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The Midwifing Function of the Theaetetus’ Midwifery Digression

Brian A. Apicella

University of Houston

This paper argues for two theses based in Socrates' digression on midwifery in the Theaetetus (148e-151d). It posits, firstly, that the philosophical significance of this famous passage has surprisingly suffered relative neglect in the literature. It submits, secondly, that the philosophical significance of Socrates’ account of his midwifery calls for a reevaluation of the role played by Socrates in this dialogue and its sequels.

Commentators have tended to take Socrates’ account of his midwifery as a charming account of the philosophical life that plays no significant role in the dialogue’s technical concern with epistēmē (Burnyeat). This paper argues, however, that Socrates’ account of his midwifery, despite its charm and apparent playfulness, constitutes a philosophically rigorous and serious logos. For it utilizes the very definitional principles that constitute the method of division utilized by the Stranger in the Theaetetus’ sequels. Furthermore, in differentiating the matchmaking genuine midwife from the pandering sham midwives (150a), Socrates even makes use of ontological and axiological distinctions grounded in ends and in this way anticipates the ontological and axiological difference between the philosopher and the sham wiseman, the sophist, in the Sophist. Socrates’ digression on his philosophical midwifery is, thus, far more than a lyrical description of the philosophical life. For Socrates utilizes methods and philosophical doctrines that receive explicit philosophical treatment only in the Theaetetus’ sequels, and his account of his philosophical midwifery in this way serves to midwife those important methods and doctrines.

The paper closes with a brief consideration of the implications this analysis has for how to understand the Theaetetus’ Socrates. For, given the results of this analysis, we cannot, pace Long, take this Socrates to be a downgraded version of the doctrine-rich Socrates of the middle dialogues, signifying Plato’s fresh start on old philosophical problems. Nor, contra Sedley, is this Socrates merely a midwife of Plato’s mature philosophy. This Socrates seems to be the philosopher whose logos Socrates requests but never gets from the Stranger (Sophist 217a).

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