What is Knowledge? What does it mean to know something? And how does a person gain knowledge?
A contemporary introduction to Philosophy may describe knowledge as the following: ‘knowledge is justified true belief’. However, since discussions of Philosophy should be historically informed we are going to start from the beginning; that is, in Ancient Greece with Plato.* I plan to explore the ideas of a number of past thinkers through a multiple part series. And at the we will come back to the common contemporary definition of knowledge and compare it to what we have learnt.
Philosophy is a hard subject. You can’t merely read Philosophy: you must write notes; summarising in your own words what other thinkers have written. You must also read some ancient philosophical literature, to avoid becoming slaves to contemporary thought. One of the aim of this blog is to encourage its readers, and me the writer, to engage with ancient texts themselves.
Before looking at some of Plato’s ideas, lets situate questions about knowledge and belief within the discipline of philosophy as a whole. Philosophy, as mentioned in my last post, is traditionally divided into a number of branches, or areas of enquiry. Questions about knowledge and belief tend to fall into a branch called ‘the theory of knowledge’, or epistemology (from the Greek word episteme, which means ‘knowledge’ or ‘understanding). Epistemology is sometimes called the grand daddy of Philosophy as it bears on all other areas of enquiry; indeed, my anthology of Western Philosophy starts with extracts on the subject of knowledge and certainty before exploring the other lofty branches of philosophy such as metaphysics, ethics, personal identity, and many more.
Our first extract, and the first extract of the aforementioned anthology, is Plato’s Meno. The Meno, like most of Plato’s works, was written in the form of a dialog, with Socrates, Plato’s primary character, engaging in Philosophical discussion with various others. In this extract, Socrates has just flummoxed Meno with his famous Socratic method of questioning, leaving Meno in a state of confusion and ignorance which he compares to being stung by a torpedo fish and paralyzed. You can read the whole dialogue here: Meno’s Paradox
Meno complains: “For my soul and my tongue are really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you; and though I have been delivered of an infinite variety of speeches about virtue before now, and to many persons-and very good ones they were, as I thought-at this moment I cannot even say what virtue is.“
Socrates offers to help Meno enquire into what virtue is, and this is where Meno puts forth his objection to the inquiry of knowledge simpliciter; that is, knowledge of any sort. For Socrates, virtue is intimately linked to knowledge. We often find Socratic discussions of the former leading into the latter. Socrates believes that to be a virtuous person, first you have to know what virtue is; any attack on our ability to gain knowledge will be treated seriously by Socrates, who is very interested in living a virtuous life. The dialogue continues:
Men. “And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?“
Soc. “I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the, very subject about which he is to enquire.“
Men. “Well, Socrates, and is not the argument sound?“
How would you describe Meno’s paradox? And how would you answer it?
Next time we shall look at Socrates answer to Meno’s conundrum: innate knowledge.