BMCR 2005.10.28

Ideal and Culture of Knowledge in Plato. Akten der 4. Tagung der Karl-und-Gertrud-Abel-Stiftung vom 1.- 3. September 2000 in Frankfurt. Philosophie der Antike, Bd. 15

, , , , Ideal and culture of knowledge in Plato : Akten der 4. Tagung der Karl-und-Gertrud-Abel-Stiftung vom 1.-3. September 2000 in Frankfurt. Philosophie der Antike, Bd. 15. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2003. 288 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515083375 €48.00.

The essays in this volume are the proceedings of a conference in 2000 on the ideal and culture of knowledge in Plato. The conference represents part of a comprehensive research project of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft examining cultures of knowledge and social change. The larger project aims at understanding the structure and function of knowledge in society through the investigation of how knowledge is distributed within and between societies, as well as how forms of knowledge compete with one another. Sociology of knowledge ( Wissenssoziologie) has a deep history in Germany particularly since Karl Mannheim’s well-known but problematic project of the 1920’s. He sought to develop such a discipline based on politics and ideology though he foundered in navigating between the Scylla of relativism and the Charybdis of skepticism. The papers in this volume, however, accept logically more constricted perspectives of philosophy and epistemology and thereby significantly mute the hazards faced by Mannheim and his followers.

Wolfgang Detel and his fellow editors of this volume define culture of knowledge as a set of epistemic practices aimed at producing, selecting, organizing and transmitting knowledge. Epistemic practices constitute a culture because adherence to them becomes the basis for shared membership in a community. The second motif of the proceedings is ideal of knowledge. The editors point out that philosophical cultures of knowledge establish their own criteria for the ideal form of knowledge. In Plato’s case, his epistemic ideal is bound inseparably to ontological criteria. To accept Plato’s ideal therefore requires following epistemic practices compatible with the ontologically transcendent entities under investigation. This puts Plato’s culture of knowledge in opposition to practices of his contemporaries such as the sophists and even to those of the elenctic Socrates who, though pursuing wisdom, concedes his inability to grasp definitively the entities that constitute it.

All of the pieces in this volume are in English. Ten philosophical papers are leavened by contributions from three historians, placed at the end of the collection. Two of the three examine the conflict between rhetoric and philosophy while one considers slavery in the thought of Plato and Aristotle. Without doubt some papers fulfill the broad objectives of addressing the ideal and culture of knowledge in Plato better than others. Nevertheless all are of interest and of high quality.

Jan Szaif opens the collection with a study of Platonic cultivation of the soul. Since culture of knowledge lacks a close translation in Greek, Szaif relies on Cicero’s cultura animi as a more efficacious entry into the topic. In Plato’s account, the soul’s components must be disciplined to maintain their proper interrelationship if the soul’s desires and appetites are to be controlled by its inherent rationality. The pedagogical means for achieving this has two stages. A pre-philosophical stage of character formation depends on exposure to suitable music, harmony, stories and the like. They train the soul to discern what is fine. The second stage is developing dialectical ability. Its purpose is to lead the soul to philosophical knowledge and insight into what is real, the ultimate aim of the soul’s cultivation.

Christopher Gill’s “Plato’s Republic : An Ideal Culture of Knowledge” analyzes the two stages of education required for Plato’s guardians. He argues that the stages are interdependent. First comes cultural education through discourses shaped by true belief; in the next stage mathematics and dialectic turn beliefs into knowledge. If the guardians are to attain the full scope of political and ethical knowledge the soul must be properly structured during the first stage. Gill demurs from the common view that the first stage is simply habituative and hence pre-rational. He argues instead that even in the first stage, the soul uses inferential reasoning when it preserves the right beliefs. Reason is thus present in both educative stages. Gill argues that the sequence of first internalizing ethical norms and then moving to analytic understanding of their principles constitutes a culture of knowledge for Plato. Gill gives what he calls a Stoic reading of this sequence. He rejects the view that the second educative stage adds new content to the first. Rather, in this Stoic reading the second stage provides understanding of the intelligible structures that underlie the beliefs in the first stage. Plato anticipates the Stoics by stressing the intelligible order behind common and familiar beliefs about the world. Gill offers a well-reasoned and thought-provoking study whose details cannot be adequately reviewed here.

Christopher Rowe’s “Plato on Knowing and Merely Believing” addresses the tension between the Socratic belief that wisdom is available only to the gods and passages in which Plato suggests the philosopher is indeed able to attain an epistemic state of wisdom, albeit in the form of only partial knowledge. Rowe avoids an inconsistency between these positions since he holds that Plato uses “knowledge” and “belief” equivocally, a position promoted by Vlastos in regard to knowledge. Humans cannot have knowledge in the strict sense since humans fail to fulfill the necessary and sufficient conditions Plato imposes on knowledge. But, even though the philosopher cannot escape his mortal restraints and must remain a seeker of knowledge, he differs from the non-philosopher in persistently trying to move past the level of belief. Further to the philosopher’s advantage is the fact that his beliefs are based on carefully calculated reasons. The philosopher’s beliefs are ultimately insecure; yet, since they originated in reason and reflection, when compared to the unreflective views of others, the philosopher’s beliefs can be treated as though they were knowledge. Rowe exemplifies the contrast of knowledge and belief through Plato’s treatment of dialectic in Republic VI-VII. Dialectic represents the road to the intelligible and it stands for the very activity of philosophy. Socrates traverses that road but Rowe offers Rep. 533a1-5 as evidence that Socrates lacks the conviction that what he can say about his experience will demonstrate the truth to anyone. Rowe is surely correct here. Moreover, the one who is dialectical has synoptic vision (537c). The synoptic vision would of course dissipate in any sequence of logoi required to communicate it to anyone else.

Two other papers are concerned with how Plato addresses limits on human knowledge. In “The TYPOI PERI THEOLOGIAS and the Knowledge of the Good” Michael Bordt relates Plato’s claims about the gods in Republic II to his claims about the Good in the middle books. The guardians support their belief that god is good through traditional mythological accounts whose first typos is that god is good. Bordt, however, says that Platonic theology is not constituted by the mythological accounts of Book II but rather by the rational investigation of god’s nature in conjunction with the nature of the Good. God is Plato’s subject when the context is education of citizens, while the Good is the topic in the metaphysical account of the latter books where Plato seeks to explain the typoi. Bordt rejects a tradition that identifies god with the Good, for which he finds no explicit support in Plato’s text. Yet the lack of explicit identification does not disprove identity since it is common in Greek religion to allow for and indeed encourage multiple descriptions and names of a deity. Think for example of the opening chorus of Agamemnon“Zeus, whoever he may be, if this name pleases him …” (Ag. 159-160). Plato’s practice here could likewise be understood, to use Frege’s terms, as a single reference with different senses. Nonetheless Bordt is correct that if we wish to discover anything about god philosophical language will be required. Thus to explain what is merely assumed in Book II, namely that god is good, requires rational analysis. Bordt claims that since both myth and philosophical reason rely on assumptions they are each a form of belief. In order to explain what differentiates reliance on assumption in myth from its use in rational discourse, Bordt concludes that belief and knowledge don’t exhaust Plato’s epistemological spectrum. At the close of his paper he proposes a third epistemic level he calls understanding. This is said to be the product of the philosopher’s endeavor to learn how god is good and the cause of everything good. Bordt’s last minute proposal may not be quite a deus ex machina but the notion needs a lot more explication if it is to be of any use. As it stands, little is explained by its introduction at this point in the paper.

In “Eros and Knowledge in Plato’s Symposium“, Wolfgang Detel contrasts perfect and infallible knowledge with a less certain but humanly accessible form of knowledge. Like other scholars, Detel points to the attraction to Plato of the dialogue form, which allows him to distance himself from whatever hypotheses he sets out. This distance is of course reinforced by Platonic anonymity. Detel turns to the Symposium to demonstrate that knowledge of some sort is needed for mortals even to recognize themselves as epistemically challenged, and that Eros nicely captures the human epistemic situation of seeking truth. Detel surveys the encomiastic speeches, finding in them several sorts of truth which for the most part are compatible with Diotima’s account of different erotic states. Indeed he expends a good bit of effort in demonstrating the manner in which Diotima embraces and restates the preceding encomiastic content. He concludes first and unsurprisingly that Plato wishes to suggest a distinction between divine knowledge and human striving for knowledge. His second conclusion is that striving for knowledge implies knowing reflexively the difference between divine and human knowledge. For Diotima, the highest epistemic state within reach of humans is grasping an idea such as that of the beautiful. The initiate into the higher mysteries realizes that there is an idea of the beautiful and has learned something about its nature. Still, as a mortal he falls short of completely attaining the telos. Nor must we forget the suddenness of the initiate’s vision (210e) and the presumed instability of its retention. Even the initiate remains a seeker after truth.

The relationship between knowledge and its application is Andrew Becker’s topic in “Plato and Formal Knowledge.” The dialogue form requires attention to the context of setting and participants. At the same time, Plato puts a premium on definitions which constitute what Becker calls formal knowledge. By this he means sentences that need specific circumstances to become knowledge. Formal knowledge is therefore in itself incomplete. Becker investigates the relation of definitions to their applications in the second part of the Charmides, specifically the relation of knowledge to virtue and the vexing issue of knowledge of knowledge. Becker lists three versions of that notion: knowledge of oneself; knowledge of itself and other knowledges, and knowing what one knows and does not know. He regards the last of these as the proper form since its objects are propositions which can be understood formally even if what one knows and does not know is not known. By deploying an inclusivity condition (that a person who has knowledge of the knowledge of p also has knowledge of p) Becker concludes that Socrates accepts the distinction between knowing that one knows and knowing what one knows. Additionally, he accepts the position of H. Benson that knowledge of knowledge and knowledge of Good and Bad are mutually entailing.

Pirmin Stekeler-Weithofer continues the examination of knowledge in relation to its application in “Plato and Parmenides on Ideal Truth, Invariant Meaning, and Participation.” Parmenides like Plato equivocates on the meaning of knowledge. There is a gap between what is known in the spatio-temporal world and what could be known in the form of “fixed knowledge,” an episteme independent of time and place. Both Socrates and Parmenides we are told hold unique meaning to be a necessary condition for meaningful discourse. But how do we predicate unique meaning of contingent or multiple entities? The One-Many problem is articulated as a question about how we can relate unique meaning to the present which is a time-contingent situation. Two questions are posed: whether there is a need for invariant concepts or forms, to which the answer given is yes; and how might we grasp these concepts. The answer to the latter question for Plato is that we must first master elementary predicates which will allow us to define complex predicates through a list of conditions. Stekeler-Weithofer says that a defining logos comprises such a list. Parmenides’ importance for Plato is that he demonstrated the need for differing concepts of reality and knowledge. The goddess alone has access to genuine Truth, but by using her perspective Parmenides successfully sets out formal conditions for grasping Truth. Plato follows his lead by distinguishing two concepts of knowledge in his dialogue Parmenides. Mortals cannot achieve the ideal of knowledge though we are able to talk about it and about its conditions. Of course, knowing only its formal conditions leaves us ultimately separated from Truth since there is a gap between “formal mathematical truth and Absolute Truth.” Truth is more than formal. Stekeler-Weithofer defines it as a system of formal sentences that express the forms of real matters of fact. Particular knowledge claims are evaluated by their distance from an ideal knowledge claim. Thus we are left with the abiding problem of how to relate theory and models to the lived world of contingencies, expressed by Plato through his image of methexis.

The Theaetetus is the subject of three papers. In the best of them “Knowledge is Perception. A Defence of Theaetetus,” Catherine Osborne regards Theaetetus’ question what is knowledge to be both broader and narrower than normally presupposed. It is broader because episteme is not limited to expertise and narrower in that it excludes propositional knowledge. Osborne rejects the view of Cornford and many others that knowledge must be knowledge of the forms and indeed stresses the inadequacy of any list as an answer for what constitutes knowledge. Noting Plato’s concern in the Cratylus over getting the right fit between name and thing and his insistence in the Sophist that correctly predicating one thing of another is needed to describe a state of affairs, Osborne adds the Theaetetus to them as showing that Plato wants to know how to make true statements about states of affairs. Truth, she says, is coincidence between an object of thought (say, a property) and an object in the spatio-temporal world thought to embody that property. The test of knowledge is the ability to employ or apply a concept in the correct way. Osborne’s defence of Theaetetus concludes that knowledge is in fact a kind of perception, a non-propositional awareness of something. Simply put, knowledge is getting things right. There is much more in her argument than this short notice can cover. Not everyone may agree with Osborne, but her analysis is carefully presented and invites careful scrutiny of its details.

Mary Louise Gill asks “Why Does Theaetetus’ Final Answer Fail?” Her answer is that all three answers given to the question about knowledge are only partial. Each contains an important conceptual component of knowledge. The failure of Theaetetus’ final answer lies in his inability to show how the three components perception, true judgment, and an account fit together. This means that even perception is part of knowledge, for we have to recognize what something is. Moreover perception is necessary because primary elements have no account; they can only be perceived. Gill suggests a definition for “active knowledge” as “true judgment stimulated by perception and governed by an adequate account.” This paper, like Osborne’s, is rich with details that must be passed over here.

The final paper on the Theaetetus is “Plato’s Waxen Block” by Paolo Crivelli. The waxen block is meant to exemplify the knowing mind and to account for errors in identifying objects. Crivelli says there are internal and external sources of erroneous identifications, and he examines the role of perception in epistemic practices. Some identifications rely on perception or memory traces of perception. Some types of knowledge require perception, some do not. Crivelli suggests we have to learn which relationships are reliable and which are unstable. This activity points to skill in mastering particular relationships and might be said to constitute a culture of knowledge.

The first of three historical papers is Peter Scholz’s “Philosophy Before Plato: On the Social and Political Conditions of the Composition of the Dissoi Logoi.” Scholz states that the anonymous author of the treatise wanted to demonstrate that arguments could be made both for and against something and to show beginners in rhetoric a variety of sophisms to which they could be exposed. The social and political conditions which put a premium on mastering argumentative techniques are highlighted. Athenian political culture was, as first Burckhardt and then Nietzsche characterized it, agonistic. It relied on argument in many settings, not least the courts and civic assemblies. The fuel of democracy, as Scholz, notes was words, and their mastery a condition for political mastery. While sophistic culture of knowledge prized argument and rational faculties it did so for localized ends. The author of the Dissoi logoi acknowledged the ideal of universal knowledge, but the sophists otherwise did not need the ideal truth of the philosophers. At this point philosophy and rhetoric went their separate ways.

Philosophical criticism of rhetoric lies at the heart of the Gorgias. The eponymous rhetorician, as described by Klaus Bringmann in “Prerequisites and Modalities of the Political Criticism in Plato’s Gorgias,” developed an art of argumentation which could hide the truth and deflect moral responsibility. Indeed, notes Bringmann, correct argument could be used to turn truth on its head. He equates Plato’s criticisms of rhetoric with criticisms of the political preconditions for rhetoric. These are in general democracy, but specifically the Athenian judicial system which hardly promoted restraint among its participants. Bringmann places Plato’s hostility alongside that of others who disliked the effects of democracy such as Antiphon and the author of the Dissoi logoi. In Plato’s view, not only did rhetoric privilege belief over knowledge but it was also founded on misplaced values. The political actors of Athens’ democracy had neither the capability nor the incentive to improve the moral lives of the citizenry. Plato saw that moral education in Athens would require a philosopher.

Eckart Schütrumpf’s “Slaves in Plato’s Political Dialogues and the Significance of Plato’s Psychology for the Aristotelian Theory of Slavery” closes the collection. Schütrumpf, arguing that Plato has no concept of slavery as an institution, rejects Vlastos’ contention that the ideal state of the Republic included slaves. Aristotle in contrast does have a theory of natural slavery, and he disdains constructing an ideal state along Platonic lines. Schütrumpf does however find a likely Platonic source for Aristotle’s belief in the natural hierarchy of master over slave. Theoretical justification can be found in Phaedo 80a where the soul’s natural rule over the body is defended.

Readers can judge for themselves the contribution this volume makes to the sociology of knowledge. To be sure, that is a garment worn lightly here. From the point of view of Platonic scholarship, the thematic frame of culture and ideal of knowledge gives the papers a greater coherence than is often the case for conference proceedings. It is true that many of the issues addressed are familiar to anyone who has wrestled with Plato’s philosophy, but overall we are left with an appreciation of the subtlety and rich complexity of Plato’s approach to problems about knowledge, about what it is and how we can press forward towards it. That is a salutary achievement.