Phaedo 74e-75b

“Then we must have had knowledge of equality before the time when we first saw equal things and thought, ‘All these things are aiming to be like equality but fall short.’”

“That is true.”

"And we agree, also, that we have not gained knowledge of it, and that it is impossible to gain this knowledge, except by sight or touch or some other of the senses? I consider that all the senses are alike.”

“Yes, Socrates, they are all alike, for the purposes of our argument.”

“Then it is through the senses that we must learn that all sensible objects strive after absolute equality and fall short of it. Is that our view?”


“Then before we began to see or hear or use the other senses we must somewhere have gained a knowledge of abstract or absolute equality, if we were to compare with it the equals which we perceive by the senses, and see that all such things yearn to be like abstract equality but fall short of it.”

[Taken from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D75a]

I feel like I'm misunderstanding something here. Socrates says, "we have not gained knowledge of it, and... it is impossible to gain this knowledge, except by... the senses." What does "it" refer to?

Later he says, "... before we began to... use the... senses we must have gained a knowledge of abstract or absolute equality..."

This seems to show that "it" wasn't referring to abstract equality, because Socrates has stated that we must have gained knowledge of abstract equality without using physical senses. This would make me seem that "it" might then be referring to equal things (that fall short of abstract equality), because these are the two things that were being discussed. But if "it" refers to equal things, then how have we not gained knowledge of it? We have gained knowledge of it through seeing it.

Am I missing something, or is there a contradiction?


2 Answers 2


This is a top Google result for "Phaedo 75a" and only other answer is unhelpful, So I will respond despite the fact that this question is over a year old.

Socrates argument is that we always have knowledge of the Forms, but that we are not always conscious of that knowledge (we are conscious of knowledge when we "...hold it in [our] grasp and not have lost it" Phd. 75d). Specifically Socrates argues that we forget our knowledge of the Forms when we become embodied at birth (76c-d) Recollection is not a process through which a person grasps new knowledge, but a process through which a person becomes conscious of the knowledge which they always have but previously forgot.

Now to address your specific concern. The Greek word translated 'it' in "we have not gained knowledge of it, and... it is impossible to gain this knowledge, except by... the senses." (75a) is αὐτό (auto) which is neuter singular and therefore must refer to "the Equal" in Socrates' proceeding statement, "All these are seeking to be like the Equal, but fall short of it." (75a) because the Greek word translated as "the Equal" is ἴσον (ison) which is a singular neuter substantial adjective (meaning it function as a noun).

Your problem then is how to make sense of the fact that Socrates later says that "... before we began to... use the... senses we must have gained a knowledge of abstract or absolute equality..." (75b)

The answer to your problem is that the translator is translating two different Greek words as knowledge. In the first sentence (74a) knowledge translates the Greek word ἐννοέω (ennoeō) "have in one's thoughts, consider, reflect," and Socrates' point is that while embodied we can only become conscious of our knowledge of the Equal through sense perception (Socrates thinks this is the case because, while embodied, the soul is not free to consider the Equal by itself, 79a). In the second sentence (74b) knowledge translates the Greek word ἐπιστήμη (epistēmē) which is the standard Greek term for "knowledge." Socrates point here is that we can only gain knowledge of the Equal before we are embodied, when our soul is not burdened by a body.

Thus your problem can be resolved by distinguishing the two terms. Socrates does not contradict himself because he states that we cannot gain knowledge in the same way that we become conscious of knowledge while we are embodied. Of course you could never have known this without knowing Greek, and it was a failure on the translators part not to make the distinction clear in English. The English translations on Perseus are generally bad because they are old (Perseus is a free service mainly for the Greek text so they don't want to pay contemporary publishers for the rights to better English translations since they aren't charging for anything).

But good job watching out for contradictions! That's exactly the right way to read a philosophical text, and it's especially good philosophical practice to investigate whether you're right that something is a contradiction or whether there's something you don't know that resolves the problem. Sorry that I wasn't here to help you when you asked the question, but hopefully this will be useful to another careful reader, like yourself, in the future.

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    I'm not sure the editorial comment was necessary. Any time someone answers a question on SE, it's presumably because they find the existing answers inadequate in some way. Also, for future reference, SE answers are always addressed to a general audience, not just to the specific person who posed the question. With all that said --welcome to Philosophy SE! Aug 4, 2015 at 16:23

It's important to keep in mind the fact that Socrates' whole aim was to force the person he was in dialog with to confront the paradoxes and contradictions already inherent in their unquestioned assumptions about the world.

In Plato's later writings, he does more to provide explicit resolutions to the questions he raises, but in his earlier writings, he often leaves the contradiction hanging, which scholars think is probably closer to the approach taken by the actual historical Socrates (as opposed to how he is portrayed in Plato's work).

This dialog is considered a middle dialog, which means it has some elements of the earlier, more "Socratic" dialogs, and some of the later, more "Platonic" dialogs. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plato/

In particular, one subject returned to again and again in Plato's dialogs is the true source of knowledge. In this particular text, a deliberate contradiction is being highlighted between the presumed empirical source of knowledge about things such as equality, as opposed to the impossibility of ever actually perceiving absolute equality in the real world.

We know from the larger context of his writings that Plato is anything but an empiricist, but he's here trying to debunk empiricism from within, rather than summarily dismissing it.

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