Plato’s Theaetetus is a dialogue that discusses and attempts to find a definition of knowledge. The two characters, Socrates and Theaetetus, approach the argument with the initial idea that knowledge is the addition of a true judgment and an account. However, Socrates raises some concerns regarding the fundamental aspects that make the definition true. Ultimately, the two characters find that their original definition of knowledge is not as accurate, nor as simple as they once believed.
The article opens with Theaetetus recalling a definition of knowledge he once heard, which stated “true judgment with an account is knowledge [and is therefore knowable], and the kind without an account falls outside the sphere of knowledge [and is therefore unknowable]” (126). Socrates begins to question one’s ability to determine whether something is or is not knowable, and he demonstrates the concept using the relationship between elements and complexes. In doing so, he explains a recent dream of his, which, in turn, is actually an explanation of Dream Theory.
Dream Theory states that “the primary elements, of which we and everything else are composed, have no account. Each of them itself, by itself, can only be named” (126). In other words, as elements cannot be broken down further, elements cannot have an account because that would require the determining of whether or not the said elements exist. The addition of that information onto the original element itself results in something that is no longer in its simplest form.
Therefore, no elements can have accounts, nor can they be knowable; elements can only be perceived. Consequently, this poses the question as to whether or not complexes are knowable given that their elements are not. When complexes are viewed as the sum of all their elements, it is safe to conclude that the complexes are unknowable, as their elements are unknowable. This idea allowed Socrates to then consider whether complexes were mere sums or if they should instead be viewed as wholes that cannot be dissected into parts.
However, the problem with this idea is that, when viewed as a whole that cannot be separated, the complex is then no different than an element, and therefore cannot have an account. After failing to determine what does and does not have an account, Socrates decides to turn his attention to determining what constitutes an account. First, he defines it as stating one’s judgment through speech. Immediately, this manifests flaws in the sense that any true statement could then be considered an account.
If this were the case, there would be no differentiation between an account and a true judgment. Next, he defines an account as listing the elements of the things known. Again, this must be incorrect because the possibility exists that one could simply memorize the elements without actually understanding them. Without understanding, one cannot have knowledge. Finally, he defines an account as differentiating the known thing from everything else. This would require knowledge of the differences, and ultimately would again be a reiteration of the true judgment.
Additionally, one would be defining knowledge as true judgment plus knowledge, which would be considered a fallacy. This marks the final turning point in Socrates’s and Theaetetus’s overall definition of knowledge, where the two characters decide that their initial definition could not be considered correct. Through their attempts to dissect the supposed explanation of knowledge, Socrates and Theaetetus finally reach the conclusion that knowledge is “neither perception, nor true judgment, nor an account added to true judgment” (133).
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