May 3, 2008

Quote of the Day: Plato on Knowing that You Don't Know

THEAETETUS: Well, do you see what we're looking for?
VISITOR: I think I see a large, difficult type of ignorance marked off from the others and overshadowing all of them.
THEAETETUS: What's it like?
VISITOR: Not knowing, but thinking that you know. That's what probably causes all the mistakes we make when we think.
THEAETETUS: That's true.
VISITOR: And furthermore it's the only kind of ignorance that's called lack of learning.
THEAETETUS: Certainly.
VISITOR: Well then, what should we call the part of teaching that gets rid of it?
THEAETETUS: The other part consists in the teaching of crafts, I think, but here in Athens we call this one education.
VISITOR: And just about all other Greeks do too, Theaetetus. But we still have to think about whether education is indivisible or has divisions that are worth mentioning.
THEAETETUS: We do have to think about that.
VISITOR: I think it can be cut somehow.
THEAETETUS: How?
VISITOR: One part of the kind of teaching that's done in words is a rough road, and the other part is smoother.
THEATETUS: What do you mean by these two parts?
VISITOR: One of them is our forefathers' time-honored method of scolding or gently encouraging. They used to employ it especially on their sons, and many still use it on them nowadays when they do something wrong. Admonition would be the right thing to call all of this.
THEAETETUS: Yes.
VISITOR: As for the other part, some people seem to have an argument to give to themselves that lack of learning is always involuntary, and that if someone thinks he's wise, he'll never be willing to learn anything about what he thinks he's clever at. These people think that though admonition is a lot of work, it doesn't do much good.
THEAETETUS: They're right about that.
VISITOR: So they set out to get rid of the belief in one's own wisdom in another way.
THEAETETUS: How?
VISITOR: They cross-examine someone when he thinks he's saying something though he's saying nothing. Then, since his opinions will vary inconsistently, these people will easily scrutinize them. They collect his opinions together during the discussion, put them side by side, and show that they conflict with each other at the same time on the same subjects in relation to the same thing and in the same respects. The people who are being examined see this, get angry at themselves, and become calmer toward others. They lose their inflated and rigid beliefs about themselves that way, and no loss is pleasanter to hear or has a more lasting effect on them. Doctors who work on the body think it can't benefit from any food that's offered to it until what's interfering with it from inside is removed. The people who cleanse the soul, my young friend, likewise think the soul, too, won't get any advantage from any learning that's offered to it until someone shames it by refuting it, removes the opinions that interfere with learning, and exhibits it cleansed, believing that it knows only those things that it does know, and nothing more.

     - Plato, The Sophist 229b - 230d (tr. Nicholas P. White)
Posted by Kenny at May 3, 2008 3:27 PM
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