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Adebayo A Ogungbure

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by Adebayo A Ogungbure   
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Last edited: Sunday, March 13, 2011
Posted: Sunday, March 13, 2011

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Adebayo Ogungbure attempts a rivieww of Plato's Theaetetus showing perspectives on the traditional account of knowledge as justified true opinion.




Adebayo A. Ogungbure








The Theaetetus is a documentation of the dialogue between Socrates, Theaetetus, and Theodorus. Although there were a number of issues that were talked about, the thematic focus of the discourse centers on knowledge, what it is, and how it can be characterized without ambiguity. The major concern was to determine the nature of knowledge; this quest was steered by Socrates when he asked his co-discussants Theodorus and Theaetetus the fundamental question:  what is knowledge? The attempt to answer this question led to the analysis of knowledge in the traditional sense. In this process, Socrates regarded himself as an intellectual midwife that helps those in the intellectual labour to birth their ideas. Meanwhile, an attempt is made by Theaetetus to define knowledge as perception, he puts it thus: “he who knows perceives what he knows, and, as far as I can see at present, knowledge is perception”[1]. But does this means that whatever cannot be perceived cannot be known? It is not the case. Socrates gave an example of thinking as a human activity that provides evidence for the fact that knowledge goes beyond perception. This view expressed by Theaetetus is quite similar to that of Protagoras who sees knowledge strictly as a matter of individual perceptual experience. However, Socrates did not agree with Theaetetus on the definition of knowledge as perception which made him to probe further on the nature of knowledge. In this stead, he took it as his major task to engage in an exercise of dialectics through which he would apply the art of midwifery to deliver Theaetetus of his initial conceptions about knowledge.




In the dialogical examination of the nature of knowledge as perception, Protagoras relativism was brought to the fore, especially his emphasis on man being the measure of all things – things that are and those that are not. Such relativism was not appealing to Socrates who interrogated his interlocutors further to ascertain the nature of knowledge which he thinks should be beyond the realm of perception. He believes that what perception as a medium of getting information from nature can give to us, at best, is sensual knowledge which does not give a full picture on the nature of knowledge. Thus, he went all out to criticize the relativist position of Protagoras as ill-conceived because it would lead to conceptual pluralism on the nature of reality if it is assumed that every man should create his own reality. For Socrates, it is a mistake to conceive knowledge as personal phenomena rather than impersonal phenomena. Socrates placed much focus emphasis on what should qualify as knowledge and in attaining knowledge, he believes no stone should be left unturned in determining what truth is and what is untrue . In order to achieve this, he is of the view that man must make the best use of their faculties as they are, and speak out about what they consider to be true while they at the same time realize that there are great discrepancies in the understanding of men.




Socrates believes that there are two kinds of motions that permeate the universe and these are: change and motion; he considers it essential to the doctrine of relativism which he refuted as a theory of perception. He criticized the Heraclitean doctrine of universal flux in the universe because it sees everything in the universe as constantly changing; Socrates take it for granted that if such a theory is accepted as true , then our perception of the universe also will keep changing. So he frowned at the notion that knowledge is perception, and even it was that, it would certainly not be on the hypothesis of a perpetual flux. The main objection Socrates had with Theaetetus’ definition of knowledge is that it sees knowledge as manifest perception and nothing more. He thinks that knowledge is not limited to perception alone because there are some things that can be known without acquiring them through the medium of the senses. Examples of such things are universal notions of being or non-being, likeness and unlikeness, unity and difference, and even mathematical conceptions. These things are beyond the senses since it cannot perceive it; as a result Socrates expounds the view that those aspects of reality that we cannot know through perception can be known through conception by the human mind. Theaetetus seems to agree with Socrates on this point when he asserted that the mind, by a power of her own, contemplates the universals in all things.


Socrates conceives the human soul as that which helps us to understand the comparison between alternatives and those things that are beyond the senses. So Knowledge according to this belief does not consist in impressions of the senses alone, but also in reasoning about them; in that not only in mere impression, truth and being can be attained. Socrates was able to present a convincing argument to Theaetetus so that he was able to change his notion that knowledge is perception, to embrace a more elaborate position showing the necessity of the mind in knowledge acquisition. Socrates dialectical approach was very clumsy and arbitrary as he dwelled on various issues like evil and good, being, universal essence, matters of state, and his intellectual affiliations, even though the central object of discourse in the Theaetetus is on Knowledge or epistemology.




Having laid a foundation for the conception of knowledge from the beginning of the discourse, Socrates probed Theaetetus further on the nature of knowledge; at a point in the discourse, Theaetetus while admitting that there were two types of opinion, false and true , conceived of knowledge as true opinion. Here, Plato could be understood here to be attempting an answer to the question concerning the conditions of knowledge by identifying knowledge with true opinion that is validated by reason.[2] There were so much discussions about what constitutes false opinion and true opinion in the Theaetetus, the distinctions made were aimed at making sure that what is classified as knowledge does not contain any element of falsity and as such, and for the notion that knowledge is true belief which an individual is justified in having. For Theaetetus and Socrates, Knowledge is said to be true opinion; and true opinion is surely unerring, and the results which follow from it are all noble and good. But they did not leave it at this, they also believe that it is not just true belief that qualifies as knowledge, but that true opinion, combined with reason, was knowledge, and that the opinion which had no reason was out of the sphere of knowledge.

[1] This version of Plato’s Theaetetus is edited by Benjamin Jowett available online at

[2] See Ikpe Ibanga, Blankson, Knowledge as a Cluster of Concepts: A Rational Approach to Epistemic Analysis an Unpulished Ph.D Thesis, Submitted to the Department of Philsophy, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, May, 1995. p.3.

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