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Knowledge and belief in Plato's Republic


To: Emelie G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Knowledge and belief in Plato's Republic
Date: 17th November 2011 12:42

Dear Emelie,

Thank you for your email of 9 November, with your essay for the University of London BA Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Explain Socrates' argument about knowledge and opinion at the end of Book V of the Republic. Does it work?'

This is a well thought out and carefully written essay, which does not baulk at the difficulties in interpreting Plato's text.

I have to say at the start that I am very strongly tempted to agree with Plato about the objects of episteme and doxa. His argument has nothing to do with scepticism as this is now discussed, and I'm pleased to see that you don't fall into the error of confusing Plato's qualms concerning empirical judgement with doubt of the Cartesian variety. The objects of doxa 'are' and 'are not'. They are F when taken in one way or from one aspect, and not-F when taken from another.

Consistently with this view, we should not agree that a 'finger is a finger', no matter what, and I don't think Plato could possibly think this. On the contrary, as with any other biological feature, there will be cases where we are clear that something is a finger, or not a finger, but also cases in between where we are not sure what to say. Of the form of 'Finger' there is no doubt. The problem is applying that knowledge to a particular case.

The one exception to this rule -- the pervasiveness of vagueness and relativity in empirical judgements -- are quantitative judgements. 'How many fingers am I holding up?' Assuming we have agreed from the start that these are fingers, not amputated stumps or prosthetic fingers, the act of counting is not relative, or vague, but always precise. This is the one case where features of the world of the super-sensible are precisely instantiated in the sensible world.

What is so wrong with this view? You raise a difficulty (Problem 1). There are two aspects to this:

First, it seems impossible that one can ever know that a man, or a city is 'just', because these objects like everything else in the sensible world are subject to different views or perspectives, and also vagueness. No man or city is perfectly just, in every respect. Only the form of justice is perfectly just (leaving aside the question whether Plato needs self-predication in this strong sense to make his point). In which case it is hard to see how this great faculty exercised by philosophers -- the faculty of episteme -- can be of any practical use.

Secondly, Plato explicitly says, in the Meno, that you can gain knowledge by 'tying down' belief. There is every difference between having a belief about the right way to Larissa and knowing the way. In other words, he seems explicitly to accept in the Meno that there are cases of knowledge in the sensible world, flatly contradicting his view in the Republic.

I don't see these as serious difficulties, however.

Judging whether a man, or a city is 'just' can never be a final, all-or-nothing matter. The most just man has his foibles or vices. Moreover, this judgement is always open to revision in the light of further experience, or in the light of further comparisons (finding a man who is 'even more' just than the man you thought was 'perfectly' just). It's an open-ended quest, to determine how and to what extent justice is realized in this world. However, you are not even going to get started if you don't know what justice is. That's why only the philosopher is qualified to debate such matters. The empirical conclusions of the philosopher are doxa, not episteme, but they are still miles ahead of the judgements of non-philosophers. In the world of doxa, not every judgement has the same value or credibility.

In the Meno, Plato is clearly using an analogy. He is not saying that anyone, ever, can have episteme of the Road to Larissa. The point is rather about the difference between a theory or all-things-considered judgement based on various more or less persuasive considerations, such as one might have from asking friends, consulting maps, looking up Google etc., and the kind of competence and direct experience demonstrated by someone who travels the road every day and knows it 'like the back of one's hand'. Practice, and repetition, convert mere doxa into something much more like episteme, even though it isn't strictly episteme.

The intended analogy here is with the kind of progression one makes when one engages in the Socratic dialectic with a term like 'virtue', until one becomes fully proficient at it. When you are fully proficient, then you 'see' the form of Virtue: you have episteme. (It is another question whether Socrates or Plato believed that anyone, including themselves, had ever truly achieved this.)

One of the reasons why the Republic has traditionally been one of the favourite entries on 'introduction to philosophy' book lists is that Plato's argument is ultimately about the defence of philosophy as such, as a practice and a discipline. The world is full of 'experts', all of them merely 'lovers of sights and sounds' who have never once imagined or guessed that there can be anything else, any other form of inquiry than inquiry into 'things'. Of concepts as concepts, or the idea of a priori judgement, they are completely ignorant.

One should not make the mistake of tying Plato's view about doxa and episteme to the two-world theory, at least in the full blooded sense in which Plato held it (of course, we don't know for sure what Socrates' views were). To recognize that philosophy has a distinct subject matter, in the way that Plato emphasized this, does not commit one to any particular metaphysical theory.

All the best,