Category Archives: The Theatetus

Harold Cherniss’ “The Philosophical Economy of the Theory of Ideas”: Synopsis and Commentary

Harold Cherniss’ “The Philosophical Economy of the Theory of Ideas”: Summary and Comments  

Pdf of Cherniss’ article available here:


Key terms: A Priori, Recollection Argument, Eristic Argument, Hypothesis, Early Dialogues, Middle Dialogues, Fifth Century, Theory of Forms


Topics: The hypothetical method as leading to the theory of forms (the intellectual genesis of the theory of forms), the 5th Century background to the development of the hypothetical method, the importance of and need for an absolute ethical standard/underivative standard of reference,  the result of the “dialogues of search,” the eristic argument in the Meno, the recollection argument, teaching and knowing, the epistemological necessity of the theory of ideas


  1. Introduction
  2. Cherniss’ Account of the Fifth Century Background to Plato’s Discussion of Ethics in the Early and Middle Dialogues
  3. Plato and Relativism/Plato’s Motivation for Developing his Theory of Forms
  4. The Eristic Argument
  5. Comment: Text and Formalization of the Argument
  6. Comment: Evaluation
  7. Plato’s Response to the Eristic Paradox: the Recollection Theory of Knowledge
  8. Final Comments and Further Remarks on the Application of the Eristic Argument and Recollection Theory to the Contemporary Scene


Harold Cherniss’ “Philosophical Theory of Ideas,” originally published in 1936 in the American Journal of Philology, concerns the genesis of Plato’s theory of Ideas or Forms, its rationale, and Plato’s own discussion of its attendant epistemological difficulties. The article may be divided into two parts, one that concerns the genesis of the theory in relation to ethics in the early and middle dialogues, and a second part that concerns epistemological questions in Plato’s later dialogues. The following will discuss the first part of the article (pp. 445-448).

Cherniss’ article has the special merit of providing a clear explanation for why the theory of Ideas or Forms was developed at all-a discussion that may well be very important for a proper appreciation and enjoyment of their content. Cherniss locates the primary texts for his theory within the dialectical battlefield of the Meno, specifically in two arguments labelled the “eristic argument” given by Meno (Socrates’ opponent in the debate) and Socrates’ response, an argument that produced his theory of “recollection.” After a brief discussion of the fifth century background to the discussion and the development of a criterion for an ethical absolute, the stage is set for the discussion in the Meno. The stage is then set for a summary of what Plato hoped to show and for further consideration of its significance.  

Cherniss’ Account of the Fifth Century Background

Plato’s development of his theory of Ideas or Forms grew out of his concern with ethical absolutes.  Cherniss describes Plato as having been concern to defend the possibility of such absolutes against a tide of relativism that had surfaced in the 5th century. Cherniss refers to such 5th century sources as the “dissoi logoi,” which he describes as discussing the relativity of such concepts as good and evil, the just and unjust, “fair” vs. “foul,” and even the possibility of teaching virtue (Cherniss 446). A further source is a papyrus fragment attributed to Antiphon the Sophist which Cherniss reads as contrasting conventional and natural justice, where conventional justice is “adventitious” and natural justice is simply what is “truly advantageous to each individual.  Those familiar with the Platonic dialogues will, of course, recognize these points of debate as their main themes.  The fact that they were so prominent as themes in the dialogues gives further evidence of the influence they likely had upon Plato.  

Plato and the Relativists/Plato’s Motivation for Developing the Theory of Forms

In seeking to contest the influence of these fifth century sources, Cherniss describes Plato as having recognized that an independent measure of goodness, justice, etc. would be necessary if he was to succeed.  Cherniss, considers that the early dialogues provide clear enough evidence of this point to venture to remark that the point ought not to be labored (Cherniss 447). Socrates does, in fact, repeatedly lead his interlocutors back to the methodological aim of discovering what justice, piety, love, etc. themselves are as opposed to their particular instances of them. Using individual examples of goodness or justice as standards of goodness and justice merely leads back into the trap of relativism: to do so is merely to “measure individuals against one another” leaving us without an independent standard for determining what makes some things, for example, just while others are unjust, and without a way to determine the similarities and differences among things one might want to classify as just or unjust (Cherniss 447). It might be considered that the refusal to accept particular instances amounts to Socrates’ way of funneling his interlocutor into a non-relative conception of ethical standards even as they fail to arrive at one.   

Thus, we arrive at the first step in the development of what Cherniss sees as Plato’s motivation for the theory of Forms or Ideas: “The possibility of ethical distinctions, then, implies objective differences which can be accounted for only by the hypothesis of objective ideas” (Cherniss 447). The justification for such an hypothesis is that it makes ethical absolutes possible, thereby making the determination of the true nature of justice, goodness, etc. possible; however, the defense and development the theory requires that it face certain epistemological (as opposed to methodological) questions-questions that properly concern knowledge itself as a subject of investigation.

One such question arises in the Meno, where the possibility of knowing such ethical paradigms as the Forms are supposed to represent is raised in the context of a discussion of whether virtue may be taught. After all, can what Socrates is searching for be discovered at all? The question is certainly worth asking. Cherniss comments that “a consistent and practical ethical theory depends upon an adequate epistemology” writing that the discussion of the nature of virtue underway in the Meno demands “a prior determination of the nature of virtue itself” (Cherniss 447-448). The dialogue brings the reader to consider these points when, after failing to give Socrates a satisfactory definition of virtue, he introduces a skeptical paradox designed to show that the search for knowledge is self-defeating in nature.    

The Eristic Argument

Enter the “eristic” argument. When Meno is unable to give a proper definition of virtue, he presents one that one might be recognized as being very much in tune with the skeptical tendencies of Plato’s 5th century adversaries.  It may be expressed concisely as the self-defeating proposition, “It is impossible to search either for the known or for the unknown” (cf. Cherniss 447).

Comment: The Text of the Eristic Argument

Going beyond Cherniss for a moment, It might be said in explanation that, on the one hand, it defies logic to say that one may search for something (knowledge in this case) one already has (searching seems to imply something that is, at least in some sense, lost); on the other hand, if one has no knowledge of what one is looking for, one has no means of finding it or even of knowing when one has found it (a means of discovery and of proof are equally essential for real  knowledge).Thus, it appears impossible to search either for what one already knows or for what is yet unknown. The Greek text and my own literal translation are placed below for the reader’s convenience.

The Greek text (Meno 80 d-e) may be translated as follows:


καὶ τίνα τρόπον ζητήσεις, ὦ Σώκρατες, τοῦτο ὃ μὴ οἶσθα τὸ παράπαν ὅ τι ἐστίν; ποῖον γὰρ ὧν οὐκ οἶσθα προθέμενος ζητήσεις; ἢ εἰ καὶ ὅτι μάλιστα ἐντύχοις αὐτῷ, πῶς εἴσῃ ὅτι τοῦτό ἐστιν ὃ σὺ οὐκ ᾔδησθα;


And how will you look for something when you do not in any way know what it is?  What sort of thing is it you do not know that you are making the object of your search? Or above all, even if you should find it, how will you know that the former was what you did not know?

Notice that Socrates’ gloss of Meno’s objection is different:


μανθάνω οἷον βούλει λέγειν, ὦ Μένων. ὁρᾷς τοῦτον ὡς ἐριστικὸν λόγον κατάγεις, ὡς οὐκ ἄρα ἔστιν ζητεῖν ἀνθρώπῳ οὔτε ὃ οἶδε οὔτε ὃ μὴ οἶδε; οὔτε γὰρ ἂν ὅ γε οἶδεν ζητοῖ—οἶδεν γάρ, καὶ οὐδὲν δεῖ τῷ γε τοιούτῳ ζητήσεως—οὔτε ὃ μὴ οἶδεν—οὐδὲ γὰρ οἶδεν ὅτι ζητήσει.

I understand what you want to express, Meno.  Do you see what a contentious argument you are introducing, that is it not possible for anyone to inquire either into what he knows or into what he does not know? For he would neither seek what he does, in fact, know-for he [already] knows, and no one goes searching for that kind of thing-nor for what he does not know-since he knows nothing about what he will be looking for.

The gloss given above attempts to capture all the elements. It can be seen, in summary, that once Socrates’ own version of it is added to Meno’s, three basic elements of inquiry are in play: the starting point of an inquiry, the end point, and how one knows when the end has been reached.  These elements might, in turn, be related to Plato’s favorite key epistemological terms: a belief as a starting point, knowing as an end-point, and justification as a way of knowing one’s search is complete.  

[The following may be skipped if the reader is not inclined toward symbolic logic]

The search itself is paradoxical in nature because if one knows beforehand, there is no need to search, but if one doesn’t, one cannot find what one is looking for. It may be expressed succinctly in symbolic form as the proposition

                                                        ~K -> ~F & K -> ~F

where K represents “knowing” and F represents “finding knowledge.” As the formula shows, whether one knows or not, finding knowledge does not occur.  Assuming that one must be in either state (K v ~K), one cannot but help to fall into either side of the dilemma. This may be shown (purely for the reader’s enjoyment as it may happen) as follows:

  1. K V ~K
  2. ~K -> ~F & K -> ~F
  3. Assume K is true, then
  4. ~F
  5. Assume ~K is true
  6. Then ~F
  7. Therefore, K v ~K -> ~F

This amounts to a proof that, if the primary premisses (1 and 2) are true, it is useless to search for knowledge (self-defeating) because one either begins with knowledge or without knowledge-and it is impossible to avoid being either state.  

Comment: Evaluating the Eristic Argument

At this point, the reader may be experiencing a sense of exasperation. It appears that the premise, “We must either know, or not know” creates a false dilemma. The argument seems to overlook the distinction between partial and full knowledge. When the claim is made that in order to search for some x one must “know” x, apparently only the strong sense of knowing is considered. One might both have partial knowledge of what a Red Tailed Deer is, for example, and yet not “know” what it is in the stronger sense of the term. Not initially knowing in the strong sense does not appear to present any difficulty for really knowing what a Red Tailed Deer is later.  

In other words, it appears that the solution is simply to acknowledge that some form of induction or perhaps Aristotelian epagoge (lit. “going up”) is a valid method for arriving at full knowledge of a given thing. Setting aside the regress problem of numerical induction or verification (always another case), perhaps the best way to see why the eristic argument should have been taken seriously is to consider it in the context of an axiomatic model of knowledge.  Suppose we begin with partial knowledge and proceed on that basis: according to an axiomatic model, the partial knowledge we have won’t count as real knowledge until some principle is formulated that secures that what we think we know can really be considered knowledge at all.  We may, in other words, proceed inductively (or by epagoge) on the basis of a belief that we are right-but we might also be quite mistaken in that belief.  Examples of proceeding in the wrong direction on the basis of a false belief are not hard to find in the history of science: alchemy or ether theory in the early 20th century come to mind. In contemporary physics, string theory may or may not take us anywhere.  It is not until partial knowledge, based upon hypothesis or belief, is secured as an axiom that we can claim any real knowledge. That, in turn, leaves in doubt whether our starting point will lead us where we want to go.  

In such a context, really knowing will allow us to deduce whatever consequences we have not already drawn, and thus, to really know them too. Nevertheless, it might be insisted that unless some sort of “way up” involving induction or generalization of some kind is allowed, the search for knowledge really will be impossible. Certainly this is right.  But, by the same token,what the eristic argument points out is right.  It points out a problem with knowledge: we don’t really “know” anything until we know it, making it quite possible that, until we have arrived at a principle/axiom that secures our knowledge as knowledge, we may be mistaken.  In such a case, prior knowledge is vital to the search, inasmuch as it helps us to disregard beliefs that are likely to be false before pursuing them. Without prior knowledge, one might very well wonder how anyone can hope to find what they are looking for without prior knowledge of some kind to guide them.

Meno seems to find himself in such a case.  He believes he knows what virtue is, but his accounts of it, playing the role of axioms in Socrates’ critique, fail to secure his accounts as  knowledge.  They run into contradictions with other things we believe we know, making them appear unreliable-and knowledge, more than belief, ought to be reliable. Moreover, nothing he has said has even appeared to be partially correct, which would seem to leave him at a loss as to how to proceed. When he asks how it is possible to look for something lacking any knowledge of what it is, Meno may be read as having reached a point of exasperation either a) as to how to proceed b) as how to proceed lacking any idea of whether he is heading in the right direction (because he lacks any real knowledge of it) or c) as comprehending the problem of how the two are intertwined.  Socrates does intertwine them, by re-framing his question as the eristic argument formalized above with its apparently self-defeating results. What may be seen now is perhaps the extent to which it is, as representing a genuine problem about the search for knowledge-and at the same time isn’t.  


The Recollection Theory of Knowledge

Whatever possible solutions might be given for the dilemma, Socrates’ response is to hypothesize the “recollection” theory of knowledge.“Recollection” involves a prior direct knowledge of the Forms of things (absolute standards for things such as justice, goodness, virtue, etc.) that were available to known prior to one’s birth. One might alternatively think of such knowledge as “innate,” but Cherniss emphasizes that such knowledge of the Forms or Ideas was “direct” in nature, citing Meno 81 D 4-5 (Cherniss 448). Its application to the eristic argument might be given as follows:

  1. Such innate knowledge would give one a prior knowledge of virtue.
  2. The search, in this case, is for a definition of virtue, which would require a knowledge of its essential nature-a non-relative kind of knowledge of what it truly is.
  3. The eristic argument states that one cannot search either for what one knows or for what one does not know, but (1) presupposes that even the essential nature of virtue actually exists, was directly available, and may be known (in the strong sense of the term).

The way in which these premises lead to a solution might be made more explicit than the way in which Cherniss presents the argument as follows:

  1. Such knowledge has a dual nature that defies the paradoxical/self-defeating nature of the eristic argument: firstly, (1) secures the assumption that a true, non-relative definition of virtue really does exist; secondly, (1) allows for both potential and actual knowledge of that definition. This is illustrated by the example of Socrates helping the slave boy to discover knowledge of geometry within himself.
  2. According to the innate hypothesis (1), it would be possible to search for the definition of virtue because, although one does not know what one is searching for, in another sense there is the potential for it to be discovered since:
    1. One once had actual, direct, prior knowledge of it.  
    2. Finally, the process of acquiring such knowledge can be furthered by the efforts of a figure like Socrates, who can help to “learner” to recall it by giving clues that assist in the recollection process. This same process is sometimes described as Socratic midwifery.

It might be noticed that by posing the argument in this way, an overall coherence emerges among the elements of Cherniss’ depiction of the 5th century background, the motivation Socrates had for developing the recollection hypothesis, and the introduction of the eristic argument and its solution.  


The Recollection Hypothesis and A Priori Knowledge

A further implication is that a priori knowledge appears to be required in the search for genuine knowledge of virtue. Plato does not explore the path of reasoning on the basis of prior knowledge through generalization in order to arrive at full knowledge of virtue. One suspects that Cherniss is on the the right track in taking the relativism of the fifth century to be a foil for the present discussion, since a non-relative answer to the problem of what virtue is could not reliably be deduced from experience, since experience is always bound to the time, place, and circumstances of those who are acquiring it. In that case, any real answer would require a priori knowledge of virtue that does not come from our experience. Innatism is at least a way of meeting that requirement. With the supposition of an innate idea of virtue, it will at least be possible, in theory, to proceed from our experience to a true definition, even if that search is not carried out in the dialogue. The recollection argument attempts to provide some basis for such knowledge, which, if the paradox is taken seriously, appears to be necessary for any knowledge-a result which appears to have motivated the theory of Forms.

Final Comments and Further Remarks on Contemporary Application  

In sum, Cherniss’ basic position regarding the progression from the early to middle dialogues is that they can be read together as laying the groundwork and finding a solution to the problem of ethical relativism. What is at stake is that unless some solution to the eristic paradox is given, we must “surrender all possibility of considering ethical problems” (Cherniss 448). Unless some solution can be offered, the relativists have the upper hand and morality is ultimately a matter of custom or persuasion. But the even more serious result is that without some means of acquiring a priori knowledge, even the attempt to discover a non-relativistic way of knowing is doomed to failure.

The supposition of such hypotheses as the recollection theory requires, namely, that we have an immortal soul and that it, in some sense, exists in a “realm” wherein it may acquire direct knowledge of the Forms, may well appear extravagant to contemporary readers. These additional hypotheses might even seem to fatally weaken Plato’s argument; nevertheless, together, they do at least provide a working solution to the problem of a priori knowledge developed thousands of years before Kant’s approach to the same problem and the development of modern genetics. But finally, through Cherniss’ analysis, the eristic argument and its response had three further results for the progress of Plato’s dialogues: (a) as providing a motive for Plato’s discussion of the soul; (b) as a solution to the problem of ethical relativism; and (c) as foundational material for understanding the theory of Forms and its development. Finally, (d) it may be considered that problems the eristic argument raises have led to many of the “perennial” problems of philosophy.

The study of the eristic problem helps illuminate when, where, and why innatism might become necessary as a hypothesis: when the foundations for knowledge, whether universal or absolute enter into our consideration; where the problem of discovering a foundation for our knowledge prior to our everyday experience comes into view, and because, unless it is taken seriously, no other explanation for universal knowledge can be found. Are there other ways to satisfactorily oppose ethical relativism? Is there any other way to approach the problem of absolute knowledge? At the very least, because of its preliminary nature, it seems easy to conclude that the problem of a priori knowledge can be ranked as a meta-ethical question.  

Chomsky’s hypothesis of a universal grammar and Kant’s hypothesis of a set of ultimate mental categories provide two applications. In the case of Chomsky’s “universal grammar,” the problem is not so much related to the problem of absolute knowledge but to an absolute way of processing language, which is encoded in our DNA. If correct, the hypothesis would account for our ability to learn and master language use more easily than we otherwise would be able to. The same attempt to discover a foundation for a universal way of knowing (as opposed to theorizing for specific content) may be seen in the Kantian approach to cognition.  In either case, a point was reached where empirical investigation gave way to supposition and hypothesis.  That point, in each case, was reached when an evident fact could not be directly explained by empirical means.

Whatever course research takes, it begins with hypotheses, some of which are of sufficient generality that they may serve to direct it. The eristic problem and Plato’s solution impact investigations directly where the search for knowledge is required to reflect upon itself, its ultimate directives, and foundations. It would seem that if the apparent result of the eristic problem is taken seriously, a priori knowledge will always be necessary as a foundation for empirical, scientific knowledge.    


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The Best Way to Learn Ancient Greek

I have recently arrived at the point where I can more or less read almost anything at mid-level ancient Greek without too much difficulty.  I arrived at this point after many years of labor-the kind of labor I am sure anyone setting out with a grammar book and dictionary is undoubtedly familiar with.  Along the way, I was always thinking that there must be a way to learn ancient Greek that would see me through the labyrinth of forms and grammatical surprises.

One method I tried early on was one that helped me learn French in a much shorter period of time: reading along with  a translation.  The interesting thing is that this was very effective for one author: Aristotle.  I think I can attribute this to the fact that I was very familiar with Aristotle’s text before I started the work of translating it.  I reasoned that the situation might be the same as that with translating the New Testament: because of the familiarity I had with the translation I could almost guess at the Greek text and come out more or less right.  An added factor was I think that the range of vocabulary used in Aristotle’s texts is more or less very regular and predictable in most cases.  The latter was what helped with French.

My method was to look up one word on each line and simply slog through whatever was unclear until I had enough vocabulary to see my way through the text.  I worked well enough so that at the end of one summer I was able to read most of Aristotle’s corpus after spending around 3-4 hours per day on the project.  By building up my vocabulary, I eventually started to get an intuitive feel for the way the language worked.  Over time, I got better and better with it.

The difficulty was that the same method didn’t apply very well to Plato.  It applied somewhat well to the early dialogues, but not at all to the Republic.  The answer was simply that I lacked sufficient vocabulary, but a further problem was that the syntax remained more or less bewildering in ways that I felt should be worked out once I had enough vocabulary. Moreover, the vocabulary suddenly seemed far more difficult to learn.  I spent a long period of time attempting to work through to the same point I achieved with Aristotle, using the same method and telling myself that a tipping point was inevitable.

What finally produced the breakthrough was to finally spend a lot of time, not on vocabulary, but on the grammatical forms.  I don’t feel I actually became comfortable reading mid-level Greek until I knew not just some of the grammatical forms, but just about every list in the first half of Smyth to the point where I could recite them by heart.  It was only when I reached that point that the syntactical mysteries began to disappear and my level of reading reached what I achieved with Aristotle.  Once I did reach that point, using the method I used to read Aristotle helped me to make further progress.

Along the way, I was told that I should not rely on facing translations.  I have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, they certainly helped me read easier Greek in a short period of time and being able to read the translation kept the work from being absolute drudgery.  On the other hand, the method kept me far from the shores of mid-level Greek until I finally came home only after a serious dedication to learning every paradigm I could find. Suddenly, too, the vocabulary was far less mysterious.

Was the optimal thing to have begun with the massive effort at learning them from the beginning? That would certainly have smoothed the path to the next level. However practically speaking, when a beginner is confronted with a Greek text, the task of looking up many, many vocabulary words to find to right sense or to ensure that a preposition applies as it should can, if carried out long enough, be nothing short of stunting to the intelligence. One can get lost in a de-motivating maze of forms and mesh of vocabulary words to the point where all other worthwhile ends are finally sacrificed and the investment no longer appears to be worth the reward.

I believe the moral to this story, my own conclusion is that different levels of Greek demand different levels of familiarity with the grammar.  There is simply no way around learning every paradigm to the point where any one of them can be recited if mid-level Greek is to be really and truly attained.  I hope to move up to an advanced level in the near future organically by reading as much Greek as is necessary to feel like my vocabulary base at the mid level is sufficient, and along the way looking into every Grammatical nicety that comes my way.  I think I will have attained that level when I can read mid-level texts without translation.  I have an OCT text of the Republic that has beckoned for many years.

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Foundationalism and the Fracturing of Philosophy


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It appears that as we move away from the postmodern era, all attempts at foundationalism in the modern era have failed. Empiricism, Rationalism, Kantiansim and Linguistic philosophy have all made foundationalist claims, and while may all work to some degree, none can claim to be the kind of ultimate foundation for knowledge a philosopher in the classical sense might have hoped for-the kind of foundational knowledge Descartes sought.

The modern era in philosophy began with various attempts at discovering a foundation for truth.  For the rationalists there was, beginning with Descartes, the attempt to found truth upon pure reason; for the British empiricists, there was the attempt to base all truth upon the senses; and finally, with Kant there was the attempt to ground all truth within the workings of the mind itself.  Each of these early modern approaches has led to interesting developments both within and outside of philosophy, but none has truly succeeded in giving us an indubitable starting point for seeking knowledge.

This succession of failures has affected the way philosophers consider themselves and their objectives.  With the rise of postmodernism and deconstruction, the leading philosophers defined themselves in terms of their opposition to foundationalist projects. Normally, when we think of traditional philosophy, we think of the attempt to construct systematic worldviews, and yet there no longer seems to be any enthusiasm for such undertakings. Instead, most people seem to spend their time burying themselves in a small corner of philosophy in an attempt to master whatever area they can. Is the budding philosopher to lose himself (or even his enthusiasm for life) in such a corner?  In the process, philosophy is becoming a more and more fractured discipline, less and less accessible to generalists within the field itself. Philosophy as a whole seems to be losing itself in this fracturing.

Gaining a perspective on the failure of attempts at foundationalism may assist the perplexed contemporary philosopher: “What should I study?”  “What direction should I take?”  These questions are more difficult to answer now than at other periods in time when philosophy itself had more of a clear sense of direction.  In what follows, what I would like to do is to take a look at modern and contemporary attempts at foundationalism in particular, in hopes of assessing where we are and how we might move forward.  Philosophy appears to be fracturing from within as a result of the failure of those attempts.  Are we currently in a post-foundationalist era?  What’s a philosopher to do?

Philosophy in the 20th Century


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The story here, it seems, should begin with Frege.  In his “On Sense and Reference” (1892) he uses the analogy of a telescope in indicating that there is something objective about sense (or meaning).  He writes that the image projected through a telescope that we have of the moon when viewing it is very much like the sense or meaning that relates a word to its object.  For example, either “the Morning Star” or “the Evening Star” are phrases we could use to refer to the planet Venus.  One might say  that they represent two distinct ways of “looking at” Venus.  But inasmuch as the “sense” that each one represents counts as a way of seeing, or referring to Venus, it can also be seen that they are not private or purely subjective: anyone using the language, who understands English in this case, has access to those ways of referring or senses of Venus, in the same way that more than one person might be able to use a telescope to see the same image of the moon being projected through it.  What is subjective is the idea we have of the moon, not the ways in which we refer to it.

This open-access kind of objectivity of sense (as well as of language as such) might be very useful if you were attempting to find a straightforward way in which the elements of a logical expression (e.g. Russell is a philosopher or (∃x)(Rx ∧ Px) in Russell’s later formulation) map onto and might be said to be true of the objects it is about.  Because the idea or image or internal experience we have of objects is subjective, sense, at least, gives us an objective starting point for making truth claims: in the example, if anything matches the sense we understand to be sufficient for referring to Russell and our understanding of what a philosopher is, the whole expression may be true of its objects.  Here, sense acts as a foundational element for making formal logic useful at all.

In the twentieth century, Russellian logical atomism and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus emerged as systematic attempts to see the world from a logico-linguistic standpoint.  It was thought that there might be a way to map language onto the world in terms of a one-to-one relationship: by mapping language onto the world starting from the most basic elements of language (logical subjects) a logico-linguistic map of reality could be created.  It would be the final stage in the application of Russell’s new logic, which could be applied more closely to ordinary language, and onto the world itself.  The project came to be known as “Logical Atomism.”  In a sense, it could be thought of as a re-boot of Aristotle’s original philosophical project, but with better tools.

But the project foundered and was ultimately defeated by Wittgenstein’s later realization that language does not really map onto the world in a straightforward fashion.  This was, in effect, an attack on language as a foundational medium for building a once and for all philosophical system.  Against Russell’s argument in “On Denoting” in favor of removing the intermediacy of sense (so that denoting phrases simply refer to their objects and all sense is a matter of propositional sentences), Wittgenstein came to see that the meaning relation that ties a word together  with its referent was arbitrary in ways that can be said to ultimately defeat logical atomism.

Specifically, Wittgenstein came to see that the meaning relation or semantic tie that established reference between a word and its object was actually a matter of the way in which we use language rather than a matter of establishing some set of facts about the objects themselves.   This thesis was later strengthened by Quine’s discussion of the linguistic webs he called conceptual schemes as subject to endless revision and then by the more sociological investigations of the same theme with reference to the evolution of scientific theories and even worldviews themselves by Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault in the 60’s and 70’s.

Linguistic Philosophy and Foundationalism


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As we get further and further away from the heyday of early analytic philosophy and attempts at system building fade into the background, problems associated with those enterprises continue to interest philosophers despite the loss of the overall system-building project they were once associated with.  Questions about semantics, for example, and the precise nature of the dispute between Frege and Russel over the basis of reference continue to be the subject of articles and books.  But it would seem that the problems have outlasted the projects themselves.

It might be wondered what further value the study of philosophy of language has.  Is the debate over the metaphysical or ontological nature of propositions important to study? What about the whole debate over the nature of reference?  It appears very much as though such discussions, once motivated by the system building projects they were once a part of no longer give us much reason to be interested in them apart from a historical interest-which may, nevertheless, prove very fruitful.  And yet, many people believe that philosophy of language has ultimate, foundational value because they believe that language structures reality or even determines our thought about reality.

It is true, even at first glance, that language does, in fact, structure reality, but this should not be taken to mean that language has some claim to structure reality independent of all experience (except perhaps in mythologies or in works of fiction).  Whatever we take reference to be, there must ultimately be a pragmatic level at which things either fit our experience or else do not.  When language fails to fit reality, it arises in the form of a realization of the “fictionality”of past world views or  in the falsity of certain past scientific structurings of reality.  This shows that while language itself may be responsible for the structuring of reality as its medium, whatever language-based structures are created must always be subject to plausibility and evidence if they are to be taken on or to survive.  However undeniably necessary language is in its structural role and to whatever extent theorists may be tempted to venture into realms of purely linguistic speculation, ultimately, experience seems to be the ultimate determinant of what we take to be fact or fiction.  Nevertheless, there is a sense in which language determines reality that applies well to sociological matters: the ways in which we refer to people or to other cultures or nations may have an impact upon the way that we, as individuals, think about them.  In such cases, experience may also prove to be the best way to bring about change.

In summary, while language is the medium through which we structure reality, there does not seem to be a very good case for claiming that it has a determining role in relation to the way we think about reality.  There may be a loose sense in which this is the case, where prejudice and institutional and personal goals create distortions of reality out of touch with our experience, but such misuse of language should not be considered as determinative of reality in any ultimate, foundational sense.  Perhaps the best argument that language, purely as a medium shapes our “perception” of reality comes from Strawson’s book Individuals, in which he argues for the primacy of the subject-predicate relation as structuring the way we see reality.  Nevertheless, Russell has also shown that there is nothing absolutely ultimate about such structures: it is possible to do away wtih them by formalizing away the classical subject-predicate structures of classical logic.  Strawson is right in practice, but not in principle-the something which is needed for carrying off foundational and not merely pragmatic claims on the nature of reality.

The Current Crisis in Philosophy


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Over the centuries, philosophy more and more gave way to the empirical sciences and to the role of assessing the worldview they generated.  The Aristotelian-Scholastic vision of the unity of the sciences has, in a sense, fractured under the intense drive toward specialization, which, in turn, resulted in the creation of autonomous sciences that once belonged under the umbrella of philosophy.  In another sense, inasmuch as philosophy was always about exploring the “Why?” of things, and seeking principles and foundations for explaining the world around us, it could be argued that philosophy has flourished and is flourishing more greatly than ever before in the sciences-albeit at the expense of departments that concern themselves purely with what is left of philosophy proper.   But with respect to philosophy as an academic discipline, if it began as a branch with many leaves, it now appears to be loosing much of its foliage.

This history has a very philosophical underpinning and, in fact, a foundationalist one at that: the basically pragmatic turn in modern science toward viewing any legitimate knowledge as generated by hypotheses confirmed by facts.  Because philosophy does not engage in empirical investigation itself, it is relegated to the outskirts of the  search for truth in the modern world.  Indeed, if we consider the subjects philosophy itself takes up that are not already discussed by theorists outside philosophy, we are left with perhaps only metaphysics and ethics, and areas of psychology or of science that are not at present accessible to empirical investigation, such as the relationship between the mind and body (or mind and matter) or the nature of consciousness or the origin of everything, or whether something can come from nothing.  Philosophy thus occupies a precarious position: it holds sway only in areas where empirical investigation has not yet found a way in.  At present, physicists and psychologists are beginning to discover ways to investigate just such questions.  As they become the subject of such investigation, speculation will give way to empirical research.

It might be argued that, for example, physicists such as Steven Hawking do not do an adequate job in working on the philosophical side of their discipline.  At any rate, it is a constant subject of discussion on blog pages and in comment threads.  But there are a couple of compelling reasons for not leaving bigger picture considerations up to philosophers: firstly, the kind of synthetic work involved in creating generalizing views is inevitably based upon familiarity with the specific facts of the research involved.  Who better to draw general conclusions about black holes or about string theory than the scientists who are intimately familiar with the data and theory building themselves?  Philosophers can always be educated to become familiar with the specifics, but who better than the experts and those who worked out the theories to discuss them and their broader implications?  Secondly, it is the sciences themselves who are working out the synthesis of their own proper fields.  String theory provides one example; theories of consciousness another.  In each case, a theory that will unify the field is being worked out by the scientists themselves.  A hypothesis by an uncommonly well-informed philosopher might conceivably help to further those fields, but as both the study of philosophy as an academic discipline and fields such as physics and psychology become more specialized, it seems much more reasonable to expect such hypotheses to come from the sciences themselves.  In the long run, it seems far more likely that philosophy will come to be defined by whatever problems are specific to it while other fields will be characterized by their specific domains.

Thus, the problem for philosophy in this crush of specialization would then seem to be to define its own particular subject matter; and yet, its traditional understanding of itself and of its own relevance is as a synthetic “science” of sciences.  The considerations outlined above indicate that the possible field for philosophy as an autonomous discipline is narrowing, perhaps to the subjects of metaphysics and ethics and to the purely speculative areas of the natural sciences. Moreover, it seems that they will eventually recede from their speculative role in relation to the empirical sciences as they sciences begin to attempt to find answers to those speculative problems (e.g. the origin of the universe, the nature of time and space, consciousness, and the possibility of free-will) through empirical means.

But, finally, many philosophers today also question the possibility of metaphysics-a necessary adjunct to any foundationalist system building.  The influence of figures such as Derrida and Foucault has made contemporary thinkers far more aware of the difficulty making of any foundational universal claims: the postmodern era worked to demonstrate that all claims toward universality of any kind are inevitably contextualized.  As such, the project of discovering the Being of things (to use the Heideggarian sense) even with the proper transcendental apparatus in place, would appear to be a mistaken adventure.

But, furthermore, if the Kripke-Putnam version of essences is accepted, and the microstructure of things is taken to be the determining factor in deciding their essential Being, so that modern science does investigate essences of a kind after all-and in an empirical way, and on an empirical basis-it is difficult to see how philosophy finds itself in any better position to become a synthetic science. Many scholars, in the excitement over the return of essences that Kripke’s work ushered in have not adequately recognized the limitations of these new essences: because they are always framed from the our current epistemic standpoint (cf. Putnam’s argument for taking H2O to be water in “Meaning and Reference” (1973)) rather than in terms of some fundamental way of looking at them, this view of essence is ultimately a pragmatic one. While Putnam’s argument does lay claim to essence, when understood as defined in terms of microstructure, as a way to differentiate kinds across possible worlds, what it does not claim is that our way of understanding water represents the Being of water in a final sense: the argument does nothing to defeat Quine’s notion of conceptual schemes as infinitely revisable.  Even with the rehabilitation of essences in hand, the currently accepted theory would leave science in a better position to tell us about the essences of things than any amount of philosophical speculation could.

Possibilities and the Philosophy of the Future


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But even if all this is the case and the field of academic-philosophical speculation is truly narrowing, then perhaps a  synthetic possibility emerges for philosophy: to simply devote itself to synthesizing knowledge as it is discovered by the sciences in hopes of developing a world view that would be beyond the reach of any individual science with the help of the resources of the history of philosophy. Such a worldview, or progress toward such a worldview could include or might highlight, ethical considerations.

This kind of project might be carried out by an individual philosopher, but as a project for an entire discipline would require some restructuring of the questions and aims philosophers take themselves to be concerned with.  Contemporary philosophers most often take themselves to be concerned with particular questions within particular debates, which, it is hoped, will eventually have an overall effect greater than the sum of its parts.  There are many artisans in the cathedral of contemporary philosophy.  Do their efforts contribute to an overall synthesis of the humanities?  A glance at the articles found in contemporary philosophy journals will indicate that their sentiments lie elsewhere.  It appears that the actual state of academic philosophy is that scholars devote themselves to problems of a theoretical nature that is in many cases on par with theoretical mathematics: their results may prove useful, but are deemed to be important for their own sake.  The difficulty for that kind of position is that if philosophy is to be the synthetic science par excellence its success or failure will obviously be bound up with the further question of its relevance.

Another possible response often heard in academic contexts when philosophy departments attempt to advertise their importance and relevance goes as follows: the questions that philosophy raises and the answers given in the history of philosophy by Plato or Aristotle or Kant have a lasting relevance.  There is an undeniable truth behind such a view: philosophy is a treasure of lasting value with contributors spanning civilizations, nationalities, and political persuasions of all kinds.  It is a kind of documentation of the progress of cultural development of entire civilizations and, at its best, can represent the wisdom they have attained. But the difficulty with this view of philosophy is that it turns it far too much in the direction of becoming a specialized branch of history.  Undoubtedly, philosophy as an academic discipline can lay claim to its own history as a field of study, but it has always also attempted to speak to current concerns and its ability to do that in an age of intense specialization appears to be eroding: if philosophers speak to physicists or to mathematicians or to political scientists they must not merely recite answers past philosophers have given but be able to make a strong argument as to why the specialists ought to reconsider their own views-something much discussed among historians of philosophy but rarely carried out in practice with any success.  Important contributions by historically oriented philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn have come about through the intense study of specialized areas outside philosophy: by studying the history, in Kuhn’s case, of science, and by drawing up important perspectives.  But Kuhn is a-typical as a philosopher: his PhD was in physics and he didn’t become interested in the history and philosophy of science until afterward, when he was granted the freedom to study the history and philosophy of science as a Harvard Junior Fellow.  Cases such as Kuhn’s do nothing to encourage the idea that the current structure of philosophy departments can foster such specialized, first-hand knowledge of outside disciplines.   Such cases further highlight the need for philosophy to define its own native area of focused expertise.

A further possibility would also seem to emerge from the evolution of the sciences themselves.  It has been said that the fracturing of philosophy has gone hand in hand with the specialization of areas that were once  traditionally considered part of philosophy.  But it has also been observed that synthesis has been going on within the sciences themselves (e.g. string theory in physics).  It is possible that the sciences may reach a turning point where the move toward specialization will eventually be overtaken by a move toward synthesis: as each science moves toward discovering the foundational principles of its discipline and begins the work of refining and simplifying itself as a discipline they might begin to become more accessible to those working outside their own proper fields.  Uncertainty and flux would give way to structure building, and structure, in the best case, to simplicity and elegance.  In such an environment, philosophy could begin to find itself with an important role that no other discipline has had the traditional role of carrying out.  The difficulty with this view, is of course, that it does not provide any immediate solution for philosophy-it belongs to the “Philosophy” of the future-and it is difficult to see how it can itself work toward that future without taking on the work of turning its students into specialists in outside fields.

Such a solution might benefit a few individuals with the right training in the short-term, and might be a way for philosophy to re-invent itself as a discipline in the long run. But it would require specializing its students in outside disciplines (requiring them to take years of neuroscience and biology, for example) whose study might not be compatible with philosophy as a specialized discipline in its own right unless “philosophy” could itself be transformed into a study of outside disciplines by integrating their study more and more into its own proper curriculum.  Such an outcome would re-invent philosophy as a study in the synthesis of the sciences.  Such a transformation would, however, seem to amount to a degraded role for philosophy in comparison with its traditional aspirations.

And thus, the final possibility that seems to emerge is that some new form of foundationalism might emerge from the sciences themselves-perhaps from physics in its search for the first principles of nature.  Once accomplished, such a foundationalism could eventually fall under the special provenance of the philosophy of the future.  Such a philosophy might be envisioned as a fully humanized form of scholasticism philosophers could work on for centuries, that might eventually crystallize the prior achievements of human kind.

For the present, philosophers could do a great amount of good for humanity by making the study of ethics and politics more accessible and pertinent that it is in its current state.  Philosophy should not be afraid to popularize itself in order to achieve a much-needed relevance.  In the age of the internet, such relevance can be more easily achieved than ever before, and a genuine, meaningful synthesis of theory and social practice in social matters would be an achievement for any contemporary philosopher to be proud of.

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Obama, Executive Orders, and Aristotle’s Stages of Government

The following article discusses the use of executive orders by President Obama. Donald Trump has said that he had no idea there was such a thing as an executive order and that he will repeal any attempt to limit gun ownership laws by an executive order ( Some partisan media sites have stated that Obama has issued more EO’s than any other pres in history. The fact is that that honor goes to FD Roosevelt, with almost three times the number of any other president. He averaged 307 per year (note that there are only 365 days in a year) ( Since 1980, the highest number was issued by Ronald Reagan, who had a comparatively small 381 in his entire presidency. Obama has averaged 33 per year, a number that is lower than both Clinton and Bush II, who left office with a total of 291. To see the horrific depth of the misrepresentation of the facts regarding this, please have a look at the following article by (
Sites such as deserve to be discredited:(…).

More concerning than the numbers though should be the way in which such orders are used by the President. This cuts across party lines and has to do with a problem emerging over the balance of power in the government. A political science professor I once had at SFSU made the claim that the executive branch in the Bush years began to cede power from congress and was beginning to take on more of an imperial look. One now hears voices in the GOP and right wing media calling Obama an “imperial” president. The underlying problem for Obama has been the consistent inaction of congress to even take up his proposed bills. The fact is that the 113th congress will be the least productive in history (see chart here:…/president-obama-said-the-…/). Some might call the current EO, which seems to infringe upon the power of the Supreme Court to interpret laws an imperialistic abuse of power. If not one has to wonder whether the precedent set will be abused in the future. A further question is whether the president ought to take such unilateral action in a climate of desperate inaction. If not, should he undertake action when the added layer of the possibility of lobbyists (NRA, big business (oil, pharma, big health care) having a significant impact upon legislation is present? In other words, if the government has become dysfunctional should the President be granted the right to make it work? To do so might ultimately mean a threat to democracy in the sense of a government where the power ultimately in the representation of the citizenry. Perhaps there is some insight here into the way in Democracies move toward Monarchy onto tyrrany.

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Opinion on the notion of substratum

Opinion: there is no need for the concept of “substratum” and a viable alternative may be posed to it.

 The Issue~


Do everyday objects need a a property-less substratum to be sufficiently grounded in their existence?  Well, the reasoning can be taken as proceeding like this:

  1. When we look at everyday objects, we can see that they have certain attributes, such as a certain height or color or weight.
  2. These attributes can be said to have a certain order of dependence one upon another: for example, an object has a color only if it first has extension in space.  Only if an object is extended in space, having at least two dimensions, it might be said, can it thereby have a color.  This is true even in one’s imagination.  Necessarily, if an object has a color it has a height and width, if not a depth and weight at a certain time.  These are necessary conditions for an object to be perceived as existing.
  3. But, the advocate of substrata would claim, extension is not enough to establish an object as a real entity by itself.  Being a mere attribute of an object and not a substance itself, it cannot exist on its own.
  4. The justification for #3 is related to #2 in the sense that it involves ontological dependence.  This  dependence is often spoken of in terms of “inherence”.  The argument goes as follows: (a) the qualities of an object such as its colors, which are a type of accident (see #1) cannot exist on their own without belonging to or inhering in a substance; (b) in the same way, the quantitative accidental attributes of a substance, such as its height or weight or length cannot exist apart from an object.  Moreover, (c) the qualities and quantitative attributes of an object make up the sum total of an object’s internal attributes (i.e. those that are not relative and depend upon its internal attributes).  But (d) all such attributes must inhere in something since they cannot exist on their own (see a-c).  Hence (e) all such attributes must depend upon a further something that might ground their existence.  That further something is what the Aristotelian would call a substratum.

The claim that this argument can be taken as a synopsis of the Aristotelian view on “Substance” perhaps needs some defense.  This can be presented briefly, but I think conclusively, as follows.

The word Aristotle uses that is usually translated as “substrate” in the Categories is to hypokeimenon, or literally, “the underlying (something)”, which is often translated as “subject” (as in the grammatical subject of predicates).  It should be seen at the outset that the term does double duty in the Categories as a term for a  grammatical subject (as a subject for predicates) and for a subject in the sense of substance: e.g. Aristotle writes in Chapter 2 of the Categories, “By being ‘present in a subject’ I do not mean present as parts are present in a whole, but being incapable of existence apart from the said subject.”  By introducing the notion of accidents as existing in a substance (the Greek word here is hypokeimenon as above) Aristotle is in effect shifting the ontological ground of his discussion from the consideration of the role of a subject as a bit of grammar to subject as a countable entity.

The effect is such that the discussion of the hypokeimenon-subject of the second chapter of the Categories naturally bridges over into Aristotle’s further discussion of ousia-subject in the fifth chapter.  It is significant that Aristotle has an entitative sense of “subject” in mind in the second chapter because it lays the foundation for a dualism between substance and accident that follows from his claim (quoted above) that accidents cannot exist on their own (chapter 2), although a substance can (implicit in chapter 2 where he identifies subjects as unitary things, such as individual horses and men, in contrast to things that are present in a subject, and explicit in chapter 5 where Aristotle says that the ability to subsist is one of the primary differentiating characteristics of a substance).

The non-reducibility of accident to substance follows from this duality: one subsists while the other merely “exists in” (see 4 a and b above) some further thing.  But this in turn yields the further result that no collection of accidents can yield a substance.  This reasoning is, quite arguably, implicit in Aristotle’s distinction between accidental and substantial change in the first Chapter of his lectures on Physics.  It is this non-reducibility that provides the basis for the Lockean critique of Aristotle’s notion of substance.

It is, of course, fairly well established that Locke, in the end, decides to keep substrata in his inventory of “the things that are”.  But he does so only after presenting a very compelling counterargument that has left many wondering whether he could actually be serious about maintaining that there are such things as substrata in the universe.  His counterargument can be related to the dualism between substance and accident mentioned above.

Essentially, Locke’s argument works on the irreducability of accident to substance that underlies that dualism.  In Book II, ch. xxiii of his “Essay” Locke points out that if it were asked wherein qualities (secondary qualities) inhere in a substance one could answer that they inhere in the quantitative features of an object (in Locke’s terminology, their primary qualities).  But if one were to press further and ask wherein the primary qualities of an object inhere, one could only answer that it must be an unknown something-something the senses do not perceive.  It can be seen here that Locke is attempting to be a consistent empiricist in drawing up such arguments: since substratum cannot be sensed, it violates the basic criterion for what any good empiricist would accept into his or her ontology.



Thus, the issue substratum theory poses comes to this:  one can either say with Aristotle that a substratum is necessary as a ground or support for things that cannot exist on their own, or one can side with Locke in saying that no such entity can be admitted into one’s ontology on empiricist grounds.  Moreover, to admit substrata into one’s ontology is implicitly to move from a monistic position (materialism or phenomenalism) to a dualistic one (materialism plus an immaterial entity): since only “qualities” in Locke’s terminology, or “accidents” in Aristotelean usage can by their very nature, be perceived, substrata, or substances without attributes must be taken to be basically imperceptible and therefore immaterial.  Hence it follows that for the substratum theorist, there must be at least two basic kinds of things: those that are perceptible and those that are imperceptible by their very nature.  In admitting substrata into his ontology, Locke basically affirmed his commitment to a kind of dualism that in many respects mirrored Cartesian dualism, and for similar reasons (e.g. non-reducibility), has engendered dissatisfaction ever since.



The argument I would like to advance in response to this issue is that it is unnecessary to suppose substrata as a ground for accidents/qualities.  This position prompts two lines of inquiry: firstly, can the quantitative features of an object exist on their own or do they require something wherein they may exist?  I.e., how does one overcome the common sense view that says things like a particular height or weight must inhere in an object in order to have any reality?  Does this not inescapably prompt the need to suppose the existence of a substrate wherein their existence may be grounded?  Secondly, if the quantitative features of an object can somehow be taken to be the fundamental ground of being of an object and this in turn implies either a materialistic or phenomenalistic monism, can such a monism do all the metaphysical work the alternative dualism with its supposed substratum was able to do?  An affirmative answer to the latter question can be justified through resolving the problems posed by the first line of inquiry: basically, a satisfactory monism will be able to do all the metaphysical work that the alternative dualism was able to do without supposing a fundamentally imperceptible substratum.  Since substrata have this characteristic, they would seem to deserve the title of “occult entity” as much as any others of the same ilk and their elimination would seem to be desirable from both an epistemic and an empirical point of view if one happens to be committed to empirical principles in drawing up the inventory of one’s ontology.  Let’s proceed then to see what can be done to eliminate substrata.

Supporting arguments~

Simply put, the key to eliminating substrata is to let the term “substance” indicate an entity that essentially includes all its attributes (or qualities or accidents) in its concept.  This might be taken to be a Leibnizian view of substance.  The next move is to see that, taking on the idea of the attributes of a substance as fundamentally dependent beings, they imply a substance.  Thus, we are left with the following set of logical relationships between substances and their attributes: necessarily, if there is an attribute, then there is a substance; but, moreover, only if there is a substance can there be an attribute.  If one wants to know wherein an attribute exists, it may be answered that it exists in or belongs to a substance; but only if there is a substance may there be an attribute at all.  The latter justifies the idea that substance can function as the ground of existence for attributes, while the former affirms the basic desire to say that attributes must exist in something other than themselves.

This view of things fits perfectly well with any empiricist/phenomenalist view of perception that begins with particular percepts as a basic epistemic starting point.  Consider an object; let’s say, a book, for example: the book may be considered a substance, while its color or height may be considered as belonging to it as a substance.  The substance in this case is an independent entity but not one that is devoid of attributes.  Indeed, as above, the existence of substance can be taken to pre-suppose the existence of attributes in a non-circular manner.  Here again, the perceptible phenomenal attributes belong to the book as to a substance that grounds their existence; but that substance in turn sufficiently implies the existence of at least one attribute.

This may seem rough and ready given the long standing persistence of this metaphysical issue.  But it should be enough merely to ask the reader to consider the logic that prompts the series of moves presented above.  Consider that in posing the definition of substance presented here (seemingly out of thin air?) as an alternative to substratum theory, what has been shown is the non-necessity of substratum theory, provided that the version of the relationship between substances and their attributes is not self contradictory and can be said to be basically sound.  The two paragraphs immediately above can be taken as answering to both of those requirements.

The desire to reify substance, to make it into a separate entity apart from its attributes, seems to follow from a mistake in thinking that whatever substance is, it must be something independent not only from other substances but also from its own attributes.  It might be thought, for example, that since a substance may undergo a change in its attributes (for example changing from short to tall) it must be independent from its attributes.  But this assumption is non-necessary from a logical standpoint: it may be said, alternatively, that substance sufficiently implies the existence of at least one attribute while the existence of an attribute necessarily implies a substance.  Moreover, the irreducibility arguments above for an independent substance need only lead to the conclusion that a substance should be distinguished from its attributes from a conceptual standpoint: clearly, attributes must be fundamentally different from substances in some way, but that need not imply a total independence in re from one another.  The above way of construing their inter-relationship allows for conceptual dependence on a logical basis with greater fidelity to the epistemological basis for that dependence than substratum theory offers.

In conclusion, the definition of substance presented above allows for a way to conceive of substance that satisfies the demand for both irreducibility required by Aristotelians and other substance dualists and the epistemological grounding in perception sought by phenomenalists or materialists.  It makes the two compatible by simply distinguishing conceptual independence from interdependence in re in a way that is logically valid and, arguably, sound.  As a viable alternative, it argues against the need to construe substances as substrata.

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An approach to Plato’s “dream theory” in the Theatetus through the Socratic dialogues

Plato’s late dialogue, the Theatetus explores the question, “what does it mean to know something?”.  This concern is not new within the Platonic dialogues.  In particular, the Phaedo, Meno, and Republic stand out as discussions of knowledge that anticipate in many ways the more explicit treatment given in the Theatetus. I believe that, despite what some recent criticism suggests, due consideration of  the matter will show that what is common to all these is not merely the question of knowledge in general, but the problem of separation or “chorismos”: the classic problem of how to arrive at a knowledge of unchanging truth on the basis of ever changing experience.

Despite the widespread recognition of separation as a common thread of the middle dialogues, the third section of the Theatetus, in which Plato gives his fullest account of knowledge, is often presented as a discussion that falls outside this continuity.  This is even more surprising in view of the fact that the theme of the third section, the so called “dream theory”, explores a possible definition of knowledge which is also explored in the last attempt at defining virtue in the Meno: the hypothesis that knowledge is not merely a true opinion but one with a logically consistent account or “logos”.

The reasons why this approach has not been taken are not far to seek.  Theatetus, Socrates’ partner in the dialogue, introduces the dream theory as something he remembers having heard “someone” suggest (T 201C); Socrates, in turn, says he has heard the theory in a “dream” that matches the one Theatetus describes (one involving knowledge as true opinion with a consistent account). (T 201 c-d)  These details about attribution complicate an attempt to find a source for the theory that follows, (to be discussed briefly further on) but some have proposed Antisthenes as the author.  Whatever the origin of the theory, I would like to contend that the discussion that follows is certainly in part Plato’s way of exploring his own problem of separation.  On another front, some have argued that separation cannot be a theme in the Theatetus (see for example Waterfield’s ‘essay’) especially since Plato has abandoned the theory of Forms in the Theatetus.  There is ample evidence to suggest that separation, as well as the theory of Forms do make an appearance in the Theatetus, this time not as doctrines Plato is espousing but as ones he is examining.  I believe that once this move is made and the dream theory is read in continuity with the earlier dialogues, a new pathway to thinking about the problem of separation opens up.  Moreover, I believe the most consistent reading of the dialogue will yield the result that Plato has not solved the problem, but merely opened it up with greater clarity than elsewhere in his corpus as a difficulty to be solved.

This new pathway will be introduced by a brief sketch of the genesis of the separation problem in the Meno and Phaedo, followed by a discussion of the specific way in which I believe the problem of separation arises in the dream theory.  Once the link is drawn between the earlier and later dialogues in this way it will be possible to see just how the discussion of the separation problem in the Theatetus is innovative.


Perhaps the best starting point to catch a glimpse of the problem of separation in its genesis in the early dialogues is Socrates’ discussion of his youthful hopes for philosophical insight.  Socrates, according to his autobiographical account in the Phaedo had, at first, been interested in the exploration of the natural world.  Specifically, at (96A) he lists three questions he sought to answer: why a thing comes to be, why it perishes, and the cause of its being or existence.  The tale Socrates tells can be looked upon as a trans-migration from seeking knowledge in relation to the first two types of question to a concern with discovering in the cause of existence the true basis of explanation of the former two.  This type of cause is, importantly, not to be understood as a cause of a thing’s coming-to-be, but rather as the cause of its Being: something that stands above the sorts of causes that are concerned with the generation and destruction of things.  Socrates calls this cause the “cause of causes” and describes it as that cause without which the causes of generation and destruction would not be causes.  This cause can clearly be identified with Aristotle’s final cause.  In the Phaedo it is related to “mind” and described as that which orders or arranges with a view to some end or good order (harmony may also be read into the context here) which is pre-established as that at which the processes of generation and destruction continually aim.

To understand such an end as a cause is to have that which explains those processes themselves.  Socrates sought the knowledge of such a cause in Anaxagoras’ discussion of “Mind”, but found him making “no use of Mind” but instead gaving materialistic explanations for natural processes, using “air”, “ether” and “water” (basic elements) as his basis for understanding the natural world.  Socrates great insight, according to the story, might be said to be the discovery of the notion of an ultimate explanation that stands above those concerned with the causes of coming-to-be and passing away.

Here one can see the formulation of a distinction that would reach a level of thematic importance for Plato in the Republic: one between things characterized as involving a process of becoming (the natural world which is continually in flux) and other objects of understanding that are characterized, by contrast, as simply “Being”.  In the Phaedo, Socrates marks the distinction as one between the visible and the invisible or purely intelligible. (see P 79D)  These latter may be discovered, according to Socrates’ autobiographical sketch, by turning away from sights and sounds and turning toward an engagement with words and/or discussion (logoi) instead.  Once this step is taken, true knowledge is conceived as involving a consistent account (logos) of what one is trying to explain.  Moreover, this type of knowledge will correspond to a realizable end that stands to the flux of particulars as an ordered and ordering principle of arrangement and harmony that, in turn, explains the observable processes of change.

These points may be taken as a sketch of a theory that can be called Socrates’ ideal, if not precisely his dream, of complete knowledge that was later championed by Plato especially in the Middle dialogues: the Meno, Phaedo, and the Republic.  It will be a kind of knowledge that relates ideal models of reality to the fluctuating reality of the everyday world and can promise true insight into that world as if one understood the divine “Mind” ordering nature itself.  It involves the ideal of a “stairway” that one can climb to reach a more “divine” perspective beginning from the more (inevitably) quotidian one that Socrates and Plato took to be the concern of non-philosophical thought.


As was hinted at, a basic element of this ideal theory is a “separation” between visibles and intelligibles.  In order to contemplate the sort of cause that is the ordering cause of things, one must seek a unified idea that stands above and apart from the particulars it is meant to explain.  Now, it would seem that one could always gather a unified idea from particulars by abstracting some feature from them, such as when one might abstract the notion of three-sidedness from many instances of triangle.  In this instance we would have a purely synthetic approach to ideas; one that relies upon epagoge or induction.  Yet, as is familiar from Euclidean geometry, the notion of one material triangle that would correspond to every particular is impossible: in order to truly abstract from particulars, one must arrive at an idea.

The primary reason Plato gives for a type of ontological separation corresponding to that found in euclidean geometry arises in the Phaedo, and involves thinking about the nature of opposites: firstly, in the context of the natural world, and next, in a logical context as dialectical opposites.  According to Socrates’ reasoning, in the natural world, a thing always comes to be from its opposite.  For example, heat comes into being out of what was formerly cold.  However, logical opposition never has this feature.  Logical opposites always simply are what they are.  They are, as Plato sometimes says, ‘pure’, in the sense that they are free from that which they are not.  It is very tempting to think of dialectical opposition in concrete terms for the purpose of illustration: ‘pure’ white, ideal white, because it is precisely what is not not-white, can have no intermixture within itself of what is not what it is.  One may think of these “realities” as if they were on a spectrum of being: on one end one can imagine pure white or the Form of white, while on the other end would be placed the not-white (its opposite).  In between, would be an area of intermediacy (a point that will be of central importance in what follows).  Two problems might be seen to arise in the natural world in connection with any attempt to identify a particular instance of white with its Form: in the first instance, there is the problem of identifying “white itself” with something known to the senses: what appears purely white at one time may appear different at different times to different people.  This is a problem of separation between appearances and reality.  Secondly, there is the matter of flux: according to the criterion enforced by dialectical scrutiny, what is purely white or white itself must be eternally so: its basic idea must not be mutable or subject to change, and as a consequence, it can never become its opposite. (Phaedo 103b).  One encounters these two bases of separation in the dialogues again and again.

What remains to be seen next in this connection is the way in which these elements of separation line up with what appears in the dream theory of the Theateus.  As was already mentioned in the introduction, my intention is to show that there is a continuity between the early and middle dialogues and the dream theory that appears in the Theatetus.  So let us now turn to the Theatetus itself.


What has given interpreters the greatest trouble in approaching the Theatetus is how to understand the elements Plato speaks of at 201e-202c.  As was said in the introduction, one basic problem has been the question of the attribution of the dream.  However interesting points of similarity may be drawn between the elements of the dream theory and Plato’s own understanding of the relationship between forms and particulars.  If we look to the text itself, the problem the interpreter faces may be one of underdetermination.  For example, even if Socrates did hear the theory somewhere else, does that necessarily exclude the possibility that Plato could have incorporated it into his own?  It seems that if some insight can be taken from such an approach it is worth exploring.

If we look to the description Socrates gives of the elements, they do not appear to be precisely the same as anything in Plato’s cosmos.  However, they do appear to fit very well with the understanding of particulars he develops in the Republic, and with the theme of separation mentioned earlier.  The way in which Being is, for Plato something simple and abstract was discussed above.  It will now be seen that there are parallels between Plato’s middle dialogue Forms and the elements dicussed here; but what is of ultimate importance are the differences.  There is a sense in which the elements of the Theatetus and Forms mirror one another; but there are important ways in which the elements fall short of the Forms.  

The elements appear to have a very minimal sort of being.  Indeed, from Plato’s description of them, it is difficult to see what being or non-being they have at all.  The important features mentioned are:

  1. Nothing can be attributed to them, including absolute being or non-being, or even phrases such as ‘itself’, ‘that’, ‘each’, ‘independent’, ‘this’, or anything else.
  2. They are attributes that ‘run around’ and get applied to everything, while they are different from what they are applied to.
  3. Since they only have names, it is impossible to give a rational account (logos) of them.
  4. They are that of which everything is made.
  5. Their names can be woven together to produce accounts that are intelligible even if the names by themselves are not (since an account is a weaving together of names).
  6. The physical elements can be woven together in the same way as their names.

The differences between the elements here and the Forms of the middle dialogues can now be drawn.  While each has a kind of simplicity, the description of elements goes further: nothing whatsoever can be attributed to them, whereas the Forms are usually described using terms such as “itself”, and “pure”.   Moreover, while the Forms explicitly have an absolute being, the elements here cannot be said either to be or not to be.  For all these reasons they are unknowable, whereas the Forms are described as the “intelligibles”.

Taking these points together, one kind of being found in Plato’s ontological schema applies especially well to the elements as presented: the intermediate being discussed above.  Intermediate being has to be understood within a framework of logical opposition if it is to be understood at all.  In fact, the whole set of attributes is hardly intelligible at all unless it is understood within this framework.  Ryle, for example, sought to understand the elements as logical simples; but this explanation seems to ignore the heavy ontological as well as logical slant of Socrates’ characterization.  It is clear from the points above that more than logical atoms are in view: there is indeed an attempt to describe a certain kind of being, and the way in which it may or may not be understood.  Moreover, these beings do not appear to fit entirely well with the characterization of them as material simples.  They certainly may be since they are “that of which everything is made”.  Yet the text is underdetermined as to the sense in which they make things up.  They are described as “attributes”: this opens the possibility that they are such things as would correspond to “red”, “green”, “5 feet tall”, etc. that make up all things, rather than the materialists’ atoms.  I believe that these considerations point to the sense of intermediate being discussed above as a possible way to understand all the points discussed above without making any definite commitments to the nature of the elements beyond the description given.

Now, here are some parallels that may be drawn between the characterisitics of the elements above and the “intermediates” in view:

  • From the perspective of dialectical opposition the intermediates are between being and non-being.  Hence they neither are nor are not.  If they lack these basic attributes, then it cannot be said that they possess any other characteristics (again, from the perspective of dialectical opposition, according to which a thing is either P or ~P, and P is defined as what is ~~P). (See Phaedo 103b)
  • The elements, like the intermediates, are things that fall short of a definite account, since they fall short of the kind of being the Forms themselves have. (Phaedo 72b-77a: note the way in which the discussion proceeds from Anaxagoras’ mixed cosmos of of things coming to be to the discussion of the Equal itself, and how this parallels Socrates’ discussion of Anaxagoras and his hopes for knowledge in the autobiographical section 96a and following).
  • The intermediates possess being (again from a dialectical perspective) only to the extent that they participate in the “reality” of the Forms themselves.  For example, snow is cold by participating in “cold”; but snow may become hot, in which case it loses its being as snow.  The name “cold” does not always apply to it, but is in a sense a borrowed name from that which is always “cold”.  Hence, just as above, an intermediate which is cold can be said to have its being by participation, and moreover its name by participation.  It has just this name to give it its reality, and does not even possess this reality absolutely, but only by participation. (see especially Phaedo 103e)
  • The intermediates have the character of attributes such as “hot” and “cold” that go into and out of bodies.  Hence, they could quite easily be said to be that of which everything is made in a sense that is both ontic (a thing really is hot or cold) and logical (a thing is referred as hot or cold when it has the proper characteristics).  (Phaedo 103c-d)
  • The same result follows with respect to the weaving together of names to form logoi (accounts, explanations, arguments, definitions).  In order to have a true account of something, it must be created from names that point to the reality of the thing in question. Indeed, it seems necessary that this should be the case if definitions can be drawn from division (such as those in the Sophist), and if it is to be possible to rise to the intelligible from the visible at all.  (see Phaedo 76d-e, where Socrates explicitly makes the latter point)

It remains now to show that not only something corresponding to the intermediates, but also something corresponding to the Forms is present in Plato’s discussion.  It is important to explore this aspect of separation since the presence of anything corresponding to the Forms in the Theatetus has been contested. (See Waterfield’s “Essay” pp. 239-246)  What I want to argue here is not that Plato is maintaining a theory of Forms corresponding to the middle dialogues, but, rather, that he is using the framework in the dream theory in order to evaluate the point of view of the middle dialogues.

The similarities to a separation framework are, in fact, ubiquitous.  At 187a, for example, Socrates mentions a function of the mind involved solely with things themselves.  Here there is not only a continuation of the theme of the separation of the visible and intelligible in terms of being, but also in terms of psychological faculties.  At 190b, he uses the framework of dialectical opposition invoked above where he speaks of the impossibility of imagining that what is beautiful is ugly, or that what is immoral is moral, or again that what is odd is even.  Here is the basis for separation precisely on the lines on the absolute Being of the Forms: a kind of being not subject to change into its opposite.  Furthermore, where Socrates proposes an intepretation of a syllable in the dream theory as a single identity without parts (Phaedo 204a (to be explained more fully further on)) this description corresponds best to the simplicity of the Forms.  When the characteristics of the ‘elements’  (as above) are compared these self-identical syllables, the result again invokes the classic separation framework of the middle dialogues.  Lastly, at Theatetus 205d, Socrates describes the same syllables as ‘single in form’.  It does not seem that either separation or the presence of Forms in the Theatetus can be dismissed out of hand.

Separation has been explored and developed as a theme that links the early and middle dialogues to the Theatetus.  The precise link that has been proposed is that between intermediate being and the elements on the one hand and an interpretation of the syllables (to be discussed further in what follows) as Forms on the other.  It remains to gather in fruits of this labor over the comparison, and to show just what new insight can be gleaned from this reading.  It will be shown that what the Theatetus advances over the earlier dialogues is further discussion of separation as a problem, rather than merely a feature of a complete middle-platonic theory of knowledge.  This occurs in the Theatetus as a problem for knowledge itself; one that is again familiar from the earlier dialogues, but explored in the later dialogues in greater depth.  The theory of knowledge presented in the middle dialogues is presented there as a viable epistemological schema.  However, just as the ideal emerged so did the questions that troubled it.  It will be the concern of the next section to explore these.


Much of what Plato writes concerning knowledge in the early and middle dialogues is concerned with developing criteria for knowledge.  For example, Socrates will often ask whether in the process of defining something, his interlocutor is giving an instance or example of what is to be defined or a definition that covers the whole of the cases concerned.  It is clear throughout these dialogues that there is a difference between the kinds of things that count as instances and those that count as unified ideas or accounts of instances.  These differences are specified and clarified in order to give us an idea of what we are seeking when we seek knowledge; when we are attempting, in other words, to grasp the ultimate Forms of things.  Such clarifications yield an understanding of separation as a matter of difference between visibles and intelligibles.

Separation does not arise in these dialogues as a structural problem to be overcome except in the case where the problem of the Meno is introduced.  Here it is asked, in effect, how one can know that one has arrived at one’s destination in seeking knowledge without prior knowledge of what one is seeking.  It seems that it cannot, and that one can only know that one has arrived at knowledge to the extent that one had prior knowledge of what one was seeking.  This necessary fore-knowledge could be present as the framework of a question that allows it to be answered effectively; or, it could be information contained in the premisses of an argument that allows one to proceed to a conclusion; but for the Socrates of the middle dialogues, who has the problem of arriving at a knowledge of the Forms in view, what is fore-known is something innate that needs to be accessed by a process of inquiry.  According to the theory, this knowledge was had by the soul before it entered the body.

Recollection theory functions as a way to unite the visibles and intelligibles of Plato’s epistemology.  If the Forms are so abstract as to be only identical to themselves (auto kath’ hauto), the question must arise as to how we get to know them if at all.  It would seem an unfortunate thing to develop a theory of knowledge only to find that knowledge within the theory was something unattainable.  This may explain the extravagance of the recollection theory of the Phaedo, with its questionable reliance upon the immortality of the soul to make it possible.  Recollection-knowledge arises as a matter of a sudden realization of a similarity, not among things in the visible world, but between things in the visible world and those in the intelligible world.  Such recollection requires innate knowledge.  This is a picture of radical separation, one that invokes the classical two-worlds view of the Phaedo.  What the Theatetus does most of all is challenge the basis for this type of separation.

The challenge is issued precisely through considering the terms of the proposed definition of knowledge.  Where Theatetus proposes that knowledge be definable not only as a true belief, but also as one with an explanation or logically consistent account, the terms of knowledge found in the “road to Larissa” analogy of the Meno are implicitly invoked.  The “road to Larissa” analogy is similar to the “problem of the Meno” (i.e. the problem of prior knowledge) discussed above, and differs only in that it supposes that if one is to be an ideal guide to a destination (as in the Meno problem) one must not arrive by accident, but with something that allows for repeated success: an account or explanation of how to get there (a logos).  Such an explanation is something an ideal guide should possess beforehand.  Thus, the framework for discussing prior knowledge is invoked along with the third definition of knowledge under discussion in the Theatetus.

The basic premisses of the dream theory are (a) that the criterion for knowledge will be a rational account (logos); hence, where no rational account can be given no knowledge is possible; and (b) that the individual primary elements (discussed above) of which everything is made cannot be explained, while the complexes that are composed out of them can.  This sets the stage for the test Socrates gives for the theory, where he takes letters to stand in the place of elements and syllables to stand as their complexes.  The grounds for separation are already present here, but the example does not yet include an analogue to the Forms.  This enters where two possibilities for understanding the syllables are invoked.  Understood (i) as a composite, the syllable SO (the first syllable of Socrates’ name) is a kind of set comprising the individual letters as parts; understood (ii) as a single unified idea, the Syllable has to thought of purely in terms of its idea, as something that comes into being only when the parts are brought together in the right way, and even then, as something greater than the sum of those parts, since it has attributes that the parts themselves to not possess individually.  It is in the latter case that an analogue to the Forms is put forward and the theory of Forms as presented in the middle dialogues is put to the test.

The first understanding of a syllable is perhaps the one more congenial to common sense.  Surely, it might be thought, a syllable can be understood as a composite of its letters.  But what motivates Socrates to (ii) is the realization that if knowledge is to be founded along the lines of (i), the elements themselves must be knowable; but according to the criterion proposed for knowledge in the dream theory section this will be impossible since they are (as above) simple entities without composition, whether in a logical or in an ontic sense.  The second possibility invoked in (ii) provides a different sort of foundation for knowledge: one found in a “unified idea” that has no foundation in the elements other than the possibility of its arising, and no actuality apart from its own being.  The difficulty with such a theory is that is supposes that such a unified idea cannot have parts.  Socrates might be seen to be driven to propose this view as an alternative by the terms of bivalence: if (i) takes a syllable to have parts and draws its major consequences from this, then (ii) must be opposed to (i) if it is to be a distinct alternative and not collapse back into (i).  Moreover, it should now be noticed the problem of separation is finally put forward as a problem for a theory of knowledge.  In the middle dialogues it was solved by the theory of recollection.  Finally, the text suggests that the two approaches are incompatible on the level of analysis and synthesis.  The model (ii) of a ‘one’ and ‘unified’ idea cannot be analyzed into any elements if it is truly sui-generis, self-identical, and without parts; on the other hand, if, as in the earlier dialogues synthesis (as in case i) is to be a part of the way in which we arrive at knowledge, some leap beyond the parts themselves must be required in order to arrive at knowledge: one must, the model suggests be able to catch a glimpse of something not present in the parts themselves; yet this is indeed a problem if, according to the definition proposed, we cannot know anything of the parts themselves.

Socrates’ claim in the Theatetus is that (ii) with its notion of a “whole” with a unified idea cannot but collapse back into (i) with its leading notion of a totality of parts.  This does pose a problem for separation as an initial outcome of the dialogue up to T-205, but rather may be seen to bring to light the way in which the whole dilemma collapses.  The dialogue suggests that wholes and totalities, must, at the end of the day, be inter-definable in some sense.  One cannot claim to have parts of anything if one maintains the notion of a whole in sense (ii) as a criterion for knowledge.  Undeniably, there are such things as wholes, such as notes that make up music scores and numbers that make up larger numbers.  It seems unreasonable to think that these do not contribute to an understanding of what they compose, whether that composite is understood as a totality after (i) or a whole according to (ii).

Thus, a path to knowledge is finally put forward at T 206ff.  Interestingly, it is a path to knowledge that was first mentioned in the Phaedo. (see P 96b)  His proposal is that we should turn our attention back to the order in which we do in fact learn things.  In the order of learning letters or musical notes, one had first to recognize and distinguish each letter and note before one could put them together into words or compositions.  Moreover, there is an new insistence, in keeping with the doctrine of the Phaedo, that, based upon these examples, one can indeed know the elements or our experience and that one can reliably draw inferences from them. (see T 206b) 

A question that arises is whether this new path is meant in earnest as a solution to the dilemma discussed above, or whether it is merely meant as a counter-example.  The latter seems to be more the case, due especially to the fact that Socrates’ next move is to discuss possible senses of logos as a way of maintaining the definition of knowledge as true belief with an account.  In other words, the upshot of the whole discussion seems to be that the counterexample is meant to defeat the whole premiss of the dilemma: in actual practice, we do in fact proceed from elements we in some sense know, to something we learn as a result.  This defeats the main assumption of the dilemma, that while we may know the composite, we cannot know the elements themselves.   


We must finally turn to the question of what may be drawn from this discussion of knowledge.  Plato does not himself draw any conclusions, and there is a temptation to think that the whole dialogue has a merely heuristic function; that is, that it is meant to help the reader draw conclusions more than to present them.  That conclusion would certainly not be foreign to the Platonic-Socratic sprit.  However, it has been proposed that there is both a continuity and a shift between Plato’s ideal of knowledge and the scrutiny it receives in the Theatetus.  It will now be brought out more explicitly what Plato seems to have learned, or perhaps, at least what he reveals about his own thought in this self-critical dialogue.  What seems needed to discover this shift in self reflection is the adoption of a broad perspective.  I believe that the difficulty Plato reveals in the Theatetus for his earlier theory is a problem of two methods that each seem to work independently but not in conjunction: the methods of analysis and synthesis on the one hand, and the method of dialectical opposition on the other. 

I would prefer to think of the problem that arises for Plato in terms of a visual metaphor involving horizontal planes and vertical lines.  I believe an ideal image for the perspective I have in mind would be a Mondrian painting. 

The horizontal lines would represent Plato’s dialetical researches into logical opposition (the opposition between P and ~P discussed above), while the vertical ones would relate to the method of synthesis or the relating together of the aspects of one’s experience, or epagoge (roughly, induction by abstraction in Plato’s case).   The places where the lines intersect would correspond to points of understanding in the process of developing a complete body of knowledge; points where experience (synthesis) meets logic (dialectical opposition).  Analysis or division would enter as a method whereby one could draw out the consequences of knowledge one already possesses, perhaps in the way one does when working out a crossword puzzle.   

The methods are meant to work in harmony in the early and middle dialogues to create a perfect science; one in which “things themselves” such as the ideas of the “equal itself”, or of “triangle itself” would, while abstract and separate, be places where one can “stand” as a knower in the stream of fluctuating appearances.  It was perhaps Plato’s assumption that, given the doctrine of recollection, one could be assured in taking such stands.  The goal of the entire ideal seems to be nothing less than the discovery not merely of a kind of knowledge that explains one’s experience, but one which, if it passes the test of dialectical opposition, stands to explain any experience.  

The difficulty Plato seems to have noticed is that even if, supposing one has been given an insight that appears to be a matter of recollection, the two methods do not quite work in harmony.  (ii) above illustrates this well.  Suppose that one has a unified idea of a syllable, one that is self-identical so that it has no parts and has nothing in common with anything else: how, then, does one know through analysis that it bears a necessary relationship to experience.  In the matter of letters and syllables, this point might seem overly contentious at first or perhaps like nothing more than a philosopher’s debate.  But if we take the analogy seriously, there is something to be gained from it.  One must perhaps remember that the analogy is meant to have a broader application, but consider what the analogy suggests: is there any ultimate reason why the syllable should sound a certain way based upon the way the letters sound?  One may press the point further: given that the Greeks understood many letters to be ‘soundless’ (e.g. mutes, sibilants, nasals, and continuants) one could argue that from the Greek perspective, this type of argument has even greater relevance.  To state the same point in a different way, can anything necessarily be deduced from the sound of the syllable to that of the letters?  Knowing the sound of the letters, like that of the syllables seems to be something one must at some point just know; one must be taught the sounds one identifies with the letters and syllables. 

This point brings us back, of course, to the theory of recollection.  The theory of recollection solves the above problem by positing a pre-existing knowledge that lies within us.  But as the analogy suggests, no experience can lead us infallibly to such knowledge and such knowledge has, as the analogy again suggests, an air of irresolution about it.  Thus, what the Theatetus reveals are the interstices, the gaps in the horizontal and vertical crossings that ultimately prevent the structure from being ultimately strong or sound.  But, moreover, the lines and planes analogy may be carried into the world of engineering to yield the perspective that while a microstructure may not be free of interstitial defects, it may yet be a strong and useful one for most purposes.  Moreover, if this was Plato’s conclusion regarding his earlier theory of knowledge, he can be taken to have anticipated to some extent later epistemological insights that had to await the passing of the middle ages and the waning of the hope of subsequent centuries for truly objective knowledge.  Finally, this perspective reveals just where that hope might be kept alive: in the sort of synthetic exploration and discovery found in Plato’s counterexample to his own theory.  Whether this method can yield ulitmately definitive oppositions, is, of course, an open question.    


Plato’s Theatetus translated with an essay by Robin Waterfield (Penguin: 1988).

Corford, F.M., Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, the Theatetus and the Sophist (Dover 2003).  Originally published in 1957 by the Liberal Arts Press.

Plato Five Dialogues, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett: 1981).

Plato’s Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett: 1974).

The Theaetetus of Plato with a revised text and English notes, trans. Lewis Campbell (Arno press: 1973).  Contains Greek text and valuable notes.


Filed under The Theatetus