23 - MM McCabe on Knowledge in Plato

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What is Plato's understanding of knowledge, and how does he think that knowledge relates to virtue? Peter tackles these questions with his King's colleague MM McCabe in this interview.



Further Reading

• MM McCabe, Plato's Individuals (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

• MM McCabe, Plato and his Predecessors: The Dramatisation of Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

• MM McCabe, "Escaping one's own notice knowing: Meno's paradox again," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (2009), 233-256.

MM discusses Meno's paradox on Philosophy Bites.


robcorners on 4 April 2011

Knowledge as a common understanding

My impression of Plato  - taken almost exclusively from your excellent podcasts - is that he would have been barely interested in the question you posed at the start of this edition.  As MM McCabe says - 'if you have to ask, you ain't never going to know', and I think this is would be Plato's response were he to be asked if one can know one is presently sitting in a chair.

Surely for Plato (and Socrates?) the virtue in knowledge is that 'proper' knowledge would allow a common understanding.  So 'courage' or 'holiness' cannot be defined partially in order to bolster an individual's particular viewpoint or prejudice.  This is why perplexity is a fitting conclusion to the dialogues; it demonstrates how dangerous it is for extreme actions to be based on such ill-conceived understanding.  If we all realised how little we understand, we would be more willing to give others the benefit of the enormous doubt we each should be feeling.  Is one of the principles/proofs of knowledge that one should be able to teach it to others?

I'm very happy to be shown the error of this view, which comes across as an anti-fundamentalist reading of Plato.  
As a non-Philosopher I hope more learned posters will help me to see where I may get a more rounded understanding of Plato's works.

In reply to by robcorners

Peter Adamson on 6 April 2011

More about knowledge

I agree that "I am sitting down right now" is not the sort of thing Plato is ultimately interested in, when he thinks about knowledge. But Aristotle actually gives exactly this example of a proposition that could be true or false ("I am sitting") and Plato considers a similar example in the Sophist. However these are probably just examples to get us going on the topic of truth and falsehood -- what we are really after is knowledge of the virtues and so on, as you suggest, and this is what knowledge or understanding in the strict sense would be. I'll talk about this again when I get to Aristotle's epistemology.

And I also agree that at least part of what Socrates (and Plato sometimes) wants to get across is the need for intellectual modesty -- this has to be at least an element of his questioning practices as described in the Apology. I don't think Plato would want to stop there, though: being disabused of your false pretentions to knowledge would be, for him, only a first step on the road to true knowledge. But he does tend to make it sound like getting that knowledge may be a daunting task. So most of us, maybe all of us, may have to settle for Socratic ignorance. That's certainly what the ancient skeptics thought.

Glenn Russell on 8 November 2012

The Endless Epistemology

This was a most philosophical dialogue! One key point discussed: knowing about something is important but knowing that we know is even more important; in other words, you don’t really know something is true for Plato unless you know why it is true. Anyway, it seem with this conceptual architecture you have knowledge about something undergirded by knowledge about your knowledge, or, what might be called meta-knowledge. But does it stop there? How about a knowledge undergirding the meta-knowledge? Perhaps we can call this knowledge about our knowledge about our knowing something meta-meta knowledge. Seem like we could have an infinite regress. Epistemology as an endless digging and layering and expanding of foundations. Perhaps this is why MM McCabe said Socrates is interested in how knowledge makes a difference. And how you noted how knowledge is related to virtue. You might not be the perfect sage with ultimate knowledge but still you are living in the world and circumstances force you to act. You might as well live with as much virtue and courage and love as wisdom as you can. This combined with a humility you are on the path as a philosopher rather than having reached the final goal.

In reply to by Glenn Russell

Peter Adamson on 8 November 2012

Epistemic regress

Yes, this is a fundamental problem, not only for Plato (and Aristotle) but really for all epistemology. There are basically two ways to get out of the problem. One is to drop the requirement that if I am to know X, I must know that I know X. (Sometimes called the Knowledge of Knowledge or KK principle.) But Plato and Aristotle seem pretty wedded to this principle. So they seem to go another way which is to say that at some point one reaches a kind of knowledge that stands in no further need of certification. This kind of knowledge is what Aristotle calls a "first principle (arche)" and Plato may be articulating this in the middle of the Republic when he talks about an "unhypothetical principle." Some people think though -- I lean towards this view myself -- that for him we stop the regress by achieving some kind of systematicity. That is, when we see how all our bits of knowledge hang together in a unified structure, that is what gives us confidence/certainty/knowledge that all this knowledge is indeed knowledge. Because this sounds like such an ambitious goal, Plato also seems to worry that knowledge in this robust sense is not available to mankind, which leads us to the point you make about humility at the end of your post.

All this gets picked up in a big way by the Stoics, incidentally, as I explain in a later episode.

David on 4 April 2013

I think I lost the thread a

I think I lost the thread a little during the discussion, in the podcast's first half, about necessary conditions on knowledge. Is the following roughly right, or have I gone astray?

Plato has arrived at two necessary conditions for knowledge. I think they both arise from something we saw in the Theaetetus. We saw in the Theaetetus that there is an 'extra thing' that takes you from true belief to knowledge, and we saw the proposal that the extra thing seems to be something like having an explanation why your true belief is true.

That Theaetetus proposal then seems to impose two necessary conditions for knowledge. If you know x, you have an explanation why your true belief that x is true. That, if I have things right, is what's described in the podcast as the 'internal condition' on knowledge.

But the Theaetetus proposal also suggests that what you know is in some way systematic or holistic. If I have an explanation for the truth of x, then I know at least one other thing apart from x (the explanation of why it is that x)--and maybe some other things too. That, if I have things right, is what's described in the podcast, as the 'systematic condition' on knowledge.

What makes me worry that I have -not- got things right is that I can't fit into that picture the 'knowing that I know' condition. For example, it feels like I could know x in Plato's sense, i.e. have a true belief that x and an explanation of why x, but not know that I know x. So is the 'knowledge of knowledge' condition supposed to be a further condition, independent of the 'internal' and the 'systematic' conditions, or equivalent to one of them, or equivalent to their conjunction?

PS Apologies for the very belated comment, and thank you for providing these wonderful podcasts!

In reply to by David

Peter Adamson on 4 April 2013

Conditions on knowledge

Hi there,

You're testing my memory a bit here, but I think your question is very good. As far as I can recall, the idea was something like this: it's plausible that if I really know P then I also know that I know P. So how could I be in a position to know that? Well, by integrating the truth of P in some kind of systematic knowledge, for instance you would need to understand why the explanation you can offer for the truth of P is a good explanation -- thus you would need to understand what it meant for something to count as a good explanation, be able to give other examples of good explanations, etc. (Notice this eliminates your worry that I could believe P, have an explanation that P, and still not know P -- if I know my explanation is sufficient to give me knowledge then I know that I know P, and vice-versa.) If that is all correct, then to know any one thing (P, as we've been calling it), you would need to know a whole bunch of other things and to see how those things hang together. Does that help?



In reply to by Peter Adamson

David on 7 April 2013


Very helpful indeed; thanks for taking the time to reply.

M G Santos on 10 September 2014


Wouldn't Plato's and Socrates' goal in their 'theory' of knowledge be to show that knowledge is only possible by realizing that we do not know something completely? Showing how absurd it's to claim to have knowledge in this holistic manner seems like a solid argument to claim that true knowledge is knowing that one can't know and must, therefore, always seek to know in a very Socratic way. This also makes sense in actually comfronting sophists in this regard, since they are the main targets of this 'I know and I can teach' attitude. Socrates claims in the Theaeteus that he is a midwife of knowledge, showing others that they know not being the only way to actually teach them something.

In reply to by M G Santos

Peter Adamson on 11 September 2014

Incomplete knowledge

Well, this is certainly an issue that worried Plato - what he wanted to say about it, in the end, is not so clear. In the Charmides for instance (cf. episode 19) we see him wrestling with the problem that knowing anything would require knowing everything, which seems absurd. My impression is that both he and Aristotle did have very high standards for what counts as knowledge, but did not (or at least not always) respond by lowering the bar in the way you are suggesting, e.g. by accepting only partial knowledge or justified true belief. Rather, they seem to assume that knowledge is possible and try to explain how we could go about getting it. On the other hand that is consistent with the idea that very few people actually attain knowledge.

All this will be taken up by the skeptics in their quest to present themselves as heirs of Socrates, as detailed in later episodes.

In reply to by Peter Adamson

muddle headed wombat on 23 September 2019


Hey Peter,

Sorry for chiming in so much later, only just found your website (loving it & can't thank you enough btw) just wondering if you think these ways of thinking can be related to some type of enlightenment concepts? Also (dismissing this idea of nature vs convention/strong vs weak) why with such striving towards knowledge and virtue do they focus so little on altruism? Does anyone connect highest levels of understanding &/or knowing &/or potentially realising socratic ignorance or maybe a type of fallibilism with empathy &/or love, (i.e to understand is to love, to love is to understand)  highest form of empathy is responsibility = altruism? Or at least graciousness? Does anyone do that now?

Sorry if these are silly questions I'm a proper noob :) 


In reply to by muddle headed wombat

Peter Adamson on 29 September 2019


No that is not a silly question at all, because a striking feature of ancient ethics is indeed that it tends to be "eudaimonistic" that is focused on the good of the individual agent, which makes it hard to see how they can fit genuine altruism in. For instance Aristotle's looks dangerously close to saying that in order to be the best human I can be, I need to do good for other people, but then the other people are just like props for my self-improvement and manifestation of virtue. But scholars have worked to explain how he can account for real altruism nonetheless especially by focusing on the friendship books of the Ethics.

Finn Newent on 7 July 2015

my beleifs on knowledge and virtue

Knowledge is a word and words are ways to communicate ideas. Neurons in the brain are "knowledge".

Vertue is behaviour showing high moral standerds, in other words; doing something good. Good and bad are words that are up to oppinion and they don't exist outside of believing they do.

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