Dissertation: The Socratic Paradoxes and Plato’s Epistemology from the Hippias Minor to the Republic

My dissertation centers around two main projects.  The first is to show that certain commitments about ethics, commonly known as the Socratic Paradoxes, are a major motivation for the distinctive epistemological picture that we see in Plato’s Republic.  The second is to argue that understanding Plato’s epistemology in light of this motivation can help us see how it avoids some of the classic problems scholars have found with it—in particular, we will see why a “Two Worlds” picture of epistēmē and doxa is not problematic.

In the early stages of my research so far, I have focused on the first project by presenting a new interpretation of the Hippias Minor that shows how the Socratic Paradoxes demonstrate a need for a new, stronger notion of epistēmē.  The Hippias Minor proposes the Voluntary Wrong Thesis (VWT), that it is better to do something wrong voluntarily than to do it wrong involuntarily.  The VWT has long frustrated scholars, who have decried it as pernicious and un-Platonic; it has led many interpreters to consider the dialogue fallacious or otherwise not committed to its conclusions.  Against these views, I argue that the VWT is a crucial thesis for Socrates, and his commitment to it motivates him to accept the “paradox” that no one does injustice voluntarily.  In accepting this paradox, however, he requires a notion of justice that can explain why this paradox would hold and why justice can avoid the unsavory consequences of the VWT.  In the Hippias Minor, Socrates characterizes justice as a power, epistēmē, or both, and I argue that the dialogue shows that something about justice as an epistēmē must do the work of supporting the paradox.  What Plato does not yet give us is a notion of epistēmē that will do this work; he has instead the start of a project for finding such a notion of epistēmē.

As my research progresses, I will be turning to the Protagoras to examine the other Socratic paradox of interest to my dissertation: that virtue is knowledge.  Socrates argues for this paradox in the Protagoras, as well as famously denying the existence of akrasia.  Though much of the scholarship has focused on the implications of these claims for moral psychology, I intend to examine how the Protagoras connects the Socratic paradoxes to epistēmē and further promotes a notion of epistēmē that could hold for the thesis that virtue is knowledge. With this background in place, I will then turn to the Republic in order to show how these motivations contribute to the “Two Worlds” epistemology we see developed there.  With these motivations, I argue, we will be able to understand better the Two Worlds picture itself, and, per my second main project, we will be able to see how it avoids the problems typically plaguing Two Worlds epistemology.