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Plato's Charmides - Selections - Comments

Tr. Benjamin Jowett. In classical times the Charmides was also known by the title "On Temperance" and was classified as a "tentative" dialog (Diog. L. iii, 59).

If self-control or wisdom is a useful kind of knowledge, then what kind of knowledge is it, and of what use is it? (174d-175a)

Outline of this page ...


Overview of the Charmides

In this dialog Plato asks "what wisdom is", although the discussion begins with the question of "what sophrosyne is". Jowett translates the Greek word 'sophrosyne' as 'temperance', but it can also and maybe more accurately be rendered 'self-control'. It is the quality which Socrates himself embodies.

Many of Plato's thoughts in the Charmides appear utterly confused. And the dialog was classified as "tentative", meaning that "its subject is obscure and Plato suspends judgment". But what is the source of the dialog's obscurity -- is it the dialog's subject, or is it Plato's conception of it?

About the concept 'temperance', two remarks

First, although it may well be that the wise man is temperate, that is not all that he must be (but also brave, just and pious, because self-control may be directed towards unwise ends, not only toward what is the good for man). So that, if virtue is wisdom, then 'wisdom' does not = 'temperance' alone.

And second, although self-control may require knowledge, acts of self-control are not acts of knowing (even if those acts demonstrate that one knows). It is a "grammatical" category mistake to say that they are.

Plato, "Words name objects, whether tangible or abstract"

The essential thing about metaphysics: it obliterates the distinction between factual and conceptual investigations. (Wittgenstein, Z § 458)

That is, Platonic metaphysics makes no distinction between investigations of the use of words (Logic) and investigations of "things" or "phenomena" (Metaphysics or Science), in this case the "things" named 'wisdom' and 'knowledge', as if those words were the names of abstract objects whose nature was not clear to us. To use other words, we could say that Plato's metaphysics makes no real distinction between real and verbal definitions -- because it treats all words as if they were the names of objects and so tries to give all words real definitions. The Charmides is thoroughly "metaphysical" in that way.

(Then for us, too, there is a further difficulty, namely, that Plato did not write in English, and his Greek concepts here rendered by the English words 'wisdom' and 'temperance' may be very different from our own.)

"Wisdom is the knowledge of knowledge itself"

What would it mean to say that wisdom is the knowledge of knowledge itself? Well, we might answer (although Plato does not do that here) this way: that wisdom sets the criterion for the application of 'know' and 'not know'. In Xenophon, Socrates states this criterion: If a man knows something then he can explain (or, "give an account" of) what he knows to others (Memorabilia iv, 6, 1; cf. Plato's Laches 190c: "And that which we know we must surely be able to tell?"). The art of Socratic dialectic -- the method of thesis, cross-question and answer -- assumes that criterion.

Instead, by 'knowledge of knowledge itself', Plato means that 'wisdom' is the name of the defining common nature (its essence or Form) of knowledge. And so he makes hypotheses, not about how we use the word 'wisdom', but about what the abstract object "wisdom" really is.

"Know thy own mind!"

In the Charmides "Know thyself!" seems to mean "Know thy own mind!" (cf. Epictetus: "The beginning of philosophy is to know the condition of one's own mind ..." (Discourses i, 26, tr. Crossley)). Plato asks: of what benefit is knowing your own mind? And Xenophon has answered: that those who think they know what they don't know are themselves misled and mislead others (Memorabilia iv, 6, 1), and this is the benefit of examining one's own mind both in discussion with oneself and with one's companions, that one may distinguish what one knows from what one only thinks one knows but does not.

[Two reasons why "Man, know thyself" could be said by the historical Socrates.]

[For Chaerephon, who appears at the beginning of the Charmides, see the story Socrates tells about Apollo's oracle as Delphi. The discussion of "Know thyself" between Critias and Socrates in Plato's dialog may be contrasted with the dialog in Xenophon's Memorabilia between Socrates and Euthydemus.]

Sources of the Comments

Any comments I have written are from the background of logic of language, the concern of which is the distinction between sense and nonsense (in the language of philosophical problems).

In addition to my own few comments about Plato's text, I have included W.K.C. Guthrie's view of the Charmides, about which I have written many comments. That may be the most useful part of this page, written now many years ago (and I might write better -- or worse -- now).


Note: for the sake of clarity I have sometimes indicated the speakers names as in a play, although Plato did not write this particular dialog in that style.

What does Charmides mean, and are his words true?

161c - But what matter, said Charmides, from whom I heard this question?

SOCRATES: No matter at all, I replied, for the point is not who said the words, but whether they are true or not.

A word may be assigned a meaning

163d - SOCRATES: Now I have no objection to your giving names any signification which you please, if you will only tell me to what you apply them. [Guthrie's translation: "I give you leave to assign to any word what meaning you please: only make clear whenever you utter a word, what it is that you are applying it to." (Plato ... Earlier Period, p. 154)]

Plato's logic of language

Socrates' reply passes over a deeper question for Plato -- namely his identification of words with names (all words name "objects, whether tangible or abstract"): the meaning of a name being the common nature (essence) it names, natures which are by no means arbitrary but are unchanging features of reality.

But are there meanings of that kind for all or even most words -- i.e. is that notion a demand Plato makes on language in his early investigations (I ask because the discovery of meanings of that kind is not his investigations' result)?

How does Plato distinguish between sense and nonsense -- or, in other words, What is Plato's logic of language? Does Plato have one, or is he seeking one? For Plato, sense and nonsense in language are defined by reality; what Plato seeks is knowledge of the subject Wittgenstein alludes to when Wittgenstein asks, "If the formation of concepts can be explained by facts of nature, should we not be interested, not in grammar, but rather in that in nature which is the basis of grammar?" (PI II, xii, p. 230) -- i.e. not in our conventions for using language but in the facts of nature that can account for our concept-formation (i.e. for those conventions)? -- but which Wittgenstein seldom focuses on (cf. OC § 617).

Agreement to a thesis comes at the end of the discussion, not at its beginning (for the discussion may refute it)

163e - Yes, [CRITIAS] said, and you, friend, would agree.

SOCRATES: No matter whether I should [i.e. would] or not. Just now, not what I think [my opinion], but what you are saying, is the point at issue.

The question is whether the thesis (proposition) of the dialectic is demonstrably true, not merely whether we presume [believe, think, hold as an opinion] it to be.


Meaning of the Inscriptions at Delphi

164d-165a - CRITIAS: For I would almost say that self-knowledge is the very essence of temperance [sophrosyne] and in this I agree with him who dedicated the inscription "Know thyself!" at Delphi. That inscription, if I am not mistaken, is put there as a sort of salutation which the god addresses to those who enter the temple -- as much as to say that the ordinary salutation of "Hail!" is not right, and that the exhortation "Be temperate!" is far better.

If I rightly understand the meaning of the inscription, the god speaks to those who enter his temple, not as men speak, but whenever a worshiper enters, the first word which he hears is "Be temperate!" This, however, like a prophet he expresses in a sort of riddle, for "Know thyself!" and "Be temperate!" are the same, as I maintain and as the words imply and yet they may be thought to be different. [Oracles ("prophets"), like poets (Republic 332b-c), speak in riddles ("Why does the god not use plain language?" Socrates asks in Apology 21b), but the meaning here is this, that by 'Know thyself!' they mean 'Control yourself' ('Be self-controlled').]

And succeeding sages who added "Never too much", or "Give a pledge, and evil is neigh at hand" would appear to have so distinguished them, for they imagined "Know thyself!" was a piece of advice which the god gave and not his salutation to the worshipers at their first coming in. And they dedicated their own inscriptions under that idea that they too would give equally useful pieces of advice.

165b-c - [CRITIAS says that he will] attempt to prove, if you deny it, that temperance is self-knowledge.

SOCRATES: Yes ... Critias, but you come to me as though I professed to know about the questions which I ask, and as though I could, if only I would, agree with you. Whereas the fact is that I am inquiring with you into the truth of that which is advanced from time to time, just because I do not know, and when I have inquired, I will say whether I agree with you or not. Please then to allow me time to reflect.

Why does Plato have Critias set the direction of the discussion -- Is it because Critias' notion is one that is "advanced from time to time" and therefore needs to be examined to see whether there is any truth in it? But Critias' identification of self-control with self-knowledge directs the discussion into a muddle from which it never emerges. (This would answer Wittgenstein's 1931 remark: "What's the point of these arguments that prove nothing and make nothing clearer?" Precisely that they show that the truth has not yet been found, but, as Socrates says in the Euthyphro 15c, "As for me, I will never give up until I know.")

According to Guthrie Plato is examining Socrates' own notions, which upon reflection have come to seem in many ways perplexing to Plato.

The relation of self-knowledge and self-control

Critias' muddle is this, that even if it can be demonstrated (which I don't know if it can) that anyone who has self-knowledge is also self-controlled (as Socrates was), that self-knowledge is a necessary or even sufficient condition for self-control, it does not follow that the expressions 'self-control' and 'self-knowledge' have the same meaning, that they "mean the same thing", because if they did then the expressions 'self-control' and 'self-knowledge' could be used interchangeably with no loss of meaning -- i.e. there would be two common names but only one common nature.

What does it mean to say that "the wise man knows himself"? I think the meaning of "Know thyself" has two parts, that, as in Phaedrus 230a, I can study myself as an individual or I can study myself as a member of the class {human being}, and to "know myself" I must do both. But, as Socrates seeks in Plato's Euthyphro, the wise man must also have absolute knowledge of the particular case (a standard for every circumstance in life), and surely I say, although neither Socrates nor Plato does, as well knowledge of the origin and destiny of man and of the world ... but in that case truly only God is wise, because no man has full knowledge of either part of "Know thyself".

"What is known is distinct from the method for knowing it"

165c - SOCRATES: I am reflecting, I replied, and discover that temperance or wisdom, if it is a species of knowledge, must be a science, and a science of something.

That is, so the notion is advanced, knowledge must be knowledge of something distinct from the method ("science") of knowing that "something" -- as e.g. the art of weighing is a knowledge the subject of which is the light and the heavy (166b), but the light and the heavy are different "things" (because "the meaning of a word is the thing it names") from the art of weighing. We would say, well, they are different concepts, but Plato does not distinguish between a factual and a conceptual investigation -- because for Plato concepts are facts.

[Jowett's translation is from 1871, and his invocation of the word 'science' is in itself a source of confusion for us now. What did he mean by that word? At the time he was writing philosophy was called "Moral Sciences" at Cambridge University. Perhaps this is 'science' in the Medieval sense, meaning a 'body of knowledge', or it might here mean a 'technique' or 'art' or 'knowledge of how to do something', as e.g. "Architecture is a science of building" (165d). However, if 'science' simply = 'knowledge', then we have: "temperance or wisdom, if it is a kind of knowledge, must be (1) a knowledge, and (2) a knowledge of something", as in: the art of weighing (a knowledge), and the light and the heavy (the something).]

165c - [CRITIAS replies] Yes, he said, the science of a man's self [i.e. self-knowledge].

165d - SOCRATES: Now I want you, Critias, to answer a similar question about temperance or wisdom, which according to you, is the science of man's self. Admitting this view, I ask you, what good work worthy of the name wise, does temperance or wisdom, which is the science of a man's self, effect? [Plato gives the examples that architecture is the science of building and its result or effect is houses (165d), and that medicine is the science of health and has the excellent effect of producing health (165c-d).]

165e - CRITIAS: Wisdom is not like the other sciences, any more than they are like one another, but you proceed as if they were alike.

166a - SOCRATES: I can show you that each of these sciences has a subject which is different from the science [as the art of weighing is different from the light and the heavy, or the art of computation from the odd and the even (166a)]. - 166b - What is that which is not wisdom, and of which wisdom is the science?

Socrates asks for a clarification of meaning from Critias

Guthrie says that Socrates is here arguing by analogy, and that Critias rejects the analogy -- possibly even rejects that method of argument entirely (165e) (Plato ... Earlier Period (p. 168)). However, there is no such argument; Socrates simply describes how we normally use the word 'knowledge', and points out that Critias is not using the word that way.

Socrates is not here arguing by analogy; indeed, he is not making an analogy, but asking for a grammatical clarification. For he is pointing out how we normally use the word 'knowledge'. By saying that "knowledge is always knowledge of something [other than itself]", Socrates is not making an analogy. It is Critias who is trying to use language in a strange way, and so Socrates asks: What do you mean by 'knowledge of knowledge itself'? (Cf. Republic 339a-b) That is not an example of argument by analogy.

166c-d - [CRITIAS says that wisdom is not like the other sciences] for all the other sciences are of something else, and not of themselves. Wisdom alone is the science of other sciences and of itself. And of this, as I believe you are very well aware.

SOCRATES: And what if I am? How can you think that I have any other motive in refuting you but what I should have in examining into myself? This motive would be just a fear of my unconsciously fancying [i.e. unthinkingly presuming] that I knew something of which I was ignorant. And at this moment, I assure, I pursue the argument chiefly for my own sake, and perhaps in some degree also for sake of my other friends [or, companions; cf. Xenophon, Memories of Socrates iv, 6, 1].

Here Plato is trying "to put the questions deep enough down" (CV p. 48) -- i.e. to go right down to the foundations. One thinks, "Know thyself!" -- surely that is an exhortation worthy of a god. But what objection might be made to it -- either regarding the clarity of its meaning or its wisdom (as a guide to how to live our life)? This needs to be asked, because surely that precept, like everything else, should not be accepted without examining it (Plato, Apology 37e-38a), but rather 'Wisdom is to know thyself' must be regarded as a thesis to be tested in dialectic, to be agreed to or refuted. (To presume it to be true is "to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know" (ibid. 29a)).

"Wisdom is to know the excellence that is proper to man both as man and as an individual, that is, to know oneself, because the good for man, as for anything else, is to live in accord with the excellence that it proper to it." Yes, that is what I think, but I am right to think that, for is that proposition true in its whole and in its parts? (Plato, I think, is examining here notions that were then common currency, to see if they are genuine or counterfeit.)

"Wisdom is knowledge both of what I know and of what I do not know"

166e-167a - SOCRATES: But the science of science, I said, will also be the science of the absence of science. [Because it will not only be knowledge of what I know, but also of what I do not know, the latter being an "absence of science".]

CRITIAS: Very true, he said.

SOCRATES: Then the wise or temperate man, and only he, will know himself, and be able to examine what he knows or does not know, and see what others know and what they think they know and do really know, and what they do not know and fancy that they know when they do not.... And this is wisdom and temperance and self-knowledge -- for a man to know what he knows, and what he does not know. [The opposite of wisdom is, thus, to fancy that you know what you do not know (166c-d) because you are unable to distinguish between knowledge and ignorance.]

But there are two very different propositions here, two very different knowledges which are claimed for the wise man. If the wise man must not only know himself but also, as it were, know everyone else, then what man can be wise? Because, for example, what man who does not know medicine can know whether a doctor knows or does not know what he says he knows (170b-c)? Perhaps we will want to say, Well, but the doctor like anyone else can be called upon to render an account of what he claims to know; however, that seems like saying, "Well, one might go to school to learn medicine and with the knowledge one thereby acquires ..." Because the claim here is that if a man is wise then he can judge a priori -- i.e. prior to further learning or experience -- whether any person knows or does not know, because wisdom is the knowledge of knowledge as such, not of this or that knowledge.

Socrates again asks, How is knowing what one knows and what one doesn't know the same as knowing oneself?

167a-b - SOCRATES: Now then ... let us begin again, and ask, in the first place, whether it is or is not possible for a person to know that he knows what he knows and that he does not know what he does not know, and in the second place, whether, if perfectly possible, such knowledge is of any use.

For Socrates the good = the useful or beneficial to someone, as in Xenophon (Memorabilia iv, 6, 7-8). The concept 'moral good' seems foreign to his way of thinking. Note: for the rest of these selections, if not marked otherwise, SOCRATES is the speaker.

169b - I am not certain whether such a science of science can possibly exist, and even if it does undoubtedly exist, I should not acknowledge it to be wisdom or temperance, until I can also see whether such a science would or would not, do us any good, for I have an impression that temperance is a benefit and a good. And therefore ... as you maintain that temperance or wisdom is a science of science, and also of the absence of science [i.e. knowledge of knowledge and of ignorance], I will request you to show in the first place, as I was saying before, the possibility and in the second place the advantage of such a science.

169d - ... let us assume that this science of science is possible -- whether the assumption is right or wrong may hereafter be investigated. Admitting its complete possibility, will you tell me how such a science enables us to distinguish what we know or do not know, which, as we were saying, is self-knowledge or wisdom?

170a - ... I fear I remain as stupid as ever, for still I fail to comprehend how this knowing what you know and do not know is the same as the knowledge of self.

170c - How will wisdom, regarded only as knowledge of knowledge or science of science ...

173a - I dare say that what I am saying is nonsense, I replied, and yet if a man has any feeling of what is due to himself [i.e. what he owes himself] he cannot let the thought which comes into his mind pass away unheeded and unexamined.

Is not wisdom knowledge of the good?

174d-e - CHARMIDES: And why, he replied, will not wisdom be of advantage? [Will not the knowledge of knowledge (namely, wisdom) be knowledge of the good], and in this way benefit us.

SOCRATES: [But have] we not long ago asseverated that wisdom is only the knowledge of knowledge and of ignorance, and of nothing else?

The true (the divine) meaning of words

175b - But now I have been defeated and have failed to discover what that is to which the lawgiver [Cf. Cratylus 408a ff.] gave this name of temperance or wisdom.

175d - [The inquiry has] proved the inutility of temperance or wisdom if truly described by a definition such as we have spent all this time in discussing and fashioning together ...

What has been proved is that whatever "temperance or wisdom" is, it does not seem to be what Critias' definition says it is.


W.K.C. Guthrie's view of the Charmides. With my comments.

Source: all quotations from Guthrie are from his Plato: The Man and his Dialogues: Earlier Period (1975).

Closest translation of 'sophrosyne' is 'self-control', sometimes 'self-discipline', but 'temperance' is misleading

The primary meaning of [the Greek word sophrosyne], at least in ordinary usage, was self-control. (p. 156n1)

Guthrie favors the translation 'self-control', "or in some contexts 'self-discipline'" (p. 157). Other translations than Jowett's 'temperance' are: 'soberness' (Burnet); and 'self-control' (Cornford and others), to which Grube adds 'and moderation'. But 'temperance', "though misleading, is probably the commonest English rendering". (p. 157n2)

[We don't use the word 'temperance' very often nowadays. It suggests self-restraint with respect to the animal appetites. From which it seems that all temperance is self-control, but not all self-control is temperance.]

Elsewhere Plato speaks of it (Rep. 430e-431b) as an orderly and harmonious disposition showing itself in the mastery of certain pleasures and desires achieved when the better part of us governs the worse. (p. 156)

Man's share of ungodliness

"... the worse [part]." Man is a rational animal, a creature governed by appetites as well as by reason. And the irrational half is apt to take over from time to time ("For the body is a source of endless trouble ..." [Phaedo 66c-d, tr. Jowett]), and when that ungodly half of man does take over, man harms the ethical aspect of himself (his soul, in Socrates' sense). The aim of (Socratic) philosophy is for the godly -- i.e. the fully rational (temperate) -- part of man to take control of how he lives his life.

As the word 'sophrosyne' was normally used, the principal part of sophrosyne is self-control

There is no doubt that in popular parlance, shared by the Sophists, self-control was the main ingredient of sophrosyne ... (p. 156)

In Phaedo 68c (tr. Tredennick), Plato writes: "Self-control ... as it is understood even in the popular sense -- not being carried away by the desires, but preserving a decent indifference to toward them ..." But is this the "popular sense", or isn't this what everyone calls 'self-control' -- that is, is this a case where there is a "popular sense" as opposed to an educated sense, as in the case of the word 'philosophy'?

That Socrates equated sophrosyne with sophia, because of the close connection which he maintained between having knowledge and acting on it, is remarked on by Xenophon, Memorabilia iii, 9, 4. (p. 156n5)

For Socrates, the good (the usefulness or benefit) of knowing oneself is that if one knows oneself both (1) as a human being as such (i.e. knows the excellence that is proper to man as man), and (2) as an individual human being (i.e. knows one's own limits, neither over-estimating nor under-estimating one's own abilities, as in "Nothing too much") -- then one knows how one should live one's life -- i.e. one knows what is the good (i.e. the useful, the beneficial) for oneself as an ethical being. ("Know thyself" in Xenophon's Memorabilia iv, 2, 24-25) That is, I think, for Socrates the point of "Know thyself", that if ethics is not "practical" -- i.e. if it does guide man to how to live and amend his life for the good -- then it is not to be accounted a good (i.e. beneficial) for man.

Not knowing oneself -- i.e. living without philosophical reflection ("the unexamined life" of Plato's Apology 37e-38a) -- harms one's soul (the "ethical personality" of man), because ignorance harms the soul (indeed, it is the soul in a harmed state).

What Socrates (and Plato) mean by 'virtue'

Wisdom alone, is the good for man, ignorance the only evil. (Plato, Euthydemus 278d-282a)

Wisdom is the virtue (the essential part of the excellence that is appropriate to man) without which there are no others, for all others are mere facets/faces of wisdom, although, paradoxically, as we normally use the words 'wisdom' and 'moral virtue', wisdom is not itself a moral virtue ... pace the list of five "cardinal virtues recognized in Greece" (Guthrie, ibid. p. 69), which were: {courage, piety, justice, temperance, wisdom} -- Is there not a category mistake there? Only if by 'virtue' or 'excellence' we mean exclusively moral virtues. But Socrates' revision of the concept areté appears to include both rather than exclude either.

It is mistaken, then, to separate the moral and non-moral virtues when asking what the excellence proper to man is, and understanding Socrates demands that we not equivocate (In Xenophon's account of Socrates' thought, "the good is the useful or beneficial" defines the subject of ethics without reference to "moral" virtue). According to Socrates, the man who does what is wrong does so because he is ignorant rather than wise, and to do what is wrong is to be unvirtuous. But does it follow that being wise is itself a virtue, ignorance itself a vice? I think we have just answered this question (Only if there were such a thing as willful ignorance, which there isn't, because no one knowingly harms his soul, would ignorance be a moral vice). As Socrates defined 'madness', according to Xenophon (Memorabilia iii, 9, 6), not knowing oneself, and thinking one knows what one does not know is next to madness, and madness is the opposite of wisdom, as is ignorance. (Madness is certainly not an excellence proper to man, but it is not a moral vice either.)

[This unification of self-control and knowledge or wisdom was Socrates' (and Plato's)] conclusion about all the virtues .... Plato is guiding the reader towards his philosophical conception of sophrosyne as coincident with the whole of virtue as a unity, not made up of distinct parts. (p. 156-157) ... for Plato, heir of Socrates, virtue was indivisible and consisted in knowledge of the good ... (p. 166)

As the fourth definition of sophrosyne offered in the dialog, Critias offers: "the doing of good things". (p. 159) [163e - SOCRATES: Do you mean that this [doing] of good things is temperance? CRITIAS: I do ... SOCRATES: Then not he who does evil, but he who does good is temperate? CRITIAS: Yes ... and you, friend, would agree.]

["... that virtue is one". But may not a man be for example brave without being pious? That he may is the very thesis put forth -- and refuted -- in Plato's Protagoras 349d, 359a ("Four of the virtues are fairly similar, but courage is quite different from the rest").]

But Critias says that the real meaning of 'sophrosyne' is 'self-knowledge'

But Critias withdraws his fourth definition because he is convinced that a man who has self-control -- that is, that a man who has sophrosyne -- must know that he has it. And therefore he offers a fifth definition which is that sophrosyne is self-knowledge, "that "to know oneself", as the Delphic inscription commands, is the very essence of this virtue.... Socrates agrees to consider" this fifth definition. (p. 159-160)

It is at this point I think that the discussion become thoroughly muddled. Because if the acceptation of 'sophrosyne' is 'self-control', then one cannot say that its meaning is not that, but instead really 'self-knowledge', without making one's claim incoherent. And if the discussion is not about the meaning of 'sophrosyne', but about "what sophrosyne really is" -- then I have no idea what the discussion is about!

Is the discussion about impressions of meanings -- are Critias and Socrates saying something like: "I have the impression that true sophrosyne is ..."? Wittgenstein: "[The rationalists] let the words speak to them": they let words suggest various notions to them. Plato is not using Socrates' method of definition -- he is, instead, guessing about the essence of the thing.

[That is something akin to a persuasive definition: "True sophrosyne is ..." regardless how the word 'sophrosyne' is normally used -- as if to say: "If people imagine that is what sophrosyne truly is, then they are gravely mistaken."]

Guthrie says that the point of the story of the Thracian sage [156e] is that in it Socrates, even before the discussion begins, gives "his own view of the nature of sophrosyne ...: it is nothing less than health of the soul" (p. 164) -- i.e. of the ethical aspect of man ... but 'the ethical aspect of man' does not seem to concern only the moral virtues (because wisdom is essential to the health of the soul).

Plato's picture of the meaning of language

It is as if Plato imagined there were some real, nebulous, amorphic thing (abstract object") somewhere ("on the other side of the sky", the place the eye of the body does not or, apparently, cannot see) that it is somehow possible to grasp the nature of (something the eye of the soul might somehow perceive). In the view of "Wittgenstein's logic of language", that notion is a misunderstanding of the grammar (or, logic) of our language. Philosophy can only define words; it cannot define things, and most certainly not "abstract objects" -- as if those "things" had an existence independent of man's use of language (BB p. 28).

Other sciences, e.g. of crafts like medicine and architecture, have their products. What good product can we assign to the knowledge of one's self? [The man who has sophrosyne] will know himself in the sense of knowing the limits of own his own knowledge ...

Can there be a knowledge with no other object but itself and other species of knowledge? It sounds absurd ... We cannot imagine sight which sees itself and not colors, hearing which hears itself and not sounds ... (p. 160) Thus to hear itself, hearing must be audible, to see itself sight must be colored. (p. 161)

We can always invent a meaning for any combination of words -- but do you think that every combination of words must have a meaning in itself (which philosophers can somehow discover)? Why "absurd" rather than "nonsense" (i.e. sound without meaning: undefined combinations of words)? But Plato imagines that he is undertaking a factual investigation rather than a conceptual (i.e. definition of a word, ink marks, spoken sounds) investigation, that he is not inventing a meaning for, but discovering if there really is such a thing as "knowledge of knowledge itself".

Plato: "Let we assume that this knowledge of knowledge is possible ..." (169d) (In which sense of 'possible' -- as a defined combination of words (logical possibility) or because it is a reality possibility?) ... then in what way is this "knowledge of knowledge" useful? "Will it enable a man to know what he knows and what he does not know? Critias thinks that is just what "knowledge of knowledge" means, but Socrates is skeptical." (p. 160) Guthrie also uses this form of expression: "knowledge of knowledge and ignorance" (p. 162), which seems quite different from simply "knowledge of knowledge" [Isn't Critias' distinction, rather than knowledge of a Platonic Form (because knowledge of knowledge would surely be knowledge of the essence of knowledge), precisely the one the historical Socrates would say wisdom ("knowledge of knowledge and ignorance") is for man both in Plato's Apology 29a and in Xenophon's Memorabilia iv, 6, 1 -- i.e. not to think you know what you don't know?] (And that is the trouble: in the absence of a definition for the sign 'knowledge of knowledge', propositions can only "seem" or "not seem" to be true.)

[Are "words about whose meaning we are at variance" (Plato, Phaedrus 263a-b) the names of things whose nature is not clear to us? Would those words not be the names of so-called abstract objects on Plato's account of language?]

Plato, verbal and real definitions

Where there is no distinction made between a real and a verbal definition, it is unclear what, if anything, is being said at all. If Critias wants to say that by 'knowledge of knowledge' he means 'whatever it is that will enable a man to know what he knows and what he does not know -- i.e. to distinguish his knowledge from his ignorance', that is a verbal definition. But Socrates cannot be skeptical of a verbal definition (which is simply a convention, a rule for using "signs" -- i.e. the purely physical part of language, ink marks on paper, spoken sounds, things like this, in contrast to the signs' use in the language); therefore, Plato must be questioning what the "real meaning" of what "knowledge of knowledge" is?

Critias (doubtless reminding Socrates of his own favorite theme) [says] you won't easily achieve the good life if not through knowledge. Yes, but what knowledge?... Simply says Critias (Sixth definition) the knowledge of what is good and what is bad. In that case, complains Socrates, he has been mislead. It is not knowledge as such that brings happiness, but knowledge of good and evil ... yet it is not sophrosyne, i.e. not the knowledge of knowledge, but of good and evil. [But if that be so, then sophrosyne (or "the knowledge of knowledge") is of no benefit to us, because the knowledges or arts that do benefit us are knowledge of arts of other things; therefore, sophrosyne is useless according to their argument, although] everyone agrees that it is the best of all things.... So Socrates concludes that he must be a fool ... (p. 162)

[Logic as the "knowledge of knowledge"]

[It strikes me that logic might be called "knowledge of knowledge", because logic is a tool used in all subject matters, if those matters be rational (That is the connection between the concepts 'logical' and 'rational'), but logic has no subject matter of its own (not if by 'logic' we mean 'the rules of sense and nonsense' rather than 'the rules of syntax' alone). It has no usefulness in and of itself, but only as a tool in other subject areas. In both grammatical investigations and factual investigations where we discover what we know and what we don't know, it is logic -- the art of reasoning -- that allows us to make that discovery. (But is it at all useful to call knowledge of the tool of knowledge by the title "knowledge of knowledge"? Maybe as one meaning that might be given to the combination of words 'knowledge of knowledge'.)]

The common themes found in Plato's Socratic dialogs

[Of the Charmides Guthrie says:] It repeats familiar Socrates elements: [1] the ignorance of Socrates, [2] the paramount need to tend the psyche ["soul" or "mind"], [3] the search for the definition of a particular virtue, [4] the insistence that if Charmides is temperate he must have an idea of what temperance is, [5] criticism of the definitions offered and apparent failure of them all, [6] the idea that sophrosyne (like any virtue) involves self-knowledge. (p. 163)

[In this dialog, according to Guthrie] the question is seriously, confusingly and fruitlessly [discussed]. (p. 163)

To get from his respondent the admission (159c) that a virtue itself, is necessarily good is common form in Socrates' method of refutation. [The refutation is the finding of a contradiction: if the definition proposed implies something that is not good then it cannot be correct.] (p. 165)

But what is this "admission" except that his respondent (i.e. the one he is cross-questioning) speaks Greek (or, in translation, English), for we do not call something 'virtuous' unless it is good. That rule of grammar here is nothing more than "what anyone knows and must admit" (Z § 211).

No ordinary person will deny that courage, sophrosyne or excellence in general [areté] is good ... (p. 165n2)

Here Guthrie makes no distinction between a real and a verbal definition. If "no ordinary person will deny that ...", it is because every ordinary person has learned English -- i.e. has learned how to use the moral-virtues words (and that in this context: moral, or, ethical = good). How comes it then that a philosopher will deny it? "The logic of our language is misunderstood" -- and that is one origin of philosophy. Well, so I say again and again and again.

Guthrie's summation of the Charmides

Critias agrees that a man cannot possess [sophrosyne] without knowing that he does. [There is an] etymological connection of sophrosyne with a right state of mind. [Guthrie says they both agree that sophrosyne is "knowledge of the doing of good and beneficial things"; and that hence "we must say that it is knowledge of itself", by which Guthrie means that the man who has sophrosyne "will both be sophron ["self-controlled"] and know that he is".] (p. 168)

... Critias is made, by Socratic dialectic, to utter from his own lips Socrates' own conception of the knowledge which will ensure that we live well and happily: it is the knowledge by which we know good from evil, or in more Socratic and less biblical language, the truly beneficial from the useless or harmful. [174b-c]

[But, Guthrie says,] The preceding argument has forbidden them to call this sophrosyne, so the dialogue as a search for the essence of this virtue ends in failure, since it has led to the unacceptable conclusion that sophrosyne is no good.

The Charmides, like the other early definition-dialogues, drives home by its apparent failure the Socratic lesson that virtue is one, and consists in knowledge, knowledge of oneself and of what is, and what is not, good, useful or beneficial ... In this conviction Socrates had lived and died. (p. 173)

Guthrie writes: "good, useful or beneficial essentially and without exception". But in Xenophon (Memorabilia iii, 8, 4-7) nothing is essentially useful, but only useful for something or other. (Maybe there are very general statements of what is beneficial to the soul (ibid. i, 2, 4) -- i.e. to man as an ethical being, but I don't know that.) Plato does not try to refute Protagoras, but instead allows to stand, the thesis that 'useful' is a relative/relational term (Protagoras 334a-c).

[Socrates demanded that we] search for the good life and the knowledge on which it depends.

[Guthrie believes that in this dialog] Plato himself is in an early stage of wrestling with the difficulties that arise when one tries to understand the full implications of the Socratic belief that virtue is knowledge. (p. 174)

Socratic ethics, philosophical reflection about good and bad

We were taught to use the word 'good', not by being given an equivalent-word definition of the word 'good', but by being told what things were good, what bad and what evil. But these pointings-out were not ostensive definitions (not This is the meaning of the word 'good'); they were, rather, judgments that were made for us. (And that is an important grammatical remark, that the word 'good' is not a name, nor is its nominalization 'goodness'.) It is only when we attain the age of reason and begin to assess the judgments we acquired in childhood that we rise to the level of Socratic ethics, which is not a mere collection of values we inherited, but our own philosophical reflection about how man should live his life.

I am not aware of Plato anywhere attempting to justify his assertion that piety, justice, courage and self-control are excellences proper to man. He seems simply to assume that they are. ("If the good man is impious, then what is the bad man?" is a rhetorical tautology. But it is based on the presumption that piety is good, impiety wrong-doing.) How would the proposition (thesis) 'Piety is a virtue' be defended in Socratic dialect against refutation (and what would a refutation look like)?


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