Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.23

Jörg Hardy, Platons Theorie des Wissens im Theaitet.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2001.  Pp. 326.  ISBN 3-525-25225-0.  DM 98.00.  

Reviewed by Zina Giannopoulou, Philosophy and Classics, University of Redlands (
Word count: 2661 words

Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht continues its Hypomnemata: Untersuchungen zur Antike und zu ihrem Nachleben series with Jörg Hardy's detailed commentary on Plato's Theaetetus. In the last twenty years the dialogue has received some excellent comprehensive treatments, most of which betray the overtly philosophical preoccupations of their authors. One need only think, for example, of J. McDowell's illuminating, albeit rather perfunctory, analysis and D. Bostock's broadly systematic interpretation of the dialogue's thorniest epistemological concerns. On the other hand, such contributions as M. Burnyeat's masterful explication of Theaetetus' arguments in light of ancient and contemporary philosophical works and R. Polansky's penetrating interpretation, though philosophically oriented, exhibit at the same time an almost timid awareness of important literary issues.1 Hardy's work belongs decidedly to the strictly 'philosophic circle,' a fact which in and of itself can prove quite problematic.

An expansion of a 1997 Münster dissertation, the commentary consists of an introduction, four chapters -- which correspond to the four sections of the dialogue that explore four possible definitions of knowledge, namely arts and sciences (143d-151d), perception (151e-187a), true opinion (187b-201c), and true opinion with an account/logos (201d-210a) -- , a summary of the commentator's main observations, and an epilogue. A fairly comprehensive bibliography and two indices conclude Hardy's book. The author's main thesis is that knowledge, as depicted in Theaetetus, takes on two distinct but potentially complementary aspects: (i) mastery of the epistemic capabilities useful for knowing specific things. These capabilities engender 'specific forms of sufficient explanations, both in the area of ordinary knowledge, for which correct opinions are characteristic, and in the area of scientific knowledge, for which expert explanations are characteristic' (303-4). And (ii) the ability to provide an answer to the 'What is F?' question, where 'knowledge' stands for 'F.' Hardy contends that in Theaetetus the interlocutors' attempts to comprehend the semantic content of epistêmê, though definitionally unsuccessful, enable them to become aware of the difficulties entailed by the process of providing a Socratically acceptable logos of knowledge. The circularity of the dialogue's conclusion, whereby knowledge emerges as correct opinion of x bound with an account of x, precludes, according to Hardy, only the stipulation of a general criterion of knowledge; such a definition, however, is still valid for specific cases of knowledge, namely ordinary and scientific knowledge. The way in which the appropriate function of an account in these specific epistemic cases leads to the formation of correct opinion affords an initial, successful understanding of the concept of knowledge. Such a positive reading of the dialogue effectively clashes with the negative assessment of it put forth by the 'Cornford school,' according to which the aporetic character of Theaetetus simply foregrounds the essential epistemic role of the Forms.

In the Introduction, Hardy suggests that in Theaetetus Socrates employs the method of 'solving problems through an analysis of errors' (Problemlösung durch Fehleranalyse) -- henceforth 'PdF' -- both as a heuristic procedure, in the sense that he consistently appeals to it, and as a hermeneutic principle, in the sense that it is important for interpreting the dialogue as a whole. He correctly points out that PdF should be viewed as an essential correlate of Socratic midwifery, since the latter leads to a purification from false beliefs, which thwart knowledge, and facilitates the formation of correct opinions. Perhaps the most intriguing element of the introduction is Hardy's contention that the dialogue concerns itself with issues of philosophy of language: by examining dialectically the various meanings of perception, true judgment and true judgment accompanied by logos, the interlocutors are able to reflect about the 'thing itself' which stands behind its linguistic appellation. Regrettably, however, Hardy nowhere explores in detail the fascinating repercussions of this position. For instance, what are the ways in which the interlocutors in Theaetetus (or we, as readers of the dialogue) are able to reflect about 'reality' both as conveyed by language and as an entity outside of the linguistic medium? Can there be a conflict between linguistic usage and object of reference?

The first chapter, which deals with the opening discussion regarding the definition of knowledge as 'arts and sciences,' provides, according to Hardy, a general understanding of the goal of the conversation and its methodological approach. The author claims that, unlike earlier dialogues in which the goal is to answer the question, 'What is F?' in order to evaluate various assertions which employ the predicate 'F,' in Theaetetus the aim is to arrive at a definition of 'F' itself. This methodological principle is manifest in Socrates' separation of the various arts, which Theaetetus supplies as examples of knowledge, from epistêmê proper: the former correspond to fact-related skills, whereas the latter requires explicit, grounded knowledge which is essentially connected with the ability to give an account of the thing itself. Hardy provides a meticulous reading of Theaetetus' first, rather unsophisticated, attempt to define knowledge. For the important section on midwifery, however, we find a mere three-page exposition which mostly summarizes it. Given the importance which Hardy himself attributes to the role of Socrates as midwife of the intellect, the passage receives a surprisingly scanty treatment. One is left wondering, for example, why Socrates points out the differences between himself and the sophists or what the possible connections are between the historical and the fictional Socrates as suggested in the midwife passage.2 The book's perfunctory treatment of this section leaves out potentially insightful readings of one of the most important images of the entire dialogue.

In the second chapter, Hardy turns to the examination of Theaetetus' lengthiest definition of knowledge, namely knowledge as perception. Here one sees the book's most striking qualities but also its most glaring defects. Hardy provides a detailed, systematic analysis of Protagoras' man-as-measure doctrine, Heraclitus' flux theory, and the so-called 'interaction model,' and carefully maps out the logical relations that obtain among them. My only complaint in this regard is that, in analyzing the 'interaction model,' the author fails to distinguish between the 'color theory' and the 'kompsoteros theory' and treats them as strictly complementary. Such an approach, although not erroneous in its general conception, fails to explore the argumentative nuances which enable Socrates to move from the Heraclitean, moderately fluxist world to a world in which things are conceptualized as paired motions, causally interdependent and solely emerging in particular perceptual events.

One of the most salient points of the chapter is Hardy's observation that the aim of the so-called 'exquisite argument' is to demonstrate that Protagorean relativism is a solipsistic theory which does away with the possibility for dialogic exchange (93, 96). This is, however, far from being a novel interpretation: R. Ketchum has already advanced the same position, but Hardy strangely fails to acknowledge it, although Ketchum's article figures in his bibliography.3 Unfortunately, this is not the only instance of Hardy's rather odd lack of engagement with scholarship. Throughout his book, but especially in the second chapter, which concerns epistemological issues that have attracted a plethora of extremely valuable insights, Hardy refrains from stating -- let alone arguing for or against -- other interpretations. For example, his treatment of Socrates' final refutation of Theaetetus' phenomenological definition of knowledge is highly indebted to Burnyeat's reading of the same passage, but Hardy fails to indicate the precise extent of this debt. In this regard, I would also welcome his view of -- and positioning within -- the recent debate between Burnyeat and Fine concerning the nature of Protagorean epistemology.4

Matters get worse when one moves away from this section's purely philosophical elements and into its immensely rewarding literary aspects. Hardy' treatment of the apology of Protagoras redivivus at 166a-168c is rather superficial. Although he does a good job of pointing out the differences between Socratic dialectic and sophistic eristic, as they emerge from Protagoras' own emphasis on the wise person's ability to better one's hexeis, he refrains from commenting on the self-condemning character of this fictional apology. The ghost of Protagoras, for instance, blames Socrates and his interlocutors for misconstruing his dictum because he himself, qua author, is not present to defend his intellectual offspring against unfair attacks. Hardy nowhere examines the self-undermining nature of the sophist's complaint: if the only authoritative explanation of a theory is that of its author and all non-authorial interpretations are at best approximations to truth, how cogent is the homo-mensura doctrine which pronounces all opinions unobjectionably veridical for those who hold them? Moreover, given the radically fluxist ontological underpinnings of Protagorean relativism, which Hardy describes in detail, how can Protagoras speak legitimately of the necessity for opinion-agreement among author and other interpreters of his dictum? Similar complaints can be advanced regarding Hardy's treatment of Socrates' arguments against Protagorean relativism, especially in their connection to the future. The author does not discuss the relevance between, on the one hand, Socrates' reasoning for establishing that present predictions about the future necessarily entail an objective understanding of truth and, on the other hand, the Protagorean conceptualization of sophia against which it is aimed: given the extreme Heraclitean flux, which Hardy endorses as the ontological foundation of Protagorean epistemology, is Socrates entitled to conceive of time as an uninterrupted continuum, amenable to comparisons? Additionally, and within the same framework, is the person for whom the prediction is made in the present, the same as the one who will eventually evaluate it in the future? These are only a few of many similar objections that one could mount against Hardy's mostly perfunctory reading of this section of the dialogue.

The third chapter is devoted to the analysis of the conceptual and logical presuppositions of Theaetetus' definition of knowledge as true opinion. Hardy's thesis, rather naïve in my opinion, is that the exploration of the epistemological implications of the equation of epistêmê with alêthês doxa will unavoidably lead the participants to the realization that knowledge is different from true opinion and subsequently to a further exploration of the various forms of knowledge. As Hardy contends, the method used by Socrates and Theaetetus in this second systematic endeavor to discover the essence of knowledge will reveal "the notional implications of 'correct opinion' as the first requirement for the sought-after knowledge" (161).

Hardy goes through the various sections of this definition systematically and admirably explains the often convoluted Socratic arguments to be found therein. Still, one would hope for a greater sensitivity to the means of contextualizing this definition in the broader dialogic endeavor. For example, could one view Socrates' failed attempt to locate false opinion in the realm of 'non-being' -- and, by implication, his ex silentio avowal that pseudês doxa can be associated with 'being' -- in light of Protagoras' earlier adamant connection of doxastic veridicality with the world of 'being'? Moreover, Hardy's treatment provides a somewhat cursory analysis of the prominent allodoxia model, namely the idea that a false opinion arises through mistakenly exchanging one thing for another, though both are 'things which are.' In such hastiness it is not surprising that he fails to investigate the possible reasons for Socrates' employment of the highly paradoxical suggestion that 'beautiful is ugly' in his attempt to point out the implausibility of the model.

Similarly, Hardy nowhere inquires into Socrates' well-known representation of judgment as 'speech': what is the point which the metaphor of inner assertion helps to bring out? In analyzing the Waxen Tablet metaphor, he correctly points out that the benefit of the imagery lies in the differentiation it provides between perception and memory as two independent ways of coming into contact with the object of judgment (185). But, once again, the author skirts an important issue which, paradoxically, he himself raises: if erroneous perception is responsible for the fallacious alignment of the perceptual stimulus with its stored representation, why does Socrates fail to address the passive role played by the memorized impression? The obvious limitations of the Waxen Tablet device notwithstanding -- limitations which necessitate the appearance of the Aviary -- , one requires an explanation as to why Socrates dismisses altogether the possibility of locating false judgment in the misapplication of thought to perception without faulting the relevant thought-process.

Finally, Hardy's treatment of the Aviary Model provides an elucidating discussion of the semantic distinction between, on the one hand, the 'possession of knowledge' and, on the other hand, the 'having of knowledge.' His comments rely heavily on existing bibliography on the metaphor but, again, Hardy refrains from undertaking a fruitful dialogue with other scholars. Such an attitude ends up undermining the depth of his discussion, for while his analysis of the metaphor enables the reader to understand the text, it does not lead to thought-provoking observations on some of its most intriguing elements. I would welcome, for example, a sustained probing into the nature of the paradox '11 is 12': if, when I am faced with the question, 'what is 7+5,' I am looking for the bird-knowledge '12,' but I actually catch the bird-knowledge '11,' how can I fail to recognize that what I have caught is not the number I am looking for? This is a fascinating topic but, sadly enough, Hardy's discussion is more of a detailed and at times repetitive analysis of what the text says, rather than of what the text means.

Many of the above-mentioned weaknesses are no longer present in the last chapter whose structure and argumentative value are indeed exemplary. Hardy offers a stimulating discussion of the intricacies of Theaetetus' fourth definition of knowledge as 'true opinion accompanied by logos,' especially in its connection with simple and complex structures, names and elements, and the three-fold definition of 'account' which Socrates provides, namely as a statement that verbalizes one's judgment about something, as an enumeration of all the elements of something, and as a means of differentiating it from other things. On numerous occasions the author supplies illuminating conceptual links between the arguments pursued in this part of Theaetetus and in the sections that precede and thereby allows the dialogue to emerge as an interconnected whole whose various parts play a distinctly significant role in Theaetetus' philosophical development. But again, Hardy's silence regarding scholarly contributions to this extremely challenging section of the dialogue considerably detracts from the merit of his painstaking analysis. One finds scattered throughout the chapter positions already advanced by others, most often without an explicit reference to their source. Another important omission, in my opinon, is treatment of Theaetetus' many conceptual relations with other Platonic works, most notably Cratylus, Sophist, and Philebus: if Theaetetus paves the way to a better understanding of the difficulties involved in defining epistêmê, as Hardy himself acknowledges, in what ways can its arguments either foreshadow or be implemented by Plato's epistemological discourse elsewhere? On the literary merits of this part of the dialogue, Hardy is strangely silent: virtually nothing is made of the fact that Theaetetus' definition of epistêmê as true opinion accompanied by logos is essentially someone else's logos which he, Theaetetus, has once heard. In addition, Socrates' explanatory theory of this reported opinion is similarly attributed to an unknown source and is cast in the nebulous and epistemically discreditable world of dreams. What are the implications of these strange specifications for understanding the definition as a whole?

Our discussion should have indicated that Hardy's book is not a contribution to scholarship in the sense that might be expected: it does not really afford totally new interpretations of the dialogue's arguments or take up some standard views and then argue for or against them to win final acceptance. From this point of view, then, the work is rather disappointing. Moreover it leaves important literary issues completely unexamined and thus fails to improve our understanding of a relatively unexplored territory in Theaetetean scholarship. The author's analysis, however, is lucid and informative and his presentation of the dialogue's occasionally baffling arguments is commendable. Given the lack of any recent comprehensive German commentary on the dialogue, Hardy's study will be of utmost importance primarily for the German reader who wishes to gain a good grasp of the important epistemological issues tackled in Theaetetus.


1.   See J. McDowell, Plato's Theaetetus, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973; D. Bostock, Plato's Theaetetus, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988; M Burnyeat, The Theaetetus of Plato, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1990; R. Polansky, Philosophy and Knowledge: A Commentary on Plato's Theaetetus: London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1992.
2.   Among various treatments of the midwifery analogy see especially M.F. Burnyeat, "Socratic Midwifery, Platonic Inspiration." Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 24 (1977): 7-16; D. Sider, "Did Socrates call himself a Midwife? The evidence of the Clouds." In The Philosophy of Socrates, ed. K.J. Boudouris, 333-8. Athens, 1991; H. Tarrant, "Midwifery and the Clouds." Classical Quarterly 82 (1988): 118-122 and J. Tomin, "Socratic Midwifery." Classical Quarterly 81 (1987): 97-102.
3.   R.J. Ketchum, "Plato's Refutation of Protagorean Relativism," Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 10 (1992): 73-105. Hardy mentions the article on p. 87 n. 2 but in relation to the validity of Socrates' dropping the qualifying phrase 'for x' in reporting the Protagorean dictum.
4.   Although both authors have repeatedly stated their interpretations, the matter is still far from being settled and would have greatly benefited from a fresh approach. On this issue see M.F. Burnyeat, "Conflicting Appearances," Proceedings of the British Academy 65 (1979): 69-111 and "Idealism and Greek Philosophy: What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed," Philosophical Review 90 (1982): 3-40. For Fine's views see "Protagorean Relativisms," Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 10 (1994): 211-43 and "Conflicting Appearances: Theaetetus 153d-154b." In Form and Argument in Late Plato, ed. C. Gill and M.M. McCabe, 105-33. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

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