- The Repeatable and the Unrepeatable: Žižek and the Future of the Humanities, or Assessing Socrates
I am not in any sense a wise man; I cannot claim as the child of my soul any discovery worthy of the name of wisdom. But with those who associate with me it is different. At first some of them may give the impression of being ignorant or stupid; but as time goes on and our association continues, all whom god permits are seen to make progress—a progress which is both amazing to other people and to themselves. And yet it is clear that this is not due to anything they have learned from me; it is that they discover within themselves a multitude of beautiful things, which they bring forth into the light.—Plato (Theaetetus, 150d, Cooper 1997, 167)
In Plato’s Theaetetus, Euclides and Terpison listen to a version of a dialogue between Socrates and the young Theaetetus that took place many years ago and is read by a slave. At the very moment the dialogue is being read, the now grown Theaetetus lies dying in Athens from a case of dysentery contracted while on campaign in Corinth. The copy of the dialogue read by the slave is not a transcript, it is rather a reconstruction, a kind of historical fiction. Euclides tells Terpison that he took some notes at the time he witnessed the discussion, but readily admits he was unable to recall the whole thing from memory. Rather, he went home and wrote down his initial recollections. Later, when on occasion he would journey from his home in Megara to Athens, he would consult with Socrates and then make corrections when he went back home. In this way, over an unspecified but clearly not short period of time, the dialogue came to have the form that the two men are portrayed as hearing and that we supposedly read today, even as [End Page 7] we know that this too is a fiction, since our author is Plato, not his imagined Euclides, let alone Socrates himself. Determinate authority is hard to locate in the Theaetetus, to say the least.
The subject of the dialogue is the nature of knowledge. Socrates approaches the young Theaetetus in the company of the geometer Theodorus and tries unsuccessfully to get each of them to offer a defensible definition of knowledge. A number of different formulations are essayed—knowledge is perception, knowledge is true judgment, knowledge is true judgment with an account (logos)—but all are ultimately found wanting (210b-d). This conclusion is an expression of the classic Socratic aporia, the moment of perplexity that many of the shorter and so-called early dialogues issue into, but which remains characteristic of the “Socratic method” even in what is generally considered a late Platonic dialogue concerned with more abstruse and technical philosophical matters.1 Indeed, the founder of Western philosophy as often as not produces no unambiguous results at the end of his inquiries, even the Republic itself is ultimately termed a fiction, a pattern laid up in heaven, certainly not an invariable prescription for political action, let alone a testable hypothesis (458a–b, 592a–b, 500c–501b). The Symposium too, for all its beautiful talk of love’s power to lead the lover to the ideal, ends not with the priestess Diotima, but the drunken Alcibiades, Socrates’s own former student and beloved (Hunter 2004, 10–11, 129–30; Wohl 2002, 163; Nehamas 1998, 61–68).
On a certain level then, Socrates as portrayed in the Theaetetus and elsewhere is a failure. Expressed in terms of the learning outcomes according to which higher education is increasingly being forced to assess itself—i.e., formalizable, repeatable data points representing operational knowledge, skill sets, and material mastery—Socrates is indeed an abject failure. As we learn in the Apology, all he knows is that he knows nothing. Given that he started in ignorance and ended there as well, his objectively measurable progress would be negligible at best. But this objection is more than a mere joke at the expense of our colleagues in Colleges of Education, for the question of...