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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

Chapter 3 - Socrates in the digression of the Theaetetus:



A famous passage in the Theaetetus presents a challenge for my thesis that the Socrates of any of Plato's dialogues is profoundly the same as the Socrates of the Apology. Socrates, the main speaker of the passage (172–177), labels it a “digression” (parerga: “by-work”) at 177b8. Not only does the Socrates of the digression seem different from the Socrates of the Apology, he also seems different from the Socrates of the rest of the Theaetetus. In the surrounding dialogue Socrates deploys argument, analysis, and critical reflection of the greatest interest as he considers the theme question: “What is knowledge?” The digression has no argument, analysis, or critical reflection. It has both dismayed and fascinated readers. Gilbert Ryle calls it “the philosophically quite pointless digression.” On the other hand, Myles Burnyeat credits the passage with “impassioned otherworldliness.” He says:

Plato puts the full power of his rhetoric into an extreme expression of his own vision of the human condition.

However, Burnyeat also recognizes the two faces of the passage. He says that today's readers

are…likely to find [it] alien and repellent, even as we are gripped (despite ourselves) by the sweep and force of the rhetoric.

I will admit immediately that I do not at all have the experience that Burnyeat describes of being gripped despite myself by the sweep and force of its rhetoric.

This chapter will pursue Ryle's insight that the passage is philosophically pointless.