Platos Dichotomy


Socrates.  Well, we were saying—were we not?—that when a thing has parts, the whole or sum will be the same thing as all the parts?

Theaetetus.  Certainly.

Socrates.  To go back then, to the point I was trying to make just now; if the syllable is not the same thing as the letters, does it not follow that it cannot have the letters as parts of itself; otherwise, being the same thing as the letters, it would be neither more nor less knowable than they are?

Theaetetus.  Yes.

Socrates.  And it was to avoid that consequence that we supposed the syllable to be different from the letters.

Theaetetus.  Yes.

Socrates.  Well, if the letters are not part of the syllable, can you name any things, other than its letters, that are parts of a syllable?

Theaetetus.  Certainly not Socrates. If I admitted that it had any parts, it would surely be absurd to set aside the letters and look for parts of any other kind.

Socrates.  Then, on the present showing, a syllable will be a thing which is absolutely one and cannot be divided into parts of any sort?

Theaetetus.  Apparently.

Socrates.  Do you remember then, my dear Theaetetus, our accepting a short while ago a statement that we thought satisfactory: that no account could be given of the primary things of which other things are composed, because each of them, taken just by itself, was incomposite; and that it was not correct to attribute even ‘existence’ to it, or to call it ‘this’, on the ground that these words expressed different things that were extraneous to it; and this was the ground for making the primary thing inexplicable and unknowable?

 Theaetetus.  I remember.

Socrates.  Then is not exactly this, and nothing else, the ground of its being simple in nature and indivisible into parts? I can see no other.

 Theaetetus.  Evidently there is no other.

Socrates.  Then has not the syllable now turned out to be a thing of the same sort, if it has no parts and is a unitary thing?

 Theaetetus.  Certainly.

Socrates.  To conclude, then: if, on the other hand, the syllable is the same thing as a number of letters and is a whole with the letters as its parts, then the letters must be neither more nor less knowable and explicable than syllables, since we made out that all the parts are the same thing as the whole.

Theaetetus.  True.

Socrates.  But if, on the other hand, the syllable is a unity without parts, syllable and letter likewise are equally incapable of explanation and unknowable. The same reason will make them so.

Theaetetus.  I see no way out of that.

Socrates. If so, we must not accept this statement: that the syllable can be known and explained, the letter cannot.

Theaetetus.  No, not if we hold by our argument.

Socrates.  And again, would not your own experience in learning your letters rather incline you to accept the opposite view?

Theaetetus.  What view do you mean?

Socrates.  This: that all the time you were learning you were doing nothing else but trying to distinguish by sight or hearing each letter by itself, so as not to be confused by any arrangement of them in spoken or written words.

Theaetetus.  That is quite true.

Socrates.  And in the music school the height of accomplishment lay precisely in being able to follow each several note and tell which string it belongs to; and notes, as everyone would agree, are the elements of music.

Theaetetus.  Precisely.

Socrates.  Then, if we are to argue from our own experience of elements and complexes to other cases, we shall conclude that elements in general yield knowledge that is much clearer than knowledge of the complex and more effective for a complete grasp of anything we seek to know. If anyone tells us that the complex is by its nature knowable, while the element is unknowable, we shall suppose that, whether he intends it or not, he is playing with us.


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