The Analogy of Religion

Philosophy, Christian Theology, and Joseph Butler

Category: Plato

Don’t Try This at Home: Socrates and Knowledge

Another week has gone by, so lets remind ourselves where we left off: Socrates was explaining to Glaucon, in Plato’s Republic, what a Philosopher does. The first characteristic of a philosopher was “he who has a taste for every sort of knowledge and who is curious to learn and is never satisfied”. He further distinguishes Philosophers from other persons who seek knowledge by stating that they, and only they, are “the lovers of the vision of truth”. Before reading my interpretation of Plato, read the extract yourself if you have the chance.

What does Socrates means by “absolute beauty”? How does this affect his distinction between opinion and knowledge? 

Socrates begins his explanation by stating that “beauty is the opposition of ugliness, they are two” and each, taken on their own, are one. Socrates refers to these terms as classes and adds “just and unjust, good and evil, and … every other class”. But what does it mean to say beauty is one or justice is one?

We certainly think of beautiful things like sunsets, or instances of justice like murders being brought to justice, but what does it mean to talk about beauty on its own as a single class? Socrates, I think, would only affirm that a sunset is beautiful to some extent and that a murderer going to jail is just to some degree, but these things are not beauty or justice itself:

taken singly, each of them one; but from the various combinations of them with actions and things and with one another, they are seen in all sorts of lights and appear many

There are many actions and things that appear to be beautiful, but for Socrates these things and actions are mixtures of the classes. A sunset will always be an unstable mixture of beauty and ugliness, but never completely beautiful.

A philosopher, then, for Socrates is a person who doesn’t merely see beautiful, just, or good things: a philosopher recognises that to see a beautiful thing is different from “seeing or loving absolute beauty”. The Philosopher, then, is capable of distinguishing absolutes from the objects which participate in the absolutes. These absolutes are the mysterious ideas or forms: abstract, immaterial objects which are accessible only to the intellect, not the senses.

With this understanding of reality in place*, Socrates makes his distinction between the opinion and knowledge. Knowledge is of “what is” – or pure being; ignorance is of “what is not” – or non-being or “the absolute negation of being”. To put it another way and in crude language: knowledge lines up with the way things actually are, and ignorance is exactly the opposite. Opinion, on the other hand, can sometimes be right and sometimes wrong. It is of “what is” and also “what is not”. It sometimes lines up with the way things are and sometimes it doesn’t. Opinion, therefore, says Socrates, is somewhere between knowledge and ignorance:

as knowledge corresponded to being and ignorance of necessity to not-being, for that intermediate between being and not-being there has to be discovered a corresponding intermediate between ignorance and knowledge

Socrates further separates opinion and knowledge into different faculties or powers. For example, the faculty of sight has the power to see objects in the world: it has a specific end and is directed at a specific subject matter. In the same way, to know is to have a power or faculty aimed discerning pure being – or that which is. Opinion is a faculty aimed at something that both is and is not. It is a power which is aimed at a mixture of the objects of knowledge and ignorance. What is opinion’s subject matter then?

Socrates concludes that opinion’s objects or “subject-matter” are the things and actions that are a mixture of the absolute ideas or forms. The non-philosopher therefore is the person who opines that there are no absolute forms or classes of beauty, good and justice (and many others, but more on that later) which these things participates in. There are only the things themselves. When someone opines that a piece of music is beautiful, Socrates might say that they are wrong (false opinion). Or he might say that they are right(true opinion). But because they  fail to understand what causes the music to be beautiful, they can’t have knowledge. Knowledge, for Socrates, requires understanding that absolute ideas cause the things we see to have certain characteristics. These things, as I mentioned above, are thought to participate in these absolute ideas or forms.

So next time you tell someone they are beautiful, ponder to yourself (don’t tell your spouse) Socrates’ distinction between knowledge and opinion. Next time, I will post a summary of what we have learned so far on the Analogy of Religion and explain why I am writing this blog. After that I will introduce our first extract from Plato’s famous pupil and the one of the greatest philosophers that ever lived: Aristotle.

Do you think that opinion related to objects of the senses? Does knowledge require understanding why the objects of our senses have certain characteristics? What do you think about my interpretation of this extract?

*Bloom notes that this framework is not defended in the Republic, only assumed.

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Lovers of the Whole: Socrates and the Philosophers

In the Meno Socrates made a distinction made between “true notions” on one hand, and knowledge and understanding on the other, while giving us an account of how we come to attain knowledge; that is, by “recollecting” innate knowledge. In doing so Socrates makes a common distinction between knowledge and mere belief (or opinion).

This is clearly represented in a later passage in the Meno, where Socrates makes a comparison between true opinion and knowledge. Both true opinion and knowledge, he says, are equally practical, but of true opinions Socrates says: “they are not of much value until they are fastened by the tie of the cause; and this fastening of them, friend Meno, is recollection”. By this he means that you need to be able to back up your opinion, even if true, with an explanation in order to call it knowledge.

Take the following illustration: many of us are able to write in English moderately well. We instinctively know where to put commas, full stops, and semi-colons, and can communicate with our audiences well enough. We often have true opinions about grammar. But since many of us don’t know or understand the rules of grammar, we don’t always have a reason why we structure a sentence in a particular way. Tying down these true opinions to a reason or cause – as Socrates puts it – gives them stability. And as I survey the grammatical mistakes in this post, where true opinion has become mere opinion, so I would tend to agree with Socrates general point.

In the Republic, the distinction between knowledge and opinion has complex implications which will require us to explore how Socrates views the nature of reality. First, however, I will introduce the whole book and the particular extract (Book V 474b-483e).

Socrates was viewed by many of his contemporaries as a danger to society by his corrupting of the youth and not believing in the gods – charges which he was probably guilty of to some degree. And while we might think of the Republic as a work of Political Philosophy, Alan Bloom writes in his translation: “The Republic is the true Apology* of Socrates”

With these words Bloom tells us something about purpose of this great work: a defence of Socrates and his ideas. But Socrates represented so much more in Ancient Greece then just his ideas. Bloom continues: “Philosophy required a defence if it was to be admitted into civil society. At the time of Socrates’ trial, philosophy was new to the cities, and it could easily be crushed. The philosopher had to defend himself before the city, or the city would have been legitimated in discouraging philosophy’s entrance into it as vigorously as possible.”

Today we may think philosophers are a peculiar, and don’t have much to say to civil society. But we are unlikely to see them as a public danger! So keep this historical context in mind as you read the beginning of the extract. Socrates starts by saying:

Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, –nor the human race, as I believe, –and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”

This statement, by Socrates and to Plato’s audience, would have been scandalous! However, since this post is about the complex implications of Socrates theory of knowledge, not angry Athenians, I will leave the scandal hanging as a backdrop for the discussion.

Moving on then: Glaucon, the dialogue partner in this book, presses Socrates for a definition of who a philosopher is; you can’t have philosopher kings or rulers until it is clear what a philosopher does, after all. The answer Socrates gives will help us understand why consensus is almost impossible when defining what true philosophy is. Socrates goes on:

the philosopher…is a lover, not of a part of wisdom only, but of the whole

And he who dislikes learnings, especially in youth, when he has no power of judging what is good and what is not, such a one we maintain not to be a philosopher or a lover of knowledge, just as he who refuses his food is not hungry, and may be said to have a bad appetite and not a good one?

Whereas he who has a taste for every sort of knowledge and who is curious to learn and is never satisfied, may be justly termed a philosopher?

A philosopher, therefore, is a lover of wisdom and knowledge, in the proper sense. They love every type of knowledge without distinction or qualification. Socrates contrasts philosophers to those who can’t judge what is good or not, and thus dislike learning and knowledge.

But Glaucon is not satisfied with this definition; after all, many men are lovers of knowledge. Musicians, artists, craftsmen would all make this claim. Are these not philosophers too, Glaucon asks. Of course not, Socrates replies, they only “imitate” what philosophers do. Philosophers are uniquely “the lovers of the vision of truth”.

So we have, as Bloom puts it, two “salient aspects of a philosopher”: The first is a love of all knowledge; not in the narrow sense that an artist might learn how to paint or draw, but in the broad sense of wanting to learn how all knowledge relates as a whole. The second salient aspect, “the lovers of the vision of truth”, will require another post to explain. The next post will be the toughest yet, as we learn about the nature of reality, and how opinion and knowledge relate to one of Plato’s famous doctrines: the forms.

*The Apology is much shorter and less technical dialogue by Plato describing Socrates trial and his consequent defence speech.

You’ll Never Learn: Innate Knowledge

In the last post I ask you to think about Meno’s Paradox. But don’t worry if you couldn’t grasp the Paradox or answer it; I will explain it in clearer langauge and then explore Socrates’s answer.

First, lets remind ourselves of the context. Socrates has left Meno is a state of confusion by uncovering his ignorance about virtue. Socrates offers to help, but Meno then states his objection to the inquiry of any type of knowledge, virtue included. His Paradox goes something like this: How can you inquire into a subject you know nothing about? After all, where do you start and how do you know when you have found knowledge? Socrates fleshes this out by stating the reverse: What is left to inquire about a subject you already know?

You own answer might be that knowledge isn’t an all or nothing sort of thing. Instead, there are degrees of knowledge. We don’t seem to start by literally knowing nothing about any subject, and our knowledge doesn’t really become exhaustive. So the implicit assumption in Meno’s Paradox seems wrong. But what answer does Plato give through Socrates?

To answer this Paradox, Socrates sketches his doctrine of the immortal soul. For him, the soul is part of the person that lives on after the death of the physical body. The crucial part for Socrates, however, is that souls have lived for many of past lives, both in the physical world and the after life. He explains the implications:

“The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever knew about virtue, and about everything; for as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things; there is no difficulty in her eliciting or as men say learning, out of a single recollection -all the rest, if a man is strenuous and does not faint; for all enquiry and all learning is but recollection.

It is unclear how seriously Socrates (and Plato) takes the myth behind the doctrine; that is a debate for Plato scholars, and perhaps I will come back to the category of ‘myth’ in later posts. Regardless of that, since Socrates believes that our souls have already experienced many lives, he can claim that the soul has knowledge of “all things that exist”. That means all learning and inquiry is actually about remembering or recollecting pre-existing knowledge.

Learning is an illusion then, according to Socrates, and teaching is only the process by which the soul recollects knowledge it already has, not the impartation of new knowledge from teacher to learner.

Meno seems impressed by Socrates’ strange ideas, but like us he needs a demonstration or a proof. Socrates calls over one of Meno’s assistants, a boy who only knows how to speak Greek, and has no other expertise.

Soc: “Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.”

Socrates asks the boy a series of, perhaps leading, questions to help him “recollect” how to solve a particular mathematical problem: how to double the area of a square.

At first, the boy gives incorrect answers; such as, by doubling the length of the sides. Socrates and Meno agree that the boy is only guessing at the answer; he doesn’t have understanding or knowledge. As the questioning continues the boy realises that he doesn’t know the answer too. Socrates remarks: “Is he not better off in knowing his ignorance?“. Meno agrees. After more questions the boy finally gives the correct answer.

Socrates draws some interesting implications from this demonstration. The boy, says Socrates, had “true notions” about the solution which he did not have knowledge of. Through the process of questioning these notions have been transformed into understanding and knowledge. The “true notions” then, are the innate knowledge within all of us, which has been learnt in previous lives.

This raises some questions which I don’t think are clearly answered by this extract. Do we unconsciously have these notions? Are these notions conscious opinions? Or would Socrates say it was a mixture of both? Without reading the whole Meno it is hard to know. Leaving that aside, Plato has given us some clues to the nature of knowledge and how we might come to know something. And even if we are not persuaded by his particular doctrine of innate knowledge, I think there is something to the idea of some pre-existing knowledge within us.

What do you think about the idea of innate knowledge? What are true notions and how to they relate to knowledge and opinion?

Next we shall learn (or recollect) about the difference between knowledge and opinion in an extract from one of the most important works of Philosophy ever written: The Republic. This is Plato’s Socrates at his finest, so don’t miss it!

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!