You are on page 1of 21

The Character and Provenance of Socrates' 'Dream' in the "Theaetetus"

Author(s): Winifred Hicken

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Phronesis, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1958), pp. 126-145
Published by: BRILL
Stable URL: .
Accessed: 30/09/2012 21:56
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

BRILL is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Phronesis.

of Socrates''Dream'
and Provenance
in the Theaetetus.
PURPOSE of this article is to make one further attempt to understand the theory described by Socratesin the Theaetetus(20I d 8)
as a 'dream to match a dream'. This is an elusive and puzzling
theory which in recent years has been variouslyinterpreted as a nominalist's theory of definition1, as a physicist's theory of the analysisof
naturalobjects into their ultimate constituents2 and as an anticipation
of modern attempts to analysepropositionsand the facts stated by them
into their 'atomic' elements.3
Socrates' account is detailed and has a certain specious clarity which
makes it easy to state, but it contains so many gaps and problems that
the sense of the theory, even its general sense, remains obscure. Nor
is it easy to take an indirect route to the sense of the theory by way of
its provenance, for the only obvious clue to this, the use of the term
(2oi d 2-3),
gives the modern reader no assistancesince the


word seems not to occur in extant Greek literature before Aristotle.

Outside the dialogue itself the only ancient source which promises to
be relevant is the Metaphysicsof Aristotle, for in Z. I7. 104I b9-3 3 and
H. 3 1043b4-32,
passages which are themselves not free from difficulties of interpretation, Aristotle criticises some ideas about the analysis
of compounds which strongly resemble those put forward by Socrates in
his discussion of the 'dream'. These passages have often been related to
the Theaetetus,but mainly by those interested in proving or disproving
the attribution of the 'dreamed' theory to the Socratic Antisthenes.
I shall argue that they in no way support this attribution but that, if
taken together with the evidence offered in the Theaetetusnot only by
Socrates' account but also by his presentation of it, they suggest another
line of interpretation.
1 C. M. Gillespie, Arch. Gesch. Philos, xxvi (I912-3),
pp. 479ff. and xxvii (1913-4),
pp. 17ff.
2 L. Campbell, Introduction to The Theactetus
o] Plato,2 p. xxxix; J. Burnet, Greek
Philosophy,pp. 2g1-3; A. E. Taylor, Plato, the Man and his Work,pp. 344ff. andA Commentary on Plato's Timaeus,pp. 3o6 ff.
3 G. Ryle in an unpublishedpaper read to the Oxford PhilologicalSociety on February
I E, I9S2. I should like to take this opportunityof thankingthe authorfor letting me see
his script.


First, then, for the theory itself. Theaetetus' first hypothesis, that
knowledge is Mta%-aL4, has been finally refuted ( 84b4-l 86 e io), and
so too the attempt to define it as true 86to. (200 d 8-20I c7). In
20o c 8ff. Theaetetus suggests what sounds like a modification of this
view. He remembers having heard some one say that knowledge is true
ao'6 accompanied by ?oyo4. He does not recall the theory exactly but
would, he thinks, recognise it if it were repeated to him. Socrates then
outlines a theory (20I d8-202 c E) which is instantly accepted by
Theaetetus as the one he had in mind (20 2 c -6). It seemed to him,
Socrates says, that he heard some people say that the letters or elements
(atoLXs-L) of which we and everything else are formed have no X6yo4.
Taken each by itself they can be nam-iedonly but nothing can be predicated
of them, not even 'being' or terms like 'itself' and 'each' and 'only'
which Socrates has had to use to indicate what they are at all. For such
predicates 'run around' and are attached to everything, themselves
distinct from the things to which they are applied, whereas if per
impossibile an element could be described or stated (?%6yeaOoL),
should be by a Xoyoqpeculiar to itself. The letters, he concludes,
thus unknowable and without Xoyo4, but they are odaOia'; the
syllables can be known and stated (P'-to) and grasped by true 80'o, but
no one knows them unless he can 'give and receive an account of them',
ao5vod-rexotL 8e(atO ?oyov.
This theory Socrates goes on at once to refute (Tht. 203 a 1-2o6b i I)
by making Theaetetus choose between alternative views of the relation
between syllables and letters. If the syllable is all its letters, then since
ex hypothesithese are unknowable, so too must be the syllable; if the
syllable is something distinct from the letters, a single nature which
comes into being when they combine, since this is incapable of analysis
into parts, it must be as unknowable as its letters.
Such a refutation clearly holds good against any analysis of a whole into
absolutely simple parts; by itself it tells us nothing about the application
of the analogy; and Socrates' account leaves many questions unanswered.
We are told that we are ourselves complexes of elements (2oi e 1-2),
but, as no instance of an element is given, we cannot be sure what kind
of analysis of persons Socrates has in mind, nor indeed whether all the
complexes represented by syllables are of the same general type. The

elements are said to be oO-,rot& (202b6),

but whether by this Socrates

means 'perceived by the senses' or perhaps 'directly cognised' 1 is not

immediately evident. There is a corresponding puzzle about the word

For this view vide e.g. Taylor, Plato, the Man and his Work,p. 34g.
I 27

Xoyo4. Does it mean 'definition' or 'description', either of which might

be suitable if the complexes Socrates had in mind were all substances,
or are we to infer from the statement at 20I e 2 ff. that the elements,
which correspond to Theaetetus' &Xoym,admit of no predicates at all
that any any sort of predication is a' 6yo4?And what are we to make of
true 80'o which is in some sense correlated with syllables but is
unable to 'give and receive an account of them'?
It has long been taken for granted that the theory represents knowledge
as some kind of analysis of objects,which may be expressed in definitions
or descriptions but not, or not primarily, in statements of the form
'X is Y' where Y is a quality or relation. The syllable stands for a complex
thing of some kind and not for a fact or truth about things. There are
good primafacie grounds for this. Not only is the notion of a complex
exemplified by 'ourselves', but when Theaetetus' original formula is
restated in a less subtle form in 2 o6 e s ff., it is illustrated by the analysis
of a cart into physical parts, and the only other sense of Xo6yo4seriously
considered, distinction by differentia (208 c6 ff.), necessarily applies not
to facts but to objects like the sun or Theaetetus. I am to argue that this
is the type of knowledge which the 'dream' tries to illuminate with the
help of its analogy, but there are certain difficulties about this view,
itself no more than an approach to an interpretation, which lend
support to Professor Ryle's belief that ?o6yo4 means 'statement',
something told, and is correlated not with objects but with facts.
In the first place Theaetetus' suggestion follows and appears to be a
refinement upon his attempt to define knowledge as true ao'oc (2 00 e 4 ff.),
where by K0'ieLv he seems to mean 'to believe a proposition' e.g. that
so-and-so stole from or did violence to some one else (20I a ioff.).
Again, Socrates' account of the arotXe?Zwhich can be named only but
Xoyu (202 b ), appears to imply
not expressed by a Xo6yo;, 'Oni~VML
that statements like 'a simple exists' or 'is this' or 'is that' are instances
of X6yoLin which terms like 'is' and 'this' name component simples.
We must hesitate to suppose that the author of the theory treated such
statements as imperfect definitions or descriptions of objects made up of
these and other simples. For while we might well have to make use of
such terms in attempting to define or describe something, it is highly
unplausible to suggest that 'is' and 'that' name a thing's component parts,
though some one might be tempted to believe that they do name parts
of what is stated in a proposition.
There are, then, primafacie grounds also for taking the 'dream' in the
way Professor Ryle suggests, as 'a theory about the composition of
1 28

truths and falselhoods'. If I understand his interpretation, the author of

the theory may be credited with one piece of insight of which Professor
Ryle thoroughly approves. He has seen, as it is suggested Plato may not
have seen when in his earlier dialogues he correlated knowledge with
single Forms, that truth, and indeed falsehood, necessarily possess
internal complexity. A sinmpleobject cannot be true or false, cannot be
believed or stated or known in the sense of savoir; it can be named only.
But when he attempts with the help of the analogy of letters and
syllables to explain the relation between names and statements containing them, he falls into the sort of error which Professor Ryle finds
in the analyses of statements offered by modern philosophers such as
Meinong and (in his earlier works) Russell, the latter of whom made
use of the same analogy in his Enquiryinto Meaningand Truth,pp. 3 3 g-6. He
assumes that a statement is related to its names as a whole to its parts,
and so finds himself unable to distinguish a statement from a name. For
one of two things, either the statement conveys the congeries of simples
conveyed by its several words, in which case it will no more be capable
of expressing knowledge in the sense savoir than were the names themselves, or it conveys some unitary object of a higher order, a structured
complex which contains the simples but cannot without remainder be
reduced to them. But then this 'logical molecule' must itself be simple
and unanalysable, and so, to quote, 'the sentence will stand to this simple
something just as a name stands to the simples that it names. And then
the sentence will no more express a falsehood or a truth than an
ordinary name does'.
The refutation of the 'dream' thus shows the need to make a sharp
distinction between the meaning or senseof statements and the meaning
of words, and of this, Professor Ryle points out, Plato seems to have
been aware at least when he wrote the Sophist, for in 262cgff. he says
does not merely 'name'
that a XGyog such as &vOpcono4pocL0O!VZt
together pn,wlomra
something but 'gets you somewhere'
Ov~o-,roc;and he continues 'for this reason we have said that it states
something and does not merely name something, and in fact it is to this
woven fabric, 7rXe'yLOC-r,that wve give the name 'statement', ?6yov'.
This is an interesting interpretation, but it seems to me that it will not
do and for two very simple reasons. The first is that what it offers us
in the 'dreanm' is in no sense an answer to the question what is knowledge;

it rather an attempt to work out the implications of one of its necessary

conditions, which it shares with other states of mind. Knowledge in the
sense savoir is distinguished from and related to acquaintance with
I 29

simple nameables, but it is not distinguishedfrom true opinion nor

indeed from false opinion. These too ex hypothesiare related to complexes expressed in statements and not to simple objects. The interpretation will take us as far as the statement that true opinion, like
knowledge, is concerned with 'syllables' (202 b 6-7); it will not explain
what is meant by saying that some one has knowledge only if he can
'give and receive an account' (202b8-cg). This is the sense of 4oyo4
which seems crucial, and whatever it means it can hardly be simply
Again, on this interpretation we have to understand ulaOjrm' in
202b6 to mean not 'sensible' but 'met', 'directly cognised'. This is a
which it seems particularly difficult to justify here.
use of acxOocveaOot
For whatever the ambiguity of the word in Theaetetus' first hypothesis
(5i e iff.), in the course of refuting his theory in i84b4ff. Socrates
has whittled it down to 'bare sensation', and it is hard to believe that he
would have enlarged or changed its meaning, even while reporting quite
o was
a different theory, without giving the reader warning. If xiaOtcc
used by the author of the
greater need of comment than e'Ma'1rTcO.
It seems to me justifiable, then, to believe that the syllables stand for
one type of complex only, perceptible things, and that knowledge is
somehow to be defined in terms of their analysis into sensible simples.
If this is true, it seems likely that the theory will turn out to be both
unsophisticated and unsatisfactory. If all the elements are sensible,
only by the back door. All
relational terms will find their way into a ?O6yo;
that is included in the structure of a 'syllable' will be left out of account.
Now this is just the point which Aristotle seems to be making at the
end of MetaphysicsZ (I 7. I 041 b 9-3 3), when after giving an analysis of the
question what is X, e.g. a house (ibid. I04I a 32 -b9), which prepares for
his own answer that it is a certain kind of matter organised in a particular way by its form, he introduces the syllable as an instance of a
complex which, like house, is a single whole and not a heap, and criticises
certain attempts to analyse compounds which echo in an interesting -way
the different accounts of the relation of letters to syllables considered
in the Theaetetus.
The first mistake is to say that the syllable simply is its letters. This,
Aristotle points out, is untrue because when their union is dissolved
the syllable no longer exists but the letters remain. This view seems to
correspond exactly to Socrates' first interpretation of the 'dream'
Aristotle then argues that the syllable must consist of
(203 c4ff.).

tCL and describes two errors

something else besides its letters, E'repov
for that
which may be made about this. It cannot itself be a aoqLxeZov
will lead to an infinite regress. We shall have to say that the syllable is

composed of its letters plus the r'p'V 'n, and so to ask all over again
what is the principle which unites them. Nor yet may we say that the
E'T?pOv't is itself a complex of letters (ex ar?oX?lou), for then we are
back where we started. We shall have to ask about the &tepo'v'n what
we asked about the syllable, what is its principle of unity. Both these
views seem to be reflected in Socrates' alternative interpretation
(203 e 2ff.), though neither is identical with it. This is that the syllable

is something other than its letters,



a single

nature that has come from them with a character of its own. This
account might be interpreted in two ways. It might mean that the
syllable is a kind of epiphenomenon which comes into being when letters
combine or that it is a structured complex including, but not reducible
to, its letters. The first view is that which Socrates presses on Theaetetus
when by stoutly identifying the 'whole' with the 'all' he shows that the
letters cannot be parts of such a nature or we shall be driven back to our
first alternative (2o4a i-20gb 3), and it leads to the conclusion that the
syllable is itself yet another simple which possesses all the negative
properties of a letter (20gb 8-e 7). If we accept Socrates' argument, we
can resist his conclusion only at the cost of maintaining that the syllable
is its letters plius such a 9Tsp6v TL. The second view seems to be that for
which Theaetetus is feeling when he tries to resist Socrates' identification of the notions -o 7cFvand to 6)ov (2o4a ii-b3 and 2o4e1I-13).
He seems obscurely aware (cf. ibid. 2o4.b 2 f.) that the tI?pov rt he has
in mind is neither a simple nor an aggregate of simples but a structured
whole, but finds nothing in the 'dreamed' theory to help him make
clear to himself the relations involved in such a unity. The problem of
relating letters to syllable Aristotle believes he can solve with the help
of the notions of (proximate) matter and form, which at the end of Z he
identifies with o'utc, that which makes a thing what it is. Form actualises the relations between the material elements which they already
possess potentially. No further link is needed.'
It is doubtless open to us to argue that the views criticised by Aristotle
were put forward by some nameless contemporaries and have no light
to throw on the theory of the Theaetetus. Their similarity to the ideas
elicited by Socrates from the 'dream', it may be suggested, itself
1 Met.Z.



Cf. also e.g. ibid. H. 6. 1o4Sa23-S.

1 31

incomplete, is largely due to the analogyof letters and syllables, which

is one of Aristotle's favourite sources of illustration; the views themselves may have been expressed in quite other terms. There is, moreover, one major discrepancy. In his introductory passage Aristotle




that his own theory about the

structureof compoundsimplies the existence of elements which he calls

simples, and says cannot be analysedbut are discovered by some other
method of enquiry, but when he comes to describe the analyseswhich
he believes to be mistaken, so far from stressingthe absolute sinmplicity
of the elements, he cites as examples the parts of flesh, fire and
earth, which might themselves be treated as composites (ibid. io041b


This discrepancydoes not seem fatal to the belief that Aristotle has in
mind the 'dreamed' theory. Flesh also is one of his stock instancesof a
auvoTov,,as are fire and earth of primaryelements, and since his purpose
in stating the views he criticises is to reveal the virtues of his own
theory, we need not be surprisedif he selects only some of the points
which interested Plato. There are, moreover, other passages in the
whole long discussion of definition in Z and H which suggest that he
His insistence
had been thinking about the last section of the Theaetetus.
in Z. I E. 1040 a 27 ff. thatuniqueobjectslike the sunandmooncannot
be defined recalls the passagewhere Socratescites, as an instanceof the
last of the senses consideredof X6yovao5vo,t,the attempt to distinguish
rcv xcrro 'rbv
the sun from everything else as r"OXopwpoTOCToV...
and in H. 2. 1o433a14ff. he
LOVTWV 7tepi yiV
criticises those who define 'house' by listing its physical parts, MLOM,,
7rvOot, ux, just the kind of analysis suggested by Socrates in 206 es207a7 in his restatement of the 'dream' in a less subtle form. A cart is
'TpoxoL, Mv
UiYp'?Opb, &vruyg, Vuy6v.Even if Aristotle is considering at the end of Z views put forward in his own time, it seems
likely that he traced them back to the discussion of the Theactetus,and
interpreted the 'dream' as an attempt to answer questions of the form
what is X, where X is, like house, a perceptible object.
By itself the passage from Z takes us no further than this. For Aristotle's
theory that ouascxis form is applied within a wide field of enquiry and
might be contrasted with more than one kind of analysis of objects. It
forms the basis of a metaphysical theory of the structure of cn$vo?Xand
of a theory of definition which states all but their bare particularity, and
Aristotle recognises that the study of alOqraoi
in Z. ii. 1037aI3ff.
oua5at is the proper concern of the physicist.
1 32

It is as a physicist's theory that Burnet 1 and Taylor 2, following

Campbell 3, have interpreted the 'dream', the work of some Pythagorean
like Ecphantos of Syracuse, and Taylor seems to have understood the
ideas criticised by Aristotle at the end of Z in the same way.4 But such
an interpretation fits only that part of Aristotle's account which is at
variance with the 'dream'. For if, as Taylor suggests, the simples which
its author had in mind were something like the two different kinds of
triangle out of which Timaeus in the dialogue builds up the regular
solids which are to compose all bodies, these are certainly not such that
they can be named only but not described, nor yet are the atoms of
Ecphantos of Syracuse, for these are said to possess distinguishing
properties of size, shape and capacity.5 There is nothing in the account
of the errors at the end of Z except perhaps Aristotle's instance, flesh,
which suggests Pythagorean origin, and in H6 one at least of the mistakes
considered, that of identifying a aCSvOeaL;
or principle of arrangement
with its parts, is treated as analogous to that of defining man as animal
and two-footed. The ideas which Aristotle contrasts with his own he
seems to regard as belonging, if not to a theory of definition consciously
intended as such, at least to one which might be presented as a theory of
It has been widely believed, though not without objections from some
scholars, that Aristotle himself sets us on the road to an answer by
identifying Antisthenes with the author of the 'dream'. For in H. 3.
1043b23 ff., in a chapter so loosely constructed that the movement of
thought is hard to trace, he suggests tlhat certain of the points he has
been making give colour to a difficulty about definition which troubled
the followers of Antisthenes. They believed that it was not possible to
define the essence of anything since a definition was a X6yoo p.mxp6q,but
Burnet, GreekPhilosophy,pp. 2 5 1- 3.
Taylor, Plato, the AManand his Work, pp. 34E-6 and A Commentaryon Plato's Tiniaeus.,
on 48b 8, pp. 306-8.
3 Campbell, Introduction to TheTheaetetus
of Plato, p. xxxix.
4 Taylor identifies with the 'dream' the theory criticised by Aristotle in Mct. H. 3. 04.3
b4ff., which appears to be a restatement of the analyses examined at the end of Z (A
Comm.on Plato's Timaeus,p. 307).
5 Cf. Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker,6 sr. i. TrO tY nv7rqr &.8aperac
H &M ra
pcO)XXCy QCUv ?pelq D7rpXELV, pryeooq
e1VaL, a(O,





have no means of distinguishing the theories of his followers from those of


' 33

it was possible to say what a thing was like, e.g. to describe silver as
like tin. If we follow the punctuationaccepted by Ross, putting a light
stop after xaocrrepo0 at I o433b28, Aristotle then expands their thought
by saying 'And so there is one kind of substance of which there may be
definition and X6yoq, composite substance, whether it is perceptible or
intelligible, but of its first constituents definition is no longer possible,
if the defining formula predicates something of something else and one of
the two must play the part of matter and the other of form'.
Here, it seems, we have the essential contrast of the 'dream' between
a crvOcov and its first elements, TM np&rm,and an affirmation, in the
second part of the sentence at least, that only composites can be defined
by a Xo?yoq.Moreover, the bit about saying what a thing is like seems to
be admirably illustrated by Theaetetus' suggestion that sigma is 'a sort
of hissing noise' (203 b -), and one of the phrases used in the 'dream',
otxdo0 Xoyoq, recalls the other of the two important notices about
Antisthenes in Aristotle, the one describing his refusal to allow that
contradiction is possible on the grounds that nothing can be stated or
referred to except by its oixeZoq X6yo0qone expression for each thing
(Met. A. 29. Io24b 32-4).
If Aristotle really does attribute the theory of the 'dream' to Antisthenes,
we have little hope of finding a clue to its character in its provenance.
Fior the sounder parts of ancient tradition about him are notoriously
thin, and the perilous attempts made to fill out our knowledge of him
by detecting further references to his ideas in other Platonic dialogues
such as the CrayItIsand Sophisthave produced essentially different pictures
of the problems which interested him and his solution of them.
On exanmination, however, the passage from H. 3 strongly resists
assimilation to the 'dream'. As soon as one bit is comfortably interpreted
on these lines, another slips out of place. It is difficult to relate the two
parts of the whole sentence 6atr ' &7ropt ... XtaL'[rpoq and 6'cT



or even the two main limbs of the first part,

6,rt oux ?a-nt %n gi'a'tv opLacaOocand a?X7 rrotovpYv



In the second part it is clearly stated that only composites can be defined,
but in the first Antisthenes seems to be denying the possibility of all
definition, as indeed is suggested by the instance silver, if this was really
borrowed from Antisthenes, for silver, though homogeneous, is composite in so far as it admits of predicates like grey, hard, malleable and
so forth. On the other hand ro tL ea'rTlv,the formula of definition, is
contrastedwith totov... 'L eaTtV, which appearsto answerto Theaetetus'
attempt to indicate the nature of a simple.

The parenthesisTO'vyap o!povVyov cNrat ptcxp6v should provide us

with our best clue to Aristotle's meaning, but this contains one phrase,
Xoyov[i.Cxpov, which has been variously interpreted. It will not do, it
seems to me, to follow Field' in taking this to mean 'a roundabout
formula', which indicates something by comparing it to something else.
For on this view Aristotle's statement of Antisthenes' thought becomes
intolerably obscure. We have without assistance to understand not only
that in the first part of the sentence Aristotle tacitly limits definition to
definition of simples but also that by ro-v opov in the parenthesis he
means not 'definition' at all but 'so-called definition', something which
he is contrasting with definition proper, the attempt to say what a
thing is like.
The interpretation suggested by Ross in his note to H. 3. io43b242
enables us to take oux tarL TO Ltv
ocaoL as a denial of the
possibility of definition in general, and to give an attested meaning to
?oyoq paxpoq. Antisthenes, he suggests, finds definition unsatisfactory
because 'it explains its subject only by reference to elements themselves
&XoyaxoK&yvwora, and is thus but a ?o6yo4pccxpo6, a diffuse and evasive
criticising those who
answer to a question'. In Met. N. 3. i09ia7ff.,
posit two kinds of number, ideal and mathematical, Aristotle describes
their theory as 6o Sc[v[ou
yap 0
[iaxpk Xo?yoq,and adds yLyvetorL
&(yL xeyGLv.
paxpoq ?o6yogca0rC?p6o-6v 8o6UXv6rXv ,EV
But on this view Socrates' refutation of the 'dreamed' theory seems
to be swallowed up within the theory itself, whereas in the Theaetetus
ability to 'give an account of' composites is represented as full knowledge.3
Besides, we have to suppose that after attributing to Antisthenes a denial
of the possibility of all definition Aristotle so far anticipates the argument
as to add a phrase, &?OX'
,7oiov V.6v ' xrX, which refers only to simples,
and then gives after a &'OrT(1. 28) some of the information we need to
understand the first part of the sentence. A yap not a w'are seems to be
the particle of connection we need here.
On either view we have still to reckon with the difficulty stressed by
Festugiere 4, the presence in the second part of the sentence of two
1 G. C. Field, Plato and'his Contemporaries,p. l 66. He believes that the whole passage

ending at tLopq?fv (1. 32) refers to Antisthenes, but makes no attempt to connect it
with the 'dream'.
2 Aristotle'sMetaphysics,Vol. II, pp. 232-3.
3 Tht. 202 C 3-S. 7rpooa)oc6v?rxm
8i )%yov8uvarov te '=ctTio nckvTr yeyovivoct xxtl 're)ec(q

A.-J. Festugiere,Revue des Sciences Philosophiqueset


p. 373.


i} 1 (11.
Tv orI
29-30) and the whole of the clause beginning e'Ttp r' x'T'r TLV&..
(11. 30-33). Both of these seem inapplicableto Antisthenes' theory, if
that is identified with the 'dream'. In the Theaetetus(202 b 6) Socrates
recognises only one type of simples, o1aOaT'C,and Aristotle's doctrine
of the complexity of definition 2, which must contain at least two parts,
genus and differentia, related to each other as matter to form, implies a
hierarchy within the simples for which no allowance seems to be made
in the 'dream'.
Gillespie's interpretation avoids most of these difficulties. For he cites 3
as relevant to Antisthenes only the first part of the passage, the part
(1. 28), and supposes that he is there said to
which ends at xC'TL-repOq
deny only the possibility of defining simples, which are exemplified by
silver, he suggests 4, because that is treated as an instance not of a
substance but of a quality. Antisthenes' view rests on a very simple
metaphysic which holds that only one kind of object can exist in its own
right, the concrete perceptible individual, and on a logic which admits
only two senses of the verb 'to be', the first of which is contained in the
second, 'to exist' and 'to be identical with'. 'S is P' to Antisthenes
contains the judgment' the thing called S exists', and is formally correct
only if S is a concrete individual and P either a simple name for it or a
list of its component parts i.e. a complex name, a X6yoq p.cxxpo'.
Definition is computation of aggregates, and the parts taken by themt
selves are abstractions which cannot be said to exist or to be this or thaor made the subject of any proposition whatever5. Gillespie is thus
enabled to link the passage from Met. H. 3 with Socrates' description of
the elements in the Theaetctus,as with the rather similar description in
the Sophist (2s2 C 2 ff.) of the consequences of treating the copula 'is'
as the 'is' of identity.6
The passage from the Theaetetuscannot easily be interpreted in this
way. If Gillespie were right, we should expect the verb 'to be' to be
given special treatment, for such statements as 'that is X', where X is a
sirnple, are on this view inadmissible only because they imply that X
Met. H. 6. 1045 a 3 3 ff. latrL gi cAl
Cf. e.g. Met. Z. I 2. 1o38a i ff.
Arch. Gcsch. Philos. xxvi ( I 9 1 2- 3), p. 48o.


4 Ibid. XXVii (1913-4),

r Ibid. xxvii, pp. 2 5 ff.

6 Ibid. xxvi, p. 48 iff.
1 36





exists in its own right. But the reason Socrates gives why no element can
be said either to be or not to be is exactly the same as that whereby he
explains the inadmissibility of every other predicative statement about
them, the fact that all the terms mentioned are applicable to other
things.l Socrates' description appears to have no metaphysical basis at
all but to be an attempt to make clear by a series of negative statements
the absolute simplicity of the elements which defeats ordinary modes
of description.
It is also difficult to understand how on Gillespie's interpretation, as
indeed on those of Field and Ross, Aristotle's observations about
Antisthenes are to be screwed into their context. If those are right, as I
believe they are, who treat o43b 14-23 as a digression, these observations in somnesense follow from the long discussion of definition which
has occupied most of the earlier part of H.2 In this discussion Aristotle
has continued his examination of substance, above all the substance of
perceptibles, including those of artefacts and of natural substances in a
temporary state like ice, in whose differentiae, often some principle of
3, he finds not substance itself but something
arrangement or auvO0aLx
akin to substance. In 1043 a i4ff. he has made the point that those who
define something as an aggregate of physical parts mention only the
matter of the compound: in io43b4ff. he recalls the other two of the
errors discussed at the end of Z, again using the analogy of letters and
syllables but replacing the phrase trepov-rLby the word aivOsCUL.
Those who suppose that the syllable is composed of its letters plus a
1 Tht.20 1 e 2- 202 a 8.
2 G. M. A. Grube has argued in the Transactionsof the AmericanPhilological Association,
lxxxi, (I 950), p. 21 ff. that the remarks about Antisthenes, which he believes end at
,LaLxp6v(1. 26), are closely connectea with the passage punctuated by Bonitz and Ross
as a digression. In this passage Aristotle raises the question whether preceptible substances
can exist apart. 'The point is', Grube suggests, 'the difficulty of establishing the substance
of a thing, particularly of artificial compounds, which may not be substance in the proper
sense at all'. The remarks about Antisthenes are relevant in so far as doubts of this kind
give colour to his suggestion that definition is impossible since it is substance that we try
to define. In 1043 b 26, he believes, Aristotle himself continues 'but it is possible to say
what a thing is like etc.'
But silver is a poor instance of an artificial compound, and Aristotle has already made
it plain that even in artefacts there is something which corresponds to genus and
In any case
differentia and makes it possible to define them. (cf. e.g. H. 2. 1043a2-14).
a difficulty about one limited type of o6voXacseems inisufficient to justify even modified
approval of Antisthenes' position.
3 Met.H. 2. 1o42bi5ff.


auvOeatcor' that the aCuM0eacis composed of its letters both treat the
differentia or form of a thing as matter, and so necessarily fail to get at
its substance. For this reason, he continues, (if we bracket I o43 b I 4-23),
the difficulty raised by Antisthenes' followers has some point.
If we suppose with Bonitz that the reference to Antisthenes ends at
XoCTT'Tepog (1. 28), and that he is said to deny the possibility of any
kind of definition, the movement of thought seems intelligible. If, as
the views just criticised by Aristotle suggest, definition is no more than
a thoroughly democratic citation of simple elements, then Antisthenes
is right in thinking definition 'a long story' which necessarily fails to
show how qualities are put together to form one thing. We can say that
silver is greyish, hard, fusile and so on, and that there is some principle
of arrangement, but if we want not merely to name this principle but to
indicate what it is, the best we can do is to invite a simple act of intuition by saying that silver is like tin and so suggesting that it has the
characteristic structure of a metal.
If, however, we suppose with Gillespie that Antisthenes denied only
the possibility of defining simples, it is hard to see in what sense his
'difficulty' zXt 'ncvcxxYctpOv. If Antisthenes believed that definition
was computation, he was himself making one of the mistakes which
Aristotle has just criticised. A similar difficulty seems to arise on Field's
interpretation. On the other hand, if Antisthenes believed that all
definition was unsatisfactory because the simples themselves were
unknowable, his theory seems no more relevant to the points Aristotle
has been making than that of anyone else whose views might be thought
to imply the impossibility of definition e.g. a Heracleitean.
It seems to me, then, that we are better justified in supposing that in
the second &are sentence (1. 2 8 if.) Aristotle reaffirms his own view of
the nature of definition, and that the 6oare introduces an inference, not
from the preceding sentence, nor indeed from the last sentence before
the digression, but from the difficulties into which erroneous ideas
about definition have been shown to lead us. In a chapter as loosely
constructed as H. 3. this seems to me not unnatural, and so interpreted
his remarks about the definition of compounds lead on smoothly to the
where Aristotle finds certain
passage which follows (1043b32ff.),
analogies between definition and number, one of which is that both are
divisible and into indivisible parts.
This seems to be Aristotle's meaning in spite of the embarrassingy&kp
at b 7. We
might get out of the difficultyby taking?X t6uTov in this line to mean not 'composed
of' but 'in the numberof', as does Bonitz, but the objection of Ross seems cogent: Ax
hasjust been used in line S in the former sense.


The passages from Z and H thus appear to lend little support to the
view that the author of the 'dream' was Antisthenes but some grounds
for thinking that it may have been a theory of definition, or something
which might be developed into such a theory. The second of these
alternatives seems much the more likely. There is no trace in the
'dream' of either of the distinctions to which we should expect a
logician to give some recognition, if he were attempting an account of
definition, the distinction between accidental and essential attributes
and that between general and particular statements. Its author treats all
the elements as of equal importance, and while he evidently intends the
syllables to represent particulars, e.g. ourselves, he seems not to have
asked himself whether the object of knowledge is in each case an individual like Socrates or a member of a class like a man. At any rate
Socrates feels free to refer his attempts to restate the 'dream' now to individuals, now to members of a class. The last version offered is an analysis
of acquaintance with individuals like the sun or Theaetetus (208 C 6ff.),
but in 2 o6 e Sff. Socrates presents the less subtle form of the theory as an
attempt to enumerate the 'letters' not of an individual, e.g. this cart, but
of an instance of a given type, a cart. What the author of the 'dream'
seems to be analysing is not definition consciously regarded as such but
direct acquaintance with objects rendered explicit in description.
It seems to me likely indeed that the 'dream' is not a theory at all in
the grander sense of the word, not, I mean, a fragment of some contemporary system of philosophy, but an ad hoc contribution to a discussion or series of discussions in which it is assumed throughout that
knowledge is some kind of awareness of objects -which may be illustrated
by acquaintance with persons. I shall argue that we have some grounds
for believing in the reality of such a discussion and for thinking that
it may have taken place in the Academy itself not long before Plato
wrote the Theaetetusand Parmenides.
The most striking thing about the 'dream' is that for all that it is
offered as an answer to Socrates' demand for a general definition of
knowledge its range is strictly limited; it leaves out of account not only
the abstract sciences like mathematics but also much that belongs to
knowledge of the perceptible world, the skills of craftsmen and
knowledge of facts which involve the interrelation of more than one
object. What it does attempt to do is to distinguish knowledge of things
like persons from two other states in which the mind seems to be
directly aware of objects, viz. perception and true ao'cx. Now this is a
problem which we have reason to believe was exercising Plato at the


time when he composed the Theaetetus,a direct consequence of the

assumption, which underlies most, if not all, the arguments of the
dialogue1, that knowledge is some kind of direct awareness of objects.
In his earlier dialogues, above all the Republic, while it seems highly
unlikely that Plato would have been content to defineknowledge as direct
acquaintance with Forms, he still found no difficulty in distinguishing
knowledge from thought about the perceptible world since ex hypothesi
knowledge was correlated with quite a different set of objects. In the
Theaetetushis position has changed. He now seems prepared to bring the
perceptible world within the range of knowledge. This is implied by the
conclusion, nowhere refuted, to which Socrates is brought at the end
of his final argument against Theaetetus' first hypothesis (I 86 d 2 ff.) that
knowledge is to be found, not indeed in our O-wNpcro, but in reasoning
about our xOora, and also by the recognition in 20 ib7 ff. that only
an eyewitness has knowledge of a crime. At the same time he has
become baffled by two specific Mbropea which seem to bar the way to
definition of knowledge no matter whether its objects are supposed to
be perceptible or intelligible.2 These are the problems raised in the
digression on false judgment, the problem of explaining how a man can
have an object before his mind without instantly knowing it (i88aic 7), and how a man can think at all without having an object before his
the implication of which seems to be that it is
mind (I88c9-I89b8),
impossible to distinguish knowledge from any other kind of thought
about an object. In the final refutation of Theaetetus' first hypothesis
(I 84b 4-I86 e i o) Plato makes Socrates find a way of distinguishing
in the sense bare sensation, uninformed by
knowledge from oeXa-0jcnq
thought of any kind, but he leaves unsolved the problems of the digression.
The problems raised by such a change in Plato's position were of a
daunting kind. What was wanted was a complete revision of the theory
of Forms and of the theory of the nature of knowledge associated with it,
and the task was made no easier for his pupils if, as seems more than
likely, he had discussed with them the difficulties involved in relating
Forms to particulars which occupy the first part of the Parmenides.One
of its effects, I suggest, was to encourage some of his pupils to forget all
There are passages in which knowledge is correlated with facts rather than things e.g.
i58a g-b4 and 201 a4ff. but throughout facts are readily assimilated to things-witness
the whole digression on false judgement (I 87d iff).
2 As Plato shows in his comment on the Wax Block theory (Ig9e I f.),
these problems
stand even if the supposed objects of knowledge are not perceptibles but intelligibles,
the numbers of pure arithmetic.


about Forms for a time and to tackle the still unsolved problem of
relating knowledge not only to sensation but also to true 80E,ocby
analysing a familiar and apparently simpler sort of knowledge, our
acquaintance with particulars like ourselves. Acquaintance with persons
is treated very much as the standard type of knowledge both in the
digression on false judgment (i88 b7 ff.) and in the discussion of the final
sense of ?O6yo4(2ogb2 ff.). It looks as if it may have been common
practice in the Academy of the time to treat is as a test case.
The author of the 'dream', then, I suggest, had no far-reaching system
of logic or metaphysics to put forward but simply an idea. He thought
that he had found in the notion of spelling a syllable a way of distinguishing knowledge, as exhaustive enumeration of simple elements, at once
from bare recognition of simple sensible qualities and from that inarticulate notion of a complex with which true ao'6 seems to be
identified. As Cornford suggests in a note on page I45 of his Plato's
Theory of Knowledge, the use of TLVo0 in the clause OT-nvp.ev ouv Xveu
(2o2 b 8) makes it look as if
X6you Trrv &XOJO
TnV64't )Xc
Ro6a should be translated here 'impression' or 'notion' rather than
'judgment'. In the first instance, I believe, the author of the 'dream'
intended to identify the syllable with all its letters1; the second view of
the syllable considered in 203 e 2ff. may reflect an attempt made either
by the author of the 'dream' or by some one else not so much to restate
the original idea as to save the analogy. So interpreted the 'dream' has
certain plausibility. The simplicity of the elements, on which the stress
of the theory comes, appears to exclude error at the level of ttaojaLsg,
and to reduce the element of thought in knowledge to nothing more
perilous than exhaustive citation while at the same time satisfying the
old demand that knowledge should in some sense be specially explicit,
capable 'of giving an account of' itself.
There are, it seems to me, several facts about the theory and its
presention which support an Academic origin. The analogy of letters
and syllables seems to have been early associated with the Platonic
School. We learn from for instance Met. A. 4. 98gbI3ff. that the
Atomists Leucippus and Democritus used letters and syllables to illustrate
the different combinations of which atoms are capable, but Simplicius,
commenting on Aristotle's Physics2,tells us on the authority of Eudemus
Such a view of the relation of letters to syllable seems prima facie to be implied by the
notion of spelling a syllable. Cf. e.g. 203a6-9, and in his attempt to restate the
'dream' in 286e sff. Socrates retains this part of the theory.
2 In AristotelisPhysicorumI, Prooemium,p.
(Diels) 7twv oye H1&rov -rd Te
7, 11. 10-I4


that Plato was the first to use arotXeZo to mean 'elements', the sense he
gives to the word in the Sophist (252b Iff.), Politicus (278c8ff.) and
Timaetus(48b3if.). Nor does it seem to have established itself as a
philosopher's term before Aristotle, for although he makes such
frequent use of it himself, on several occasions he feels it necessary to
comment on the metaphor. In Met. A 3. I 01 4a 3 2 for instance we find
him saying at tov
aTo?XsZc ?ey6uaLv o'L ?eyov'r?, and in
De Partibus Animalium 646 a I 3ff. he speaks of 'Cov xoc?ouevuv Uto
'wLv(v atoLXeLwv,while in Met. N. I. I087 b -2 If. he seems to include
Plato himself, some Platonists
amongst those who call &PX; (TrtLXELoC
and (perhaps) Pythagoreans."
Much that is curious about the presentation of the 'dream' becomes
easier to understand if we may suppose that it was put forward to be
criticised and corrected in discussion and not borrowed from some
well-known figure like Antisthenes. First of all we have to explain
Socrates' uncertainty about the authorship of the theory. It is not merely
that whereas in 2o Ie I he speaks of hearing it from TLVCOV, in 202 e 7
he replaces the plural by tov e1n6vto a Xeyop.evand in 20 g e 6 by the still
but that in the passage beginning at 2 o6 c 7
more indefinite 'a xv X?yn,
he feels no scruple about introducing some new attempts to interpret
Theaetetus' formula, leaving us doubtful whether we are to distinguish
the tLq of the latter from the ttvS4 of the 'dream', and this although
Theaetetus has already accepted the 'dreamed' theory as just the one he
had in mind (202 c 5-6). Such inconsistency in presentation is, as far as
know, unparalleled in Plato and a problem in itself. It will hardly do to
argue, as did Jackson 2, that Theaetetus' -rq must be distinct from
Socrates' ?Lveq just because after the overthrow of the theory of the
Tive4 it is still found necessary to examine the theory of the mt. We
need some explanation of the incongruity. We have too to understand
how it was that Plato felt free to let Socrates and Theaetetus strike out
between them three different interpretations of the relation between
letters and syllables 3, and why he left Socrates' account so tantalisingly




too in

202 d Iff.

that to-day

perhaps he and Theaetetus have got hold of the answer for which many
xad T5v 'EXevrtxcOvri Tb6 CarOCIapoV npoxyayxv 'rT 'r u7p dV
xat yevy1tOL r't& ctOTXetcCeLq &Px,c tV
c TaO'q
OTOL C nprOwto aUko
&px(q, 44 o6EU18 ?

VideRoss, Commentaryon 11. x6 and I7-I8, p. Vol. II, 471.

Journalof Philology,XIII( 8 8), p. 2 62.


wise men have searchedin vain seems an odd comment to make on a set
of ideas ostensibly borrowed.
If, however, by the device of the dream Socratesand Theaetetus are
allowed to overhear a later discussion of their naturalheirs, it is not
surprisingthat Plato should so far identify them with the author of the
'dream' as to give them a brief moment of self-congratulation,nor that
at 2o6c7 Socrates should enter the discussion as a direct participant.
The uncertaintyaboutthe authorshipof the theoryandits incompleteness
and fluidity all become easier to understandif Plato is recalling a suggestion put forwardin discussionrather than a piece of solid reasoning.
iwe are not surprisedif some one presents a theory with
In discussion
loose ends, as the author of the 'dream' seems to do when in his description of the simpleshe awakensour interest in terms like 'being' and
'this' and 'each' to which he makes no reference in his account of the
complexes, nor that when a weakness has been uncovered in a theory
based on a promising analogy, its author or sonmeone else present
should try to deal with the difficulty, not by makinga new start, but
by reshapingthe analogy,whateverthe cost to the originaltheory.
The theory was of interest to Plato, I suggest, not because it showed
any insight or subtlety but because he found its analogy fruitful and
reflection on mistakes made in the use of the analogysuggested a new
line of enquiry whlichenabledhim, not indeed to define knowledge, but
at least to remove the second of the two stumblingblocks to definition
which we are brought up against in the digression on false judgmnent,
and to deal effectively with related problems of logic.
The theory is shown to break down for two different but related
reasons, its insistence on the absolute simplicity of the elements and
its unrealistic use of its own analogy. By positing elements of only one
kind and those absolutely simple xa%nycx,it makes it impossible for
the mind to relate them as members of a complex. Whether we treat
the 'syllable' as the sum of its 'letters' or as a kind of epiphenomenon,
we find ourselves left, not with a description of things or persons, but
The theory assumes the identiwith some loose congeries of &Xoyoc.
fication of two different conceptions of letters. In the first part, the
description of simples, letters seem to be treated as isolated sounds,
audible sense data, in the second cx hypothesithey are symbols which
spell a syllable. But before the mind can relate soundsin this way it must
If the letters are to be treated
alreadyhave made certainother judgmnents.
as no more than units in a sum, they must be recognisedas numerically
distinct, if ranged in a particularorder, as diverse from or similar to

each other. This weaknessin the theory Plato bringshome to the reader
not only by working out its consequencesbut also, I believe by juxtaposition and contrast. For the 'dream' is presented as if it might be
considered as a response to the challenge contained in Socrates' conclusion in I 86 d 2 ff. that knowledge is to be found, not in our 7o=6oTo,
but in reasoning about our wncasoc. Although the digression is to
intervene, this conclusion leads on directly to the suggestion that
knowledge is true aoRoc(i 87b4ff.) on which the 'dream' seems to be
offered as an improvement. The theory fails because it finds no room
amongst its elements for just those concepts like unity and diversity
which Socrates has argued show that we must look for knowledge in
reasoning and not sensation since they are discovered by the mind and
not by the senses (i 84e4-I 8ge 7), and include one concept, being,
which has a peculiar relation to truth and so to knowledge (i 86 c 7- I o).
In his second attack on the theory (206 a i f.) Socrates suggests that
the mistake is the result of abstracting acquaintance with letters from
the skills of reading and writing. No one who remembers his own
experience as a child really supposes that grammatical knowledge means
ability to construct syllables out of letters which are simply 'given'. The
important thing is to learn to recognise letters in written and spoken
words without being misled by change of context. This leads on to
another conclusion. Knowledge may be tested by the particular instance
but it is not limited to any particular instance. This point is further
developed in Socrates' refutation of his own restatement of the 'dream'
in 2o7d3if.; no one admits that a man has knowledge when he has
reached the stage at which he spells a syllable correstly in one word
and gets it wrong in another.
If grammatical knowledge provides a true analogy, it looks as if the
ultimate elements of thought cannot be isolated simples nor yet of one
kind only nor yet particular, and in the Sophist (2s2eI-264b3)
of the
makes an effective attack on the second of the two MbtopEoc
digression, as on the related problem of negative statement, with the
help of an argument which rests on just these conclusions and explores
further the analogy from yp%1[tmux%. For his success in distinguishing
the 'is' of predication from the 'is' of existence, which makes their
solution possible, depends on the recognition that no predicate is an
isolated simple but each is related to all other attributes by compatibility,
implication or exclusion, or, to use his nmetaphors, each yevoq combines or refuses to combine with the rest because it partakes of two y'VY
of a special kind, the Same and the Different. J7kvj, he points out

e 9ff.), behave like letters, some of which will fit together while
others are incapable of union, and somie again may be compared to
vowels which act as a 8ae4o enabling the rest to combine. It is the
business of the dialectician, as of the ypoy{u=x-mo, to discover the
laws of combination, certain of which explain both negative statement
and error, while others,provide the basis for the new method of aLtipsmq.
That Plato had already in mind such a distinction between different
types of concepts when he wrote of the 'dream' is suggested by a curious
bit of detail in his statement of the Aviary Theory of which he makes no
use at all in the Theaetetus. In 197d4ff. he distinguishes three sorts of
birds in the aviary of the mind which behave in different ways, some
flying about in flocks, sonme in small groups, while others again are
singletons which make their way everywhere through the rest. These
seem to answer exactly to the types of y6v-ndistinguished in the Sophist,
those related as species, many or few, of a genus, and those like Being
and the Same and the Different which combine as singletons with
every other yevo4.
Plato's interest in the 'dream' was, I suggest, mutatis mutandis miuch
the sanmeas that of Aristotle. It made plain by its errors the importance
of those elements of thought which might be called 'structural'. As I
have attempted to argue elsewhere 1, this could not lead on to a general
definition of knowledge because Plato's uncertainty about the status of
Forms made it inmpossible for him to decide whether the relations
between yevn explored in the Sophist were real relations between
supra-sensible realities or potential relations realised only in particular
cases. His conviction that knowledge is a form of direct awareness of
objects, from which he seems not to have freed himself even in the
Sophist, may have inclined 1himto the first of these alternatives, but his
theory of the interrelation of yrvn, if pressed into metaphysics, would
have produced results even more intolerable than those discussed in the
first part of the Parmcnides. His approach to a definition of knowledge in
real life, as in the Theaetetus, seems to have been asymptotic, but the
'dream' was one of the factors which gave his thought direction and
(2 s2

Journalof HellenicStudies,LXXVIIPart 1,
Knowledgeand Forms in Plato's Theaetetus,

Lady MargaretHall, Oxford.