BMCR 2005.10.40

Reading Plato’s Theaetetus

, Reading Plato's Theaetetus. Plato. Theaetetus.. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co, 2005. 246 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0872207609 $16.95 (pb).

Timothy Chappell’s Reading Plato’s Theaetetus offers a translation of the Theaetetus, presented in small chunks of text preceded by a summary and followed by in-depth analysis of the passages. The text would be an excellent companion to an upper-level undergraduate course or graduate course on the Theaetetus, and is an invaluable resource for anyone working in this range of Plato’s dialogues. Because of Chappell’s ability to place the Theaetetus in the focus of contemporary analytic philosophy, it may prove of interest to philosophers working in this field as well, and indeed serve to bring Plato’s relevance to contemporary analytic philosophy into a sharper focus.

In addition to a wealth of important journal articles, several significant book-length treatments of the Theaetetus have appeared since Cornford’s Plato’s Theory of Knowledge (which also deals with the Sophist), including John McDowell’s Plato: Theaetetus, and Miles Burnyeat’s The Theaetetus of Plato.1 Chappell does a thorough job of incorporating this material into his commentary, presenting what is at stake in accepting or rejecting particular lines of argument regarding the dialogue as well as indicating where he thinks other interpretations have gone wrong. At times his dismissal of some authors’ lines of interpretation can be curt (especially in the case of McDowell), but on the whole the book sustains a consistent, well considered and well articulated position on the dialogue.

The introductory material includes very brief but informative sections on Plato and his works, a discussion of Platonic dialogues and the place of the Theaetetus therein, and the structure of the dialogue. His longer treatments of Unitarian and Revisionist interpretations of the Theaetetus and other such overall treatments are of a great service for anyone approaching the text afresh.

The commentary is most valuable for its enthusiastic engagement with other interpretations of specific passages and for its attempts (on the whole quite successful) to resolve contentious issues of interpretation. At times, however, because of the aforementioned curtness, and at times the extreme density of argumentation (for examples see esp. pp. 119, 148, 153) one feels that more might be said to make Chappell’s arguments at certain points more convincing. Several interesting threads weave their way through Chappell’s commentary, most significantly the important difference between how Unitarian and Revisionist readings of Plato (Chappell identifies himself as a moderate in the former camp), affect how we interpret the dialogue. This thread recurs throughout Chappell’s commentary and is a very useful touchstone for his analysis.

Also interesting and original is Chappell’s suggestion that much of Plato’s argumentation regarding knowledge in the Theaetetus is in fact an attempt to show the limitations of what Chappell calls “empiricist” epistemology. This is not to say that Chappell thinks there is a particular empiricist or empiricist school that Plato is responding to, and he cautions the reader accordingly; the insight is an important interpretive tool that goes a long way towards grasping Plato’s intentions in opposing certain theses regarding knowledge. The insight is extremely helpful, and shows an astute sensitivity to Plato’s methodology as well as his own epistemological stance.

Yet another interesting and important contribution comes where Chappell assesses Socrates’ so-called “Dream Theory” in light of logical atomism of the Russellian/Wittgensteinian variety, and goes so far as to propose that the “Dream Theory” can be read as an early exposition of logical atomism. At one level there are interesting similarities, and these have been approached by McDowell and Burnyeat, but one wonders if a more explicit caution similar to the one made regarding “empiricism” as a camp to which Plato is responding might be reiterated here.

Given the unavoidable predilections of readers, some threads will inevitably be left unpacked in this very skillfully crafted commentary. One thread that I thought might have received some further thought in the text is Chappell’s criticism of Cornford’s remarks that perception and knowledge are incompatible (Chappell p. 50. Cornford, p. 49). I’m inclined to defend Cornford here, for as I see it, Cornford should be coming from a basic and broad assumption that knowledge and perception are set over different objects, and that the rift between knowledge and opinion represents a key to Plato’s epistemological stance. By the end of the book, Chappell seems to agree with Cornford that belief cannot be converted into knowledge (p. 228), a thought that is consistent with the idea that that “epistemic success requires epistemic virtue” (p. 237). I would have thought that Cornford’s approach to this issue bears a consistency that extends as far back as his remarks on perception. Hence I remain somewhat puzzled about how we are to understand Chappell’s early criticism of Cornford and then what appears to be his later coming in line with him. I also suspect that this has an important bearing on how we are to take the much cited and ill-understood maxim that “knowledge is justified true belief”, and Cornford’s approach to the Theaetetus strikes me as being of much assistance here. I am suggesting not that Chappell is inconsistent or unhelpful but that he might unpack the connection between Cornford’s ideas and his general approach a bit more.

When Miles Burnyeat published his The Theaetetus of Plato in 1990, he stated that one of his motivations for so doing was to make M.J. Levett’s 1928 translation of the dialogue more well known. Burnyeat’s revisions of Levett are admirably readable, but I would suggest that Chappell’s translation represents a new challenger in terms of its fresh and easy readability. The translation is lively and uncomplicated, without sacrificing faithfulness to the text. Interesting discussions of word choices are interspersed in the text, including a very informed discussion about the uses and implications of aesthesis. In line with this text’s characteristic scrutiny of other sources, Chappell is careful to discuss other possibilities that have been raised in the scholarship. One might take slight exception to Chappell’s divergence from the Greek in presenting the rather complicated section on permutations of knowing and perceiving at 192a-d, in which he employs x’s and y’s instead of presenting the text faithfully. There may be some gain in efficiency here, and Chappell is sensitive to the needs of readers in indicating that he has diverged so, but one can’t help thinking that this way of presenting the passage denies the reader the opportunity to see what Plato actually said and how he said it. While Chappell’s presentation does help understanding, the text might have been left intact and Chappell’s symbolized representation reproduced in the commentary that follows. Of course one will always find quibbles with word choices here and there in any translation but this translation is a major accomplishment in terms of style and accuracy, and it is a pleasure to read.

Unlike Cornford and McDowell, Chappell provides an extensive bibliography, almost doubling the 58 entries in Bunyeat’s Select Bibliography. The texts discussed most extensively in the book are marked in the Bibliography with an asterisk. An index might have been useful for relocating mentions of specific authors and specific issues.

Chappell indicates at the outset that he is following Cornford’s format in his presentation of the Theaetetus, with chunks of translation accompanied by commentary, as opposed to McDowell’s presentation of the whole text followed by commentary or Burnyeat’s commentary followed by translation. Hackett’s layout of this text is unfortunate. In my copy of Cornford there is a clear separation of translation and commentary, as well as ample margin space to write in. Hackett has not done Chappell the same service, and despite offsetting section headings in bold, it is not as easy as it should be to skim the book and tell which parts are translation and which are commentary. A number of typo’s can be spotted here and there —most confusingly p. 20, Cornford and Ross are identified as “Revisionists” when it seems that they should be called “Unitarians”, and on p. 220 “I know a syllable S” should be “I know a syllable SO”.

Timothy Chappell’s Reading Plato’s Theaetetus is a first rate piece of scholarship that will be of great service to students of the dialogue for years to come.


1. Cornford, F.M., Plato’s Theory of Knowledge, Liberal Arts Press, 1957; McDowell, J, Plato: Theaetetus, Oxford UP, 1973; Burnyeat, M. The Theaetetus of Plato, Hackett, 1990. Chappell notes that David Sedley’s The Midwife of Platonism: Text and Subtext in Plato’s Theaetetus (Oxford, 2004) appeared too late to be taken into account.