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Speech and Knowledge in Plato’s Hippias Major

Speech And Knowledge In Plato’s Hippias Major

Near the beginning of Greater Hippias, Socrates introduces an alter-Socrates (his intellectual conscience, we might say) who poses this question: “Socrates, how do you know what sorts of things are fine and foul? Look, would you be able to say what the fine is?” (286d).[i] What alter-Socrates means by the “how do you know” [πόθεν … οἶσθα] question is connected to the fact that he demands Socrates be able to “say what the fine is” [ἔχοις ἂν εἰπεῖν τί ἐστι τὸ καλόν;].[ii] That is, for Socrates there is a connection between saying and knowing.  This connection is hardly unique to Greater Hippias; at least in some fashion it may be found in all of Plato’s dialogues, and I will briefly mention a few passages from the Meno to further explain the connection. However, Plato makes the theme of λόγος especially strong in Greater Hippias, and the compound sense of the word λόγος can serve as a window into the connection between saying and knowing, so Greater Hippias will be the focus of this essay.

The Greek word λόγος is not easily translated. In English, we might try “account,” “speech,” “reason,” “what is said,” “word,” and still fail to capture the full meaning of the word. The primary two senses that come to light in Greater Hippias are “account/reason” and “what is said,” roughly corresponding to ratio and verbum. While ratio and verbum are distinct concepts for the Latin world, they are not quite separate for the Greeks, and this is particularly the case for Socrates. The fullness of a λόγος will contain, for him, both an account and a saying. This primary purpose of this essay is to illustrate how these two senses of λόγος are connected. Understanding this connection will help to explain what sort of answer Socrates is ultimately seeking from his interlocuter, as well as the way in which his interlocuter generally fails to provide this answer.

We should begin by looking at what it means for Socrates to ask for an account of something. In Greater Hippias the question driving the dialogue is “what is the beautiful?” [τί ἐστι τὸ καλόν;]; what Socrates is asking for is τὸ καλόν, and this is meant as the standard or cause of everything that is καλός. Hippias first suggests that τὸ καλόν is a beautiful girl, to which Socrates replies the following: “‘All those things you say are fine, will they be fine if the fine itself is what?’ Shall I say that if a fine girl is a fine thing, those things will be fine because of that? [ἔστι δι᾽ ὃ ταῦτ᾽ ἂν εἴη καλά;]” (288a). The suggestion of a fine girl not only fails to be the correct answer to the question that Socrates is asking; it does not even answer the type of question he is asking. Socrates is looking for that through which or because [διά] of which καλά things are καλά.

Τὸ καλόν, he says, is that “by which everything else is beautified and seen to be fine when that form is added to it” (289d). And in a similar way he says, “We were looking for that by which all fine things are fine. For example, what all large things are large by is the projecting. For by that all large things – even if they are not seen to be so – if they project, they are necessarily large” (294b). In this “large” example, the projecting is that “by which,” a construction using the dative relative pronoun , which acts much the same as the διά used earlier in “those things will be fine because of that?” This causation of large things to be large is not relative to perspective, as we can see in the qualification “even if they are not seen to be so,” but is somehow objective and necessary. That Socrates uses something comparative, and indeed clearly relative, like “large” is curious, especially considering the difficulty they already experienced earlier with the “fine girl,” who is only fine in relation to some things, and not in comparison with others. But let us for our current purposes lay aside the question of comparison and return to focusing on the relation that Socrates is insisting on between all large things and the projecting.

We can begin by asking if the projecting is a quality that all large things possess, or perhaps some subsistent thing forcing them to be large. Socrates proposes that it is an action of the large things, for “if they project they are necessarily large.” There is good reason to think, though, that not all instances of a “by which” are actions, for he also gives the examples of wisdom and the good as things “by which” in the dative: “And by wisdom wise people are wise, and by the good all good things are good?”(287c). In this line, while “the good” [τῷ ἀγαθῷ] is formed with the article, wisdom is just a noun [σοφίᾳ], and neither of these are likely to be considered actions. It is also unlikely to be a substance, for any particular substance will be liable to the same attack Socrates levels against Hippias’s suggestion of “gold” as a possibility for τὸ καλόν. So, the ontological status of the “by which” remains undetermined. We can at least say that the “by which” is something like a standard or cause or reason why something is the way it is, and this standard is constant among every instance of something being that way.

Early on in the dialogue, Hippias cannot see a difference between “what is a fine thing” and “what is the fine,” and this lack of understanding continues through most, if not all, of the conversation (287d). Socrates reprimands him for not making this distinction, exclaiming, “Aren’t you capable of remembering that I asked for the fine itself? For what when added to anything – whether to a stone or a plank or a man or a god or any action or any lesson – anything gets to be fine? I’m asking you to tell me what fineness is itself” (292d). In a certain sense, of course, Hippias is quite capable of saying whether some one thing is καλός or not, but Socrates believes this to be only a sort of opinion, not real knowledge: “Anyone in the world would laugh at us if we called it not pleasant to eat but fine… But I didn’t ask for that – what ordinary people think is fine – but for what is fine” (299a-b). The sort of account which Socrates desires is not just composed of examples of what the ordinary people think; he is looking for “the fine itself,” “what when added to anything … anything gets to be fine.”

It is unclear whether Hippias ever grasps what Socrates means by the ratio side of λόγος. Vasilis Politis argues that Hippias understands the question well enough, and his insistence on using an example or exemplar argument was simply Plato’s self-critique of the demonstrative mode.[iii] Be that as it may, there is one element of ratio which Hippias does see as connected with verbum: the certainty of a good account. Hippias repeatedly speaks of his judgements about τὸ καλόν as being irrefutable, and even Socrates uses this language: “So do you really think, if I gave that answer, I’d be answering what was asked, and correctly, and never will I be refuted?” (287e-288a). There is something irrefutable about a proper λόγος. What is spoken in this way is certain.

We are reminded of the conclusion of the Meno, when Socrates gives his definition of recollection as a true opinion “tied down” by means of an account of the reason why it is true:

“True opinions … are not willing to remain long, and they escape from a man’s mind, so that they are not worth much until one ties them down by (giving) an account of the reason why [τις αὐτὰς δήσῃ αἰτίας λογισμῷ]. … After they are tied down, in the first place they become knowledge, and then they remain in place” (97e-98a).

You only have knowledge in this tied-down, certain way when you can give an accounting of the cause, a verbum of the ratio. Or, in other words, a complete λόγος. To have an opinion, even a true opinion, about whether a particular thing is καλός is not the same sort of thing as knowing that it is καλός because you know the standard or paradigm (τὸ καλόν).

In this emphasis on “giving the account of the cause” found in the Meno passage we can also see the spoken side of λόγος. The account and the reason why and the saying of the account of the reason why all run together in the αἰτίας λογισμῷ, the account of the reason why. Speech and knowledge of the “things themselves” are intertwined.[iv]

One could object to this reading and deny the importance of speech to knowledge by supposing that the entire intention of the dialogue is merely to show that Hippias is not able to articulate what τὸ καλόν is. In other words, there may be no necessary connection between knowledge and speech for Socrates; perhaps Hippias knows, perhaps not, but the important thing to demonstrate is that he cannot define τὸ καλόν. Hippias’s status as a sophist lends some credence to this objection, for his fame lies firstly in his capacity for words and speeches, and only secondarily in his knowledge of what he is speaking about. If his reputation is that of “one who can speak,” maybe all Socrates is disclosing here is Hippias’s inability – contrary to Hippias’s reputation – to “say” what τὸ καλόν is.

However, if we look to the end of the dialogue, we find that Socrates is not only concerned with “saying”; he is concerned with saying-and-knowing, and he thinks they go together:

“I [Socrates] hear every insult from that man [Socrates again] (among others around here) who has always been refuting me… So when I go home to my own place and he hears me saying those things, he asks if I’m not ashamed that I dare discuss fine activities when I’ve been so plainly refuted about the fine, and it’s clear I don’t even know at all what that is itself!” (304c-d)

Because in the course of the conversation he has not been able to say – to give a verbal account of – what that standard is, Socrates thinks that it is “clear” that he himself does not know what “that is itself.” The lack of the ability to say indicates the lack of knowledge. Further, because he does not know τὸ καλόν, he should be “ashamed” to discuss individual things that are καλός; here the lack of knowledge should preclude speech. Likewise, in each part of the dialogue, Hippias is proven to be unable to say what τὸ καλόν is precisely by being shown to be unable to provide the standard by which all things that are καλός are καλός. That is, the evidence for Hippias’ lack of verbum is his lack of ratio; his λόγος is incomplete, at least in the Socratic sense.

Hippias ends the dialogue where he began, able only to give a particular example of a thing that is καλός: “But here’s what is fine and worth a lot: to be able to present a speech well and finely, in court or council or any other authority to whom you give the speech” (304b). The fact that this dialogue both begins and ends with discussing beautiful speeches (also λόγοι) cannot be accidental. In a Platonic joke, we realize that while Hippias cannot give the λόγος (in the combined sense of ratio and verbum) of τὸ καλόν, he can still give a λόγος (understood merely as a speech, a verbum devoid of true ratio) which “ordinary people” will say is καλός.

In seeking for knowledge of the “thing itself,” Socrates is looking for knowledge which is more than true opinion; it is tied-down by means of an accounting of the cause, an αἰτίας λογισμῷ. This accounting, this giving of the account, is speaking (or verbum) of the ratio. What is sought as the reason or cause is the standard, “that by which” or “that through which” all things X are X. To know this standard is inextricable from the act of saying what this standard is, which is why Socrates demands a statement of this standard from his interlocuters. In fact, unafraid to confront his own ignorance, he even demands this statement of the standard – this complete λόγος – from himself, for he is relentless in his pursuit of knowledge, and only in the saying is there knowing: “Socrates, how do you know what sorts of things are fine and foul? Look, would you be able to say what the fine is?” (286d).



[i] Plato, Greater Hippias, trans. Paul Woodruff, in Plato Compete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997). All translations given will be from this volume. All references to the Greek text are from Plato, Platonis Opera, ed. John Burnet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903).

[ii] A note about the translation of “καλός”: While this is not an easy word to deal with, I take issue with Woodruff’s rendering of it as “fine.” We must remember that Socrates holds the subject matter of this dialogue, namely, what is τὸ καλόν, to be of great importance, and “fine” simply fails to bring out this significance. “Beautiful” would be preferable in this regard. To avoid these difficulties, I will only use “fine” when quoting from the Woodruff translation, and καλός otherwise.

[iii] For instance, see: “[In the character of Hippias] Plato raises some serious doubts about his own distinctive mode of enquiry. For if such questions as ‘What is beauty?’ can be answered by example-and-exemplar, then their answer is evident to us and we need not engage in difficult and demanding enquiry in search of an answer” (Vasilis Politis, [2018] “Plato’s Geach Talks to Socrates: Definition by Example-and-Exemplar in the Hippias Major,” Phronesis 63 [3]: 224).

[iv] For one of many treatments of this notion of a connection between thought and speech, see Kant: “How much and how correctly would we think if we did not think as it were in community with others to whom we communicate our thoughts, and who communicate theirs with us! Thus one can very well say that this external power which wrenches away people’s freedom publicly to communicate their thoughts also takes from them the freedom to think” (Immanuel Kant, “What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?” 8:144). Socrates’ position here is more nuanced, though; for him it is a particular sort of knowledge which always comes together with speech, the sort of knowledge which contains an account of the reason why something is as it is. In such a case, for Socrates, the speech and the knowing are the same, or nearly so.

Jacob TerneusJacob Terneus

Jacob Terneus

Jacob Terneus is a Ph.D. student in ancient and medieval philosophy at Marquette University. He also holds an M.A. in Classics from the Institutum Studiis Latinis Provehendis at the University of Kentucky and a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Wyoming Catholic College.

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