Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.47

Katja Maria Vogt, Belief and Truth: a Skeptic Reading of Plato.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. ix, 209.  ISBN 9780199916818.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Lloyd Gerson, University of Toronto (

The subtitle of this monograph is somewhat ambiguous and misleading. Are we to expect an account and perhaps defense of the general view expressed variously by Cicero, Sextus Empiricus, and Diogenes Laertius among others that Plato’s dialogues are in some way “undogmatic”? Or are we to expect, as perhaps suggested by the word “reading”, the author’s ahistorical argument for something that might be termed “skeptical Platonism”? I still am not sure which position Vogt delivers. For only about half the book focuses on a few of Plato’s dialogues. The other half treats some particular questions in Pyrrhonian Skeptic and Stoic epistemology. I will try to explain below how I think the author ties these two halves together.

In the lengthy introductory chapter, Vogt states that she is interested in “the Socratic side of ancient epistemology” (3). She adds: “I shall discuss Plato’s engagement with central Socratic ideas about an examined life, as well as versions of what I call Socratic epistemology, found in ancient Skeptic philosophies and in Stoic epistemology.” Vogt seems to suppose that these “Socratic ideas” are found in the dialogues; she does not purport to consider the ideas of the historical Socrates. Of course, there is a well-established interpretative tradition that holds that certain dialogues of Plato can be isolated and identified as containing Socratic ideas as opposed to Platonic ideas. These dialogues, however, are universally taken to be “early” as opposed to “middle” or “late”. They do not include, for example, Republic or Theaetetus or Philebus, all of which, nevertheless, are appealed to by Vogt as providing evidence of “Socratic epistemology”. As she proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that “Socratic epistemology” is just Platonic epistemology inspired by Socrates, although she does insist that she is aiming to articulate “the Socratic side of Plato”, “the Socratic tradition” (p.4), and “some core Socratic intuitions” (p. 9, n.18). And this is perfectly reasonable.

Somewhat more troubling is that, in trying to understand Plato’s epistemology, Vogt ignores a good deal of evidence from the dialogues. She also, specifically excludes Aristotle’s testimony (p. 13, n.29) as involving “a host of difficulties”. She does in this note say that she is not basing any of her arguments on “Aristotle’s depiction of Socrates”, though she does not offer any remarks on Aristotle’s depiction of Plato or on how Plato differed from Socrates. This testimony, however, seems relevant. At Metaphysics Alpha 6, 987a29-b1, Aristotle says that Plato “from his youth”, having been acquainted with Cratylus and the Heraclitean flux doctrine, came to the view that there was no knowledge (epistēmē) of sensibles. And Plato continued to hold this view later on. The passage continues to specify what Plato did in fact think knowledge was of, namely separate Ideas. The direct relevance of this account to Vogt’s theme is clear. If Plato’s basic epistemological position was developed “from his youth”, and was held by him afterwards, then there is no dialogue—early, middle, or late—that may be assumed to contain “Socratic epistemology” if this is supposed to be something different from the epistemology of Plato’s “two-world” metaphysics. Of course, it is possible that Aristotle’s testimony is untrustworthy. It is also possible that Plato, despite holding these views, did aim in certain dialogues to represent the views of Socrates, views other than his own. If Vogt holds either of these positions, one would have liked to have seen some argument in support of them. As it is, the Aristotelian testimony is set aside and instead we find a curious mixture of reflection on “Socratic ignorance” as a principle of a certain way of life and an attempt to explain Plato’s account of the relation between knowledge and belief (doxa). The former turns out to be illuminated by the Pyrrhonian Skeptic position on “suspension of belief” as conducive to a good or at least tranquil life, and the latter illuminated by the Stoic argument that not only is it the case that the sage alone has knowledge, but that the beliefs of everyone else cannot even be said to be properly true or false.

Vogt’s strategy, set forth in Chapter 1, is to connect Socrates’ self-professed ignorance with Plato’s denigration of belief. Thus, belief is supposed to be a sort of ignorance. Because Socrates “knows” that he is ignorant, he possesses human wisdom. What this does or ought to lead Plato to say is that, like the Skeptic, we should withhold beliefs or assent to propositions because we can never attain knowledge of these (p. 50). In order to explain why knowledge is thus unattainable, Vogt relies on what she takes to be a pervasive definition of knowledge in the early dialogues, namely, that knowledge is a technē or “expertise” and “to some extent” sophia or wisdom (p. 39). Socrates, she claims, is an expert in nothing. And yet, two pages later, she argues that “Socrates knows a number of things without being an expert in anything, and at the same time he has human wisdom” (p. 41). And then on the next page, she asserts that “Plato’s earliest (and presumably most Socratic) epistemology is conceived in terms of expertise (technē) rather than knowledge” (p. 42). I am afraid that I am unable to stitch together the above three claims in any way that makes sense. I am not clear what knowledge without expertise is taken to be if knowledge and expertise are identical. One might suppose that knowledge in the non-expert sense is a kind of belief: presumably, true belief. In Socrates’ case, it would be a true belief about our human limitations. This is, of course, a familiar explanation for the puzzle of how Socrates can be both ignorant and wise.

Vogt, however, in Chapter 2, wants to connect this account of Socratic humility with Plato’s arguments in Republic regarding belief, wishing to argue that the inferiority of belief in relation to knowledge requires us to conclude that no belief, including beliefs that may be of true propositions, is any better than Socratic ignorance. The way she does this is to argue that the beliefs of ordinary people and Socrates’ interlocutors are “without knowledge” whereas Socrates himself has “beliefs with knowledge” (pp. 65-70). The latter is evidenced in his discourse about the Idea of the Good, its “offspring” the Sun, and the Divided Line. Vogt adds, puzzlingly, that “[b]elief with knowledge may have the advantage of not even pretending to be knowledge about the Good.” It is not clear what the knowledge that goes “with” belief is supposed to be beyond, say, true beliefs about the existence of Forms. Perhaps a better example of “beliefs with knowledge” would be the beliefs of successfully trained philosophers who have gone back into the Cave and who, owing to their knowledge of Forms, have true beliefs about their instantiations.

In the third chapter, Vogt turns to Theaetetus to build on her case regarding the deficiencies of belief. She aims to deploy a Stoic reading of the second part of that dialogue, the part in which Socrates and Theaetetus examine the definition of knowledge as true belief. Vogt argues that this part is actually intended to show that the difference between true and false belief is much less significant that it is usually taken to be by readers of the dialogue. In fact, the refutation of the view that knowledge is true belief shows that belief cannot be accounted for at all (p. 86). What this seems to mean is that if true belief is not knowledge, then the difference between true belief and false belief is, properly, effaced. Denying that true belief is knowledge leaves no room for thinking that the difference between false belief and true belief is that the first does not attain to the truth while the second does. This seems to me to be confused on several grounds. First, the refutation of the definition of true belief as knowledge actually shows that false belief would not be possible if true belief were knowledge. Since false belief is possible, true belief cannot be knowledge. The concluding example of the difference between the jury and the eyewitness simply takes this refutation for granted. Second, the fact that true belief is not knowledge still leaves open the possibility that there should be a significant distinction between true and false belief: for example, the distinction that gives point to the arduous pursuit of knowledge for philosophers living in this world of belief.

The remainder of the book (chs. 4-8) turns first to a Pyrrhonian Skeptic reading of that part of Theaetetus in which the relativism of Protagoras is attacked. Vogt argues that the Pyrrhonian Skeptic position of Sextus Empiricus can be read as rejecting the quasi-skepticism implicit in Protagoras’ relativism. She thereby seeks to associate the Skeptic claim that we should suspend belief regarding those matters which we cannot know with her interpretation of Theaetetus as maintaining the deficiency and even undesirability of beliefs, including putatively true ones. She argues next (ch. 5) that the Skeptic’s denial that they or anyone else have discovered the truth about anything does not thereby preclude a respect for the value of truth (p. 119). The latter is crucial for the investigative stance of Skeptics: if they did not value truth in some way, they could not even be said to be skeptikoi (“investigators”). Vogt, having already renounced any interest in Aristotle’s testimony, tries to associate Plato with this Skeptic attitude (p. 122). Plato, she suggests, explores various metaphysical (and epistemological?) theories without ever “fully formulating” any specific version of these. It is not clear, though, why, if Plato did not fully formulate a particular theory, this would entail that he did not believe that he had attained at least some true beliefs, counter to what the Skeptics claim is possible. Chapter 6 is a defense against the charge made in antiquity against Skeptics that if they employ concepts in their skeptical arguments they, too, must have beliefs, especially beliefs about how their concepts are to be deployed. Her defense is a version of the standard one that concept acquisition is a natural process bereft of anything like assent to the truth of any proposition. Chapter 7 offers an account of Stoic epistemology with the aim of showing that the claim that only the sage has knowledge whereas everyone else has mere belief should be understood as a normative statement about the withholding of assent to propositions if they are not known to be true. Thus a “non-sage” or a fool should, like the Skeptic, decline to assent to anything that he does not know to be true. Further, since belief is the provenance of the fool alone, the sage will have no beliefs. Only he will know that the propositions to which he gives assent are true. And he will only know this, not believe it (p. 178). The brief concluding chapter brings together the reading of the dialogues and the accounts of Skeptic and Stoic reflections on belief. Pyrrhonian Skepticism is a “cousin of the relativism as construed in Plato’s Theaetetus” (p. 184), the relativism being a function of our natural dispositions, while the Skepticism is a manifestation of “Socratic caution” about forming beliefs without knowledge (p. 189). I think it bears noting that Vogt might have here profitably turned her attention to Academic Skepticism, especially that of Carneades, who did want to erect criteria of rational belief without the presence of knowledge. If the title “Academic” indicates any fidelity to Plato at all, it would seem that the Pyrrhonian interpretation of Plato’s view of belief could be challenged.

Vogt’s highly speculative “reading” seems to me to be a good deal more successful as a collection of shrewd observations about the underlying similarity of Skeptic and Stoic epistemology than it does as an interpretation of Plato or even of the “Socratic” philosophy in Plato. It is well to be reminded that Hellenistic philosophers generally did not mind at all basking in Plato’s authority, justifiably or not.

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