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Scoff as we may at every pernicious declaration of Fake News! But how do we actually determine what is true or false? On the question of epistemology there is no major position in the European tradition that escapes review in the first surviving text on the topic, Plato’s Theaetetus. And yet Plato’s grand survey ends up rejecting all comers. What is knowledge? We don’t know! Nevertheless, along the way some progress is made in determining the nature and relations of sensual experience, linguistic reasoning, beliefs, true and false, and what Plato sees as the eternal, insensible form of all experience. This cleverly structured dialogue rewards a close reading by setting the stage for its sequel, the Sophist, where a method of science advances a positive epistemology through the sceptical impasse thrown up by Parmenides and Zeno.

Our phenomenological approach to Plato provides a solid background to all subsequent attempts at solving the problem of knowledge, whether by reference to Plato or otherwise.

Part I: Theaetetus

Session 1 | Framing the question of knowledge | Theaetetus page 144 to 151e

The phenomenological approach to Plato is introduced before coming to the opening scene of the dialogue where Socrates offers to play barren midwife to young Theaetetus’s birth of knowledge.

Session 2 | Knowledge is perception | page 151e to 177c

The claim of the famous sophist, Protagoras, that “man is the measure of all things” is interpreted to mean that knowledge is perception. An investigation of this doctrine leads to the view that all appearances are real, and so false belief is impossible. All is drawn into doubt, including the very method of inquiry.

Session 3 | Between Heraclitus and Parmenides | page 177c to 187a

Perhaps Heraclitus was right, all is in flux. As the scepticism deepens, a cryptic reference to Plato’s Parmenides leads to one apparent constancy found in every perception: its otherness.

Session 4 | True and false opinion | page 187b to 201c

Perhaps knowledge is opinion judged to be true. But true to what? Establishing the ontology of the epistemology is one problem in determining the very possibility of false opinion.

Session 5 | Justified true belief | page 201c to 210

Knowledge might be true belief that is justified by a rational account (logos). But what if that which is elementary to knowledge is beyond any account of it? Language/logic might only communicate the distinguishing characteristics of what is already distinctly known.

The finding of the difference of things, their distinguishing characteristic, will be what the Platonic ‘method of division’ is all about. This method is presented in the following dialogue, the Sophist.

Part 2 The Sophist

Session 6 | Making the right distinctions | Sophist page 216 to 221c

At the dawn of a new day, Theodorus introducing the gang from Theaetetus to a student of Parmenides who then proceeds to a half-comic warm-up demonstration of the method of division.

Session 7 | Hunting down the sophist | page 221d to 237a

The main quarry of today’s investigation is the sophist. But six successive attempts to define the sophist leave his most distinguishing characteristic elusive: the sophist is a faker who says what is false. He says what is-not. But what can it mean to say what is-not?

Session 8 | Killing the father | page 237b to 245e

The need to imply that non-being exists brings us to Parmenides critique of all positive science. Not only this investigation but its very dialectic method falls into doubt. If false claims cannot be defined, then nor can truth.

Session 9 | The battle of the gods and the giants | page 246 to 250e

Investigation of statements implying not-being finds a similar problem with statements concerning being. A conundrum over how ontology could possibly be established bring us to consider two schools polarised into battle over this very question, the materialists and the extreme idealists.

Session 10 | The Philosopher’s high dialectic | page 251 to 259b

Discussion of the idealist and their ideas, or forms, leads to an investigation of elementary forms and how they “participate” each other. The realisation that non-being participates the form of otherness leads to a triumph over Parmenides’ great prohibition. Yes, non-being does exist, in a relative way and everywhere in the relations of all that exists.

Session 11 | The generation of ideas and things | page 259c to 268d

The next step is to show how being and non-being align with speech, true and false, so that the sophist can finally be ensnared as a creative faker.

Session 12 | Overview |

The course concludes with a full account of Plato’s epistemology, it’s ontology and methodology as presented in these two dialogues.

Reading: Plato’s dialogues Theaetetus and Sophist

Recommended translation: Plato: Theaetetus and Sophist, Christopher Rowe, Cambridge, 2015.