Allusion to Forms in Plato’s Theaetetus

Between having had two undergraduate courses on the Platonic dialogues —one on ancient Greek philosophy, one on Plato’s dialogues, specifically, and having read the remainder of the dialogues on my own—, I had never encountered the “Unitarianism versus Revisionism” debate, until taking (currently) a graduate course on Plato’s theory of knowledge.  Not just that, I had no inkling or intuition that there might be such a debate.  In examining why, with a mind to Theaetetus, I felt it difficult to buy the Revisionist position, and so it seems blog-post worthy to explain.

Let me begin by explaining what the debate actually is over.  Most who know anything about Plato’s doctrine will know that he espoused a theory of Forms, which exist in another world.  Sometimes this is even called the “two-worlds interpretation.”  The Unitarians believe that Plato maintained, from early on and to the end of his days, held that Forms and the two-worlds interpretation is the framework by which knowing is to be understood.  The revisionists maintain that Plato revised his theory of knowledge, and propose that, in such works as the Theaetetus, that theory disappears —and the revisionists want us to make the extra move of supposing that absence implies revision, by supposing that Plato is alluding to something different in the dialogue.  Like many of Plato’s dialogues, this one ends aporetically, not positing a positive theory of knowledge.  I won’t go into any particular text that argues for Revisionism, but I will explain, on a textual basis, why it is that I don’t think there is any reason to assume Plato is doing anything differently, in the abovementioned text.  More specifically, it appears to me that Plato is alluding to the Forms in the Theaetetus, which suggests to me that there is no reason to presume that Plato has anything else in mind.  I must admit, before retracing my steps in the Theaetetus with the intention of looking for substantiating portions of text corroborating the stance, I was excited about the possibility of this position, because, if one reads through the dialogues, one finds that the earlier dialogues seem to assert ideas that are more than likely Socrates’, while later dialogues, commensurate with temporal distance from Socrates’ life, seem to become, more and more, the ideas of Plato, himself.  This seems to leave some room for Plato varying earlier pieces of his theory of knowledge, supplying in its stead a truly Platonic theory of knowledge, as opposed to something, perhaps, more Socratic in nature.  Alas, I am thoroughly unconvinced.


The relevant passage is as follows:


Socrates:  It is like when Thales was doing astronomy, Theodorus; his eyes were on the stars, so he fell into a well.  Some pert minx of a Thracian slave-girl mocked him for it: “He’s so keen to know what is in the heavens,” she said, “that he has no idea what is at his feet right in front of him.”  This same mockery covers all those who spend their time on philosophy (Theaetetus, 174a4- ).

Before explaining this, we must quickly note that on 172d8 Socrates remarks on the rhetorician having to speak under time pressure.  We have, between this note and the above text, two centrally important notions, one of space and one of time.  The former notion, space, would not be nearly so obvious, if it weren’t preceded by the discussion of the rhetorician.  First, for those who haven’t so much familiarity with the text, Plato has aligned the Protagorean doctrine (“HM,” for “homomensura), that “man is the measure of all things,” with rhetoric, being that HM was (supposedly) refuted in the foregoing dialogue.  There is further discussion about rhetoric, because, man being the measure, cannot arrive at/generate/hit upon truth in a finite amount of time.  In fact, Socrates says something to the effect that the time constraint and the nature of rhetoric, such as in a law court, induces conditions that assure nothing like truth will be achieved.  Temporality is problematic to arriving at truth, if that were supposedly the way to go about coming to know things.  This leads to the much more important literary allusion pertaining to space.  Having pointed out the issue of temporality pertaining to the rhetorician, reread the above passage, and consider the literary function of ‘what is at his feet.’


I think the passage has a couple of things going on in it.  It is remarking in a similar fashion to those earlier texts, in which Plato is pointing out the not-here-not-anywhere-ness of truth.  This is literary function of ‘what is at his feet’.  Though a philosopher, we should think of Thales qua astronomer, and so his mind was fixed upon that which is not here.  The stars represent higher knowledge, the physical arrangement of things being commensurate with the metaphorical analog.  That is, the physical scale of height from earth to heavens corresponds to the vulgar “doxa” (δόξα) —i.e., “opinion,” pertaining to that which is and that which is not…something that knowledge cannot be of, since knowledge is of only what is— and the highest kind of mental content, knowledge, which also has the predicate of not-here-not-anywhere-ness.  Thales is a perfect object for this metaphor, because he is both an astronomer and philosopher, and employing him in the capacity of an astronomer in the text attunes to the unstated philosophical correlate.  It is of genuine importance, too often passed over by philosophers, to bear in mind that Plato was a poet.  It seems very, very difficult to reject this reading, especially because Plato has given no real indication in the development of his texts that a revision in his thought has occurred, which is probably the reason Aristotle understood Plato from the Unitarian standpoint.


Feel free to post your thoughts on how convincing the cited text is, as an allusion to Forms, and whatever opinion you have arrived at in your reading of the text(s).



Filed under Ancient Greek, Literature, Philosophy, Plato

4 responses to “Allusion to Forms in Plato’s Theaetetus

  1. Two nights ago I listened to Plato’s Protagoras on mp3 audio book. I wish I lived in the days where these great thinkers were the rock stars of the day. I’m grateful to have found your blog. It’s just what I was looking for.

  2. Jacob Bell

    I agree with you, David.

    I don’t think the revisionist argument holds any water. I believe the absence of Plato’s Theory of Forms in Theaetetus, as your post suggests, alludes to the Forms. I think he is refuting opposing theories of knowledge to make room for his Forms, and to show that without them, knowledge isn’t possible. The impasse acts as an aid to his theory, not a retreat of the Forms.


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