September 21, 2008

Quote of the Day: Plato on Opinion and Knowledge

Following up on the last post, I thought it would be helpful to go back to Plato to provide another view on the subject. Socrates and Meno are discussing the nature of virtue, whether it is a form of knowledge, and whether it can be taught:

SOCRATES: So true opinion is in no way a worse guide to correct action than knowledge. It is this that we omitted in our investigation of the nature of virtue, when we said that only knowledge can lead to correct action, for true opinion can do so also.
...
MENO: That appears to be so of necessity, and it makes me wonder, Socrates, this being the case, why knowledge is prized far more highly than right opinion, and why they are different.
SOCRATES: Do you know why you wonder, or shall I tell you? - By all means tell me.
SOCRATES: It is because you have paid no attention to the statues of Daedalus, but perhaps there are none in Thessaly.
MENO: What do you have in mind when you say this?
SOCRATES: That they too run away and escape if one does not tie them down but remain in place if tied down. - So what?
Socrates: To acquire an untied work of Daedalus is not worth much, like acquiring a runaway slave, for it does not remain, but it is worth much if tied down, for his works are beautiful. What am I thinking of when I say this? True opinions. For true opinions, as long as they remain, are a fine thing and all they do is good, but they are not willing to remain long, and they escape from a man's mind, so that they are not worth much until one ties them down by (giving) an account of the reason why. And that, Meno my friend, is recollection, as we previously agreed. After they are tied down, in the first place they become knowledge, and then they remain in place. That is why knowledge is prized higher than correct opinion, and knowledge differs from correct opinion in being tied down. (Plato, Meno 97b-98a, tr. G.M.A. Grube; Daedalus was an artist who made great advances in the production of lifelike sculpture, hence the legend that his works would come to life when no one was looking)

According to Plato, the thing which, when added to true belief, makes for knowledge is an αἰτίας λογισμός, which Grube has translated as "an account of the reason why" - more literally, "an account of the cause". I haven't studied this in depth, but it is of note that right before this section Plato says that anyone who has actually walked from Athens to Larissa has knowledge of the way from Athens to Larissa, whereas someone who relies on hearsay and conjecture (but is nevertheless right) only has correct opinion. However, walking to Athens to Larissa will not result in a person knowing why the way from Athens to Larissa is such as it is (presumably that would require historical and geological explanations). As a result, I wonder if Plato means "an explanation of the reason for this belief". It is of note that Plato uses λογισμός, 'account', which is a close relative of λογός, the word Plato uses for a philosophical argument. (But don't read too much into this - both are very common words, especially in Plato.) So perhaps Plato thinks that one has knowledge if one has a correct belief and can give a reasonable account of the formation of that belief.

Now, the problem with the Gettier cases is that the account depends on falsehoods. Of course going this direction we will soon wade deep into externalism, and might conclude that (1) we never know that we know anything, and (2) we never know whether we are reasonable in believing something. For my part, I'm already pretty sure that I don't know that I know (or don't know) anything, because I don't know the correct theory of epistemology. Sometimes epistemology gets a little muddy.

Posted by Kenny at September 21, 2008 11:44 PM
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