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In Theaetetus, when asked about knowldegde (ἐπιστήμη) he first suggest that knowldege is perception (αἴσθησις). Just before, he says the following :

δοκεῖ οὖν μοι ὁ ἐπιστάμενός τι αἰσθάνεσθαι τοῦτο ὃ ἐπίσταται

The translation of Harold N. Fowler is the following :

I think, then, that he who knows anything perceives that which he knows

As in the french translation I have, there is in english a very interesting ambiguity : does he knows because he perceived that which he knows ? Or does he actually perceives the fact that he knows i.e. perceives that he is knowledgeable ?

From my understanding of the pronoun οὗτος, the ambiguity comes from the greek itself. Is it correct?

Edit : This ambiguity is better put as question of temporality, in which, if I'm not mistaken, both interpration of "that" are demonstrative : Does he who knows, knows because in the past, he perceived something ? Or does he who knows, in the present, perceives his knowledge ?

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    I'm still not sure I follow, but to address the edit -- the Greek means neither of those things: not "he who knows anything perceived [in the past] that thing which he knows", nor "he who knows anything perceives the fact that he knows", but "he who knows anything perceives [in the present] that thing which he knows".
    – TKR
    Jul 25, 2022 at 18:41
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    Yes, using the tenses was a bit overstating the thin nuance. But taking your last sentence : "he who knows anything perceives [in the present] that thing which he knows" : does he perceives it outside, that thing as an object - or does he perceives it inside his consciousness, that thing as a knowledge ?
    – Johan
    Jul 25, 2022 at 19:02
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    @Johan I'm possibly misunderstanding you, but I don't think 'perceive' is the right word for what you're getting it. Might that be the issue?
    – cmw
    Jul 25, 2022 at 19:37
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    @cmw It absolutely is a bit of stretch in english to use 'perceive' for such an inner-'perception', but that's exactly what I wanted to understand : whether in greek, αἰσθάνομαι can be used for such an inner-perception (my dictionary says that it can already express 'perceiving through intelligence').
    – Johan
    Jul 25, 2022 at 19:56
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    But as I think more about it and read everyone's explanation, I doubt that Plato would have used such a word to mean an inner perception so early in the dialogue ; moreover in the first hypothesis of Theatetus.
    – Johan
    Jul 25, 2022 at 20:00

3 Answers 3

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If I understand right, the crux of your question is: does someone know because they have perceived the thing that they know, or do they know because they are perceiving the thing that they know? In other words, if I know that it's raining outside, is it because I have perceived that it's raining, or because I am perceiving that it's raining (maybe looking at it right now, maybe "perceiving" it somehow inside my head)?

Grammatically, this comes down to the aspect of αἰσθάνεσθαι. Infinitives in Greek don't always carry tense information, but they do have aspect. If Theaetetus wanted to say that knowing is having perceived, he could use the perfective aspect, indicating the state resulting from something having previously happened: ᾐσθῆσθαι.

But he doesn't use ᾐσθῆσθαι, he uses αἰσθάνεσθαι, with imperfective aspect. To know something is to perceive is, not to have perceived it.

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  • Yes it really is plays on the "inside my head" thing - using the tenses was overstating it to make it clearer. In your example, the two formulation would be : 1) I know it's raining outside (because) I perceive the rain outside, and 2) I know it's raining outside (hence) I perceive that, in my head, I know it's raining outside
    – Johan
    Jul 25, 2022 at 19:00
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    @Johan On that topic, the Greek is unambiguous: you perceive the rain.
    – Draconis
    Jul 25, 2022 at 19:01
  • Ah alright, thank you for your time and coping with those painful explanations!
    – Johan
    Jul 25, 2022 at 19:03
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If I'm understanding your question correctly, no, the Greek is not ambiguous in that way (nor is the English).

αἰσθάνεσθαι τοῦτο ὃ ἐπίσταται means "to perceive that [thing] which he knows", with τοῦτο "that [thing]" serving as antecedent of the relative pronoun ὅ. It cannot mean "to perceive [the fact] that he knows"; that could be expressed by αἰσθάνεσθαι ὅτι ἐπίσταται (or αἰσθάνεσθαι τοῦτο, ὅτι ἐπίσταται). If Plato had written that latter sentence, it would actually be ambiguous, because ὅτι can be the subordinating conjunction "that" or the indefinite relative pronoun "that which". But in the original sentence, ὅ can only be the relative pronoun.

(The English is also unambiguous: the second meaning could be expressed by "perceives that he knows", but not by "perceives that which he knows".)

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  • Ah, you just beat me out!
    – cmw
    Jul 25, 2022 at 17:58
  • I edited the question to reflect better the crux of, what I think, is an ambiguity. Your answers helped me put the right words on it, but obviously, I may just be missing something.
    – Johan
    Jul 25, 2022 at 18:07
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As in the french translation I have, there is in english a very interesting ambiguity : does he knows because he perceived that which he knows ? Or does he actually perceives the fact that he knows i.e. perceives that he is knowledgeable ?

It's the former. He perceives "that = the thing which" (τοῦτο ὃ). The English "that" can be both a demonstrative and an indicator of an indirect statement, whereas in Greek those are distinct. However, even here, the addition of the "which" after "that" makes it unambiguous.

In general, in oratio obliqua, you'd use ὅτι or ὡς or otherwise put the verb into a participle.

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  • Thank you for your answer. My explication of the ambiguity was certainly lacking as both interpretation hold on a demonstrative "that". It boils down to a temporality question. Does he who knows, knows because in the past, he perceived something ? Or does he who knows, in the present, perceives his knowledge ?
    – Johan
    Jul 25, 2022 at 18:03

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