The Socratic Paradoxes and Plato’s Epistemology

Plato’s “Socratic paradoxes” state that no one does wrong voluntarily and that virtue is knowledge.  Outside of moral psychology, the Socratic paradoxes have been neglected.  My dissertation defends two related proposals that showcase their importance in ancient epistemology.  The first proposal is that they are a major motivation for the Republic’s view that epistēmē (knowledge or understanding) concerns a class of objects separate from the objects of doxa (belief or opinion).  This view of epistēmē faces a serious problem:  how can epistēmē improve one’s doxai, as Plato indicates it does, if epistēmē and doxa are completely distinct?  My second proposal is that understanding the influence of the Socratic paradoxes can solve this problem, by clarifying the roles of truth and measurement in Plato’s epistemology.

I begin with a new interpretation of the Hippias Minor that shows why Plato commits to the Socratic paradoxes and how this commitment motivates his epistemology.  The Hippias Minor is a troubling dialogue.  It appears to argue for the superiority of the voluntary wrongdoer over the involuntary wrongdoer.  Contrary to widespread views, I argue that Socrates is serious about his argument and that it prompts him to accept the “paradox” that no one does injustice voluntarily.  This Socratic paradox, however, can only be accepted by developing a new understanding of what it means for justice to be an epistēmē.  Epistēmē must be so powerful that whoever has it would never misuse it.  We should expect other dialogues to develop a clearer account of this epistēmē.

This is precisely what we see at the end of the Protagoras, which explores the proposal that the virtues are epistēmai.  Notably, epistēmē is the strongest force in human affairs—it cannot be overcome by pleasure or anything else—and involves measurement.  Here Plato makes progress towards explaining how no one would do wrong voluntarily.  The dialogue’s arguments, however, are plagued by an apparent reliance on hedonism, which Plato explicitly disavows in many other places.  I present a reading on which I trace the role of the good life in Socrates’ arguments, revealing that he is not committed to hedonism but is nonetheless serious about his proposal for epistēmē.  As a result, we can still take him as promoting epistēmē’s power and connection to measurement.  But what is this epistēmē supposed to measure?

We find an answer in the Republic, where the Socratic paradoxes now focus on truth.  Socrates distinguishes between two types of truths:  those about which one would never voluntarily lie and those which sometimes merit lying.  The first type of truth concerns what brings our souls closer to the most real things and develops our souls so that we live well.  These most real things are the proper objects of epistēmē, but the truths derived from them are doxai, or opinions.  The other type of truth concerns how a statement corresponds to particulars in the sense-perceptible world.  In order to figure out what doxai are worth accepting, we must determine how to weigh their different truths and falsities.  This is the true role of the measuring epistēmē, a role that had previously been ignored.  A person with the measuring epistēmē will be able to use her epistēmē to have better doxai.  Furthermore, such a person will be a better ruler, able to determine what doxai would be best for her citizens.

I close by providing an interpretation of Eudemian Ethics VIII.1, in which Aristotle argues explicitly against Plato’s conception of the virtues as epistēmai.  Aristotle moves away from Plato’s account by showing that epistēmai can be misused in precisely the way that the Socratic paradoxes would prevent.  Elsewhere, however, he proposes that epistēmē is a virtue.  These two notions of epistēmē show how questions about the Socratic paradoxes’ relation to epistēmē have continued to have relevance in epistemology after Plato.