Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Franco Trabattoni, Essays on Plato's Epistemology. Ancient and medieval philosophy - Series 1, 53. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2016. Pp. 336. ISBN 9789462700598. €80.00.

Reviewed by Lloyd P. Gerson, University of Toronto (lloyd.gerson@utoronto.ca)

Version at BMCR home site

The fourteen chapters in this book are essays previously published in various venues between 2002-2009. Most were originally written in Italian, and all are here translated into English. Six of the essays focus on Plato's Theaetetus. The other eight range over epistemological issues, mostly in the so-called middle dialogues.

The essays on Theaetetus contain analyses of some of the arguments in the dialogue. There is no space to consider the details here. Fortunately, there is a coherent interpretation underlying all of the essays, expressed from several different angles. It is on that interpretation that I shall focus primarily.

In order to appreciate Trabattoni's approach, it will be useful to recall the very straightforward and unambiguous structure of Plato's Theaetetus. The question raised at the beginning of the dialogue is, "what is knowledge (epistēmē)." The first answer given by Socrates' young interlocutor Theaetetus is that knowledge is sense- perception (aisthēsis). This is shown to be false. Instead, Theaetetus then suggests that knowledge is belief (doxa), specifically true (alēthēs) belief. This definition, too, is rejected. In its place, Theaetetus offers to amend the second definition, suggesting that knowledge is not mere true belief, but true belief with an account (logos) of some sort. Several meanings of "account" are explored, all of which are found to be unsatisfactory. At this point, the dialogue ends in failure to discover the definition of knowledge. It ends in aporia.

Plato scholars have long sought to address a number of rather obvious and pressing questions arising from a reading of this dialogue. Among these are: are the arguments raised against the three definitions of knowledge cogent? Does the last definition (and the last version of "account") actually conceal an euporia rather than lead to the explicit aporia? That is, does it point us in the direction of a sense of "account" according to which true belief would indeed be turned into knowledge? And, finally, does the dialogue—whether owing to its aporetic ending or even on the basis of a concealed euporetic ending—open up the possibility that knowledge for Plato is now being understood more broadly than in Republic where we have, first, the limitation of it to the intelligible world in general and then, more precisely, its limitation to the first section of the top half of the divided line (533E3-4)? Thus, is it possible to have knowledge of the sensible world, not only of the intelligible world? If not, then the failure to discover the correct definition of knowledge is a failure to discover what is in Republic the ne plus ultra of cognition; if so, then the failure certainly makes more plausible the euporetic interpretation, given that the sought-for additional sense of "account" would be the vehicle for transforming true belief into knowledge. So, even if the true belief that goes along with an account is knowledge of intelligibles, it seems that it also can be of sensibles, thereby explicitly expanding the ambit of the term "knowledge."

The fundamental interpretative strategy of Trabattoni is try to grasp both horns of the dilemma: either aporia or euporia. He does this by arguing that the dialogue is aporetic based on the criterion announced by Socrates early in the dialogue (152C5-6) that knowledge must be infallible (apseudes). Infallible cognition, Trabattoni argues, is impossible for embodied human beings, although it might be possible for the gods and disembodied souls. On the other hand, the dialogue is really euporetic because the definition of knowledge as true belief and then the subsequent definition of knowledge as true belief plus an account do in fact indicate that it is possible for us to have fallible knowledge, both of intelligibles and sensibles. I find multiple difficulties with this approach.

First, the passage at 152C5-6 does not just say that knowledge must be apseudes, but that it must also be of that which is or of being (tou ontos). The second criterion is crucial since, together with the first, it clearly refers to the passage in Republic (477A-478D) in which philosophers are distinguished from philodoxers by the fact that the former pursue knowledge and the latter pursue belief. This seems to refute the author's suggestion that Theaetetus "starts from scratch" in pursuing a definition of knowledge. And the primary characteristics of knowledge are that it is infallible (anamartēton) and that it has as its objects that which is whereas belief has as its objects that which is and is not simultaneously (hama on te kai mē on). Naturally, both of these criteria are difficult to grasp. The second one is particularly relevant to the argument in Theaetetus because if in that dialogue "that which is" refers to the same thing it does in the Republic passage (also said to be "that which is completely"), namely, the intelligible world, then there is no euporetic solution on the horizon of the sort that Trabattoni envisages. Because Trabattoni omits the second criterion and so the obvious reference to the Republic passage, he does not consider whether these two criteria are in fact defining criteria in which case they are mutually entailing. That is, there can be no infallible knowledge of anything other than that which is and cognition of that which is can only be infallible.

Second, if the euporetic conclusion is barred by the nature of the criteria of knowledge, it is unclear what Trabattoni means by "fallible knowledge." The author does suggest in passing that it must be something like the justified true belief of the contemporary standard account of knowledge. He also calls it "weak" knowledge and even "sensory" knowledge. I do not understand what he means to convey when, in a Platonic context, he calls this "knowledge." I suspect he means to provide, anachronistically, something like the account of knowledge of Philo of Larissa (158-84 B.C.E.), who does argue for something like empirical knowledge. But this view, unlike the view that Trabattoni attributes to Plato, is not offered as a type of knowledge in addition to infallible cognition of intelligibles; it is offered as an alternative.

Third, the claim that Plato holds that it is impossible for embodied persons to attain knowledge, drawn from Socrates' remarks in Phaedo, seems to be contradicted by Timaeus 51E3-4 (cf. Symposium 212A1-7; Republic 516B4-7, 517B7, 518C8-D1, 540A8-9), where it is said that only the gods and some small class of human beings can attain to understanding (nous,), which in this passage is contrasted with true belief. Trabbatoni does not scruple to use the above dialogues and many others to support his interpretation. But this text denies what he claims is stated in Phaedo. This is odd on a number of accounts, not the least of which is that Trabattoni repeatedly, and rightly, stresses Plato's commitment to the doctrine of recollection according to which all human beings do possess knowledge, although we are generally unable to recall what we know. The passages from Timaeus, Symposium, and Republic negate the idea that our inability to recall is endemic to our embodied state in which case it is not at all clear why Trabattoni thinks that the aporetic conclusion is not a failure to define knowledge as either sense-perception or true belief or true belief with an account but a claim about our inability to have it. Having made this seemingly unsupported inference, he loses his motivation for claiming that there is an euporetic current beneath the text. It is as if someone were to deny that human beings can be immortal and then argue not that it is possible to have a long and healthy life, but that having a long and healthy life shall now be called "immortality."

Trabattoni thinks that the fallible knowledge we can have can be both of intelligibles and sensibles. Leaving aside the confusing use of the word "knowledge" here, it is the former that is much more contentious than the latter. This theme is pursued in several papers on Republic and in papers containing remarks on Parmenides and on Aristotle's criticisms of Plato. The best evidence that he can provide for the claim that Plato believed even in Republic that it was possible to have belief about Forms is that Socrates says in the course of his brief discussion about the Idea of the Good that he is expressing his beliefs about it. This is indeed an important piece of evidence and, assuming that Plato does mean that there can be beliefs about Forms, it throws into question the traditional interpretation of the passage distinguishing philosophers and philodoxers, and even the entire account of dialectic.

The distinction between having a belief about A and believing that A is B is not clearly made in Republic. One supposes that Plato had not yet clearly worked out how to distinguish them. But he does so in Sophist where we learn that a logos must be about something, that it must say something about or attribute something to the subject, and that it must be true or false (262E). Here, the requirements of a logos apply to belief as well (cf. 260E4). So, one cannot have a belief about A unless one refers to A (cf. 263A9). How, then, does one refer to a Form in order to have a belief that it is something or has some property? The only way would seem to be by seeing it, that is, mentally seeing it. But as Plato often says, knowing a Form is a mental seeing of it. So, it would seem that one would have to have knowledge in order to have belief. But that would surely make belief otiose, although of course knowledge of Forms may assist us in attaining true belief about sensibles. Is there room, then, for partial or incomplete knowledge? Not according to Republic and certainly not according to anything said in Theaetetus.

Trabattoni does have important things to say about understanding (dianoia) in Republic, that mode of cognition other than belief but also other than knowledge. He argues that understanding is broader than Plato's mathematical examples would indicate and that, so conceived, understanding may be the alternate type of knowledge of intelligibles that Plato has in mind. Regarding this hypothesis, I would only note that there is no hint of this in Theaetetus where the failure of true belief with or without an account to be recognized as knowledge is unqualified. Indeed, true belief is introduced as a possible definition of knowledge because it is supposed to remedy the defect of sense-perception as the definition. There are no grounds for asserting, as Trabattoni does, that here Plato introduces a new sense of "belief" according to which the internal problems of belief as knowledge based on sense-perception are avoided. There is nothing in the text to support this conjecture. Indeed, true belief is rejected as knowledge because if it were, false belief would not be possible. But false belief is possible, so true belief is not knowledge. True belief fails as a definition of knowledge because it does not meet the criteria of knowledge set forth at the beginning of the dialogue. There are no grounds for maintaining that this argument shows that true belief, failing to be knowledge, is nevertheless knowledge, that is, something other than true belief. If, as Trabattoni claims, it is a certain unspecified sense of "account" that turns true belief into some sort of knowledge, then Timaeus 51E3-4 which says that true belief has no logos must count as a rejection by Plato of the view that Trabattoni thinks Plato is concealing in Theaetetus.

There is no space here to discuss the interesting papers on Cratylus and Parmenides, though I must say that they are both marred by the fundamentally false interpretation of Theaetetus.

Trabattoni is to be thanked for seeking out an English translator in order to make his work more widely available. Unfortunately, his translator's native language is apparently not English and so we get numerous infelicities, including "dialectics" for "dialectic" "the logos" for logos, and "philodox" for "philodoxer." There are also many places in which the translator does not seem to grasp the subtle distinctions Trabattoni is making and, accordingly, does not produce a perspicuous translation.

[For a response to this review by Franco Trabattoni, please see BMCR 2016.11.02.]

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Thought as Inner Dialogue (Theaet. 189e4-190a6)
Chapter 2. Logos and doxa: The Meaning of the Refutation of the Third Definition of Epistêmê in the Theaetetus
Chapter 3. Theaetetus 200d-201c: Truth without Certainty
Chapter 4. Foundationalism or Coherentism? On the Third Definition of Epistêmê in the Theaetetus
Chapter 5. What is the Meaning of Plato's Theaetetus? Sοme Remarks on a New Annotated Translation of the Dialogue
Chapter 6. David Sedley's Theaetetus
Chapter 7. The "Virtuous Circle" of Language. On the meaning of Plato's Cratylus
Chapter 8. The Knowledge of the Philosopher
Chapter 9. What Role do the Mathematical Sciences Play in the Metaphor of the Line?
Chapter 10. Socrates' error in the Parmenides
Chapter 11. On the Distinguishing Features of Plato's "Metaphysics" (Starting from the Parmenides)
Chapter 12. Is There Such a Thing as a "Platonic theory of the Ideas" According to Aristotle?
Chapter 13. The Unity of Virtue, Self-Predication and the "Third Man" in Protagoras 329e-332a
Chapter 14. Plato: Philosophy, Politics and Knowledge. An Overview

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