named after the geometer * Theaetetus (crater), a lunar impact crater … Wikipedia
Theaetetus (mathematician) — Theaetetus (ca. 417 B.C. ndash; 369 B.C.) of Athens, son of Euphronius, of the Athenian deme Sunium, was a classical Greek mathematician. His principal contributions were on irrational lengths, which was included in Book X of Euclid s Elements ,… … Wikipedia
Sophist (dialogue) — The Sophist (Greek: Σοφιστής) is one of the late Dialogues of Plato, which was written much later than the Parmenides and the Theaetetus , probably in 360 BC. After he criticized his own Theory of Forms in the Parmenides , Plato proceeds in the… … Wikipedia
Théétète (dialogue de Platon) — Théétète (Platon) Pour les articles homonymes, voir Théétète. Dialogues de Platon … Wikipédia en Français
Charmides (dialogue) — Part of the series on: The Dialogues of Plato Early dialogues: Apology – Charmides – Crito Euthyphro … Wikipedia
Phaedrus (dialogue) — The Phaedrus (Greek: Φαίδρος), written by Plato, is a dialogue between Plato s main protagonist, Socrates, and Phaedrus, an interlocutor in several dialogues. The Phaedrus was presumably composed around 370 BC, around the same time as Plato s… … Wikipedia
Clitophon (dialogue) — Part of the series on: The Dialogues of Plato Early dialogues: Apology – Charmides – Crito Euthyphro – … Wikipedia
Laws (dialogue) — For the work by Cicero of the same title, see De Legibus. Part of the series on: The Dialogues of Plato Early dialogues: Apology – Char … Wikipedia
Protagoras (dialogue) — Protagoras is a dialogue of Plato. The main argument is between the elderly Protagoras, a celebrated sophist, and Socrates. The discussion takes place at the home of Callias, who is host to Protagoras while he is in town, and concerns a familiar… … Wikipedia
Gorgias (dialogue) — Part of the series on: The Dialogues of Plato Early dialogues: Apology – Charmides – Crito Euthyphro – … Wikipedia