In a world where alledgedly the lines between fact and fiction are blurred, and where fake news becomes harder to distinguish from ‘real’ news, perhaps it is worth wondering what knowledge actually is. Knowledge is power, but what makes something knowledge and other things not? How do we distinguish falsehood from truth? This has been a question keeping philosophers awake at night for centuries. One of the first philosophers to tackle this was Plato, and it is with him I would like to zoom in on this issue.
As with all great philosophers, it is not the point to give a ‘correct’ answer* but rather to defy what is commonly thought to be knowledge and show it in a different light. It is precisely this that Plato aims for in one of his dialogues, The Theaetetus, in which three answers are given to the question of knowledge, and all of them are refuted.
All Plato’s writings are in the form of dialogue, between Socrates and his discussion partner, in this case, Theaetetus. The latter answers, ‘Knowledge is sense perception’. Does seeing a thing, or hearing a thing equal knowledge? In society nowadays a lot of emphasis is put on empirical evidence and quantitative data. But is that the definition of knowledge? According to Socrates** this cannot be knowledge, as it does not involve explicit thought, and there are no standards by which it can be true or false. You and I can be in the same situation witnessing a crime, but in a police interrogation we might have different accounts that we both swear we’ve experienced and are real for us. Who is to determine what we say is true or false?
So, if sense perception is not knowledge, then what is? True judgment, is the next answer. Imagine a judgment of the sort ‘Marine Le Pen did not win the elections in France’. This is true, but is this all there is to knowledge? It could be that someone happens to tell me this, and I believed it and repeat it. I am repeating a true judgment, but do I really know it is true? How do we account for people believing true judgment by chance or persuasion rather than actually knowing?
The next and final idea Theaetetus comes up with is, ‘True judgment with an account [logos]’. An account would be a reason why a judgment is true, as in ‘Marine Le Pen did not win the elections in France, because Macron got this-and-this much more votes.’ But then remains the question, what is precisely meant by an account? It seems that an account is also knowledge, which would make the whole argument circular. If only we could come up with the essence of the account of true judgment, without alluring to the concept of knowledge — something so mundane that has suddenly become a mystery!
Ah. This is what I love about philosophy. In moving from one possible definition of knowledge to the next, each one tells us something more about knowledge and about the human mind. What Plato is doing in the Theaetetus is wondering, examining and analysing how knowledge lies in the process of reasoning about our sense perceptions through the use of true judgments involving the common concepts accompanied by an account. What are your thoughts on knowledge? Do you think it is worthwhile to examine, or would you rather side with philosophers such as Wittgenstein, and argue that these kind of investigations lead us only in circles, and are needless, as our everyday use of knowledge is sufficient?
*A philosopher might say: what makes one answer correct, and another incorrect? Is there even such a thing as a correct answer?
**Socrates is Plato’s mouth piece, and so when I say “Plato argues”, I actually mean that Socrates argues this in Plato’s writing, and when I say “Socrates says”, I mean that Plato wrote that Socrates said.
Plato beats fake news. Clearly deserves a wine that tastes smooth at first, but that actually has such a complex aftertaste that you’re still trying to make sense of it hours later. I therefore recommend a sassy Socratic Sauvignon. Cheers!