Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.08.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.08.02

David Ambuel, Turtles All the Way Down: On Plato’s 'Theaetetus', a Commentary and Translation.   Sankt Augustin:  Academia Verlag, 2015.  Pp. 315.  ISBN 9783896656407.  €29.50.  

Reviewed by Charles E. Snyder, University of Hamburg, Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies (

Table of Contents

David Ambuel’s new volume offers an extensive commentary on the Theaetetus, a full translation of the dialogue, and a generous bibliography of relevant papers and monographs in multiple languages. The volume also contains an index that locates the key philosophical terms and broad range of authors cited in the commentary and in the notes to the translation. Finally, Ambuel provides an index locorum that compiles for easy reference the passages from ancient sources discussed in the commentary.

At the outset, Ambuel will have his readers consider the search for a definition of knowledge in terms of a regress that emerges in Gargī’s search for the ultimate ground of reality in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad. This is the first of many indications that Ambuel will not want to sever epistemology from the metaphysical implications of each definition of knowledge. Gargī is one of a few woman philosophers in ancient India and, like Socrates, she brought “unwelcome attention” to a regress. Ambuel alludes to an infinite regress in the title of his volume: “turtles all the way down.” Philosophical regress emerges from an attempt to explain some posited entity by reference to some foundational entity that will in turn require yet another such entity to do the explanatory work the foundational entity was meant to do on its own. According to Ambuel, the regress finds its way into Theaetetus: “the definition of knowledge as “true opinion with a rational account” collapses into the prior definition of knowledge as “true opinion,” which collapses into the original definition of knowledge as “opinion,” which collapses into unintelligibility” (p. 198).

Ambuel argues that the argumentation collapses at each stage because of a failure to disambiguate reality from appearance. Knowledge “properly conceived” (p. 202) cannot be understood without this disambiguation, which is another way for Ambuel to say that knowledge proper cannot be defined in terms of δόξα (“belief”) plus something else. Thus the dialogue is aporetic for Ambuel, but not entirely. Ambuel qualifies the aporetic nature of the dialogue because he finds Plato signaling a double model of knowledge: a strict or proper conception, on the one hand, which repudiates the element of δόξα, and an expansive conception, on the other, which depends on δόξα. The characters do not articulate a conception of knowledge proper, though there are intimations of how the proper conception may involve an “apprehension of form and reality in itself” (p. 204) independent of δόξα. Evidently, the regress that transpires from the pursuit of a definition of knowledge proper in terms of δόξα shows us how to reconfigure a distinction between two ways in which “knowledge makes up portions of human cognitive experience.” Though knowledge proper resists definition, the expansive model does not.

The expansive model is exemplified in the dialogue by the activity of τέχνη, that is, the work of an expert. Ambuel states that τέχνη is “grounded judgment” and the expansive array of objects corresponding to this manifestation of knowing consists of forms immanent in the phenomenal subject matter of a given τέχνη. The expert’s knowledge is not propositional, at least not primarily. That which the expert knows does not consist in a set of isolated statements; the expert’s knowledge is a systematic integration of items or properties that belong to a given phenomenal subject matter. The expert integrates the items in a certain kind of know-how. Ambuel omits a corollary that must follow his distinction. If knowledge of “that which always is” must also be “inerrant” (ἀψευδές, 152c6-7), it follows that the know-how of an expert will be prone to erroneous judgment and misapplication. In short, the expert midwife like the expert physician will occasionally get things wrong.

Ambuel’s discussion of expertise raises a host of questions about Socrates’ avowed expertise (149a4, a8, 161e5, 210c4) in psychic midwifery that his commentary leaves in the wind. If τέχνη is “grounded judgment,” then what are the elements that ground the activity of Socrates’ judgments throughout the dialogue? If Ambuel has in view here the definition of knowledge given in the Meno (“true belief bound down by calculation of the cause,” 98a), it is not stated. What are the elements or “rudiments” of his τέχνη? If Socrates’ expertise entails an awareness of his ignorance, then it is difficult to see how that awareness pertains to “knowledge” in the so-called expansive sense, which we are told grasps “immanent form.” In agreement with Jörg Hardy, Ambuel contends that there is “little to be said directly” about knowledge proper, though Ambuel insists without vindication that such knowing is a necessary implication of the possibility of “grounded judgment.” That may be so. But why should this compel Ambuel to say nothing about the practical know- how of Socrates’ expertise?

Happily, Ambuel wants to step aside from a tired debate involving chronological or developmental interpretations of Plato’s metaphysics, and the role of the Theaetetus in the development of such a program. For Ambuel, the dialogue does not argue for or against a specific formulation of the theory of forms offered in other dialogues. Ambuel is courteous in merely insinuating that a chronological or developmental ordering of the Platonic corpus is a fool’s errand that reveals nothing of philosophical importance about the Theaetetus. He is correct. Ambuel admits, of course, that there is direct mention of the forms at 174b and 175c (pp. 95-103), and that these forms cohere with the epistemology and metaphysics of the Republic, but he argues that these passages are vague and metaphorical and do not distinguish forms from the perceptible objects presupposed in the three definitions of knowledge examined in Theaetetus. An ancient commentary on the Theaetetus by an anonymous Academic or Platonist (c. 50 BC – c. 150 AD) provides an explanation for the dearth of explicit argument in favor of the forms as the proper objects of knowledge: just as Socrates has his interlocutors give birth to knowledge, so does Plato compose the dialogue for his readers to give birth to knowledge (Anon. In Tht. 2.52-53.25, cf. Anon. Proleg. 10.26-33). From Ambuel’s commentary, however, one would never know of this explanation or the survival of the commentary.

Regarding translation, Ambuel usually translates δόξα as “opinion,” but his commentary unnecessarily vacillates between “opinion,” “judgment” (p. 24-5, p. 37, p. 107), and “belief” (p. 118). One might favor “opinion” because it conveys the epistemic deficiency of certain views more than its rival “judgment,” which is more or less epistemically neutral and makes δόξα seem as if it were roughly homologous with the modern notion of belief as “truth-claim.” Translators are fond of claiming that Plato’s δόξα covers “opinion,” “belief,” and “judgment” indiscriminately (cf. McDowell 1972, p. 193, Chappell 2004, p. 154 n. 124, and McDowell/Brown 2014, p. 138 and p. 154). McDowell sides with Levett’s “judgment,” and Burnyeat’s revised edition of Levett’s translation upholds this choice; but Burnyeat (p. 69) digs his heels deeper than McDowell by contending that “judgment” is preferable in translating the Theaetetus because δόξα at 187d, 187e, and 190a refers to an “act” (i.e. of judging) that occurs at a “particular place and time”, not to a continuing “state” or “disposition” of the soul. However, at 187d Socrates introduces a difficulty in relation to δόξα, in a question about the “state” of belief (τί ποτ’ ἐστὶ τοῦτο τὸ πάθος). Socrates asks: do we not on every occasion admit or say that there are such things as “false belief” and δοξάζειν ψευδῆ (“believing falsely”)? Socrates draws an equivalence here between “false belief” and “believing falsely,” but that equivalence does not leave behind the initial difficulty concerning the “state” of belief for an altogether different focus on an “act occurring at a particular place and time.” Socrates’ question suggests that “false belief” is subject to the kind of activity Socrates later explicates: the kind that results in a “determination” whether it occurs βραδύτερον εἴτε καὶ ὀξύτερον ἐπᾴξασα (“slowly or in rush towards it,” 190a3). When Socrates identifies slow or sudden determinations of the soul, he presupposes a corresponding underlying “state” or “disposition in which “the soul has or possesses” (ἔχει ψυχή, 187a5-6) a belief correctly or incorrectly.

Ultimately, “judgment” does not capture both the dispositional and active senses of δόξα in the way that “belief” naturally does, and it gives unwarranted privilege to a neutral connotation of δόξα over the deficient sense that δόξα has in nearly every other Platonic dialogue. The advantage of Ambuel’s usual rendering is that it avoids giving the act of “judgment” exclusive privilege throughout the dialogue. And yet Ambuel’s translation of 193d3 also obfuscates the dispositional sense at work in the discussion of “false belief.” Theaetetus weighs in on the preceding discussion of “belief” saying: ἔοικε γάρ, Σώκρατες. Θαυμασίως ὡς λέγεις τὸ τῆς δόξης πάθος. Here Ambuel mistranslates δόξα as “perception.” The discussion at this point is clearly concerned with the examination of Theaetetus’ second definition of knowledge (187b4) and the puzzle regarding the “state” of false belief (187d1) that Socrates introduces. At 150d1, Socrates declares himself to be οὐ πάνυ τι σοφός. Ambuel reproduces a standard English phrasing (“So I myself am not at all wise”), one which effaces the implied qualification to Socrates’ disavowal of wisdom. The anonymous commentary on Plato’s Theaetetus (55.42-5) offers a rival interpretation, which Ambuel should have taken into account. Anon. claims that Socrates’ use of the adverbial phrase indicates a qualified reference to his partial wisdom.1 The sense of 150d1 is, rather, “So I am not entirely wise.” This passage is evidence for Ambuel’s contention about a double model of knowledge in the dialogue.

Finally, Ambuel gives a dubious translation of the closing passage of the dialogue. In the commentary, Ambuel is right to point out the mistake of treating the dialogue as “pure epistemology” (p. 22). If Ambuel had consulted Sedley’s paper on the ethical aspect of the dialogue, he would have found strong support for his contention that Theaetetus is more than epistemology, and it may have led Ambuel to a better translation of Socrates’ parting words.2 At the end of the dialogue, Socrates explains that if Theaetetus should remain barren in the future, at least he will be “gentler” and “less overbearing” to those he associates with on account of not thinking that he knows what he does not know. In his commentary (p. 31), Ambuel gives one translation of an important clause at 210c3; Ambuel comments, “Socrates tells Theaetetus that, as a result of the inquiry, he will be ‘wise enough not to think you know something that you do not know’ ” (σωφρόνως οὐκ οἰόμενος εἰδεναι μὴ οἶσθα). But in the actual translation, Ambuel renders this same clause differently: Theaetetus will be “more modest for not believing yourself to know what you do not know.” One wonders why Ambuel ventures two different translations of the same line. One also wonders why Ambuel is silent about the association in meaning between the adverbial σωφρόνως and the adjective σώφρων or the noun σωφρόσυνη, which typically correspond in Plato to the virtue of “moderation,” “temperance,” or “self-control” (cf. Charmides 167a1-7).

The volume contains a steady stream of typographical errors that are minor and venial. Still, the commentary is innovative and edifying, and the translation is almost always lucid. Ambuel captures the natural flow of spoken drama, and Plato’s technical argumentation is not burdened by a determination to make his dramatis personae speak directly to the fashions of contemporary epistemologists.


1.   H. Thesleff, Studies on Intensification in Early and Classical Greek (Helsingfors: Centraltryckeriet, 1954), 76-8; J. Riddell, A Digest of Platonic Idioms (Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert, 1967), 63 (§139); D. Sedley, “Three Platonist Interpretations of the Theaetetus,” in C. Gill and M.M. McCabe (eds.), Form and Argument in Late Plato (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 79-103 at 98.
2.   D. Sedley, “Plato’s Theaetetus as an ethical dialogue,” in A. W. Nightingale and D. Sedley (eds.), Ancient Models of Mind: Studies in Human and Divine Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 64-74.

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