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What is Plato's concept of knowledge?


To: Chris M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: What is Plato's concept of knowledge?
Date: 24th August 2009 11:17

Dear Christian,

Thank you for your email of 14 August, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'What is Plato's concept of knowledge?'

You may be interested to look at my answer to a question about Plato's and Descartes' concepts of knowledge on the current Ask a Philosopher Q&A page (first question)

I make the point there that, contrary to a 'lazy' tendency in epistemology, to state that P is to imply that you know that P, and to know that P implies that you are certain that P. The idea that Plato or Descartes were 'wrong' to think that knowledge implies certainty fails to grasp where Plato or Descartes were coming from in their views on the nature of knowledge.

As my answer suggests, the topic of knowledge leads to some difficult paradoxes. I could have also suggested that there is a link between Gettier counterexamples, and the defeating examples Lewis cites in arguing for a contextualist theory of knowledge.

For the purposes of this essay, the primary source texts are Meno, Republic and Theaetetus. The other texts you mention are relevant (Socratic dialogues such as Euthyphro, and the later dialogues Parmenides and Sophist). However, it is in the three primary texts that Plato explicitly states views about the nature of knowledge and belief; the question being (as you remark) whether Plato held a largely unitary view throughout the early, middle and late dialogues or whether his views changed substantially.

You missed a very important passage from the Meno. This is where Plato talks about the road to Larissa. What is it to 'know' the road to Larissa? Is it enough to demonstrate one's 'knowledge' by successfully reaching Larissa? No, because true beliefs which lack an 'account' have a tendency to 'run away'. I might find my way to Larissa if I don't think about it too much. However, there are all sorts of ways in which I could fall victim to doubt, if I don't have a strong enough account at my disposal. (My gloss on beliefs 'running away'.)

Thus, the slave boy who 'solves' the geometric problem has a true belief but lacks knowledge because he lacks the account. He would need to learn a lot more geometry before one could say that he 'knows' the solution to the problem.

You are right that Plato's concept of knowledge appears to be modelled on perception, but I would suggest that commentators have somewhat overstated this point. It is not that Plato thinks knowledge *is* perception, but rather that you can't have isolated 'bits' of knowledge. You can't 'just' know the road to Larissa or the solution to the geometric problem. You have to know a lot of other stuff as well, and this knowledge has to hang together. So it is very much like perception, in that in 'knowing' an object you know lots of things about it.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I doubt whether Plato states anywhere that to 'know' an object is to know *everything* about it. You have to be proficient in dialectic, as demonstrated e.g. in the Sophist, but there is no claim to the effect that knowledge of the Forms is in principle only attainable in toto.

Given what Plato says in the Republic, one can of course question whether it is possible to 'know' the road to anywhere in particular. However, it seems plausible to argue that Plato accepts that analogous considerations apply to doxa of the empirical world, and episteme of the intelligible world. In both cases, an account is needed. In both cases, knowledge doesn't come in bits but in clusters.

Again, in both cases, the empirical and the intelligible, Plato says that there is an analogous 'paradox' regarding the process of coming to know (Meno's paradox). If the theory of recollection is the solution to the latter problem (we are able to discover the correct definition of 'virtue' because in some sense we 'knew' it all along) what is the analogous solution in the case of empirical 'knowledge'? Does the analogy even hold at this point? Although you mention Meno's paradox, you could have said more here.

The big question is why we can't have episteme of the empirical world, but only doxa. This obviously relates to Heraclitus and Plato's adoption of the model of flux to describe the objects of sense perception. Arguably, what is wrong here is not Plato's concept of knowledge as such but rather his metaphysics.

There were one or two places in your essay where it looked like you were answering a different question (on Plato's conception of dialectic, or his conception of the Forms). As I've stressed before, in an exam question you must keep on topic and not allow the discussion to wander.

All the best,