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Topic #D33

Plato, Theaetetus 142a-162a


23 November 2001

Scribe: Anushki Bodhinayake


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



Professor Hutchinson began a discussion on Theaetetus by remarking on the incredible complexity, substantiality and subtlety of this piece, one that focuses on the question  What is knowledge?’ He remarked that it marks the most systematic study of epistemology (the study of knowledge) that we know about.  Professor Hutchinson noted that Theaetetus starts off with an expression of pessimism regarding knowledge, namely, even those with natural ability are susceptible to illness and disease, as was the case with Theaetetus himself. 


Professor Hutchinson then went on to speak about the structural features of Theaetetus, stating that it was a reversion to a Socratic form of dialogue on the outside, yet filled with Platonic content.  At the beginning of Theaetetus, there is a brief conversation between Euclides, a friend of Plato and former student of Socrates, and Terpsion.  Professor Hutchinson remarked that Euclides was one of the philosophers that did not shy away from abstract and complex philosophical analysis.  It seems that this is relevant because Plato seems to be hinting that those who are skilled can only undertake a true discussion of knowledge.  In this way, Theaetetus, seems to represent what Plato regards as the ideal virtues of a student: one who is “not beautiful at al l… amazingly gifte d.. .a quickness beyond the capacity of most people … an unusually gentle tempe r… and to crown it all, he is as manly a boy as any of his fellows.[1]


The first thing to be discussed in Theaetetus is the idea of learning, namely, if anybody is a teacher, then somebody is learning and if there is no learning, then there is no knowledge.  Thus, if the student was not learning anything, then the teacher was not teaching properly.  This begs the question of what truths Socrates was trying to convey? In the dialogue, Socrates appears to relate true teaching with the art of midwifery in that he watches over the labour of souls in the way midwives watch over the labour of bodies.  Professor Hutchinson described this in terms of a ritual of walking around the hearth.  He discussed the dilemma of what to do with a child born with a visible defect at a time when there was little to none corrective resources in this respect.  Should the child be abandoned or accepted? Professor Hutchinson remarked that, for the most part, with regards to his students, Socrates seems to “bundle them up and leave them in the forest!” Professor Hutchinson seemed to be suggesting that, in this way, Socrates was undertaking a form of eugenics in abandoning those he regarded as less-able, or perhaps more precisely, less- knowledgeable. 


The idea that in philosophy, a true teacher is one that leads from behind, emerged next.  Such a teacher serves merely to reinforce what is correct and shape what is not.  Furthermore, there are different kinds of responsibility that both student and teacher have to take on.  Professor Hutchinson referred to a remark by Socrates in Symposium to illustrate the likelihood that Plato was advocating the idea that real learning is self-teaching: “How wonderful it would be … if the foolish were filled with wisdom simply by touching the wise[2]  In Pre-Socratic theory, it seems that knowledge should be understood in terms of objects.   Professor Hutchinson noted that all of this could be “lumped together in a materialist swirling relativist theory.”  Professor Hutchinson noted that Plato had somewhat idealist and absolute presuppositions: one cannot be a teacher if one is an materialist because then one could not possible become an expert.  One can merely practice one’s beliefs in those terms, but cannot be a teacher. 


It seems that Plato wanted only gifted students to attend his school.  Professor Hutchinson said that this carried with it meaning on two levels: what is knowledge and what is real teaching and philosophy? Professor Hutchinson then referred to 172(c) in Theatetus[3] where Socrates himself admits that those who spend a great deal of time in philosophy make fools of themselves in such place as in the court room due to the their tendency to feel unbounded by such things as time and topic of conversation.  Professor Hutchinson then referred to 173(d)[4] whereby Socrates describes the tendency of a philosopher to “grow up without knowing the way to the market-place[5]  In short, Socrates seems to be suggesting a lack of practical knowledge in philosophers.  Professor Hutchinson remarked, that Socrates is depicting a rather stereotyped and “weird” conception of a philosopher.  This, he insists, is certainly contestable, although he does state that there does indeed seem to be a certain amount of ironic truth to this depiction in that philosophers do tend to become emerged in the world of philosophy.  In fact he remarked on his own experiences of forgetting such things as the time and wearing sweaters with holes in them (much to his wife’s despair!) when reading philosophy.  Professor Hutchinson noted however, that there were, and indeed are, philosophers more focused on the practical applications of philosophy, rather than the more abstract issues.  Such philosophers included Isocrates and Epicurus.  Isocrates, for instance, claimed to make people wiser and better in such things as personal training and political influence.  In fact, Professor Hutchinson remarked that Isocrates even went so far as to say that Plato’s teaching was a “waste of time!”


The idea that ‘knowledge is perception” was the last topic to be discussed in class.  Professor Hutchinson noted that this was indeed an interesting theory, one put forward by materialists.  Socrates does not accept this view since, according to him, it does not account for dreaming.  Professor Hutchinson states that the turning point in this dialogue is not the best version of the argument: what counts as being true is what we pragmatically believe.  Nonetheless, this idea is expressed in the example of “to a sick man the things he eats both appear and are bitter, while to a healthy man they both appear and are opposite[6]  According to Socrates it is impossible and inappropriate to call either man ignorant for judging as they do since it is impossible to judge anything other than what one is immediately experiencing, and “what one is immediately experiencing is always true.”[7]

[1] J.M.Cooper, Plato Complete Works, Hackett, (1997), p.160, line-144 (a).

[2] J.M.Cooper, Plato Complete Works, Hackett, (1997), p.461, line- 175(d).

[3] Supra note 2 at, p.190.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Supra note 2 at p.185, line-166(e).

[7] Supra note 2 at p.186, line-167(b).