Platonism dogs me. I read the first pages of the Lysis early my freshman year of high school and decided that I would be a philosopher. When I started in college at Wooster a little later, my first class was a History of Ancient class, taught by Jim Haden, a most remarkable man. He was devoted to Plato, wholly devoted, and I became devoted in my own small way too. The next term I took a class taught by Jim and by Tom Faulkner (who taught Greek) on Socrates. That class left a mark. In between, Jim introduced me to Plotinus. I would eventually write my dissertation on Plotinus (with Deborah Modrak, a most remarkable woman). So, although most of my writing has been on other topics, Platonism has never stopped mattering to me, nattering at me.
This Fall, I begin my Intro to Phil class with Plato’s Theaetetus. That has become a central text for me and is wedded to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book. (My intro class ends with the Blue Book: the class’ subtitle is: The Flux.) Teaching those texts together makes Geach’s charge that Socrates’ “What is X?” question embodies a fallacy un-ignorable, since Geach’s charge is anchored in the Blue Book. What Geach says is that Socrates’ constraints on appropriate answers to the X-question are illegitimate, fallacious. Geach’s crucial point: we know heaps of things without being able to define the terms (i.e., answer the X-question thus constrained) in which we express our knowledge. Since we do, we need not engage in answering it. Without detailing any more of what Geach says (his discussion focuses on the Euthyphro; Geach’s paper is “Plato’s Euthyphro: An Analysis and Commentary”), I will simply assert that I have always found Geach’s charge convincing.
But the question for me is this: is the fallacy (indeed, it is a fallacy) really Socrates‘? In the past, I have pushed students to notice that although it is true that Socrates asks the X-question and constraints it, his interlocutor’s invariably accept the X-question and those constraints. We could say, in fact, that the question thus constrained seems (once Socrates explains it) to be the exact form of the interlocutor’s philosophical ambition, just the trick the interlocutor believes he can turn. In this way, the X-question thus constrained makes contact simultaneously with the interlocutor’s supposed knowledge and all-too-real pride. The interlocutor’s conviction that he can answer the X-question thus constrained can be seen as the Interlocutor’s Fallacy. Maybe, just maybe, we do not have to understand Socrates as taking the X-question thus constrained to be fully legitimate. Maybe he is up to something else.
Now, I am not advancing this idea; I’m just tinkering. But two things make the tinkering perhaps more than a mere pastime. (1) In the Theaetetus, after asking the X-question, rejecting Theaetetus’ list answer, and explaining the constraints, Socrates asks, “Or am I talking nonsense? (146e; Levett trans.) That can be read as a fidget–and it is true that Theaetetus responds, “No, you are perfectly right”–but it could also be read as a hint to Theaetetus (who certainly seems less proud than the typical interlocutor) to be on his guard, to wonder about the X-question and its constraints. (Unfortunately, he does not take the hint.) (2) More interesting, Bernard Williams, in his introduction to the Theaetetus, takes up the Geach’s charge (without naming Geach) and concedes that “the general point is well taken”. He then construes the three famous attempts at a definition of ‘knowledge’ (as Levett denominates them) instead as three suggestions about the nature of knowledge, and he contends that Socrates rejects Theaetetus’ list as an answer to the Knowledge-question because it does not “give any insight into the nature of knowledge.” On the other hand, the first suggestion, that knowledge is perception, while “certainly not a definitional formula” does hold out hope of providing insight into the nature of knowledge.
I want to register discomfort here. While I can see why Williams thinks that the list provides no insight, he himself notes that paying attention to the list reveals that the first suggestion had better be that, the first suggestion, and not the first definition, since the different skills or expert knowledges listed by Theaetetus imply the hopelessness of knowledge is perception as a definition. (Geach notes this too.) So, is it quite true that the list does not provide any insight into the nature of knowledge? And if this is no provision of insight, then how is the first suggestion supposed to be a provision of insight? It is true that the first suggestion may seem to open up a possibility of testing that is not as clearly open with the list, and we might hope, even expect,that the testing will reveal something about the nature of knowledge. I wonder: perhaps it is only when we offer a theory (of knowledge) that we seem to make progress in having a theory (of knowledge)–offering a theory opens up a problem space for work and in which suggestions about the nature of the theoretical object hold out the prospect of insight (and may provide it even if they are rejected, perhaps even in the rejection of them). If something along those lines is right (I am certainly not sure it is), then the problem with the list is that it seems to open up no problem space and so seems not to hold out the prospect of insight.
Williams’ complaint–the list answer provides no insight–resembles the complaint against procedures of Moore’s that they refute without insight. Is the complaint there that Moore’s refutations are not contributions to the theoretical activity to which they respond, and so they offer no insights into the theoretical object (the nature of time, perception, etc.)? –Need philosophical investigation provide insight? What of Wittgensteinian reminders, Platonic Recollections, Kierkegaardian qualitative dialectics–and so on? I do not deny that we can call each of these insights, but don’t we have to vary the sense of the term when we do? Isn’t each of these differently situated in or around the supposed problem space that surrounds the theoretical object?
Anyway, Williams judges his suggestion suggestion a way around Geach’s charge of Socratic Fallaciousness. Is it? We can express knowledge without having any suggestion about, any theory of, the meaning of the terms in which we express our knowledge. So why do I need to make a suggestion? From whence any compulsion to open up a problem space? The claim that I don’t know what I’m talking about without a suggestion can be shrugged aside.
How may a Socratic conversation begin?