A 2023 Choice Reviews Outstanding Academic Title
Socrates famously claimed that he knew nothing, and that wisdom consisted in awareness of one’s ignorance. In Ignorance, Irony and Knowledge in Plato, Kevin Crotty makes the case for the centrality and fruitfulness of Socratic ignorance throughout Plato’s philosophical career. Knowing that you don’t know is more than a maxim of intellectual humility; Plato shows how it lies at the basis of all the virtues, and inspires dialogue, the best and most characteristic activity of the philosophical life. Far from being simply a lack or deficit, ignorance is a necessary constituent of genuine knowledge. Crotty explores the intricate ironies involved in the paradoxical relationship of ignorance and knowledge. He argues, further, that Plato never abandoned the historical Socrates to pursue his own philosophical agenda. Rather, his philosophical career can be largely understood as a progressive deepening of his appreciation of Socratic ignorance. Crotty presents Plato as a forerunner of the scholarly interest in ignorance that has gathered force in a wide variety of disciplines over the last 20 years.
Kevin Crotty is professor of foreign languages at Washington and Lee University.
Introduction: On Self-Constitution and Ignorance
Part I: Ignorance and Irony
Chapter One. The Origins of Socratic Ignorance
Chapter Two. Socratic Ignorance in the Meno
Chapter Three. Ignorance, Irony, Dialogue
Part II: Knowledge
Chapter Four. Knowledge and Perception
Chapter Five. Knowledge and Expertise I
Chapter Six. Knowledge and Expertise II: Plato and Protagoras on Expertise
Chapter Seven. Knowledge and Dialogue
Chapter Eight. Knowledge, Ignorance, Wisdom
This is a refreshing and persuasive book. Crotty starts by taking Socrates’s disavowals of wisdom in the Apology seriously. Socrates’s ignorance motivates his virtuous search for wisdom through dialogue. Crotty argues that the irony in Socrates’s famous method is not that Socrates already knows the answers; rather ignorance motivates sincere, ongoing dialogue and is itself a source of moral action and wisdom. Crotty takes issue with a scholarly tradition (and with an impressive array of scholars—Gregory Vlastos, Paul Woodruff, Charles Kahn, Julius Moravcsik, among others) that focuses on the objects of knowledge—eternal, immutable Platonic forms. To grasp a form, Crotty suggests, would mean closure, whereas Socratic virtues emerge in process—engaging other thinkers while admitting ignorance and refraining from actions (e.g., politics) about which one can know almost nothing. A sticking point, if there is one, comes in Crotty’s fluid comparisons of dialogues from different periods of Plato’s presumed theoretical development. Crotty sees an ethical theory across the Phaedo, Meno, and Charmides, and a theory of the relation of perception to knowledge across Theaetetus, Phaedrus, and Republic, for example. But Crotty’s wholistic interpretation is lucid, erudite, and challenging. Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty.
Kevin Crotty offers a salutary correction to the current scholarly view of Socratic ignorance. Far from being a merely negative absence of knowledge, he argues, Socratic ignorance – awareness of one’s ignorance of the most important things – is dynamic, visionary, and endlessly productive of philosophical insight. And, he persuasively shows, this view of ignorance is not confined to the so-called Socratic dialogues, but characterizes Platonic thought from start to finish. Crotty gives insightful readings of key dialogues in clear, accessible, and engaging prose. The book is an important contribution to Platonic scholarship and, by implication, a brief for the contemporary renewal of an attitude of Socratic ignorance that is currently in short supply.
Beautifully written and insightful, Ignorance, Irony, and Knowledge in Plato offers compelling evidence to rethink readings of Plato as a dogmatic thinker. Challenging the simplistic, dichotomous model of knowledge and ignorance that generations of interpreters have attributed to Platonic thought, Kevin Crotty powerfully brings forth the vital role of ignorance in the endless philosophical quest for wisdom. Along the way, he demonstrates how even the most seemingly definitive of Plato’s dialogues create rich occasions for enhancing one’s awareness and appreciation of the perplexingly unfathomable depths of the world around us, others, and even ourselves.