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What is Plato's concept of knowledge?


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is Plato's concept of knowledge?
Date: 23rd January 2009 11:22

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 14 January, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper, in response to the question, 'What is Plato's Concept of Knowledge?'

I can see that a lot of work has gone into this essay, particularly with your reading of Plato's difficult dialogue, Theaetetus. However, what you have offered is a detailed summary of the dialogue, covering all the main arguments, followed by a rather hasty reference to Plato's views in the Meno and Republic which appear to have been added as an afterthought.

There are a number of essay topics which you might tackle in relation to the Theaetetus:

1. Plato's critique of Protagorean relativism. How fair a depiction does Plato give of Protagoras' theory? How effective are his arguments as an attack on a relativist view of truth?

2. What exactly is the problem that Plato sees with the notion of false belief in the Theaetetus? Are any of his explanations effective? How do they shed light on Plato's concept of knowledge?

3. 'Knowledge is true belief plus an account.' Discuss Plato's views of the definition of knowledge in relation to the Meno, Republic and the Theaetetus. How do these views lead to the claim that the only subject matter concerning which knowledge is possible is the world of Forms?

4. What exactly is the point of 'Socrates' dream' in the Theaetetus? How does it relate to Russell's theory of logical atomism? How is this used to explain the nature of the 'logos' which is required for genuine knowledge?

The simple (seeming) question, 'What is Plato's Concept of Knowledge?' is asking for your analysis of Plato's theory of knowledge, as a contribution to epistemology; a contribution that one might evaluate alongside the views of contemporary philosophers. In other words, how different essentially is Plato's concept of knowledge from contemporary views of knowledge?

Obviously, one big difference is that Plato did not think it was possible to have 'knowledge' of the world of appearances. However, arguably, this might be a consequence not of his concept of knowledge as such, but rather of his metaphysical views concerning the nature of the world of forms and the world of appearances.

A central issue in contemporary epistemology is the alleged insufficiency of the definition of knowledge as 'justified true belief', as argued in Edmund Gettier's paper, 'Is Knowledge Justified True Belief?' There is potentially scope to mention Gettier's arguments in a discussion of Plato's concept of knowledge, insofar as Plato's definition in the Theaetetus provides the model for a view of knowledge which up until relatively recently was taken to be uncontroversial.

What would Plato have said about Gettier? One not implausible possibility is that he would have used this as further evidence that knowledge of the world of appearances is impossible. The 'Gettier counterexamples' to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief arguably only work in relation to empirical knowledge, where a belief can be true and justified, but its truth is still a 'lucky accident'. There is no room for lucky accidents (or is there?) with regard to knowledge of a priori/ necessary truths.

The Meno and Republic are equally important to the Theaetetus in a discussion of Plato's concept of knowledge.

In the Meno, Plato in addition to his slave boy experiment, (which as you argue illustrates how a priori knowledge is possible) offers a persuasive argument why we should not be satisfied with having true beliefs. A belief without an account is 'untethered' and tends to run away. This gives a strong clue to how Plato understood the notion of a 'logos' which he refers to in the Theaetetus.

In the Republic, Plato expounds on the metaphysical basis for his scepticism regarding the world of appearances, as well as giving an account of knowledge which leans strongly on the model of perception -- i.e. knowledge of objects (the forms) rather than of the truth of propositions.

Obviously, the question gives you a considerable amount of leeway to discuss the issues that you think are most relevant to Plato's concept of knowledge. Is there a detectable change in Plato's views? How consistent are the statements which he makes in the three dialogues concerning the nature of knowledge? And so on.

I hope I have provided some useful pointers. In an exam, you would be given credit for your knowledge of the Theaetetus, but you would also lose marks for giving too much detail of Plato's arguments, and not enough analysis of Plato's concept of knowledge as expounded in the Meno, Republic and Theaetetus.

All the best,