Project Details


Since the early twentieth century there have emerged, effectively, three ways of reading Plato's ideas about knowledge. All can be seen as responses to developments in modern analytic philosophy and fashionable kinds of pragmatism and anti-realism. If we suppose (as is customary) that truth is a property of propositions, and that knowledge is a propositional attitude, and that when we speak of propositions being "true" this truth might derive from the coherence of the set of propositions rather than their relation to a mind-independent world, and if we suppose that the world is inaccessible to thought except through language, or is in some sense constructed in language, then knowledge takes on a kind of linguistic character. Since Plato had traditionally been read as a realist, and his account of knowledge in what we call the Middle Period seemed to focus on knowledge of things, particularly Forms, not knowledge in the form of propositions couched in language, Plato suddenly looked deeply unfashionable.
Three ways to defend him have emerged. One is to react against twentieth century analytic philosophy, and to reassert, on Plato's behalf, the need for realism, for the existence of a mind-independent world that is the truth-maker, and the need for an account like Plato's to explain how we grasp objective concepts that are not mere human constructs. A second way is to concede that Plato once held a two-world view which separated knowledge from belief, but that later he saw faults in his earlier theories and revised them in the Theaetetus and Sophist. A third way is to suggest that Plato never had an acquaintance model of knowledge, never posited Forms, did not have a Two-World View: that he always conceived of knowledge as the ability to produce a proposition, and that truth is coherence among propositions.
The task of the present project is to show that none of these classic approaches gets Plato right, and none of them recognises just how *unlike* the concerns of analytic philosophy Plato's project is. Instead of forcing on Plato a reading that seems good by reference to preconceptions from modern philosophy, we need to correct our assumptions about what he should be saying.
In this monograph, designed to be iconoclastic for an academic audience in philosophy, I shall suggest that Plato does make a strong distinction between knowledge and opinion (or rather knowledge and "seeming") in both the Middle and the Later dialogues, and he does not think, even in the Later dialogues, that knowledge can be effectively reduced to, or defined in terms of, belief, or opinion, or "seeming", plus something. But I shall deny that the distinction between knowledge and opinion coincides exactly with the distinction between the sensible world and the intelligible world, or between immaterial Forms and material objects, or between universals and particulars, or between being and becoming. I shall test the hypothesis that Plato thinks of "knowing" as grasping a concept not as an instance of another kind but as what it is in itself. By contrast "seeming" or "perceiving" is what happens when we see something as an instance of some other kind, when we say other things about it, not what it is in itself but what features it has, or what type of thing it is, even if the "it" here is a Form or concept that can itself be instantiated in other things.
This seemingly simple move reveals a completely new way of reading what is happening in famous passages of Plato's Meno, Republic, Cratylus, Theaetetus and Sophist. It shows that Plato may be taking quite the opposite view from Socrates about the role of definitions and essences, and that he may be taking a view about images, art works, sense perception and the imagination diametrically opposed to what is usually found in the Republic. I shall argue that these views are not just brilliant for their time, but true and eye-opening for us now.
Effective start/end date1/08/1131/01/12


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: £39,847.00