The Rational Kernel of the Platonic Corpus

Lesson 4(b).Wherein in the dialogues: the obscure subject of education.

So, as mentioned in Lesson 4(a) what is very interesting about Socratic enquiry as it is played out in the dialogues is that Plato organises it around three different and ubiquitous statements.

I know nothing; I am not a teacher; what is X?

These statements have prescriptive force in the dialogues, opening the situation at the point of the encounter to the enquiries which follow. Obviously, they do not belong to the order of knowledge but are possible only as a consequence of the event.  It is by these statements the subject maintains its distance from the order of knowledge, the encyclopaedia. The statements give the enquiring subject(s) the means to orient themselves in this distance.

The state, as we know, exists as a prohibition on unbinding – particularly, in this case, the unbinding which association with Socrates threatens and works to foreclose such a possibility.

Obviously, these statements are anathema to the sophistic state in the sense that to utter them in the context of ‘education’ makes no sense. These statements are applicable to Socrates, the ‘differentiated proper name’, and no-one else.

These first two, to ‘know nothing’ and to ‘not teach’ are not statements available to the sophists whose whole raison d’être is caught up in the positive correlation of these to each other via the logic of exchange.

These statements immediately put the fullness of sophistic knowledge at a distance and instigate a separation between the utterer and the state.

Quite obviously, these can be said only in the context of a militancy which, using our terms, seeks to institute the subjective consequences of the evental name: a name that registers as an absurdity for the sophistic situation.

If the sophists profess to know, Socrates cannot know that knowing, as that knowing is itself an imitation of what it is to (truly) know.

If the imitators teach then Socrates cannot teach as both the form and the method imitate a form and a method and subject both to a concept (interest) to which truth is indifferent.

When sophistic knowledge and teaching contrive a result from the combination of these two which satisfies the order and the repetition of the state and not truth itself then Socrates statements are such that they ‘pierce a hole in this knowledge’. He declares, ‘what is the truth (X) of your knowledge?’

To the state, this is tautology and, as such, without answer. For Plato by contrast, it is the beginning of the recommencement of what must continue, which is to say, it is the beginning of the recommencement of participation. The upshot is that ‘Socrates’ can only be fruitfully encountered as ‘a way of thinking’. His statements help to construct that thought.

Moreover the ‘what is X?’ question (the one that particularly annoys everyone) – what is justice; what is love; what is knowledge, what is courage and so on –  displaces the sophistic ethic concerning the measure of all things. It asks something, or rather addresses something, which is never reducible to interest or perspective or to power. In fact, it functions in the dialogues more like an axiom than a question, following Aristotle, it is ‘that which is necessary in order to learn something else’. In this sense it is not a demand for a definition but its principle.

It is my contention that these three statements can be reduced to one: the claim to ignorance.

What Plato seems to have done here is construct a set of ‘obscure’ yet formal prescriptions. We can call them obscure because they attach only to Socrates ‘itself’, and yet, have a visible and obvious linguistic sense (if not a referent) within the Athens of the dialogues – teaching, knowledge and X (justice, virtue, the good, etc.).

For example, when Polus (a figure who, as a youth, is shown in the Gorgias to be capable of going either way – to stay with sophistry or to connect with Socrates) answers Chaeraphon’s question concerning what it is his master, Gorgias ‘is’, by describing him as the ‘teacher best at teaching a certain expertise’, Socrates intervenes saying, ‘but what is it that his art consists in’ (Grg.447d-448e)?

What we see here, by drama and content, is that it is an interventionist statement rather than a demand for a definition per se, especially given that the definition almost never comes. It breaks into the conversation too bogged down in sophistic circles (Polus has been mockingly ‘praised’ for the well rehearsed rhetorical style of his answer) and reissues a challenge to the discussants to renew again the investigation in discursive, enquiring or ‘evental’ terms. What Plato is gesturing toward when he deploys this obscure and axiomatic statement is surely the Form of whatever is under enquiry.

Parmenides says, ‘without Forms no thought and as such no discourse’ (Prm.135bc). In the Sophist, Plato says, ‘all discourse depends on the weaving together’ and ‘to rob us of discourse is to rob us of philosophy’ (Sph. 259e-260).

With this intervention Plato wants to provoke a re-animation of the discussion. The Form is that which is not subject to becoming. As such, its definition as opposed to its manifestation is not a matter of enquiry, being as it is always the same.  Rather, the subject of definition is what this Form conditions and is the name of.

This is why for Plato’s Parmenides the Forms are the reason all discourse and knowledge is possible. Thus it is not the definition of the concept which is at stake but rather the knowledge of its Form. This question seeks to illuminate the existence for discourse of that which animates and conditions its appearance. For example, the discussion of justice in the early stages of the Republic certainly takes the ‘corporeal’ dimension as primary – justice is associated by the three early interlocutors as either traditional to a people, a matter of the current majority opinion or a matter of strength.

Socrates will intervene with this question, ‘yes, but what is justice?’ to point out that the discussion is lost in opinion and sophistry. He will insist that it is the Form of justice which is at stake in a philosophical conversation and that the universality of the Form is subtracted from all claims of interest – such as those of Cephalus, Polemarchus or Thrasymachus. The upshot is that for Plato the eye of all discussants must be again turned to its Form, which can be its only ‘definition’.

A Form, as Plato notes in Theaeteus, by its very consistency is that alone which supports a transformation (Tht. 247e+). From this re-intervention which promises a transformation by association, certain figures retreat (Callicles, Thrasymachus, Polus, Gorgias, Protagoras, to name a few) and certain few figures continue to participate with Socrates in inquiry (Theaetetus, Glaucon, Adeimantus). In relation to Plato’s decided avoidance of sophistry, Guthrie notes that it is the Forms alone which allow for shared enquiry: without Forms no discourse; discourse addressed to all.

So these statements, reduced to the one ‘I know nothing’ as what connects up site/encounter/ Socratic enquiry, are not presented by Plato with regard to sophistic knowledge, but with regard to the void-site of this knowledge. Armed with this anomalous statement ‘I know nothing’, Plato’s Socrates confronts the (non)knowing of sophistry with that which it is not.

To recap and situate: If the sophists profess to know, Socrates cannot know that knowing, as that knowing is itself an imitation of what it is to (truly) know. If the imitators teach then Socrates cannot teach as both the form and the method imitate a form and a method and subject both to a concept (interest) to which truth is indifferent. When sophistic knowledge and teaching contrive a result from the combination of these two which satisfies the order and the repetition of the state and not truth itself then Socrates statements are such that they ‘pierce a hole in this knowledge’. He declares, ‘what is the truth (X) of your knowledge?’ To the state, this is tautology and, as such, without answer. For Plato by contrast, it is the beginning of the recommencement of what must continue, which is to say, it is the beginning of the recommencement of participation. The upshot is that ‘Socrates’ can only be fruitfully encountered as ‘a way of thinking’.

So let’s explore this declaration of ignorance which intervenes into a known knowledge at the point of its lack and orients a new form of enquiry or a form of thought. We will look at the Cratylus

Cratylus: the declaration of ignorance occurs four times. Each has a distinct context, but is set to achieve the same effect in that it institutes a separation and conditions a recommencement thus beginning again the procedure of indiscerning terms connected to the name Socrates.

I’ll not go into great detail but cite these instances, provide some context and analyse the statement in our terms. Obviously, in regard to what the dialogue has to offer, this will be an incomplete sketch.

The first instance of the statement is truly splendid: Socrates encounters Cratylus and Hermogenes1 discussing the ‘correctness of names’. They invite him to join in. Hermogenes complains that Cratylus is evasive and ‘oracular’ and is suggesting he has some private knowledge to which Hermognes should submit. Socrates replies,

Hermogenes, son of Hipponicus, there is an ancient proverb that ‘fine things are very difficult’ to know about, and it certainly isn’t easy to get to know about names. To be sure, if I’d attended Prodicus’ fifty drachma lecture course, which advertises as an exhaustive treatment of the topic, there’d be nothing to prevent you from learning the precise truth about the correctness of names straightaway. But as I’ve heard only the one drachma course I don’t know the truth of it (Cra, 384bc).

Here, Plato incorporates several themes. He refers explicitly to the dialectal exercise of thinking, which he elsewhere refers to as the ‘long detour’ and whose difficulty he elaborates in the Republic.

This is an explicitly educational reference which speaks to the discipline involved in the pursuit of truth or wisdom. This is immediately offset against the ability to buy knowledge – an ability he does not ‘have’. We know that this statement is both ironic and makes a point seriously held for Plato. In Jowett’s alternative translation, Socrates has not simply chosen not to attend such a class but notes he was ‘too poor to’, thus referring again to the immediate relation between money, knowledge and position within the polis whose conceptual and practical linking Plato utterly rejects. 

We need to note that this statement comes in the very first speech Socrates makes in the dialogue. It is directly consequent on his encounter with the two figures: One, the assured figure of Cratylus – a Heraclitian we soon learn – and Hermogenes – separated from money (see fn.) and sincere in his desire to know.

This statement re-opens the discussion. It establishes there a new orientation to the question. It splits Hermogenes and Cratylus – from each other at first. Indeed, as is consistent with its use throughout, Socrates uses this statement to put himself between the youth and the sophist.  However, it is not just Hermogenes he seeks to disjoin from the sophistic method of enquiry: ultimately, he wants to separate the sophist (Cratylus here) from wisdom itself.

As in the Sophist, this is both the real work being undertaken – of which the initial separation is then the true consequence – and the most truly difficult task of all. This is one reason why the statement must be re-introduced more than once. This task is always, in effect, to be ‘resumed again’.

The statement is repeated for the second time shortly thereafter.  Hermogenes is at the point of being convinced that names are not ‘inconsequential’, but is reluctant to change his opinion until Socrates makes known to him the ‘natural correctness of names’ that Cratylus asserts as true. Socrates reminds him he has no position of his own on this. He says, ‘I told you a while ago [t]hat I didn’t know about names but that I would investigate them with you’ (Cra, 391a).

Here Socrates reiterates his separation from sophistic knowledge and reaffirms the commitment to discovering the truth of this knowledge relative to the procedure of discernment it demands.

The statement both halts a certain form of dissemination, in this case Hermogenes’ acceptance of Cratylus’ position, a position Socrates also finds sophistic, and reorients the conversation toward its goal but does so through yet another sophistic position. 

Thus the exhaustion of one aspect of the investigation has not exhausted the possible sophistries regarding the topic under discussion. Indeed, sophistry is constituted by the diversity of opinions and the defeat of one opinion only clears the way for further offspring.

Socrates and Hermogenes, committed to the long detour, must dutifully re-begin at the point of encountering this next sophistry. This next encounter implies the ‘operator of faithful connection’ once more – that is the claim to ignorance which attaches us to the encounter. One cannot overlook that directly subsequent to this second use of the statement Plato has both Hermogenes and Socrates reject a series of sophistic claims in regard to names precisely by naming various features of sophistry.

Callias is again named as the buyer of sophists and Protagoras is named in this same context. The latter’s Truth, which contains his famous relativist maxim is also brought up to again be dismissed by Hermogenes.2 The latter mocks Socrates’ suggestion that he follow his brother Callias and seek out Protagoras’ wisdom. He says ‘as if I desire the things contained in it [Truth –note the pun and reversal] and thought them worthwhile, when I totally reject them’ (Cra. 391c).

Further on the sophists are put aside and the poets – from Homer to Heraclitus (Cra. 391d-402a+) are yet again named and addressed and subjected to discussion under the orientation of not knowing what it is ‘they (profess) to know’. Note again, however, that Socrates and his interlocutor work through the diversity of opinions as the ‘hard but worth doing’ path of truth.

The latter is singular, in the sense that it cannot be one among others equal to it – such is the diversity of opinion – but also universal, precisely because it is the only thing that can be for all. The universality of truth quite simply subverts the global diversity of opinion. Again, we see our immanent division subtending the trajectory of the dialogue.

The third instance is at 428b where the enquiry with Hermogenes comes to an end. Hermogenes (like Theaetetus) is one who subject to this enquiry has been connected to the Socratic event. Indeed, it is because he has been so connected that Cratylus re-enters the discussion, and he does so we must note by subversively aligning his own idea on the subject with Socrates.

He effectively accuses Socrates of making inspired ‘oracular utterances’ – precisely what Hermognes accused Cratylus of doing in the very first exchange of the dialogue – and these he says ‘are as if spoken after my own mind’ (Cra.428c).

The dialogue effectively re-begins here, ostensibly at the same point at which Socrates had originally encountered the two ‘friends’ except that now Hermogenes recognises his connection to that which sophistry cannot know.

Again, the dialogue rebegins under the condition of the evental statement. Socrates gently separates himself from Cratylus’ ‘will to association’ by saying that he is not sure of his own wisdom. Thus he manages to suggest by implication that Cratylus’ wisdom is also not certain and thus they should re-investigate because ‘self deception is the worst of all things’ (Cra.428d).

Again we see that the operator of faithful connection (I know nothing) conditions the enquiry which will separate out the sophistic from the non-sophistic. And again we need to note that it is on the basis of another encounter, for Cratylus has essentially re-appeared to Socrates and to the dialogue at this point. He is encountered again, this time as himself.

We should not overlook Plato’s own point, which is that Hermogenes – whose own name we have seen discussed in regard to its lack of appropriateness – given his character, has been speaking ‘as Cratylus’. Thus he was misnamed as Hermogenes given that who spoke was Cratylus.

This, as we have noted, is a constant of the dialogues, for we are often presented with figures who really speak for one sophist or another or from the perspective of one sophistic position or another. Self-deception or conceit is the very excess of state knowledge.

Cratylus’s attempt to align Socrates with his own claims to wisdom is part of the effort to reinstitute its rule. In contrast, Socrates insists that we begin again from the only truly subjective point that is without deception, from the point of not knowing.

Critically for our claim that the operator of faithful connection turns the event/encounter to the situation and thus the inhabitant of the situation toward that which the encounter marks to exist (non-sophistry – thus a true education) – and crucially what it signifies of that which is ‘to come’ –, Socrates says that from this point of ignorance we must test our claims ‘looking both forwards [to the Republic] and backward [from the education/site] simultaneously (Cra. 428d).

The last instance of the statement occurs at the end of the dialogue where Socrates is taking leave of Cratylus, literally and intellectually. Cratylus remains a Heraclitean, and for Socrates, as we have seen elsewhere, this position is that of the ‘insistence on ignorance’.

For if all things are passing on, ‘no one could know anything and nothing could be known’. There is no truth in the doctrine of the flux – in both senses.  We do not need to revisit the links between Heraclitus, Protagoras and Homer. What is notable in this last instance is that the dialogue ends on the necessity of rebeginning. This is fully aporetic.

This is to say, aporia is so often assumed to be some kind of defeat, when literally all that it means is that here and now the resources are lacking to go any further. Far from nothing being discovered or even resolved, what has taken place is the new orientation to the situation which will be the starting point for further enquiries at this site.

We need not labour this point further but we should note the two final remarks Socrates directs to Cratylus.

Socrates tells Cratylus that he should go on to the country and that Hermogenes will see him on his way. In regard to the latter, it is to signify that by seeing Cratylus off Hermogenes inhabits the truth of his name. As the son of Hermes and a good son at that (as Plato is to Socrates?), it is his duty to conduct souls to the land of the dead.

The pun here (which is much more than a pun) is that Cratylus is not dead as such – even though his ideas may be – but is to be conducted by Hermogenes into the country.

In the Republic it was suggested that all persons over ten, and thus all who had already been subject to a ‘sophistic education’ under the current state, should be rusticated. The suggestion was that they would lose the trappings of sophistication and be able to then come back as new souls ready to constitute a new body, a new polis. In the Phaedo, Socrates argues that one must pass through death, which is to say, practice dying with regard to the state in order to find that place inhabited by others ‘like us’ (Phd. 67e).


As always with Plato, the names of the characters signify a certain relation which is important to the argument itself. Often the names used are to trigger associations in his readers, for example the inclusion of Menexus in a dialogue is meant to alert us to the name of Pericles and more extensively to the Polis itself. Here the name Hermogenes, mentioned as ‘son of…’is to alert us to Hermes, the god of profit. Hermogenes father, Hipponicus, was son of Callias II who made his fortune using slaves to exploit the silver mines at Laurium. Hipponicus, dubbed the ‘richest man in Greece’, married an ex-wife of Pericles and had a son Callias – the son who appears in the dialogues as he who has spent more than anyone on sophists. Hermogenes had a different mother. His appearance with Socrates is suggestive; perhaps he was not so well favoured by his father as Callias? See Debra Nails, The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and other Socratics, p. 173.  At 407d-408a, Socrates, in answer to Hermogenes whom he has already called ‘no son of Hermes’ defines the meaning of the name Hermes; which is to say, he defines what profit means in this case. In essence, Hermes has to do with speech, interpretation, the clever use of words. He is a deceiver and a wheeler-dealer [so this translation puts it] and a contriver through speech of gain. Thus, that Hermogenes is not the ‘son of Hermes’ (i.e. Callias II) suggests he is a youth connected for a fidelity to the Socratic event.


We should note that Socrates in the Cratylus defines alẽthia as a ‘wandering that is divine’ (Crat, 421a). This, as well as being a punning reference to Heraclitus’ river, seems to us to be an allusion to the Socratic figure, the stranger thus who wanders about the city constrained to test the divine sign. Silvia Montiglio,Wandering Philosophers in Classical Greece,’ The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 120, 2000, pp. 86-105. ‘Since Homer, the wanderer was perceived as an uncanny figure, whose identity it was difficult to ‘locate’. Wanderers are unknowable, unclassifiable. They could be anything because they appear to be from everywhere and nowhere. A wanderer may look like a beggar, but he could be a god’ (p. 86).  The difference for Plato is that Socrates is within the city, traversing what is there.