Dissertation: The Socratic Paradoxes and Plato’s Epistemology

In my dissertation, I examine the relationship between the “Socratic paradoxes” and Plato’s epistemology.  The Socratic paradoxes are a cluster of theses about the virtues and how they relate to action, knowledge, and the soul.  Though the Socratic paradoxes have received scholarly attention concerning ethics and moral psychology, I argue that their role in Plato’s epistemology has been neglected.  In particular, I focus on the paradoxes that (1) no one does injustice voluntarily and that (2) virtue is knowledge.  My dissertation defends two closely related proposals.  The first is to show that the Socratic paradoxes are a major motivation for developing the distinctive theory of knowledge, or epistēmē, that we see in Plato’s Republic.  The second is to argue that understanding epistēmē in light of this motivation can help us see how it avoids a classic problem that scholars have found with the Republic’s epistemology:  in particular, how gaining epistēmē will lead one to have better opinions, or doxai, if epistēmē and doxa have completely different objects.

I begin by presenting a new interpretation of Plato’s Hippias Minor that shows how the Socratic paradoxes demonstrate a need for a notion of epistēmē beyond ordinary knowledge or craft knowledge.  The Hippias Minor proposes a thesis that I call the Superiority of the Voluntary Wrongdoer (SVW):  the person doing something wrong voluntarily is better than the person doing it wrong involuntarily.  SVW 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 Socrates seriously grapples with SVW, and his desire to reconcile his and Hippias’ views about wrongdoing and justice motivate him to take on board 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 SVW.  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; craft knowledge cannot do so, because crafts are not a problem for SVW.  He therefore has the start of a project, prompted by the Socratic paradoxes, for finding a notion of epistēmē that can explain why no one does injustice voluntarily.

I next turn to Plato’s Protagoras, which contains lengthy discussions about the virtues.  The final arguments of the dialogue explore the proposal that the virtues are epistēmai, and Socrates argues in tandem with this discussion for what is commonly called the “denial of akrasia.”  I argue that the Protagoras advances a number of points about epistēmē that further develop the project begun in the Hippias Minor.  First, epistēmē is recognized as something strong—not swayed by pleasure or lesser motivations but capable of ruling our desires and actions.  Second, Socrates subscribes to a kind of eudaimonism:  we want to lead good lives, and knowing how to do so will make our lives go well in the way we want them to.  Combining these points, we see that having epistēmē of how to make our lives go well just means that we will act accordingly.  The question then becomes, of course, what sort of epistēmē this might be.  At the end of the Protagoras, Socrates claims that the epistēmē at issue is what will allow us to develop a “measuring art,” whereby we can properly weigh pleasures and pains.  I argue that Plato does not need or wish us to endorse the hedonistic application of the measuring art, but the measuring art itself is important for a specialized notion of epistēmē:  whatever its content, it must allow us to weigh accurately what is important for our lives to go well.  But what is the content of such epistēmē, and what is it supposed to measure?

I tackle these questions in the next section of my dissertation, in which I turn to the Republic.  The Socratic paradoxes now appear in a different form:  instead of justice, they concern the truth.  Socrates distinguishes between two types of truth:  those about which no one would ever voluntarily tell a falsehood and those about which sometimes we have occasion to do so.  The first type of truth, which I call normative truth, concerns truths that bring our souls closer to the most real things and develop our souls so that we live well.  Socrates calls these most real things ta onta, or the things that are, and these things are the proper objects of epistēmē.  The truths derived from them, however, are doxai:  they are not strong or stable in the way that epistēmai are.  This type of truth contrasts with what I call particular truths, which concern how a statement corresponds to what happens in the world.  The conditions for the two types of truth come apart, and in order to figure out what doxai to accept, we must determine how to weigh their different truths and falsities.  This, I argue, is where the measuring art comes in; we are not weighing pleasure and pains but truth and falsity.  Once we have epistēmē, we are able to evaluate doxai based on their how we weigh their different types of truth, and such a weighing will indicate to us which ones we should accept in our souls.  As a result, a person with epistēmē will have better doxai; furthermore, such a person will be a better ruler, as she will be able to determine what doxai would be best for her citizens.

In the final part of my dissertation, I examine how ideas related to the Socratic paradoxes play out in Aristotle.  In particular, I discuss Eudemian Ethics VIII.1, in which Aristotle argues that the virtues are not epistēmai.  This chapter is notoriously difficult both philosophically and philologically, and I provide an interpretation that shows how Aristotle’s conception of epistēmai as contrary-use capacities precludes them from serving a role that inclines their use only towards the good.  Though Aristotle argues against epistēmai being virtues here, elsewhere in his ethics he does designate epistēmē as one of his intellectual virtues.  I argue that though Aristotle did not subscribe to the Socratic paradoxes as Plato did, they were important in developing his different conceptions of epistēmē; as such, they played a role not only for Plato but in ancient epistemology more generally.