Navigation – Plan du site
Dossier : Puissances de l'âme
4. L'âme, puissance cognitive

Wax Tablets, Aviaries, or Imaginary Pregnancies? On the Powers in Theaetetus’ Soul

Francisco Gonzalez
p. 273-293

Texte intégral

  • 1 T. M. Robinson, Plato’s Psychology, second ed. (University of Toronto Press, 1995).
  • 2 David Sedley, for example, simply assumes that Socrates is committed to the claim made in the conte (...)

1It should be no surprise that a dialogue devoted to the question “What is knowledge ?” should have something to tell us about the nature of the soul that has this power. With its analogies of the wax tablet and the aviary, the Theaetetus has indeed introduced into philosophical discourse some very influential paradigms by which to understand the soul and its relation to its objects. Nevertheless, the major work in English on “Plato’s psychology” by T. M. Robinson1 contains no discussion of the Theaetetus. Commentaries on the Theaetetus, on the other hand, though recognizing the failure of the wax tablet and aviary analogies to explain the possibility of false judgment, tend to overlook their deficiencies as models of the soul.2 What goes equally unnoted is that the midwife analogy by which Socrates explains his investigation with Theaetetus, an investigation that involves a series of false judgments about knowledge, is significantly different. On this analogy, the soul is not a wax tablet receiving impressions from the senses nor an aviary stocked with pieces of knowledge. Instead, it is something capable of a very peculiar kind of pregnancy : one that carries babies which can be, and in the dialogue prove always in fact to be, false rather than true. This strangest of analogies, I wish to argue, succeeds where the other two fail because only it is capable of capturing what the dialogue itself reveals to be the soul’s peculiar relation to truth and being : a relation not external to the soul, but rather constituting its central and defining power.

I. The soul as containing a wax tablet

2The central point of Socrates’ suggestion at 191c8-9 that we imagine the soul as containing a wax tablet within itself (ἐν ταῖς ψυχαῖς ἡμῶν ἐνὸν κήρινον ἐκμαγεῖον) is that the soul remembers and knows (μνημονεύειν τε καὶ ̆ἐπίστασθαι ἕως ἂν ἐνῇ τὸ εἴδωλον αὐτοῦ, 191d9-10 ; see also 192d8) by retaining those perceptions and thoughts that are impressed upon it, as a wax tablet retains the form of the signet ring. What must immediately strike one about this suggestion is its apparent identification of knowing with remembering : to know something is simply to retain an image of it in the soul. Thus the first question the analogy must provoke is whether or not these two powers of the soul should be thus identified. Is knowing rightly characterized as a purely passive power of receiving and retaining ? Is its relation to its object reducible to the possession of an image of this object ? To begin addressing these questions we must explore in some detail some of the central features and implications of the wax tablet analogy.

3First, consistent with the suggested identification of knowing and remembering, this analogy allows souls to differ only according to the extent of their ability to receive and retain the thoughts and perceptions impressed upon them, i.e., the quality of their “wax.” Those with good wax are “first quicker to learn and then able to remember” (πρῶτον μὲν εὐμαθεῖς, ἔπειτα μνήμονες, 194d3). Those whose wax is too soft are quick learners but forget quickly ; those whose wax is too hard are slow to learn but retain what they have learned (194e3-4). Yet the impressions in all of the souls with deficient wax are described as “unclear” (ἀσαφῆ, 194e6-7) ; in the case of the “soft” soul they are indistinct while in the case of the “hard” soul they are shallow. Furthermore, Socrates describes some souls as having the additional problem of being too small and thus possessing little room for impressions (195a3).

  • 3 As Ronald Polansky observes, “Depth of thought and understanding escape representation by deep impr (...)

4As has often been pointed out, this attempt to explain the difference between a wise soul and a foolish soul solely in terms of their receptive and retentive powers appears to stretch the analogy to its breaking point. To identify wisdom with possessing clear memories and thus with being able to recognize quickly what one perceives is to leave out of wisdom any genuine reflection, thought, and understanding. Having only the power of receiving deep or shallow impressions, the soul seems to lack here any genuine depth.3

  • 4 On gentleness and courage, see the perceptive words of Monique Dixsaut, Le Naturel Philosophe (Pari (...)

5The wax tablet analogy therefore cannot explain the differences between the soul of the philosopher and the soul of the orator, differences emphasized in the so-called “digression” (172d-176a). When Socrates speaks of “the sharp, small, legal mind” of the orator (175d1-2 ; see also173a3), he surely cannot have in mind the orator’s inability, on account of bad and small wax within his soul, to receive and retain clear impressions. On the other hand, the analogy is equally incapable of explaining the excellence of that soul which is the central focus of the dialogue : Theaetetus’ soul. While quickness to learn (εὐμαθῆ, 144a3) is indeed one of the qualities for which Theodorus praises Theaetetus at the start of the dialogue, the other two are gentleness (πρᾷον, 144a4) and courage (ἀνδρεῖον, a5). The gentleness and courage which Socrates in the dialogue demands of, and finds in, Theaetetus are the gentleness of modestly recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge, i.e., not thinking that one knows what one does not know (210c2-4), and the courage of nevertheless venturing a thesis regarding what one does not know (187b9-10). But these virtues, which can be said to be the essential virtues of the philosopher,4 are precisely the ones that can receive no representation and no explanation in Socrates’ account of the different qualities of wax that distinguish one soul from another.

  • 5 Of this image of the archer, Lewis Campbell writes : “We are beginning to have a livelier conceptio (...)

6In order to make the analogy work as an account of false judgment, Socrates must of course attribute to the soul a power beyond that of receiving and retaining impressions : that of comparing what is already imprinted on the wax to a current perception (προσβάλω τὴν ἑκατέρου ὄψιν πρὸς τὸ ἀλλότριον σημεῖον 193c6-7). It is through such a comparison that the soul can sometimes falsely believe that what it knows is something else it knows or that what it knows is something else it does not know (191e7-9). I can wrongly believe that the person walking towards me from a distance is Socrates, when he is in fact either Theaetetus or even someone altogether unknown to me, because I can wrongly apply my perhaps indistinct impression of Socrates to the indistinct perception of the person walking towards me. Socrates thus compares the soul that judges falsely to a bad archer who misses his mark (194a3-45).

  • 6 As Burnyeat rightly notes, there is no notion here, as in Aristotle and Locke, of a “sense-impressi (...)
  • 7 The reference here to ‘thought’ is a very odd feature of Socrates’ analogy. When he first introduce (...)
  • 8 Sedley reads this interior dialogue of the soul with itself into the wax analogy, but only by inter (...)

7The analogy must also assume another power : that of first imprinting perceptions upon the “wax” (191d7-8),6 an action which Socrates describes as that of the soul holding the wax under our perceptions and thoughts7 and taking an impression from them. These two active powers of the soul clearly can be identified with neither memory nor perception, i.e., with neither the receptivity of the wax nor the receptivity of perception.8 But this means that the powers most essential to the present account of false judgment, i.e., those of making impressions and comparing them with perceptions, cannot be attributed to the wax tablet in the soul and are thus left unexplained. In other words, the aspect of the soul’s nature most essential to explaining the possibility of false judgment is that aspect not comparable to a wax tablet.

8This problem can be seen to lie behind Socrates’ explicit reason for finding the analogy inadequate. He asserts that it cannot explain false judgments that occur only in thought without reference to perception, i.e., false judgments that do not involve the (mis)matching between a memory and a perception (ἐν τῇ ̆συνάψει αἰσθήσεως πρὸς διάνοιαν, 195d1-2 ; 196c5). The language Socrates uses when he describes his counter-example of someone falsely judging that five and seven equal eleven makes especially clear the inadequacy of the wax tablet analogy as a model of the soul : Socrates describes someone considering “himself in himself” (αὐτὸν ἐν αὑτῷ, 195e9) five and seven themselves (αὐτὰ πέντε καὶ ἑπτά, 196a2), speaking to himself and asking himself how much they make (λέγων πρὸς αὑτὸν καὶ ἐρωτῶν, 196a5). In characterizing the soul in terms of passive receptivity and distinguishing between souls only in terms of the quality of their receptivity, the wax tablet analogy completely misses this power the soul has of speaking with itself, of examining something in and through itself : a power on which the possibility of all judgment, including perceptual judgment, clearly depends. To judge that five and seven equal eleven I must be able to ask myself and consider within myself what five and seven equal ; likewise, in order to judge that the person walking towards me is Socrates I must be able to ask myself and consider within myself who that person walking towards me could be. This is the explanation of Socrates’ next move, which is otherwise inexplicable : instead of simply supplementing the wax analogy by giving another account of how non-perceptual false judgments are possible, he rejects it in toto. What is required is a complete rethinking of the nature of the soul.

9The final, but not least, thing to note with regard to Socrates’ use of the wax tablet model to explain false judgment is what could be called the self-referential contradiction : the judgments which Socrates shows to be false in the present dialogue, i.e., that knowledge is perception, that knowledge is true judgment, and that knowledge is true judgment with an account, clearly cannot be explained as a mismatching between a memory-impression of knowledge and a perception of knowledge. Socrates’ wax tablet model cannot even explain how there can be any false judgments about the nature of false judgment. When Socrates attributes the present erroneous account to his own δυσμαθία (195c1), this δυσμαθία cannot be identified with the ἀμαθία he has just characterized as the inability to match a memory impression with the right perception (195a5-9). In the attempt to explain the possibility of false judgment, Socrates has offered a model that can explain neither the false-births of Theaetetus nor his own ignorance.

II. The soul as containing an aviary

10Socrates now proceeds to provide a much more dynamic account of the soul : what we know, rather than being something merely possessed as an impression upon wax, is now a bird flying around inside a cage and needing to be caught. What we know is not something we simply have and then match up with something else (what we perceive), as in the wax tablet analogy, but instead something that we both have and do not have. The possibility of false judgment is now grounded not on a distinction between two completely different kinds of knowing (memory and perception), but rather on a distinction between two different ways of relating to what we know. The aviary analogy illustrates a distinction which Socrates describes himself as making “shamelessly,” because without yet claiming to know what knowledge is, between two kinds of “knowing” : having knowledge in hand (ἐπιστήμης ἕξις) and possessing knowledge (ἐπιστήμης κτῆσις, 197b1-4). The latter is described as a power comparable to the power of a man who possesses birds in a cage (δύναμιν μὲν αὐτῷ περὶ αὐτὰς παραγεγονέναι, 197c8) : just as such a man has the power to seize at will one of the birds within his cage, so does the person who possesses knowledge have the power to seize any piece of this knowledge and thus “have” it in hand. This distinction is what now enables Socrates to explain false judgment : even though I possess a knowledge of twelve and a knowledge of eleven, I could in adding five plus seven grab the wrong piece of knowledge (199b5-6) and thus, as we say, “get it wrong.”

11In contrast to the preceding analogy, this one appears to level any differences in the potentials of different souls by making them all start out empty (κενόν, 197e3), so that they differ only in terms of the bits of knowledge (birds) they later come to possess. To learn or discover something is to capture its knowledge and lock it in the cage of one’s soul (197e3-6). Socrates claims, again shamelessly, that this capture is “knowing” (ἐπίστασθαι, 197e6). This is further clarified when Socrates later explicitly identifies “teaching” with handing over a piece of knowledge (παραδιδόντα, 198b4), “learning” with receiving it (παραλαμβάνοντα, 198b5), and “knowing” with possessing it in the “cage” (198b5-6). Souls no longer seem to differ even in terms of receptivity : they are empty containers.

12However, the aviary analogy too assumes powers in the soul for which it provides no explanation. The soul must have the power of hunting and catching the knowledge-birds in the first place, the power of preventing them from escaping, and the power of catching them again once they are in the cage. But how are these powers to be understood, especially since knowledge appears to be identified with the birds (ἀντὶ δε τῶν ὀρνίθων ἐπιστήμας νοῆσαι, 197e3), i.e., with what is hunted, caught, locked away, and seized again ?

  • 9 Burnyeat rightly remarks that, unlike Aristotle, “Socrates reserves the verb ‘to know’ for the capa (...)
  • 10 “Yet quite incredibly, the aviary prohibits simultaneous possession and non-possession of knowledge (...)
  • 11 McDowell suggests that once one stops seeing knowledge as a sort of acquaintance and thus as an all (...)

13It is precisely this unclarity that leads to the analogy’s demise. The specific problem lies in the nature of the “having” of knowledge.9 If this is to be distinguished from the possession of knowledge, it can apparently only mean being aware or conscious of this possessed knowledge, attending to it (as is suggested by the language at 198d8 : πρόχειρον . . . τῇ διανοίᾳ). But in this case, as Socrates notes, the account of false judgment fails. If in adding five plus seven I “seize,” i.e., turn my attention to, my knowledge of eleven rather than my knowledge of twelve, I must immediately see that eleven is not what I was looking for. I might grab the wrong bird, but if this is a bird I “know,” I will immediately recognize it to be the wrong bird. Even if I can grab eleven rather than twelve, once I have grabbed it there is no way in which I can mistake it for twelve (199d). The aviary analogy in the end leaves us where we began : you either have a piece of knowledge or you do not.10 What the aviary needed to explain is how we can know and not know at the same time (εἰδὼς μὴ εἰδέναι ἅμα, 196c2).11 In the paradoxical form in which Socrates states his objection, the aviary analogy makes knowledge of the numbers eleven and twelve the explanation of our not knowing that five plus seven equals twelve : “τό τινος ἔχοντα ἐπιστήμην τοῦτο αὐτὸ ἀγνοεῖν, μὴ ̆ἀγνωμοσύνῃ ἀλλὰ τῇ ἑαυτοῦ ἐπιστήμῃ” (199d1-2).

14The aviary analogy also faces the self-referential problem : like the wax tablet analogy, it too cannot explain the false judgments made in the dialogue. If Theaeteus falsely judges knowledge to be perception, this is not because he knows knowledge and knows perception and has simply exchanged one piece of knowledge for the other. If he had had at the outset a knowledge of knowledge and a knowledge of perception stored in his mind like birds held in a cage, then in mistakenly grabbing perception when asked by Socrates to look for knowledge he should have immediately recognized that he had grabbed the wrong piece of knowledge.

III. General problem : the reification of the soul and its powers

15Theaetetus’ attempt to get out of the difficulty Socrates finds in the aviary analogy draws our attention to the fundamental flaw in both analogies. He suggests : why not say that the aviary contains pieces of ignorance as well as pieces of knowledge and that a false judgment occurs when we seize a piece of ignorance (199e1-6) ? Socrates points out the obvious problem : if I snatched an ignorance-bird, would I not recognize it to be an ignorance bird, while the person with a false opinion clearly does not recognize himself to be believing falsely ? How could I mistake an ignorance-bird for a knowledge-bird ? Do we need to seize another knowledge-bird in order to know the difference between a knowledge-bird and an ignorance-bird ? Do we have in our aviary “knowledges of knowledges and ignorances” (τῶν ἐπιστημῶν καὶ ἀνεπιστημοσυνῶν εἰσὶν αὖ ἐπιστῆμαι, 200b6-7) ? This suggestion of course produces an infinite regress.

  • 12 Sedley diagnoses the problem with the aviary analogy as follows : “What has gone wrong is that the (...)
  • 13 Polansky draws attention to this (197).
  • 14 Mary Margaret MacKenzie has seen the central problem here : “The bird-catcher, that is, needs to kn (...)

16I suggest that if the idea of having pieces of ignorance in our soul which make us judge falsely when we “seize” them is absurd, the idea of having pieces of knowledge in our soul, whether as impressions to which we match our perceptions or as birds which we catch, is equally absurd. Knowledge is no more than ignorance a thing we possess ; rather it is a manner in which the soul relates to things.12 Socrates himself identifies the science of arithmetic, and presumably the other sciences which Theaetetus offered earlier as paradigms of knowledge, not with a bird in the cage, but with a skill of chasing and grasping the birds (198a7-8).13 But then in identifying knowledge with the birds that are possessed or had, the analogy leaves completely unexplained knowledge understood as a relation to the birds.14 This is why Socrates concludes that no account of false opinion is possible without a prior account of what knowledge is (200c7-d2), i.e., an account of the soul’s relation to its objects.

  • 15 Robinson calls such a picture of the soul, which he finds at Protagoras 314b, “paramechanical” (12) (...)

17Both analogies depict the soul as a thing that contains and possesses other things called pieces of knowledge.15 Both presuppose another dimension of the soul : a power of reaching out, searching, comparing, and in general judging, but none can explain this dimension nor therefore the possibility of mistaking something. The aviary analogy recognizes what is needed : to judge falsely (and, I would add, to engage in the activity of judging at all) one must in a way both have and not have what is sought. The problem is that the reifying model of the aviary cannot conceive of “having” in any other way than in terms of the possession of an object, i.e., as explicitly attending to the knowledge one possesses. Knowledge thus remains something that is fully possessed, whether one is presently attending to it or not. With such knowledge how could one possibly make a mistake ?

  • 16 As Socrates says at 147b2-3, in rejecting as absurd a definition of knowledge as “knowledge of . . (...)
  • 17 Polanksy notes that in grabbing the wrong piece of knowledge (the bird) one both has and does not h (...)

18We have noted that the two analogies cannot explain how Theaetetus judges falsely in the dialogue. It is therefore no accident that between the two analogies Socrates draws our attention to the pre-condition of the present inquiry and thus of both Theaetetus’ false judgments about knowledge and Socrates’ testing of these judgments. This is the passage (196d-197a), already alluded to, in which Socrates’ remarks on the circularity of the discussion : in the process of searching for the nature of knowledge he and Theaetetus are constantly employing the word “knowledge” and its cognates, and not only using the word but presupposing its meaning.16 Theaetetus appropriately suggests in response that no discussion can avoid this word (196e8-9) ; indeed, as Socrates acknowledges, his very objection, in asserting that we do not yet know what knowledge is, must itself employ the words it claims should be avoided (196e5-7) ! What this passage reveals is that Socrates and Theaetetus can inquire into what knowledge is, can judge falsely what it is and detect this falsehood through testing, only by in some sense already assuming and thus “having” what they do not yet have. This having-yet-not-having that is the precondition of false judgment, and more generally of inquiry as such, is precisely what the immediately following aviary analogy will attempt to explain.17 This explanation fails, however, precisely on account of the conception of knowledge it assumes.

19Where, then, is an adequate explanation to be sought ? If the examined models of the soul are inadequate for explaining not only false judgment but even the very inquiry in which Socrates and Theaetetus are engaged, then how should the soul be characterized ? If we are to make any progress in answering these questions, we must now turn to the very different model of the soul presupposed by Socrates’ account of his midwifery.

IV. Socrates’ maieutic art : the soul as pregnant and barren ?

  • 18 The anonymous commentator, resisting the New Academy’s interpretation of Plato as a skeptic, insist (...)

20Socrates’ comparison of himself with a midwife is well-known, but we should here highlight the central points of this comparison and draw out their implications. Socrates himself cannot give birth to knowledge ; he is “barren of wisdom” (ἄγονός εἰμι σοφίας, 150c4), there is no child of his own soul meriting the name of wisdom (150d1-2), so that he is not himself very wise (αὐτὸς οὐ πάνυ τι σοφός, 150c8-d1).18 Therefore, Socrates cannot teach his interlocutors anything but can only deliver them of the beautiful things they have within themselves (150d6-e1, see also 157c-d). On the other hand, even those pregnant with knowledge cannot give birth to it without Socrates. Those who give themselves all the credit for their offspring and leave Socrates’ company in the belief that he is useless (150e1-2) become ignorant fools (ἀμαθεῖ͂ς, 151a1). The clear suggestion, then, is that knowledge can be brought to the light, and even properly reared (see 150e5), neither by Socrates on his own nor by the interlocutor on his own, but only by their association (συνουσία, 150d2, d4, 151a3-4). This is why the other skill Socrates claims for himself, and the one that clearly strains the midwife analogy (as Theaetetus’s reaction at 149d9 indicates), is that of matchmaking, of being able to determine with whom a person should associate (151a2-b6).

  • 19 Socrates here appears to claim both that women do not give birth sometimes to phantoms and sometime (...)

21Yet there is a further complicating twist to Socrates’ analogy : despite what the “pregnancy” metaphor might suggest, Socrates does not claim that Theaetetus’ soul possesses knowledge in itself and by itself, needing Socrates only to bring this knowledge to light. What Socrates claims to deliver his interlocutors of can be either false phantoms or something genuine and true. Therefore, what Socrates claims to be the most important thing in his art (μέγιστον, 150b9) is something that plays no role whatsoever in the midwife’s art (as Socrates himself asserts at 150a9-b4) :19 i.e., the ability to distinguish, through laborious tests, between a true offspring and a false one : a distinction which Socrates asserts to be by no means easy or clear. This examination of the offspring, from which alone any kind of knowledge can emerge, is apparently for Socrates much more important than the birth itself, even if the latter involves the kind of detailed elaboration of a thesis which Socrates provides for each of Theaetetus’ definitions of knowledge.

22This possibility of a false pregnancy is what appears to distinguish Socrates’ conception of the soul here from that assumed by the two models offered later in the text. The soul subject to Socrates’ maieutic art is neither a wax tablet on which impressions are made nor an aviary into which pieces of knowledge are introduced. It has what it seeks within itself but its attempts to give birth to it may result in false opinions and can produce knowledge, if at all, only in the process of shared examination. In other words, what Theaetetus’ soul contains and gives birth to are not full-formed birds, but rather eggs which may prove empty wind-eggs (ἀνεμιαῖα, 151e6, 157d-3, 210b9) and can take flight, if at all, only in shared inquiry.

  • 20 Lines 84a3-4 of the Meno have greatly puzzled commentators on account of their suggestion that the (...)

23A second century anonymous commentary on the Theaetetus already noted the apparent difficulty of reconciling what Socrates’ midwifery implies about the soul with the so-called ‘doctrine of recollection’ as presented in the Meno and Phaedo : if learning is recollection, then how can the notion anyone possesses inside (ἐννοεῖ) be an eidolon or false ? (52, 44 - 53, 3). The commentator proceeds to hit upon what is arguably the correct solution to this problem. The text that immediately follows the above question in the commentary is unfortunately very fragmentary, but when it becomes readable again the commentator is describing how some (souls ? notions ?) enter one kind of body and some another kind, some are placed into these kinds of things and some into these other kinds of things, some are recollected quickly while others slowly (53, 23-31). Then follows the sentence that is presumably meant to solve the problem : “some having completely become turbid (παντ[ελῶς ἐ]πιτεθολωμ[έν]αι) do not know even one thing, but lie there scattered at random. This is the cause of their reasoning falsely” (53, 32-36). The idea here seems to be the same as that which the commentator offers earlier in explanation of Theaetetus’ difficulty in answering the “What is knowledge ?” question : “For the natural notions (φυσικαί ἔννοιαι) are in need of articulation (διαρθρώσεως) ; before this, they hit upon (ἐπιβάλλουσι) the things themselves through having traces (ἴχνη) of them, but not clearly (τρανῶς)” (46, 43-49). Thus in commenting on 148e, he describes the notions with which Theaetetus is pregnant as “very hidden” (τὰς σφόδρα ἐπικεκαλυμμένας, 47, 22-24). Thus the solution is that the pregnant Theaetetus gives birth to phantoms because the truth with which he is pregnant exists in his soul only as an obscure trace. If the truth were in the soul as something clear and explicit, then every birth would be a successful one. But because the truth in the soul is instead so obscured and hidden that the pregnancy is also barrenness, the process of recollecting can result in many miscarriages.20

  • 21 Dixsaut suggests that the goal of the maieutic art is to deliver us from opinions and thus to make (...)

24Despite the great potential Socrates sees in him, Theaetetus will indeed be said to have proven barren (κενός, 210c2) by the end of the dialogue. But what does this mean ? Does “barren” mean empty like the empty aviary (the word used is indeed the same) ? Socrates does allow the possibility that Theaetetus will give birth again, in which case he will be “full of better things on account of the present examination” (βελτιόνων πλήρης διὰ τὴν νῦν ἐξέτασιν, 210c2). But Socrates immediately adds that even if Theaetetus remains empty, he will be gentler towards others (ἧττον βαρὺς τοῖς συνοῦσι καὶ ἡμερώτερος, 210c2-3) and temperate in his recognition that he does not know what he does not know (σωφρόνως οὐκ οἰόμενος εἰδέναι ἃ μὴ οἶσθα, 210c3-4). Furthermore, as already noted, throughout the dialogue we are told of the bravery being demanded of Theaetetus, a bravery that the prologue describes him as exhibiting in battle. Thus even if he remains empty, he will be full of virtues ! Are not in this case the two alternatives Socrates mentions meant to be seen as in the end one ? Socrates himself is certainly full of beautiful things despite, or rather on account of, his barrenness.21 Furthermore, most of those Socrates has shown to know nothing, far from becoming gentler and more temperate, have become very angry at Socrates : thus the significance of the concluding reference to Socrates’ upcoming trial. How can we not conclude that Theaetetus in contrast has given birth to something positive from within himself ? It is important to remember that the discussion begins as an examination of Theodorus’ praise of Theaetetus’ soul for its goodness and wisdom (εἰ ποτέρου τὴν ψυχὴν ἐπαινοῖ πρὸς ἀρετήν τε καὶ σοφίαν, 145b1-2). Despite appearances, this examination has not disproven Theodorus’ praise.

  • 22 This is a point made by Sedley. Referring to the three cases outlined by Socrates at 150d-151b, he (...)

25Neither Theaetetus nor Socrates therefore appear to fit into any of the classes described by Socrates in the context of his maieutic art : 1) those who are so empty that they must be sent for instruction to the sophists, who will presumably put some birds into their empty aviaries (151b1-6) ; 2) those who through carelessness and arrogance fail to nurture their offspring (150e1-8) ; 3) those who “give birth to many fine offspring” (150d6-8).22 If they had to be classed anywhere, it would be, for reasons suggested above, in the third class, but then their fine offspring would be the offspring of barren mothers ! Socrates and Theaetetus are peculiarly both empty and full, their souls possessing not only certain virtues but also the ability to distinguish what is false from what is true and thus to know what they know and do not know. But what does this tell us about the soul and specifically about the soul’s relation to its objects ?

V. The soul as striving for being in dialogue with itself

  • 23 See Burnyeat, pp. 59-60, on the link between being and truth : the first interpretation he summariz (...)
  • 24 As R. G. Bury has observed, here “the soul is its own δύναμις, or δι οὗ” (“Δύναμις and Φύσις in Pl (...)

26The answer lies, I believe, in the characterization of the soul and its thinking to be found in the transition from the first definition of knowledge to the second. After having reduced to absurdity the definition of knowledge as perception by associating it with Protagorean relativism and Heraclitean flux, Socrates shows more positively and directly why perception cannot be knowledge and in a way that leads, though not unproblematically, to the identification of knowledge with doxa : he argues that knowledge is impossible without an apprehension of being and truth and that the soul apprehends being and truth through itself and not through the senses (186c-e). This does not mean that the soul apprehends being/truth23 “automatically” : Socrates stresses the laborious process of education involved (186c3-5). Indeed, what we have here is a characterization of knowing that corresponds much more closely to that implied by Socrates’ midwifery : knowledge of what is and what is true is not passively received from without but rather is engendered from within the soul itself through its own laborious activity. It is through the senses that the soul perceives (note how on this account not even perception is passive), but it is itself through itself (αὐτὴ διαὑτῆς, 185e1 ; αὐτὴ καθαὑτήν, 186a4, 187a5) that the soul examines (ἐπισκοπεῖν, 185e2), attempts to judge or discriminate (κρίνειν πειρᾶται, 186b8-9) and deals with (πραγματεύηται, 187a5) being and the good, among other “commons” (τὰ κοινά, 185e1).24

  • 25 What we have in this passage, I suggest, is what Burnyeat has proposed as necessary for solving the (...)
  • 26 In his list of the verbs Socrates uses to signify the way in which the soul relates to the objects (...)
  • 27 See also Republic 485d3-4, where we are told that the lover of learning must from an early age “πάσ (...)

27It is not hard to see that the laborious process alluded to here is Socratic dialectic itself, i.e., the effort to examine and deal with the being of something, whether this be temperance or courage or virtue in general. Indeed, the present inquiry into what knowledge is requires precisely the power attributed here to the soul of considering by itself and through itself the being and truth of something. It is therefore important to note that, as the words just cited make clear, the relation between the soul and the “commons” is not that of having an opinion or belief about them nor that of knowing them in the sense of possessing them as pieces of knowledge. Instead, the power which the soul is here described as exercising itself through itself is that of coming into contact with being and truth through examining them, attempting to discriminate them, dealing with them. It is, in other words, a power of coming into contact with the “commons” without fully grasping them.25 This is suggested most strongly by another verb used in the text to characterize the soul’s apprehension of being and the other “commons,” a word apparently used synonymously with the words already cited and yet completely ignored by most interpreters of the text : striving (ἐπορέγεσθαι, 186a4).26 The way in which the soul itself through itself puts itself into contact with being and truth is by “striving” after them in examining them. Compare the similar passage in the Phaedo, where the soul, associating with and touching the body as little as possible, being itself by itself (αὐτὴ καθαὑτὴν γίγνηται, 65c7), strives after being (ὀρέγηται τοῦ ὄντος, 65c9).27 It is precisely this power that the soul has in and through itself of striving after being that characterizes and makes possible Socrates’ dialectic and thus his maieutic art. It is therefore not surprising that the later reduction of this power of the soul to judging or having a belief should result in a failure to explain the possibility of false judgment and thus the possibility of Socratic inquiry itself.

  • 28 Bury, I presume, would agree since, before characterizing the soul as its own δύναμις at Theaetetus(...)
  • 29 “Sie [the soul] ist in sich, als solche, erstreckt zu Anderem hin, das ihr gegeben werden kann, und (...)
  • 30 There is a revealing contrast between this characterization of the soul’s relation to beings and th (...)

28But what does this account of the power the soul has in and through itself tell us about the nature of the soul ? The soul is characterized as essentially relating itself to being and truth. But is this relation “outside” the soul as something it “has” ? The characterization of the soul as relating to being and truth itself through itself moves us away, I suggest, from the idea that the soul is a thing existing in an external relation with other things and towards the idea that the soul is itself this relating.28 Here we would do well to consider Martin Heidegger’s careful reading of the text which arrives at precisely this conclusion : “It [the soul] is in itself, as such, stretched out toward the other that can be given to it, and maintains itself constantly and only in such a stretch. As the intrinsically perceiving, being-a-soul means being-stretched-out in itself, passage, stretching-itself-out towards something.”29 Heidegger further clarifies this relation when, on the basis of 186a4, he characterizes it as a striving (Streben, ἐποργεται) and insists, rightly stressing the middle voice (203), that the soul itself is to be identified with this Streben : “The soul is this striving towards being” (203) or, as Heidegger also calls it, “Seinserstrebnis” (203).30

  • 31 Thus Polansky observes : “Evidently this account of thought [as internal conversation] assumes, as (...)

29The nature of the soul’s striving-relation to being is made much more explicit by Socrates’ later characterization of thinking (διανοεῖσθαι) as a dialogue, a give-and-take of question and answer that the soul carries out with itself with respect to what it examines (Λόγον ὃν αὐτὴ πρὸς αὑτήν διεξέρχεται περὶ ὧν ἂν σκοπῇ, 189e6-7 ; see also Sophist 263e). This characterization of thinking clearly picks up from the earlier characterization of the soul’s relation to being and truth as a striving but further explains the way in which the soul carries this out itself through itself :31 it converses with itself, interrogates itself and responds to its own interrogation. The “itself through itself” refers to a reflexive and dialectical process, excluding a purely passive and receptive relation to being and truth (as in some form of “intuition”).

  • 32 As Sedley accurately observes : “Thinking is interpreted as replicating within the soul the form of (...)
  • 33 When Socrates asserts that his characterization of thinking as the soul’s internal dialogue with it (...)

30The most important thing to note here, however, precisely because it quickly gets covered up in the discussion, is the implied distinction between thinking and judging.32 Δόξα is explicitly identified here with what terminates the soul’s dialogue with itself, what concludes the dialectical back-and-forth of question and answer (190a2-4). To paraphrase the text, we speak of the soul as having a δόξα, as opining or judging (δοξάζειν), only when it is no longer wavering or hesitating (μὴ διστάζῃ) but says the same (τὸ αὐτο ἤδη φῇ), only when it arrives at something definite (ὁρίσασα), either slowly or quickly rushing upon it (ὀξύτερον ἐπᾴξασα). With the definition of knowledge as true judgment and the models of the wax tablet and the aviary that accompany it, this more fundamental power the soul has of examining and striving for being and truth by means of engaging in dialogue with itself is lost from view. Yet this is precisely the psychic power that makes possible the inquiry carried out in spoken dialogue between Socrates and Theaetetus : an inquiry that rather than arriving at anything definite formulates beliefs only in order immediately to destabilize them by bringing them into question.33 While the soul’s dialogue with itself finds expression in Socrates’ dialogue with Theaetetus and Socrates’ insistence that he is only helping Theaetetus to give birth to what is within himself, it is left out of the characterization of the soul as having knowledge impressed upon it as upon a wax tablet or as containing pieces of knowledge in the way a cage contains birds.

  • 34 See Sedley 2004, 109 & 129-130.

31It is striking and surely significant that the two passages just discussed are the only places in the dialogue where Socrates appears to contradict his role of barren midwife by claiming as his own the opinion which he wants Theaetetus to share : that the soul investigates some things through itself is something that appears to Socrates himself to be the case (αὐτῷ μοι ἐδόκει, 185e8) ; likewise, the soul’s dialogue with itself is what Socrates himself calls thinking (189e4) and what appears to himself to be the case (189e8). How is Socrates’ assumed role of the barren midwife compatible with having these opinions ? The answer appears to be that the opinions in question are fundamental presuppositions and thus implications of the art of midwifery itself.34 Only if the soul has the power of investigating being and truth through itself and in dialogue with itself is there any foundation for Socrates’ claim that he only assists the soul of the interlocutor to give birth to its own thoughts. Furthermore, only in this case can the barrenness of arriving at no determinate conclusions be distinguished from emptiness : the soul’s power of examining being and truth through its own dialogue with itself makes it “pregnant” in a way that a wax tablet or an empty cage is not ; that its offspring should prove false makes it in no way less “pregnant.” What makes the power of thinking a strange kind of pregnancy is precisely the fact that nothing prevents it from giving birth to mere phantoms. Yet this is precisely the kind of strange pregnancy that the midwife analogy assumes. In short, the midwife’s art makes certain assumptions about the nature of the soul and it is precisely these assumptions that are expressed in the two passages in question.

  • 35 Suggesting the fundamental incomprehensibility of false opinion, Polansky comments : “It remains un (...)
  • 36 Cf. Dixsaut : “le savoir est cette différence en laquelle nous sommes sans que nous puissions jamai (...)

32In explaining Socrates’ midwifery, the characterization of the soul in these passages also explains how the soul can both have and not have truth and being and therefore how the soul can mis-take what it seeks and thus judge falsely. The soul is in and through itself, in dialogue with itself, related to being in a striving that both has and does not have it. What makes it possible for the soul to mis-take the truth is that relation of stretching-out-towards the truth (186a4), without possessing it, that constitutes its central and defining power.35 This power also makes possible the kind of simultaneous knowing and not-knowing seen at work in Socrates’ avowedly circular inquiry. This knowing is not some opinion we possess like a bird in a cage or an imprint on wax but rather a power we exercise :36 precisely the power Socrates explicitly claims to be his own and to set him apart from the ordinary midwife : the power (δυνατὸν εἶναι, 150c1) to test whether the offspring of a person’s thought is merely apparent and false or genuine and true. Both this power of knowing and the possibility of false judgment are grounded in that relation of the soul to its objects that is to be understood neither as perception nor as opinion, but rather as what Socrates in the Philebus calls “the power of dialectic” (ἡ τοῦ διαλέγεσθαι δύναμις) and identifies with “the power of loving the truth” (δύναμις ἐρᾶν τοῦ ἀληθοῦς, 58d4-5). We could also call it “the power of thinking.”

33It is only in this context that one can grasp the full significance of the example provided early in the dialogue of what precisely the question “What is knowledge ?” seeks to determine. The example, offered by Theaetetus himself, is that of incommensurable lines. These are lines which when squared produce an oblong number, i.e., a number that cannot be produced by the multiplication of equal whole numbers, e.g., 2, 3, 5, etc. The aspect of this that is relevant to the attempt to collect all instances of knowledge under one definition is Theaetetus’ description of how he and the young Socrates classified all incommensurable lines as powers (δυνάμεις). The justification is that while these lines are incommensurable (ὡς μήκει μὲν οὐ συμμέτρους) with the lines which when squared produce an even number, they have the power of producing plane figures that are themselves commensurable (τοῖς δἐπιπέδοις ἃ δύνανται, 148b1-2). What can be seen now is that the parallel between knowledge and these ‘powers’ goes well beyond the similarity in how we seek to define them and that the example of ‘powers’ is therefore by no means arbitrarily chosen. Because an incommensurable line cannot be defined in itself, i.e., its length cannot be stated, it can be defined, and made commensurable, only by being characterized as a power to produce plane figures. Likewise, because knowledge turns out to be indefinable in itself, i.e., incommensurable with any of the things in terms of which Socrates and Theaetetus try to define it, it should be understood as a power and thus in terms of what it is able to do. The suggestion of the example, then, is that we must stop thinking of knowledge as some product or outcome we can possess and define, as if it were a bird in a cage, and start thinking of it as instead a power we exercise.

VI. A dynamic conception of the soul

34Reflection on this essential power of the soul should move us in the direction of understanding the soul’s being as power, against the reification of the soul and its relations that was seen to characterize the wax tablet and aviary analogies. In relating itself to beings through itself and in dialogue with itself, the soul not only has this power, but is this power. Precisely such a “dynamic” conception of the soul appears to be assumed in the dialogue that follows the Theaetetus according to the dramatic chronology. In the Sophist, the introduction of the soul and its powers against the Giants’ identification of being with body is what leads to the definition of beings as δύναμις (τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις, 247e4). That the soul should be paradigmatic for such a characterization of beings suggests that for it to be is most clearly to have the power to do and to suffer. Thus when the position of the “friends of the forms” or “gods” is examined next, it too is rejected because, in refusing to define being as δύναμις, it does not admit into being the soul and thinking, among other powers (248e7-249a2). This latter argument makes especially clear the incompatibility between a static conception of being and the being of the soul. In the Sophist, in short, it is the soul’s being as δύναμις that forces a rethinking of being as such, to the extent that the Stranger explicitly maintains that even the being of the forms, to the extent that it is known (καθὅσον γιγνώσκεται), will be moved on account of undergoing the action of knowing (κινεῖσθαι διὰ τὸ πάσχειν, 248e4).

  • 37 As for what exactly is being defined here, Robinson writes : “It is fairly clear that so far the on (...)

35The discussion in the Sophist does not go so far as to identify either being itself or the being of the soul with motion. On the contrary, what the Stranger finds perplexing about being is that it is in itself neither in motion nor at rest (250c1-8). To the extent that both the Giants and the Friends of the Forms are forced by the phenomena of the soul and its attributes to accept a definition of being as δύναμις, such a definition appears to be offered as an alternative to, and compromise between, the two extremes of a characterization of being as flux and a characterization of being as purely static. As one of the ‘five kinds’ distinct from rest and motion, being has the power of partaking of both, but as such a power cannot be identified with either one (251d5-254d10). But if the being of the soul can no more than being itself be identified with motion, the power that defines it is precisely and specifically a power of motion. This aspect of the soul, already suggested by the argument in the Sophist that the Friends of the Forms in excluding motion (γένεσις) from being (248c7-9) are also excluding the soul from being (248e7-249a1), is made explicit in other texts. Socrates prefaces the myth of the Phaedrus with a non-mythical account of the soul as by nature self-moving (τὸ αὐτὸ ἑαυτὸ κινοῦν, 245e7-246a1) in order to ground the myth’s comparison of the soul to a winged chariot-team as well as its description of the soul as seeking that true being which it once saw and with which it also remains in touch through memory. A well-known passage of the Laws (896a1-2) goes even further than the Sophist in defining the soul as “the movement with the power to move itself” (τὴν δυναμένην αὐτὴν κινεῖν κίνησιν)37 As one scholar has rightly observed, “soul is here seen not as the thing which moves itself, but as itself a species of motion” (Bett, 347). This passage therefore moves as far as possible from the reification of the soul to the characterization of the soul not as something that has power or moves itself, but rather as itself in its very essence the power of motion or even a kind of motion.

  • 38 Bett incredibly takes the affinity argument in the Phaedo to conclude that the soul is changeless a (...)
  • 39 Robinson repeatedly denies that the characterization of the soul as autokinetic is to be found in t (...)

36Such a conception of the soul has been considered by some to be at odds with that found elsewhere in Plato, especially in the Phaedo. There the being of the soul is said to be most like (ὁμοιότατον) the non-composite, unchanging and eternal being of the Forms (80b1-3). Yet as Cebes’ objection shows (87a-88b), this similitude does not imply identity : the soul could be like the Forms in being longer-lasting than the body without thereby being eternal. While Robinson acknowledges this (48-49), he still insists that “for Socrates the superiority of soul to body lies precisely in its approximation to a reality which is static and unchanging. To anyone who sees soul as a principle of life and activity—that is, change—this reads very curiously, and contrasts sharply with what will be said in later dialogues” (30 ; see also 115). Yet as Robinson himself observes, one finds within the Phaedo itself different pictures of the soul ; the picture of the soul as like what is static and unchanging is offered within the context of one argument for immortality that is immediately refuted ; the argument that comes to replace it turns precisely to a characterization of the soul as a cause of life (105d3-4). It is therefore not accurate to say that what emerges from the Phaedo is a “very ‘static’ image of soul” (161). Even if the image of the soul offered by the Phaedo is more static than that offered by the Laws, an explanation for this difference of emphasis is to be found in an observation Robinson himself makes : “Plato appears to use particular ‘models’ of psyche (uniform, bipartite, tripartite, etc.) to suit particular contexts, and seems to be peculiarly unbound by dogmatism in this regard until the end of his life” (ix-x).38 Despite these differences determined by context, in all of the dialogues cited above the soul emerges as having an ambiguous status between what is eternal and always the same, on the one hand, and what is in motion and perishable, on the other. This ambiguous status is explicitly expressed in the Timaeus where the soul is categorized as a third type of being (τρίτον οὐσίας εἶδος) between (ἐν μέσῳ) what is indivisible and always remains the same, on the one hand, and what is divisible and changing, on the other (35a).39

37The above conception of the soul, though articulated with reference to other dialogues, can be said to be implied in the Theaetetus itself. Not only the critique of reifying models of the soul, but also the description of what Socrates’ very practice of midwifery assumes about the soul’s power of relating itself to beings through itself and in dialogue with itself, point towards an understanding of the being of the soul as power and motion. If the Theaetetus forces us to rethink the nature of knowledge, it also, and perhaps even more fundamentally, forces us the rethink the nature of the soul. What we are left with is not a definition of knowledge or the soul, but rather the task of pursuing, within our own souls and with one another, an uncertain and disorienting dialogue about who we are, that is, what we can do.

Haut de page

Notes

1 T. M. Robinson, Plato’s Psychology, second ed. (University of Toronto Press, 1995).

2 David Sedley, for example, simply assumes that Socrates is committed to the claim made in the context of the aviary model that souls are empty at birth (The Midwife of Platonism: Text and Subtext in Plato’s Theaetetus [Oxford : Clarendon Press, 2004], 29), as if this model were not immediately shown to be inadequate. As a result he must tell the story that the character Socrates is not aware of Plato’s “doctrine of recollection,” a doctrine to which Plato nevertheless alludes in the dialogue (29-30).

3 As Ronald Polansky observes, “Depth of thought and understanding escape representation by deep impressions in deep wax” (Philosophy and Knowledge: A Commentary on Plato’s Theaetetus [Lewisburg : Bucknell University Press, 1992], 192). This characterization of wisdom seems strikingly close to what the prisoners in the Cave of the Republic are said to take for wisdom : the ability to perceive quickly the shadows on the wall and to remember them so as to be able to anticipate them (516c-d).

4 On gentleness and courage, see the perceptive words of Monique Dixsaut, Le Naturel Philosophe (Paris : J. Vrin,1998), 80-81.

5 Of this image of the archer, Lewis Campbell writes : “We are beginning to have a livelier conception of the movement of the mind and of the remoteness of sensible things from our notions of them” (The Theaetetus of Plato [Oxford University Press, 1861 ; reprint New York : Arno Press, 1973], 165).

6 As Burnyeat rightly notes, there is no notion here, as in Aristotle and Locke, of a “sense-impression,” i.e., of perceptions impressing themselves on the soul in the very act of perception (The Theaetetus of Plato [Indianapolis : Hackett, 1990], 100-101). One can agree with Burnyeat’s claim that “the Wax Block model raises more questions than it answers about the mental activity of the soul which owns and uses the block” (100), though the only question he proceeds to raise is that of the distinction between possessing an impression and actively using it.

7 The reference here to ‘thought’ is a very odd feature of Socrates’ analogy. When he first introduces it, Socrates describes as being imprinted upon the wax not only perceptions but also thoughts (ἐννοίαι, 191d7) which we arrive at through ourselves (αὐτοὶ ἐννοήσωμεν, 191d6-7). Why, then, cannot a false judgment occur in matching what we are presently thinking to the wrong thought impression ? As the discussion progresses Socrates appears to forget what he had said at 191d and speaks as if the “wax” contained impressions only of sensations (τῶν αἰσθήσεων τὰ σημεῖα, 194d4). Yet at 195a5-6 he again refers to thinking along with hearing and seeing, even claiming that those with bad wax in their souls not only mis-hear and over-look, but also “mis-think” (παρανοοῦσι, 195a8). Of course, the aviary analogy will try to explain a kind of mismatch between thought and thought, but why is the wax analogy not seen as itself accounting for this by allowing for the possibility of ‘misthinking’ in the sense of mismatching a thought with a thought impression ? There have been many different responses to this problem in the secondary literature. The problem goes completely unnoted by Burnyeat who describes the wax tablet model as envisaging only the operation of “learning or memorizing something perceived” and the operation of “fitting an imprint to a new perception” (91). Campbell in contrast sees the problem and considers the following explanation : “It may be asked, whether these expressions do not provide for the difficulty that is raised afterwards about 11 and 12 ? The answer probably is, that the difficulty, which is brought into full light afterwards, is here significantly anticipated. . . . ἐπινοῶσιν however does not necessarily imply an abstract object of thought” (168). Wohlrab agrees with this last point in claiming that nothing more than sensation is intended here : “At noei`n Homerum satis constat de sensuum perceptionibus dixisse. Nec prorsus latuit haec verbi vis Platonis aetate” (Platonis Theaetetus [Leipzig : 1891 ; reprint New York : Garland Publishing, 1980], 202). He then proceeds to support the latter claim with references to Timaeus 37c, Parmenides 165b, and Hippias minor 369e. John McDowell attempts to explain the oddity as follows : “However, though it is quite plausible that one can perceive an object without eo ipso knowing it, in the sense of knowing what it is, and hence that one can mismatch a perception with an imprint, it is not equally plausible that one can conceive an object without eo ipso knowing it, in the sense of knowing what it is, and hence, as Socrates suggests here, that one can mismatch a conception with an imprint. In the section 195b-196c it is suggested that mistakes about abstract objects, e.g. numbers, would involve, not mismatching of conceptions with imprints, but, rather, mismatching of imprints with imprints, and would hence be excluded by the account of false judgment afforded by the image of the wax tablet” (Plato Theaetetus [Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1973], 215). Sedley in contrast suggests that what Socrates must be allowing for is the mismatching of a perception with a conceptual, rather than a sensorily derived, imprint (2004, 135-6). But the problem is that Socrates, after the initial mention of both perceptions and thoughts being impressed upon the soul, speaks as if the soul contained only impressions of perceptions. The solution I suggest is that the wax analogy does not capture the soul’s power of “thinking through itself”, “questioning itself in itself”, though it must assume this power. The wax tablet model transforms the soul into something passive receiving and preserving static impressions from without. What it therefore cannot account for is the soul’s power of producing thoughts from within itself, of receiving thoughts to which it itself gives birth, of responding to its own questions ; none of these aspects of the power of thinking can be explained as the matching of a thought with a thought impression, if it is at all possible to make any sense of such a matching. The possibility of false judgment must be sought neither in memory nor in perception nor in the mere juxtaposition of the two, but rather in the soul’s power of self-interrogation.

8 Sedley reads this interior dialogue of the soul with itself into the wax analogy, but only by interpreting it in terms of the example which the wax analogy is shown incapable of explaining (2004, 137). Furthermore, the parallel he finds with Philebus 38b12-e4 is in significant ways not parallel : while false judgment is indeed characterized there as resulting from memory in combination with perception, the emphasis is on the soul’s silent dialogue with itself and the soul, rather than being characterized as a wax tablet that passively receives impressions of the perceptions or thoughts under which it is held, is instead compared to a book in which are written logoi and eikones, both true and false, by two demiurges within the soul itself (38e12-39b7). Thus the differences between the Theaetetus and the Philebus passages seem more significant than the similarities.

9 Burnyeat rightly remarks that, unlike Aristotle, “Socrates reserves the verb ‘to know’ for the capacity (possession of knowledge), and he affects some puzzlement about finding appropriate terms to describe the exercise of knowledge (198a, 198e-199a)” (107).

10 “Yet quite incredibly, the aviary prohibits simultaneous possession and non-possession of knowledge only to permit simultaneous having and not having of knowledge. When we mistakenly grab the knowledge of the eleven rather than the knowledge of the twelve, we have the eleven and at the same time do not know what it really is. We thus have it, but do not have it. The difficulty of knowing and not knowing has been eliminated on the level of possession only to emerge on the level of having” (Polansky, 198-199).

11 McDowell suggests that once one stops seeing knowledge as a sort of acquaintance and thus as an all-or-nothing affair, a “bit of identifying knowledge” is all that one needs to secure something as the object of one’s judgments (217-218, 224-225). On this view, the solution is to be found in a partial knowledge consisting of a true proposition or true propositions about the object in question. But as Sedley has shown, if the knowledge at issue here is understood as knowing-what-something-is, it can plausibly be seen as an all-or-nothing affair (2004, 120-122).

12 Sedley diagnoses the problem with the aviary analogy as follows : “What has gone wrong is that the attempt to diagnose false judgments has ended up taking them to be internal mental processes which are themselves about further mental items, namely bits of knowledge. Picking the number 11 as the answer to the adding question was effectively explained as grabbing your knowledge of the number 11 (199b1-6)” (2004, 148). But while Sedley explains this as the result of a failure to distinguish between cognitive states and their objects, for which he thinks one needs “a study of metaphysics” which Socrates has failed to undertake, I see the problem more in the reification of knowledge.

13 Polansky draws attention to this (197).

14 Mary Margaret MacKenzie has seen the central problem here : “The bird-catcher, that is, needs to know the scope and nature of his knowledge, just as Socrates had specified. But that knowledge cannot itself be a bird, or be a character of the birds already captured (see the difficulty attached to specifying some birds as ‘ignorances’, 199e)” (“The Virtues of Socratic Ignorance,” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2 [1988] : 345). She concludes that the failure of the aviary model is meant to show the inseparability of knowledge and the knowledge of knowledge. “On this reading, the aporia of the argument is designed to show that views like the aviary are unsatisfactory just because they ignore the Socratic lesson. So the Theaetetus would offer an expansion of the Socratic view that knowing cannot be understood merely in terms of its objective content ; for the knowledge of knowledge is a vital condition for knowing” (345).

15 Robinson calls such a picture of the soul, which he finds at Protagoras 314b, “paramechanical” (12).

16 As Socrates says at 147b2-3, in rejecting as absurd a definition of knowledge as “knowledge of . . .”, one cannot understand the name of something unless one knows the thing itself.

17 Polanksy notes that in grabbing the wrong piece of knowledge (the bird) one both has and does not have it (199). This is the difficulty that leads Theaetetus to introduce pieces of ignorance into the cage.

18 The anonymous commentator, resisting the New Academy’s interpretation of Plato as a skeptic, insists that Socrates’ claim at 150c4 to not having given birth himself to wisdom is not to be understood ἁπλῶς (Anonymer Kommentar zu Platons Theaetet, eds. H. Diehls and W. Schubart [Berlin : Weinmannsche Buchhandlung, 1905], 53, 38). He furthermore takes Socrates’ claim that he is himself “οὐ πάνυ τι σοφός” as implying that he is nevertheless σοφός. (53, 40-41) ; see also 55, 42-45, where he asserts that Socrates does not charge himself with not being sophos, but only with not being πάνυ τι σοφός. Modern translations translate the phrase οὐ πάνυ τι σοφός at 150c8-d1 as meaning “not at all wise,” but Sedley defends as correct the anonymous commentator’s understanding of the Greek (“Three Platonist Interpretations of the Theaetetus, in Form and Argument in Late Plato, eds. Christopher Gill and Mary Margaret McCabe [Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1996], 98 ; Wohlrab reads οὐ πάνυ τι σοφός [85]). The commentator then defends this claim by appealing to the midwife analogy, which implies that Socrates, like the ordinary midwife, at one time was pregnant and gave birth (54, 2-9). The suggestion is apparently that Socrates is ἄγονος only in relation to those whose innate opinions he tries to deliver (54, 9-13). Thus at 55, 19-33 the commentator claims that the gods prevent Socrates from giving birth only while conversing with the young and only because if he himself gave birth during such a dialogue the result would not be recollection.

The commentator tries to qualify 150c4-7 in a similar way, though there he offers two options : either Socrates’ claim μηδὲν ἔχειν σοφόν is relative to the kind of teaching in which he only asks questions and listens to the answers (54, 27-30) or, if the phrase is to be heard ἁπλῶς, it means that Socrates is not sophos with the kind of sophia that is attributed to the gods or to the sophists (54, 31-38). What the commentator rejects is the use of expressions such as this to make Plato into an Academic “ὡς οὐδὲν δογματίζοντα” (54, 38-43). For the commentator there is no question that Plato had δόγματα (55, 8-10). Likewise, in commenting on 150d1-2 where Socrates asserts that there is no discovery or offspring of his own soul, the commentator insists that this is to be understood “οὐχ ἁπλῶς, ἀλλὰ ὅταν ἄ[λλους μαιεύηται” (56, 3-5). In short, the commentator’s strategy is to interpret Socrates’ disavowal of knowledge as relative to the questioning of others and the practice of the maieutic art ; when not engaged in this practice Socrates can and does give birth to knowledge. Of course, there is no suggestion of such a qualification in the text. The “οὐ πάνυ τι σοφός” is most naturally interpreted as an understatement and even if the midwife analogy implies that Socrates at an earlier time was pregnant and capable of producing his own offspring, it certainly does not imply that Socrates is still pregnant and capable of giving birth when he is not helping deliver the offspring of others.

19 Socrates here appears to claim both that women do not give birth sometimes to phantoms and sometimes to true babies and that it is not difficult in their case to distinguish the one from the other. The second point seems superfluous given the first : if women cannot give birth to phantom babies as well as true babies, then obviously in their case there can be no difficulty in distinguishing between the two. The anonymous commentator denies that Socrates makes the first point since he believes that such a claim would be false (51, 39-40) : when women give birth to “monsters” they are giving birth to eidola, while when they give birth “according to nature” they are giving birth to what is true and genuine (51, 28-34). He therefore suggests that the sentence is to be read (is to be “heard” 52, 28) as meaning that what is not true in the case of women is only the difficulty of knowing when the offspring is false and when it is genuine : “οὐ γὰρ πρόσεστιν ταῖς γυναιξὶ τὸ μὴ ῥάιδιον εἶναι διαγνῶναι ὁτὲ μὲν εἴδωλα τίκτει, ἔστιν δὅτε ἀληθινά” (51, 42-47).

20 Lines 84a3-4 of the Meno have greatly puzzled commentators on account of their suggestion that the slave is already recollecting in giving false answers to Socrates’ question. Another puzzle has been lines 81d4-5 which identify anamnesis not only with learning but also with searching. If we accept the surface suggestion of these lines rather than try to interpret it away, then the apparent conflict between the idea of recollection and Socratic midwifery as described in the Theaetetus begins to disappear.

21 Dixsaut suggests that the goal of the maieutic art is to deliver us from opinions and thus to make us “barren” in this sense : “la liberté du savoir est la maïeutique, qui n’est pas examen des opinions, mais bien examen des hypothèses afin de se délivrer de l’opinion. La maïeutique est nécessaire pour délivrer le savoir de l’opinion qui en ferait une opinion droite et la saisie du signe caractéristique à l’intérieur d’un genre commun” (1998, 309). But as she recognizes, this barrenness liberates philosophy and the virtues associated with it.

22 This is a point made by Sedley. Referring to the three cases outlined by Socrates at 150d-151b, he comments : “there is no mention of the relatively felicitous kind of case which Theaetetus himself exemplifies” (2004, 36). As for Socrates, Sedley makes the important point that given Socrates’ characterization of midwifery as a techne he possesses and practices, “we may get the impression that the ‘barren midwife’ metaphor does not include midwifery itself among the subjects about which he is intellectually barren” (32) ; Sedley rightly cites 161b1-5 in support. Sedley proceeds to make the even more important point that “all of the skills and insights that Socrates will contribute in the course of the dialogue can, it seems to me, be classed among [the principles of midwifery]” (33). Oddly, and unfortunately, Sedley makes no reference to the other, very closely related techne or wisdom Socrates claims in the dialogues : knowledge of eros (Lysis 204c2, 206a1 ; Symposium 177d7-8, 212b6).

23 See Burnyeat, pp. 59-60, on the link between being and truth : the first interpretation he summarizes is clearly the right one.

24 As R. G. Bury has observed, here “the soul is its own δύναμις, or δι οὗ” (“Δύναμις and Φύσις in Plato,” The Classical Review 8, no. 7 [1894] : 299). I cannot agree here with Sedley’s claim that “Socrates’ interest in the commons has been exclusively in their use as predicates” and that “What he has not yet done is discuss those mental operations which take the commons in their own right as subjects” (2004, 112).

25 What we have in this passage, I suggest, is what Burnyeat has proposed as necessary for solving the problem faced by the aviary analogy : “a third epistemic route,” distinct from both perception and knowledge. Using the terms of Socrates’ own example, Burnyeat characterizes this third route as “unknowingly thinking of twelve, i.e., thinking of twelve without recognizing it as twelve” (112). What Burnyeat is drawing to our attention here is the crucial point that questioning is itself a way of encountering something, that the question, rather than being the absence of a relation between the soul and its objects, is itself such a relation. As Burnyeat observes with regard to the example in the text, “in asking the question [“What is five and seven ?”] he is unknowingly thinking of the number twelve” (114). Oddly, however, Burnyeat finds no support in the dialogue for this third epistemic route beyond Socrates’ example, thus completely missing the support provided by Socrates’ description of the soul’s relation to τὰ κοινά.

26 In his list of the verbs Socrates uses to signify the way in which the soul relates to the objects it does not know through the senses, Narcy incredibly leaves out ἐπορέγεσθαι (“Qu’est-ce que la science ? Réponses dans le Théétète,” in Platon: l’amour de savoir, ed. Michel Narcy [Paris PUF, 2001], 62-63). This is just an extreme example of the general neglect of this passage. Narcy sees in the verb κρίνειν, however, “un tournant capital, non seulement du dialogue, mais de l’histoire de la philosophie” (64). With the introduction of this verb, “la vérité n’est plus la passive fidélité de l’impression reçue, . . . elle est désormais ce vers quoi s’efforce l’âme, l’intelligence ou la pensée, avec le risque d’échec, donc d’erreur, impliqué par la notion même de cet effort—le verbe peirasthai (‘essayer’) dont Socrate flanque krinein est significatif à cet égard” (65). I agree, but would add that the verb ἐπορέγεσθαι not only further emphasizes this characterization of our relation to the truth but also explains what in this case connects us to the truth.

27 See also Republic 485d3-4, where we are told that the lover of learning must from an early age “πάσης ἀληθείας... ὅτι μάλιστα ὀρέγεσθαι.”

28 Bury, I presume, would agree since, before characterizing the soul as its own δύναμις at Theaetetus 185-186, he describes δύναμις in Plato as generally meaning “much what we mean by ‘relativity’ . . . . Everything which is in relation to another thing may be termed a δύναμις, or said to possess δύναμις” (298).

29 “Sie [the soul] ist in sich, als solche, erstreckt zu Anderem hin, das ihr gegeben werden kann, und hält sich ständig und nur in solcher Erstreckung. Als das von Haus aus Vernehmende heißt Seele-sein in sich selbst Erstreckt-sein, Durchgang, Sich-erstrecken zu etwas” (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit: Zu Platons Höhlengleichnis und Theätet, Gesamtausgabe 34 [Frankfurt am Main : Vittorio Klostermann, 1988], 197).

30 There is a revealing contrast between this characterization of the soul’s relation to beings and the one which appears to recall it in the context of the wax tablet analogy. In this later passage, 194d5-6, “what are called beings” (ἃ δὴ ὄντα καλεῖται) are identified either with the imprints on the wax or with the things we assign to these imprints : the Greek is highly ambiguous and different translators and editors read it differently. Fowler in the Loeb edition translates : “For the imprints are clear and have plenty of room, so that such men quickly assign them to their several moulds, which are called realities ; and these men, then, are called wise.” M. J. Levitt translates as follows : “As the signs are distinct and there is plenty of room for them, they quickly assign each thing to its own impress in the wax—the things in question being, of course, what we call the things that are and these people being the ones we call wise.” Campbell’s explanation is that “σαφῆὄντα is left as a sort of accusativus pendens. What follows is to be construed thus : ταχὺ διανέμουσιν (οἱ τοιοῦτοι ταῦτα) ἃ δὴ ὄντα καλεῖται, ἕκαστα ἐπὶ τὰ αὑτῶν ἐκμαγεῖα. ‘Such persons quickly distribute things (as we term them) each to the place of its own former impress upon the block’” (167 ; Wohlrab suggests the same reading [201]). McDowell offers a similar reading, but with one important difference : he takes “ἃ δὴ ὄντα καλεῖται” to refer to the ἐκμαγεῖα, rather than to the ἕκαστα, though he admits that “it is impossible to be confident about this” (112, 214-215). However, whether beings are identified with the imprints in the soul’s wax or with the things perceived and matched to these imprints, they clearly are not characterized as what the soul itself through itself strives for and examines. What is absent in the characterization of the relation between the soul and beings at 194d5-6 is any “transcendence” on the part of beings and any stretching-out or striving on the part of the soul. Beings are things the soul possesses either imprinted on its wax or in perception : there is no question of striving for or examining these beings but only of matching them with each other. What is rendered impossible by such an absolute immanence of both the soul and beings is the possibility of false judgment and thereby also the possibility of inquiry and knowledge. While, with regard to the two passages in question, Campbell rightly comments : “The later part of the dialogue does not forget the earlier part” (167), the echoing of the earlier passage in the later one is meant to draw our attention, I suggest, to just how much has been forgotten.

31 Thus Polansky observes : “Evidently this account of thought [as internal conversation] assumes, as previously mentioned, that the soul seeks truth and is not indifferent to it” (183).

32 As Sedley accurately observes : “Thinking is interpreted as replicating within the soul the form of Socratic dialectic, with judgment identified not with thought as a whole, but with its final stage or outcome” (2004, 130).

33 When Socrates asserts that his characterization of thinking as the soul’s internal dialogue with itself is not something he knows but only something that appears to him (μοι ἰνδάλλεται, 189e8), this shows that even this characterization cannot terminate the dialogue in Socrates’ soul. That thinking is the soul’s dialogue with itself is something his own soul is talking through without judging it to be a conclusive position. A little later in the text Socrates provides an even more graphic description of the instability of his own psychic state, his own garrulousness (ἀδολεσχία) : he drags λόγοι up and down (ἄνω κάτω), unable to be persuaded (οὐ δυνάμενος πεισθῆναι) and also reluctant to be drawn away from each λόγος (195c3-4). Socrates’ thinking, his conversation with himself and others, never comes to rest with δόξα.

34 See Sedley 2004, 109 & 129-130.

35 Suggesting the fundamental incomprehensibility of false opinion, Polansky comments : “It remains unfathomable that intelligent beings wishing to gain the truth should latch onto the false and suppose it the truth. If humans were indifferent to truth, then false opinion would be no mystery. But it is a fundamental Socratic assumption that humans naturally prefer truth to falsehood, so false opinion is problematic . . .” (176 ; see also 201-202). But is it not precisely our love of the truth that can make us overhasty in embracing something as truth ? In Socrates’ account of believing falsely that a person approaching from a distance and inadequately seen is someone else, the eagerness (προθυμηθῶ, 193c2) to recognize the person clearly plays a central role. And if Theaetetus mistakes what knowledge is, this is because Socrates encourages him to be eager and daring in his attempts to say what it is (προθυμήθητι, 148d1). Des Places shows the word προθυμεῖσθαι to be closely related to ὀρεγέσθαι (Lexique de Platon [Paris : Les Belles Lettres, 1989], 386 & 439).

36 Cf. Dixsaut : “le savoir est cette différence en laquelle nous sommes sans que nous puissions jamais nous retourner sur elle, différence agissante mais jamais définissable” (1998, 299). The point is further explained a few pages later : “La différence entre l’opinion droite et le savoir ne peut constituer le contenu d’une opinion droite ou d’un savoir, mais le savoir est cette différence” (304). Also : “Le savoir n’a pas de définition positive et il ne peut se posséder. Savoir signifie apprendre et enseigner, interroger et répondre, en savoir toujours plus et toujours moins qu’on n’en sait” (347).

37 As for what exactly is being defined here, Robinson writes : “It is fairly clear that so far the only soul under discussion has been soul-in-general, perhaps better translated as soul-stuff or psychic force. There has been no indication that it is particular or personal” (147). Richard Bett understands ψυχή in the Phaedrus argument as a mass-term referring to “soul as stuff” (343-4), though Bett’s talk of “immaterial stuff” (“Immortality and the Nature of the Soul in the Phaedrus,” in Essays on Plato’s Psychology, ed. Ellen Wagner [Lanham, Maryland : Lexington Books, 2001], 359) I find to be misleading and inadequate. The argument of this paper is in general agreement with the following comments by Dixsaut : “L’âme n’est pas une de l’unité indivisible et divine de la Forme, elle n’est pas une par nature, elle ne devient une que de son mouvement d’assimilation au divin. Toutes les discussions des commentateurs sur la nature de l’âme : est-elle, a-t-elle une Forme, est-elle une ou multiple, indivisible ou composée de parties, totalement ou seulement partiellement immortelle, semblent relever en effet d’une même négligence. Ce qui est omis est que jamais Platon ne fait de l’âme une chose dont la nature serait telle qu’il y en aurait un savoir possible. . . . L’âme n’est pas une chose, elle est un mouvement qui peut s’orienter, se différencier, se diviser et se composer” (1998, 167).

38 Bett incredibly takes the affinity argument in the Phaedo to conclude that the soul is changeless and incomposite, i.e., he ignores the all-important qualification, and neglects to mention that this argument is immediately refuted by Simmias and Cebes, a refutation that requires the lengthy development of a completely different argument (346). By means of this kind of reading that takes anything said in a Platonic dialogue to be a Platonic doctrine no matter what the context, Bett concludes that the accounts of the soul in the Phaedo and the Phaedrus are opposed (347).

39 Robinson repeatedly denies that the characterization of the soul as autokinetic is to be found in the Timaeus (xiv, 82, 103, 133, 154, 161-2), but this denial rests on a questionable refusal to see in the phrase ἐν τῷ κινουμένῳ ὑφ ̓ αὑτοῦ at 37b a reference to the soul (82) and on the assumption that the Demiurge literally produces the soul. For a similar denial, see also Bett, 350.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Francisco Gonzalez, « Wax Tablets, Aviaries, or Imaginary Pregnancies? On the Powers in Theaetetus’ Soul », Études platoniciennes, 4 | 2007, 273-293.

Référence électronique

Francisco Gonzalez, « Wax Tablets, Aviaries, or Imaginary Pregnancies? On the Powers in Theaetetus’ Soul », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 4 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2016, consulté le 20 août 2017. URL : http://etudesplatoniciennes.revues.org/917 ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.917

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

© Société d’Études platoniciennes

Haut de page
  • Revues.org