Plato Studies
University of Pittsburgh, Prof. James Allen, Spring 2013
Lorenzo Colombani

Knowledge is not Perception: SocratesÕ Refutation

In the Theaetetus, Socrates wants to refute the Heraclitean theory of flux (also known
as the theory of universal motion) used in the triple-theory he displayed sooner in order to
refute the thesis, according to which knowledge is perception. Firstly, I will argue that he
proceeds by showing the internal contradiction to which universal motion leads: while it
asserts that perceptions come from the complex interaction between agents and patients, its
basic assertion, namely that Òeverything movesÓ, leads to the conclusion that both perceptions
and perceptive senses are impossible. Thus, Heraclitean flux is self-contradictory. Then, I will
show that SocratesÕ argument only points out that the opposite argument is logically invalid.
It does not prove that its conclusion is false.

Heraclitean flux theory states that Òeverything movesÓ (181c). ÒEverythingÓ refers to
all beings in general. Socrates distinguishes spatial motion from qualitative motion, namely
ÒchangeÓ (181c-d). Thus, Heraclitean flux theory means that al beings are always moving in
space and changing. Now, he intends to show that the phenomenon of perception, which
Heraclitean flux explains, is actually impossible according to the very same theory.
Socrates reminds that perceptual properties result from the meeting of an agent and a
patient (182a-b). The potentially perceptible thing (the agent) meets the senses of the power
of perception (the patient). By meeting it, the potentially perceptible thing turns the power of
perception into an actual percipient. Retroactively, the percipient transforms the perceptible
thing, namely the quality, into a perceived thing, namely a quale, a subjective impression of
Now, Socrates points out (182c) that perceptual qualities cannot be stated if they
always change. Indeed, claiming that Òx is whiteÓ implies at least that whiteness is some kind
of unchanging quality. In addition (182d-e), our perceptive senses should not exist either: if
there were such a thing as Òthe act of seeingÓ, then seeing would be a single, unchanging
thing, at least for the time the act is performed. Also (183a-b), usual language would be
impossible: stating sentences would be impossible. Indeed, sentences refer to subjects and
predicates. Now, the very act of referring to something requires that there is something to
refer to, which does not change, at least in the speakerÕs memory. But since everything
changes, language is impossible.
As a result, Heraclitean flux is contradictory: it both claims that perceptions (namely,
perceptual content) are an unchanging thing at least at the moment when they are perceived,
and that everything always change. Now, is SocratesÕ argument valid?

I will claim that it is, namely that his conclusion follows from his premises: universal
motion is indeed inconsistent with the motion-based theory of perception.
But it is valid in virtue of the broader linguistic problem implied by universal motion,
tackled at 183a-b: the motion-based theory of perception (at least in the way Socrates states it)
defines perception using ordinary language. In particular, it tries to work out what perception
ÒisÓ. Now, universal motion implies that nothing ÒisÓ but ÒbecomesÓ or Òcomes to beÓ.
Therefore, perceptions (either specific perceptions like whiteness or perceptual faculties)

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cannot ÒbeÓ anything, at least anything that ordinary language is able to catch, and stating a
thesis derived from universal motion in ordinary language terms necessary leads to a
Now, SocratesÕ point does not prove universal motion to be false; it does not show that
it is not the case that everything moves and comes to be. It rather points out that it is
inconsistent with ordinary experience, which is stated in ordinary language, which itself
carries its own theoretical load, like the assumption that ÒbeingÓ (namely existing as a stable
thing) means something. Thus, the refutation turns out to aim at excluding universal motion
from the attempted definition of science (which presupposes that science actually is
something) rather than proving it to be false.

In conclusion, the basic claim of universal motion is inconsistent when it is applied as
an explanation to perception. Socrates concludes his argument (182e) by reminding
Theodorus that they called universal motion to justify TheaetetusÕ thesis, according to which
perception is knowledge. Since they are inconsistent Ðgranting universal motion to be true
would make perception is impossible- then the thesis according to which knowledge is
perception lost its most fundamental premise. This kind of refutation seems consistent with
SocratesÕ dialectical examination: indeed, rather than asserting and trying to prove the truth of
a thesis, he usually tests the logical validity of his interlocutorsÕ thesis in order to introduce
them to philosophical reasoning.

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