Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.04.06


Rosemary Desjardins, The Rational Enterprise: Logos in Plato's Theaetetus. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. Pp. x, 275. ISBN 0-88706-837-5 (hb). 0-88706-838-3 (pb).


Reviewed by Stephen G. Salkever, Bryn Mawr College.

The puzzle of the Theaetetus is that in spite of its length and its elaborate and technical discussion of philosophic matters, the dialogue is, in substance, as aporetic as the presumably earlier and simpler "Socratic" dialogues. Three definitions of episteme are proposed (knowledge is perception, true opinion, and finally doxa alethes meta logou), but all are shown by Socrates to be unsatisfactory. In the end, we are apparently left with no resolution to the epistemological question that opens the dialogue.

Rosemary Desjardins argues boldly and brilliantly that the Theaetetus contains not only an answer to the question of the character of knowledge, but considerably more besides -- an outline of a Platonic ontology. That ontology is neither materialist nor idealist (it is not a theory of forms), but like the twentieth century theory known as generative emergence holds that beings are particular interactive combinations of material elements. On this view, while wholes (for example, words, to use a Platonic model) may be analyzed into their elemental parts (letters), each whole has a property or quality separate from the aggregated properties of its parts. Wholes differ from piles of elements in having an irreducible and independent power of their own, even though they are in one sense (the sense of material composition or cause) nothing but their parts. "Dog" both is and is not "d" and "o" and "g." Similarly, on Desjardins' reading, the Theaetetus teaches that the formula doxa alethes meta logou is both true and false (10), depending on how it is read: false, if taken to imply that logos is an additive combination or pile of true opinions, but true if taken to imply that a logos is a set of opinions combined in some other way than mere addition so as to produce or generate a discourse with new powers of its own.

I cannot begin to summarize or assess the intricate argument Desjardins makes for her genuinely innovative reading. I found it mostly quite plausible, but this is something for each reader to judge; if you are careful to have your Theaetetus at hand and nothing much else on your mind, I think that you will find the process of forming such judgments very satisfying. This is an unusually exhilarating and demanding book, clearly the product of long reflection, and one that will amply reward careful reading.

In addition to Desjardins' central thesis, there are a number of important suggestions here. First among them is her claim that "the problem involved in understanding just what any statement or formula means is one that is absolutely central to Plato's whole philosophical enterprise. All philosophical formulas -- and most particularly those representing hard-core Platonic doctrine [e.g., knowledge=true opinion meta logou] -- are one and all subject to inadequate or false, as well as adequate or true, interpretations" (6). Having established the essentially problematic quality of philosophic discourse as a central Platonic theme (and not simply a modest Socratic disclaimer), Desjardins is then in a position to read Socrates' ways of causing aporia and subjecting his interlocutors to elenchus, in the Theaetetus and elsewhere, as positive steps toward philosophizing. Her thought here is that aporia and refutative cross-examination serve to purify ambiguous formulations by excluding false or misleading interpretations and opening the path to truer ones (85). One by-product of this line of interpretive argument is to suggest strongly that the modern habit of separating the dialogues into (early and aporetic) Socratic and (later and doctrinal) Platonic ones makes very little sense.

The evidence for her interpretation is drawn entirely from a close reading of the Theaetetus, illuminated by frequent glances at other dialogues whose connections with the Theaetetus Desjardins attempts to show -- the Sophist and the Statesman, of course, but also the Meno and especially the Philebus. There is thus absolutely no reliance here on any supposed secret unwritten teaching that might be reconstructed from ancient reports (224, n.2). Her reading pays careful attention both to discursive argument and to imagery, to both logical and dramatic features of the dialogue. The self-presentation of Socrates as matchmaker-midwife is shown to reinforce her attribution of emergentism to Plato, as are the images of the wax block and the aviary. The most strikingly successful result of her refusal to abstract arguments from their dramatic setting is the connection she develops between the examples of mathematical inquiry in the dialogue, usually dismissed by philosophic commentators of the analytic persuasion as confused or irrelevant, and the explicit discussion of the nature of knowledge. What is especially noteworthy here is that Desjardins' careful reading of Theaetetus on surds and Socrates on dice stresses the positive way mathematical discourse opens avenues for philosophic inquiry, rather than (as in Benardete's recent commentary) stressing the limits or eventual futility of mathematics.

Desjardins' Plato is decidedly closer in style and content to Heraclitus than to Parmenides, and he shares with Aristotle the sense that one important way of conceiving the task of philosophy is to picture it as finding a way of avoiding simple but false dichotomies, eristic disjunctions such as the propositions that everything must be either in motion or at rest, or either knowable or not, or either entirely the same or entirely other. Speaking of the view of logos that Socrates, toward the end of the Theaetetus, reports having grasped in a dream -- the idea that the ousia of logos is the sumploke of names -- Desjardins comments: "Far from being impaled on the horns of a dilemma, the dream theory (to use Plato's colorful imagery) allows us to slip through between both at once (Sophist, 251a1-3). Like the Minoan bull dancers who, grasping both horns at once, soar exquisitely into escape beyond them, so in the dream theory, grasping both disjuncts at once, we similarly soar to escape beyond reach of the reductio" (157).

This colorful and cheering image is, as far as Desjardins' own style of composition goes, the exception rather than the rule. Far from being fanciful and allusive, her prose is frequently schematic, with lists of points and diagrams of arguments often employed as supplements. Some of the diagrams are particularly useful for sharpening Desjardins' claims about the pattern of Socratic argument, particularly her diagram of the contrast between Meno's paradox, which Socrates calls an eristic logos, and an implicit Socratic response which would qualify as dialectical (94).

For the most part her writing is of striking clarity, so that The Rational Enterprise presents itself as a series of arguments to be accepted, rejected, or revised on the basis of the reader's own construal of the Platonic text, rather than relying for its persuasive force on the deployment of a special critical vocabulary intelligible only to the initiated, a practice regrettably common within all the current warring schools of Plato scholarship.

In the case of a book as comprehensive and innovative as this one, every reader will have some doubts and worries. I have three I think worth noting: 1) While Desjardins' ontology of generative emergence is much closer to Plato's texts than the orthodox neo-Platonic invention of a Platonic "theory of forms," an expression Plato himself never uses, she sometimes seems to claim too much for her ontology, to erect a systematizing reading of Plato which might undermine the essential ambiguity of the texts she wants to maintain. Still, her argument is most of the time quite open to competing interpretations, as shown in her wide-ranging and thoughtful discussions in the footnotes. But I wonder whether she attributes to Plato's Socrates so strong a commitment to a particular doctrine that it might seem to undermine the Socratic distinction between human and divine wisdom, or between philosophia and sophia. 2) The current philosophical status of emergentism needs to be clarified -- what is assumed and what implied by the view that there are wholes whose properties are essentially irreducible to the sum of their parts? Is there, as there seems to be, a relationship between the ontological view Desjardins attributes to the Platonic Socrates -- "The arising of radical novelty out of previously present elements" (40) -- and present-day ideas of chaotic systems and strange attractors, which hold that certain systems of events are both entirely orderly and entirely unpredictable? 3) What is the relationship between Desjardins' Plato and Aristotelian metaphysics? They seem quite close, but she is notably reticent about comparing the two, perhaps out of a wish to avoid appearing to read Aristotle into Plato. But since, for Aristotle, being is a matter of potential stuff becoming actualized in a determinate manner, the resemblance between his ontology and Desjardins' view of Plato is striking. Would Desjardins agree with Hans-Georg Gadamer's thought (The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, pp. 114-115) that Aristotle in effect transforms Plato's "mythical metaphors" into a language of "concepts"?

The text of The Rational Enterprise is supplemented by an epilogue and several appendices clarifying the mathematical examples in the Theaetetus (one typographical error here may cause confusion: on p. 175, the second half of the formula representing the divided line in the Republic should read A + B : C + D, not A + B = C + D), and discussing the concept of emergence in twentieth century philosophy with an eye to justifying its use in Plato interpretation. There are as well extensive and interesting notes dealing with recent interpretive debates, and a lengthy and helpful bibliography. The Rational Enterprise is a gift to anyone who loves reading and discussing Plato.