BMCR 2003.10.14

Procedure e verità in Platone (Menone, Cratilo, Repubblica). Elenchos, vol. 38

, Procedure e verità in Platone : Menone, Cratilo, Repubblica. Elenchos ; 38. Napoli: Bibliopolis, 2002. 279 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 8870884120. EUR 30.00.

Procedure e Verità in Platone (hereafter PVP) is a very enjoyable book whose contents are lucid and well-supported by accurate readings of Plato’s text. Francesco Aronadio (hereafter FA) tackles the complex and much discussed topic of the different kinds of knowledge according to Plato and the way these are linguistically expressed by focusing on the Meno and the Cratylus in detail and, in the last chapter, on the central books of the Republic. FA explicitly declares that he will not follow the current debate on the propositional character of knowledge for Plato. In the conviction that Plato does not consider knowledge as the activity of a subject but fundamentally as a relation between reality and humans beings, FA places at the origin of the distinction between the different kinds of knowledge the divide between a direct apprehension of the object and the so-called procedural knowledges. Procedural knowledges offer the instruments for individuating and dealing with the object under investigation and, as such, function as an intermediate between things and human beings (thus see the role of the different technai and the Socratic method of definition). Yet FA’s main claim is that Plato thought of real knowledge as the experience resulting from a direct relationship with the object itself. Thus kinds of knowledge that filter reality by means of their respective instruments are to be considered inferior and less reliable. In light of this, FA’s second main claim is that in Plato’s system the process of knowing an object has the character of a relationship that is intentional, in other words it appears as a movement between two terms (the objects of reality and human beings) that have always been naturally linked. The choice of focusing in detail only on the Meno and the Cratylus is justified by the fact that, according to FA, these two dialogues give the most straightforward account of the nature and significance of the different procedures of knowledge. Moreover, they emphasise a link between the procedures of knowledge and the reality of the onta that will later constitute the core of the issue on knowledge in the Republic.

PVP presents a very useful introduction describing the work, which is divided into four well balanced and clearly structured chapters followed by a bibliography and indices (locorum and general).

In Chapter one, entitled “Questioni procedurali nel Menone“, FA discusses aspects concerning the procedures of knowledge in the Meno, and reads section 70a-79e of the dialogue as containing an analysis of the possible answers to the Socratic question “what is x?”. For the author this question indicates some of the characteristics of its answer. In particular, it asks the interlocutor to individuate a common ground that can be used to understand a multiplicity of occurrences of x. FA calls this way of explicating the essence of the Socratic question the correct ὅτι. In opposition to the correct ὅτι, FA underlines in the Meno the incorrect ὅτι that is a procedure that is oriented not to the essence, but to a ὁποῖον of the object under investigation and, as such, impedes an adequate development of the question. By relating the x only to the reality as revealed by the senses, the incorrect ὅτι produces a multiplicity of answers that cannot be traced back to any systematic unity. Finally, FA discusses the partial ὅτι which is intrinsically linked to the empirical dimension of the objects but individuates by inductive reasoning a way of being of an εἶδος. FA concludes the chapter by stressing that ultimately even the correct ὅτι should not be intended as an answer to the question “what is x?”. It simply draws attention to the formal aspect of the answer. Here the failure of all the procedures of knowledge introduces in the Meno the issue of the extra-procedural foundation of knowledge.

In Meno 98b 1-5 Socrates claims to know that there is a difference between correct opinion ( ὀρθὴ δόξα) and science. According to FA this passage deserves further investigation insofar as it could help in understanding Plato’s development of a criterion for formulating and evaluating the procedures of knowledge. Thus chapter two of PVP, entitled ” ὀρθότης e ἀλήθεια nel Menone e nel Cratilo“, focuses on the context where Socrates’ claim occurs in the Meno, and on what appears as an effect of that claim in the Cratylus. After remarking that between science and correct opinion there is no difference in terms of truth, FA explains that what really distinguishes the two forms of knowledge is the stability of the former. In order for opinions to become science, they have to be linked by means of a reasoning that gives the cause. Here two different procedures are analysed. In Meno 98a Socrates identifies the process that reveals the cause of something by reminiscence. This leads FA to conclude that the repetition of questions at the basis of the process of reminiscence in the passage of the slave is actually one of the procedures to make opinions science. It is a procedure that helps individuals to waken a knowledge that is already placed inside them, and to move from incorrect opinions to correct ones. The episode of the road to Larissa in Meno 97a-c reveals in its turn an immediate relationship between the person who knows and the thing known. It shows that it is possible to have a correct opinion that, without becoming science, is efficacious on an operative level. Since there is no link that connects opinions, however, opinions themselves are unstable and, as such, can be true as well as false. In the second part of the chapter the focus shifts to the nature of names in the Cratylus. In the dialogue names are seen as instruments that are useful for different purposes. According to FA, names are constructed by legislators and used by dialecticians. The legislator has given a model to transpose into those sounds and letters that he considers to be adequate (thus names have different degrees of correctness). The dialectician, however, has to find out if in a given sequence of letters there is an εἶδος. In light of this, FA points out that while the knowledge possessed by the legislator is typically procedural and based on linguistic competence, the dialectician must have a non-linguistic knowledge that allows him to evaluate the efficacy of the linguistic structure. When the legislator exceeds the limits of his competence and tries to interpret reality, errors and misunderstanding arise. Language, in fact, although it can work on a communicative and pragmatic level, is not sufficient to know reality. To do so, it has to be supported by a non-procedural knowledge.

Chapter three of PVP, entitled “Oltre le procedure: la δήλωσις nel Cratilo“, concentrates in more detail on the nature of the relationship between names and things as found in the Cratylus. As FA claims, language cannot be used as a procedure for knowing reality, and the main reason for it is that names are ultimately different from things. The εἶδος of a name does not correspond to the thing named, but rather it is a set of linguistic characteristics that make this useful to denote reality. By investigating whether it is possible to explain the link between names and things as an expression of μίμησις, FA demonstrates that names cannot imitate reality. Names could have some elements of similarity with the objects they name, for example the ρ in σκληρότης could resemble the concept of ‘hardness’. Yet, this partial resemblance only leads people to interpret the meaning of names in completely opposite ways according to what elements individuals consider to be similar to the things under investigation. What is then the δύναμις of names? Socrates and Cratylus agree that names are tools for teaching as well as for distinguishing things. In FA’s interpretation, names cut the continuum of reality according to the way reality is structured. This way of proceeding implies the fundamental existence of a true reality that is independent from humans’ will. It is exactly the recognition of this reality that justifies the capacity names have to δηλοῦν reality. In the second part of this chapter FA illustrates what the function of δηλοῦν implies. His main claim is that names are useful to communicate how speakers understand a certain reality. Thus, speakers’ understanding becomes the fundamental element that activates the δήλωσις of names. In answer to the question how this understanding could be verified, FA highlights the importance of the διανοεῖσθαι, to be intended as an individual and internal search for truth. Names do call the attention to a certain way of reading reality. But in order to read reality correctly, and understand things for what they are, it is necessary to presuppose an extra-linguistic knowledge.

In chapter four of PVP, entitled “Il sapere diretto: συγγένεια e νοῦς” FA answers some of the issues arising from the analysis of the previous chapters by focusing on the central books of the Republic. In particular, the author sheds light on what the different procedures of knowledge have in common. He discusses the ontological framework basic to Plato’s conception of epistemology, explaining differences and similarities between procedural and direct knowledge. Knowledge is always knowledge of something. Consequently, the process of knowing is not the activity of a subject who knows, but an intentional relationship that has a certain direction. Knowledge does not develop from the subject to the object. But, since the ontological dimension precedes the gnoseological one, as FA illustrates by looking at Republic 477a-480a, the object to be known becomes the point of departure for the achievement of knowledge. Another characteristic stressed by FA is that the best form of knowledge has to be straightforward. Its relationship with the object has to be direct, and not mediated by digressions that would simply increase the risk of making mistakes. Thus, νόησις, as intuitive knowledge, becomes the highest form of knowledge. As for the ontological framework behind Plato’s understanding of knowledge, FA underlines the key concept of συγγένεια : the soul of the philosopher and truth are closely akin for they come from a common matrix. This similarity is the basis of the system of human education, and the programme designed in book seven of the Republic exactly specifies what disciplines and strategies can help the soul re-discover its natural predisposition and know the truth. If this picture underlines the limits of procedural knowledge lacking as it does stability, necessity and autonomy, FA remarks that for Plato the technai do have some positive characteristics. In particular, they can transform, re-invent and construct the reality of the νόμος that is parallel to that of the φύσις.

Although FA’s emphasis on the non-propositional character of knowledge for Plato is not as new as the author would seem to claim in the introduction of PVP, the book offers a thorough and inspiring clarification of some of the fundamental aspects of the link between ontological and gnoseo-epistemological implications in Plato’s system. The book is designed for professional scholars, but its clear style makes it accessible also to the advanced student of ancient philosophy.