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Epistemology Study Group Part I

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dondigitalia
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The way I handled this reading was to read it once straight through, and then go back and re-read while making notes of my thoughts for the study group. Here are the notes I have so far, which I may add to later:

142a-143c

Blah, blah, blah. Reading this part is a big waste of time, IMO. I don’t really see why it needs to be here, other than setting the stage for the dialogue, and I’ve never been a big fan of the dialogue format anyway.

143d-144d

More stage-setting, but at least this time, it’s the beginning of the conversation we’re actually interested in reading.

144e-145a

Not everyone is qualified to make judgments about everything. One shouldn’t pay too much heed to the words of someone who has no particular expertise in whatever it is they’re talking about. For the most part, this is probably true, although the example Socrates uses—that Theodorus is unqualified to say two people resemble each other because he is not a painter—is a little faulty. The basic point is ok, though—if you want medical advice, ask a doctor, not a historian. But if you want to know the political climate of China in the 19th century, ask the historian. Duh.

145b-146c

Here, we’re finally getting somewhere. Knowledge is what one gains when learning about a subject. Does that really tell us what knowledge is, though? It doesn’t, not in any way that is useful. It is this problem that Socrates poses to Theaetetus: What is knowledge?

146c-147b

Knowledge may be gained about a number of things, but listing all of the things about which one might gain knowledge is not the same as identifying the nature of knowledge itself, so the question “What is knowledge?” remains unanswered.

147c

An identification of what knowledge is requires that we identify what knowledge is, universally, without reference to particular instances of knowledge.

147d

The purpose of this passage is to indicate that universality is not an arbitrary requirement when forming a definition. A proper concept must be able to stand for a potentially infiniate number of concretes.

147e-148b

In this passage, Plato is demonstrating the the steps of identifying the nature of a particular concept. It’s basically a process of categorization—recognizing similarities and differences, i.e. integration and differentiation. On the surface, it seems as though it isn’t that different from Aristotle’s epistemology or Objectivist concept-formation—but that’s only on the surface.

Plato isn’t writing about forming a concept, but rather recognizing the nature of a concept which already exists. This is why Theaetetus says he is trying to find a name “by which we could henceforth call all the roots,” as though the concept already exists is his mind, and the problem is identifying the concept. It would be a mistake to think that Plato is writing about concept-formation, since it would contradict his metaphysics from Phaedo.

148c-148d

In order to form a proper definition of “knowledge,” one must go about the same process used to form a definition of “square root.”

148e-151d

For the most part, this is a rather lengthy segue into Plato’s refutation of several false theories, but it isn’t entirely devoid of conent. Scorates’ role in the dialogue is revealed as being similar to that of a midwife. He is not obtaining knowledge himself, or divulging any knowledge, but is helping Theaetetus to recognize the knowledge he already holds, but cannot identify on his own.

I’m inclined to relate this again to Plato’s innate ideas.

151e-152b

This is Plato’s summary of the first view (Protagoras’) he intends to refute. In this view, perception and knowledge are the same thing, but perception of an object is always relative to the perceiver. What you perceive is true for you, and what I perceive is true for me, i.e. relativism.

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I approached this by looking for significant statements which were either worth underlining for the correctness, or were wrong. There is a claim (147b) that "Then he who does not know what science or knowledge is, has no knowledge of the art or science of making shoes?". This is prima facie false, as demonstrated by my local cobbler who is quite scientifically and philosophically illiterate, but still can make excellent shoes. The arbitrary assertion that knowledge of a specific topic has as a prerequisite meta-knowledge of the nature of knowledge begs the question of the nature of knowledge, and the fact that Teaetetus assents to this assertion is no proof that it is a valid conclusion. While it is true that a list of examples of specific kinds of knowledge is not the same as having a higher-order understanding of what knowledge -- in general -- is, this converse implication, that meta-knowledge of the nature of knowledge is necessary to have specific knowledge of anything is wrong.

The argument that follows 151d regarding the relation of knowledge to perception can be considered narrowly, as only addressing Protagorean relativism, or more broadly as addressing the perceptual basis of knowledge. There is little merit, that I can see, in being concerned about Protagoras, and substantial reason to consider the broader question. The basic error of this section is the failure to work through the notions of objectivity and contextuality. The example of the supposed failure of perception is based on the equation of feeling and perception -- "the wind is cold to him who is cold, and not to him who is not". A person who has walked for an hour through wind and snow at -30F will have a different opinion of what constitutes "cold" compared to someone who lives in Port Harcourt, Nigeria where I don't imagine it is ever colder than 50F at night. The conclusion that a particular wind is cold is a judgment, one which is typically quite subjective.

Collapsing sensation and perception is a mistake. Including the concept of an objective standard, and speaking with reference to that standard removes the relativistic objection to perception. With that, I see no valid objection to the conclusion that perception is knowledge (more precisely, "is perception, or reduces logically to perception"). Knowledge is contextual and objective, not relative (which implies "inaccessibly subjective").

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The arbitrary assertion that knowledge of a specific topic has as a prerequisite meta-knowledge of the nature of knowledge begs the question of the nature of knowledge

I agree that Plato's assertion is false, but I don't see that it begs the question. Could you please explain this a little further.

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The argument that follows 151d regarding the relation of knowledge to perception can be considered narrowly, as only addressing Protagorean relativism, or more broadly as addressing the perceptual basis of knowledge. There is little merit, that I can see, in being concerned about Protagoras, and substantial reason to consider the broader question.

I do think Plato intended to address a broader question, and that Protagoras' doctrine was primarily served as an example of the knowledge-is-perception view, but I'm not sure it was his intention to oppose perception as the base of knowledge (at least not at this point in the reading). Rather, I interpret him more as meaning that sense-perception is not identical to knowledge, since we may have knoweldge about things that we are not currently percieving, such as memories.

The basic error of this section is the failure to work through the notions of objectivity and contextuality.

Are you saying that this is the basic error of Plato's refutation of relativism, or that this is the basic error of relativism, which Plato fails to address? I agree with the latter, although the difference is really one of where the error originated, rather than what the error is. As near as I can tell, Plato neglects contextuality in its entirety and only skirts around idea of objectivity.

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I agree that Plato's assertion is false, but I don't see that it begs the question. Could you please explain this a little further.
Well, I'm saying that that particular exchange makes no sense to me, unless you implicitly assume an answer to the question of what knowledge is. If I am not already assuming an answer to the question what knowledge is, then I don't see how you can conclude that a person who purports to know cobblery infact does not know cobblery unless they also know the philosophical nature of knowledge. (And I am trying not to be distracted by how bizarre that argument is). The assertion about meta-knowledge is only sensible if you presuppose a particular answer to the question "what is knowledge". As I get the flow of this passage, he's using an existing answer to the question "what is knowledge" to arrive at a conclusion -- "meta-knowledge is necessary to have specific knowledge" -- and that conclusion is being used as a step in an argument that we must discover the nature of knowledge. That's what I had in mind regard the question-begging issue.
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I do think Plato intended to address a broader question, and that Protagoras' doctrine was primarily served as an example of the knowledge-is-perception view, but I'm not sure it was his intention to oppose perception as the base of knowledge (at least not at this point in the reading). Rather, I interpret him more as meaning that sense-perception is not identical to knowledge, since we may have knowledge about things that we are not currently perceiving, such as memories.
I'd like to extend him the benefit of the doubt: if Socrates were here, he would hopefully accept this important clarification. The question that has to be asked is whether there is a difference between immediate sensation and perception. I actually do not think that the distinction was made in those days. Ultimately I would agree to the conclusion that you can have inferential knowledge which is based in perception (where you don't directly perceive the inferred existent), but his examples are not of that type, and furthermore, he does not then say "Knowledge is perception, or that which can be reduced to perception". (I may change my tune once I assimilate his presentation of JTB theory).
Are you saying that this is the basic error of Plato's refutation of relativism, or that this is the basic error of relativism, which Plato fails to address? I agree with the latter, although the difference is really one of where the error originated, rather than what the error is. As near as I can tell, Plato neglects contextuality in its entirety and only skirts around idea of objectivity.
I intended the latter -- though I might also say that this is why Plato's refutation of relativism is wrong. That is, if you don't correctly identify what is wrong with theory X, then even if you are correct that X is false, you are in error in your argument against X.

I admit that those wanderings about motion are still a bit mysterious to me, because it's clearly just wrong but I'm not going to get upset because their scientific knowledge is a few millenia behind the times. The thing is that I don't see a valid refutation of relativism here (or, I don't recognize it). He presents the dreams argument, which is a strikes at the very validity of perceptual knowledge and is not about relativism.

What is "meta-knowledge"? Just a guess at it leaves me with "above" or "before" knowledge. Is this another way of saying a priori?
It's just a fancy-schmancy way of saying "knowledge of knowledge". "Above" or "before" would be good -- but IMOO good meta-knowledge is (chronologically) after knowledge, in that you have to have knowledge in specific forms in order to derive a theory of what it means to "have knowledge".
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EDIT: This was intended to address David's response about begging the question.

I understand where you are coming from now. It's a problem that's present in everything from 146c-147c, and again, I think the problem ultimately goes back to his metaphysics. For him, it isn't a problem to assume an answer, since one would already have knowledge of the Form of knowledge from before the soul was joined with the body. Of course, that's just as ridiculous as his argument, but it does put it into perspective.

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I intended the latter -- though I might also say that this is why Plato's refutation of relativism is wrong. That is, if you don't correctly identify what is wrong with theory X, then even if you are correct that X is false, you are in error in your argument against X.

That's basically my take on it, too.

I admit that those wanderings about motion are still a bit mysterious to me, because it's clearly just wrong but I'm not going to get upset because their scientific knowledge is a few millenia behind the times. The thing is that I don't see a valid refutation of relativism here (or, I don't recognize it). He presents the dreams argument, which is a strikes at the very validity of perceptual knowledge and is not about relativism.

I'm in basic agreement with you here, too. I'll add that I've never really been able to fully understand this idea of "becoming" in any of its manifestations, probably because it doesn't correspond to anything in reality.

I don't deny that he is trying to take a stab at perceptual knowledge itself rather than the relativist take on it, I just don't think he's really gotten started by 164a, although he's about to very soon.

And on that note, how does 185a sound for a stopping point next week?

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(Mod note: This was from the meta-blog, but I moved it here, because it seemed relevant to this ongoing discussion. - sNerd)

Originally posted by Diana from NoodleFood,

So here's our first "Question for NoodleFood," courtesy of Ergo:

I'm reading Plato's Theaetetus now. And in the dialogue, Socrates askes, "What is knowledge? How does one define knowledge?" Then he goes around arguing against definitions like knowledge is perception or that knowlege is understanding.

My own thoughts on this were: in order to even ask the question, "what is knowledge", shouldn't one have the implicit understanding that one KNOWS what to ask?? Doesn't that then lead us to an infinite regression? Knowing about what it would mean to know? And how does one know that? etc. etc.

What is the Objectivist definition of knowledge? Did Rand explicitly define knowlege or say what it is?

I'd look in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand for any detailed discussions of the nature of knowledge. Perhaps most on point is Ayn Rand's comment in Chapter 4 of IOE that "the concept 'knowledge' is formed by retaining its distinguishing characteristics (a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation) and omitting the particular fact(s) involved."

The central fact captured by the concept "knowledge" is that of awareness of reality, i.e. consciousness. As an axiomatic concept, "consciousness" cannot be further analyzed in terms of other concepts, as the problematic attempts to define it as "justified true belief." It is also self-evident, not to mention unable to be denied without contradiction.

If I understand your infinite regress problem, your worry is that we cannot inquire about the nature of knowledge without at least some knowledge of the object of our inquiry. (In a more general form, that's the problem raised in Plato's Meno supposedly solved by the theory of recollection.) In fact, we must have a great deal of knowledge before we can even form the concept "knowledge," let alone refine it to a sharp philosophical point. More generally, a great deal of awareness of reality must proceed any introspection of our mental processes, since we must have some content upon which to introspect.)

To put the point another way, we do not start our investigation of the nature of knowledge from the point of knowing nothing. In fact, we could not do so, since then we would be blindly groping in the dark. (Heck, we wouldn't even be blindly groping, since we wouldn't be conscious!) More precisely, we wouldn't have the data required to even form the relevant concepts, that data being a range of instances of knowledge and contrasting instances of ignorance or error or doubt. So we have lots of knowledge before we ever consider what knowledge is. We are aware of the world, both perceptually and conceptually, from our earliest years, even though we haven't yet introspected to form the concept "knowledge." And even once we've formed the basic concept, we can come to better understand the nature of knowledge by further introspection. For example, from our earliest childhood, we might understand that bears and penguins and birds are all kinds of animals, meaning that our knowledge actually is hierarchical, without explicitly understanding yet that all knowledge is hierarchical. Then years later, we can reflect upon such actual hierarchies in order to come to the explicit conclusion that knowledge is hierarchical.

Ultimately, I think that your worry may boil down to something like: How can we validate the senses when we must rely upon the senses in the very attempt? How can we validate reason without relying upon reason? The answer is that we can't -- and that we need not do so. Any attempt to prove the validity of the senses does rely upon the validity of the senses, but so does any attempt to deny their validity too. The same applies to reason, in that the very demand to "prove" reason presupposes that reason is authoritative. The validity of reason and the senses are inescapable and self-evident facts -- and that's how we establish them. As Dr. Peikoff says in OPAR:

"Why should I accept reason?" means: "Why should I accept reality?" The answer is that existence exists, and only existence exists. Man's choice is either to accept reason or to consign his consciousness and life to a void.

One cannot seek a proof that reason is reliable, because reason is the faculty of proof; one must accept and use reason in any attempt to prove anything. But, using reason, one can identify its relationship to the facts of reality and thereby validate the faculty.

Similarly, any investigation of the nature of knowledge will depend upon a wide range of fact that we already know. That's not a problem though, since the skeptic who denies the possibility of knowledge can only do so on the basis of the great deal of knowledge that he already has. We simply cannot understand knowledge from the vantage point of total ignorance -- and the demand that we do so is illegitimate. The concept "knowledge" works that way precisely because the axiomatic concept "consciousness" is at its core.

Admittedly, these are rather mind-bending issues. If you want some further details, I'd recommend the lengthy discussion of hierarchy in the first few lectures of Objectivism: State of the Art.

Further thoughts, Oh Gentle Readers?

Edited by softwareNerd
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I think that perhaps the most significant part of this week's reading is that Plato finally raises a valid objection to the relativist position. He demonstrates, starting at 170a, that it inevitably leads to a contradiction; if one person believes that proposition A is true, and another person believes it is not true, then according to the relativist, the proposition will be both true and not true. As we discussed before, there is a lot more that can be said against relativism, which Plato neglects entirely, but what he's doing here is much better and more convincing than his earlier arguments.

Later, around 181d, it also becomes clear that Plato's concept of "motion" is really a unification of our concepts of "motion" and "change." Of course, both of those things are valid concepts, but not as he uses them. He tries to ascribe both to all objects of sense-perception at all times, asserting that since all things are constantly changing or in motion, that we can never know what a thing is, and that perception can not be used to obtain knowledge. Now, I confess to not fully understanding Plato's "motion," but in my view, we certainly can know what something is through perception, even when the object is in motion, or in the process of changing. What we know in the case of an object in flux is that it is moving, or it is changing.

In the final argument, I think Plato is making perhaps his largest error yet, although it leads him to at least a semi-correct conclusion. In essence, everything from 183-187 invokes the mind/body dichotomy. Plato severs perception from consciousness, reducing it to a function of the organs. Then, he identifies several abstract concepts, which are not known through direct perception, and concludes that there is knolwedge beyond percepts, and that perception and knowledge cannot be identical. Well, of course perception and knowledge aren't identical, but he regards abstract concepts like "existence" as having no perceptual base whatsoever, which lead to a whole slough of problems in other philosophies later on, pretty much right up until Ayn Rand.

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I find it challenging to defend Protagoras against Plato's representation and opposition. I have no other knowledge of Protagoras, and don't particularly want to defend him, but Plato is also attacking some very important elements of a proper epistemology. It's important, therefore, to distinguish to good from the bad in his arguments.

Central to the argument from 179 seems to be the contextual nature of knowledge, e.g. the comparison between the vinegrower and the harp-player in judging the sweetness of unharvested grapes. This is expressed in terms of judgments, that the judgments of a person who is wiser in one area are superior to those of a less-wise person, in that particular area. The position that he is validly opposing is that every judgment of reality is as valid as any other. He does not end up rejecting the claim that "Man is the measure of all things"; he concludes 'that one man is wiser than another, and that such a wise man is a measure', and 183b "And so, Theodorus, we have got rid of your friend without assenting to his doctrine, that every man is the measure of all things -- a wise man only is a measure". Since a wise man is one who knows, this simply say "He who know, knows". I would agree with that -- it's hard to disagree with tautologies. The question which seems to go unanswered in his dialogue is whether two men who are wise can reach opposite conclusions.

At 186 he asserts that perception "has no part in the attainment of truth any more than of being" and then "we no longer seek for knowledge in perception at all, but in that other process, however called, in which the mind is alone and engaged with being", viz. having an opinion. Reason also cannot be knowledge for reasons that are well-known: the most significant error I see here is the conclusion that perception is not a part of knowledge.

Anyhow, I'm at that transition to "true belief" theory, so I halfway feel caught up.

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I don't really think there is any way to defend Protagoras qua relativist, since Plato is basically right about him in that regard, but there is a huge difference between perception and the relativist use of perception. Plato's objections to latter are entirely valid, as you noted.

I'm going to disagree with Plato's statement that "a wise man only is a measure." A wise man might be one who knows, but that doesn't make him the standard of what is true. The standard is, of course, reality. The "wise man" view amounts to a sort of elitist subjectivism--that by virtue of wisdom he is able to create truth, rather than learn truth. He who knows, knows, as you said, but he who knows is not the standard of knowing, which is what Plato is saying.

This is really characteristic of Plato. If you've read Republic, then you will be familiar with Plato's notion of the philosopher-king; this is where that comes from, I think (although, I might change my mind as we read further on). You can also really see the Platonic influence on Judaeo-Christian religions here, too, where the clergy is the "wise man."

If you reject "man is the measure" theory entirely, including Plato's delimited version, the scenario of conflicting opinions is easily answered.

As far as what's going on @ 186-187... I have a couple of problems with it. First of all, he fails to completely understand the idea of objectivity, which leads him to the mind-body dichotomy, which leads him to the conclusion, as you say, that perception is not part of knowledge. In his view, it seems, sensation is not part of consciousness at all, but merely a function of the sensory organs. He is enacting an epistemological dualism here. I find it hard to really fault him for this, since I don't know that their primitive science could have told them that the sensory organs are related to the brain, which is related to consciousness. Hell, the only thing we know about the relationship now, 2400 years later, is that it exists. On the other hand, that relationship should be discernable by a fairly easy bit of introspection, so I find it hard not to fault him, too. That's the big error here, though--the mind-body split.

Implicitly, he does have to accept that perception plays a role in knowledge, however. He say, "Then knowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them..." And he says this in the same context that he says "[perception] has no part in the attainment of truth..." So, clearly we have a contradiction, and it's not even one of those sneaky ones, but a glaring big eyesore that he just ignores.

Then, there's also the issue of leaping from the acutal (valid) conclusion that knowledge and perception are not identical, which he says a number of times, to knowledge and perception are completely unrelated. Of course, we know that there are many, many things that are different, but related. Apparently Plato did not.

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I've read all the way up to then end of the section on knowledge as True Belief (201d).

I have to say, I'm rather confused as to what his point is for the bulk of this section. It seems as though all the way up to 200d, he's arguing against the possibility of false belief, rather than whether or not true belief is knowledge. The only point I can see to this is if he intends to indicate that it is unecessary to put the qualifier "true" onto the definition at all, since there is no possibility of a false belief. But, this isn't his intention at all, so I'm not really sure what he's getting at.

His first argument against the possibility of false belief is flawed. It completely neglects the possibility of having knowledge of some aspects of a thing, but not of others.

In his second argument, he appears to take a complete about-face where the fallibility of sense-perception is concerned. Where before, he regarded it as fallible, he now regards it as infallible, and then ascribes that infallibility to thought as well.

I found the third argument to be extremely unclear, although it seems to have something to do with the impossibility of being able to convince oneself that A is non-A. Of course one can't (honestly) do this, but it neglects the idea that one might be honestly unsure about what A is.

I think the "wax tablet" section amounts to allowing for the possibility that one might remember something incorrectly, and concedes that a false belief may be possible in the presence of a "mistmatch" between memory and perception. Plato objects to this, however, on the grounds that there are some false beliefs (such as in mathematics) that cannot be conflicts between memory and perception, since mathematics, in his view, is not derived from perception. Of course, mathematics can be objectively grounded in perception, so his objection doesn't really hold water.

The final section on the aviary is an attempt at explaining how it is that we can have these kind of mismatches. Basically, the big problem with this section is the same problem that he has been facing throughout. He continues to regard concepts as having some sort of actual metaphysical existence apart from the objects of sense perception, almost as though the task of the mind isn't to learn about the objects of sense-perception, but to "match up" concepts with the objects.

Finally, at the very end of his argument against true belief, he says something worthwhile. Here, he accepts that knoweldge must have an empirical base, and explains that one might be persuaded to believe something without empirical evidence, and that even if the belief is true, it is not knowledge.

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