The Analogy of Religion

Philosophy, Christian Theology, and Joseph Butler

Month: February, 2012

Meno’s Paradox: An Introduction to Knowledge

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.

*Sorry Pre-Socratics!

Philosophy: Improving Beliefs Since 4th Century BC

We have all been in a discussions with friends, family, work colleagues or facebookers where our respective opinions are very different. For the most part this makes life interesting; we disagree, have a little banter, and move on. However, when it comes to more important topics such as politics, religion, and certain ethical questions, we get more defensive and aggressive. Suddenly, we are more interested in converting our dialogue partners to our perspective, and knocking down theirs.

And the above makes sense: if certain beliefs are important to us, it is probably right to pass these on to other people as part of our moral duty. However, there is a question that arises from this. Are our own beliefs correct and do we believe them for good reasons? At one level this will depend on the belief in question, but at a more fundamental level this is a question for Philosophy.

Philosophising about Philosophy

Philosophy literally means ‘love of Wisdom’. But as that doesn’t tell us much (after all, most non-philosophers are interested in wisdom too), I will look at two definitions given by professional Philosophers.

John Cottingham writes at the beginning of his anthology of Western Philosophy that ‘philosophy probes and questions the fundamental presuppositions of every area of human inquiry‘ and ‘all [philosophers] have shared the Socratic vision of using the human intellect to challenge comfortable preconceptions, insisting that every aspect of human theory and practice be subject to continuing critical scrutiny‘.

William Lane Craig and JP Moreland, in their textbook on Christian Philosophy, define Philosophy in three different ways. I find their three ways of talking about Philosophy quite helpful so I will summarise them here:

1. Philosophy is a tool to help us form a rationally justified world-view.

As Cottingham mentions above, many Philosophers share the same Socratic vision of examining ones life critically. For Craig and Morland, this involves forming well justified beliefs about life’s most important questions. They define ‘World-view’ as “an ordered set of prepositions that one believes, especially propositions about life’s most important questions.”

Philosophers, I imagine, debate the relative importance of specific questions and how one justifies their world-view. Some Philosophers completely dispute the concept of a ‘world- view’ in the first place, so Craig’s first definition like most things in Philosophy is controversial, but useful nonetheless.

2. A second order discipline

Philosophy can be used to study other “first order disciplines” – as Craig puts it. For example, Philosophers of Science could study the assumptions that underpin the scientific method, clarifying what scientific knowledge is and how it relates to other first order disciplines, such as politics, for instance. There are a myriad of possible disciplines for Philosophy to study, so I won’t attempt to list them, but bear this in mind: if a subject exists then Philosophy can study it.

3. Traditional branches of inquiry

Philosophy can also be divided into the traditional subjects of inquiry. Aristotle started this practice by writing works that concentrated on specific topics. For example, Aristotle’s Metaphysics is devoted to the study of being and now we have a branch of Philosophy called Metaphysics or Ontology. He also wrote two works on Ethics, the most famous being the Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle discusses what is means to flourish as a Human and live the good life. Other branches of Philosophy include logic, and epistemology (the theory of knowledge).

These definitions, like most definitions of complex subjects, only brush the surface. You have to see Philosophy in action, so to speak, to really understand what it is all about. My next post will introduce Meno’s Paradox, which will bring to light several important concepts in Epistemology. So if definitions don’t do much for you, stick around and see some real Philosophy with one of Plato’s great Socratic dialogues, Meno.