Transcript: 23 - MM McCabe on Knowledge in Plato

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.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Today we're going to be talking about Plato's views on knowledge, which is a topic I've been looking at in several recent episodes. I was wondering whether you could tell me, for example, whether Plato thinks that I could know the fact that I'm sitting in a chair right now talking to you. Is that the kind of thing he thinks I could know?

I think a lot of people would say that he thinks you can't know something like that. Because a lot of people believe that, on Plato's account, knowledge is determined by what it's of, so that you can only know when you have objects of a particular specified kind. I'm not sure that tells the right story. I'm not sure that it tells the story about why knowledge should be anything much that we care about, in particular, why we should associate knowledge with virtue if we can't think of knowledge as having as its objects, the sort of ordinary mundane things like sitting in a chair. But I think there is a problem for him with the idea that knowledge could be of something on its own, like here I am sitting in my chair. So there are two separate questions here, it seems to me. One of them is whether one thinks about knowledge in these strictly delimited ways that contemporary philosophy thinks about it, so that you might think of knowledge in terms of I know that some true proposition, and I know it because I'm justified in believing it and so on and so forth, or whether in fact, knowledge is something broader and wider than that.

Would that mean that if I know anything then it means that I know some other things as well, so I couldn't just know one thing at a time, for example, but I'm sitting in a chair?

I think Plato thinks that. I think it's not that he thinks that knowledge is only direct access to some rarified objects, for example. I think that he thinks that knowledge has to be somehow rather systematic. There are two outstanding reasons for that. One of them is that he thinks that knowledge is connected with explanation. You don't know that something is true unless you know why it's true. So at least to know one thing you've got to know one other thing.

Namely why the first thing is true?

Namely why the first thing is true. So you've got to know, as soon as you know something you know two things, and in fact, then that spreads out.

Is there a third thing I would know, namely that the fact that I know it?

Exactly. So there are two conditions, I think, one of them is a condition on how what we know is structured. The other is an internal condition on how we know that we know, how it is that we think about our own epistemic condition. And it seems to me, at any rate, that those twin conditions on knowledge for him determine how we understand what he thinks knowledge is and they make sense then of a lot of the other connections that he makes between knowledge and virtue.

Right, which we'll get onto in a second. But I first just want to think about that a little bit more. One result of what you just said, I guess, is that I couldn't ever know something without knowing that I know it.


And so what that would mean is if I can't know something without knowing that I know it, then I guess if I asked him, well, Plato, tell me what it's like to know something. He would say, if you have to ask me, then you've already failed.

There are two ways of understanding what you just asked me though, aren't there? One of them is whether I can give you an account of what it feels like to know something, which is one question, which maybe your response would be the right one to that. But if you don't know, if you've got to ask, you’re never going to know. But I think there's another way of thinking about it, which is that huge amounts, huge swathes of the arguments in the dialogues that seem to end in Aporia, in impasse, are actually about what it is to know. They're about what the conditions are that would allow us to explain something or that would allow us to understand what it is for us to know something. That happens in two, again, in these twin conditions keep turning up. So if you think about the Euthyphro, for example, the Euthyphro doesn't only tell us about the conditions for understanding piety or the conditions for explaining what piety is, but they allow us to generalize it to explaining what courage is, what all sorts of other things are. So part of the endeavor in the dialogues themselves, even although the dialogues come to no resolution of the question in hand, a great deal of the work gets done in the discussion between the characters about what it is they're trying to do. And that discussion is partly about this condition on knowledge of explanation, the condition that we need to be able to say why something is so, what it is for something to be pious or brave or whatever. At the same time, there's a whole series of other themes, particularly in the Socratic dialogues, but they turn up over and over again about what condition, what the internal conditions of knowledge are, what it is to know that you know. And somebody might say, “Well, that's just trivial, what it is to know.” Of course, when you know, you know that you know.

You get that for free.

Right. And Socrates is not interested in that. Socrates is much more interested in thinking about how knowledge makes a difference to our psychological constituency. I mean psychological in a quite strict sense. I don't mean psychological in anything that might be separable from accounts of knowledge, but it's an internal condition on what knowledge should be like.

Is this why virtue and knowledge are so closely related? Because I mean, what you just said seems to imply that for me to have knowledge would be for my soul to become a certain way. And my soul being a certain way sounds like being virtuous. Is that right?

I think that's where the connection gets forged. It's not clear which direction it comes from that if he starts out by thinking about virtue, he ends up thinking about knowledge all the other way around.

But it certainly goes back and forth.

Well, I think that's probably right. And that you understand the connection between virtue and knowledge because virtue, like knowledge, is a state of soul.

To what extent do you think that he's just working out the implications of something Socrates seems to have thought, which is that virtue is knowledge? For example, if I'm courageous, that means that I know what to do in battles. Or maybe it means that I know what courage is. For example, I can give a definition of courage. Do you think that Plato is just exploring that Socratic idea? Or is there something, as it were, distinctively Platonic here, which isn't Socratic?

I think the former. A large amount of Plato's investigation into knowledge is dominated by Socrates all the way through to the Theaetetus and perhaps beyond. So I think it is Socratic. I think it's also right to think of it as an exploration because it's not clear that he's got, as it were, a view that's lurking behind everything he said, but rather that he's trying to work out how to make the proper connections between virtue and knowledge in such a way as not to trivialize either. I think that’s but there's an overriding condition that somehow or other this is going to explain, whatever we say about the relationship between virtue and knowledge, the claim that he makes, for example, in the Euthydemus that the one thing that's good is wisdom. Now, that's a very, very high claim. What he actually means is the one thing that's good itself by itself, actually in the context of the argument there. But that's an enormously strong claim. So it works as a kind of challenge. It says, well, all right, so if that's what you think is one way of understanding the relation between virtue and knowledge, you better be able to say something pretty interesting, both about what virtue is and about what knowledge is, let alone about the connection between the two.

So when we started off talking about this, I gave a kind of trivial example. I know that I'm sitting in this chair talking to you, and clearly, Plato thinks that knowledge is something more advanced than that. Now it's starting to sound like knowledge is incredibly advanced, so I have to be a kind of perfect philosophical sage, maybe in order to know anything. Is this one reason? Well, I guess maybe there's two questions here. One is, does Plato think that? And the other question is, is that why Plato is so worried about this problem of how you get started? So for example, in Meno's paradox, the problem seems to be, if I start out in a position of complete ignorance, how will I get to knowledge? You might think it should be very easy, right? If I'm sitting here, then it's easy for me to come to know that I'm sitting here. But if he thinks that knowledge is this incredibly high-level attainment, so it means being virtuous, then you can see how it would be pretty hard for me to get from being this ordinary schmo to being this sage. And it's hard to know how I would even get started.

I think maybe there are three directions one can go from that thought. One of them is, why is he so worried about starting? How does the worry about starting connect with the worry about finishing? Because you might think that the starting question is about a completely different conception of knowledge than the question about whether I have to be a fully-fledged sage in order ever to be a knower at all. The third question goes back to your first question to me, which is about scope. If there's a very high conditional knowledge, it might be like being a sage, what's it got to do with sitting in a chair? Is it that I can only really know sage-y sorts of things? Do I have to have grand things or can I know boring things? And it seems to me that there again the connection between virtue is very important because we need to be able to figure out what context virtue is in as well as what context knowledge is in. So if virtue is about living a life and it's connected with knowledge, then the knowledge that it's connected with will have to be about not just sage-y things but boring things like ordinary moral questions and ordinary practical questions as well.

For example, how do I get to Larissa, this other Greek city?


I mean there are examples in Plato of these apparently just facts of the matter. So how do I get to Larissa? In the Theaetetus, whether this man is actually guilty of the crime if I'm on the jury?

So the question there is whether there are low conditions on those kinds of claims supposing there is a fact of the matter about where Larissa is or whether the bloke did whatever dreadful thing he's supposed to have done. How much is it enough to add to make that into knowledge? The question arises over and over again and there are times when it looks as if he supposes that we can add something moderately low-key but at other times it looks as though he thinks that no addition is enough without having all the additions. It looks as though he thinks that coming up with a proper account of why the thing that we believe is true is true engages us with being able to say why everything is true. So once you start to think about it like that, it's slightly misleading because contemporary discussions about knowledge turn on questions about individual propositions of whether you can account for them as being true. So if they are beliefs and they are true, what kinds of justification would allow you to think that they are knowledge? I don't think Plato is dealing with it in those terms. I think he is thinking much more comprehensively not so much about justification as about explanation, and he supposes that explanation is much more global than anything that we might think looks like justification. So knowledge will be holistic on that account.

Is that where the forms, the famous theory of forms will come in? I haven't really talked about that in the podcast but if what you just said is right that he thinks that to know anything gets you off on this process of thinking about explanation. That thinking about explanation in some way would change your soul so that you'd become virtuous and that explanations kind of all hang together. One reason you might think that the explanations all hang together and think that the things that you wind up knowing are structured and harmonious just the way that your virtuous soul is structured and harmonious. One reason to think that would be if what you're knowing is these other objects which are the forms that are themselves all structured and interrelated. But I mean I haven't really gotten into the forms in the podcast yet, but I think it still might be worth wondering whether we can say all these things without wheeling the forms on or whether it's, as it were, an epistemology which you can embrace without also embracing the theory of forms.

I think you probably could. I mean I think you might. I want to come back to the thing you just said about virtue and the state of soul. But leave that on one side for a second. It seems to me that you could perfectly easily say something about knowledge such that you only know when you know all there is to know without being committed to something about transcendent entities that constitute the explanations of the things that you know, which is one way of thinking about the theory of forms. On the other hand, I think it's important to remember that one of the conditions that Plato seems to put on all of these accounts of knowledge is that what knowledge is about is something that's real, whatever it is he thinks. Cancer's real.

So you don't have to believe in the theory of forms but you have to be a realist.

I think you have to be a realist. But then that comes back to the question about virtue, it seems to me. So put it like this. I might think that knowledge under those conditions is just a huge expertise. It's just a most enormous kind of science that includes any possible science that you might care to think of, and whenever there's a new science because you're a knower you know that science as well. And there are some jokey arguments about that. I know you've talked about the Euthydemus. There are some jokey arguments about this in the Euthydemus. If that's how one thinks about it, if one thinks about knowledge as this just an overarching super skill that's directed at reality, you might then think that what it would be to be virtuous is something rather kind of dismal because what knowledge will then allow you to do is sort of calculate. So if knowledge looks like a calculating skill and you'll be able to tell what's the right thing to do on any given occasion. Of course, what that leaves out of account is that you'll also be able to tell what the wrong thing is to do on any given occasion. And there's nothing. There's no account internal to that super skill account of knowledge that gives you an account of why you would behave in any particular way. So if the connection between knowledge and virtue looks like that, it looks as though virtue and knowledge are connected because knowledge allows you to figure out what the good things are in life, it's already tendentious about what makes you care about the good things. Or it's limited because it supposes that the only things you care about are good for you. So you can see that it would give you an account of how you get, how you maximize your pleasures for example, and he's got an argument in The Protagoras that offers an account of how that would work. But it's a very dismal account of morality. It's also a very dismal account of knowledge because actually, it fails to register the thing we were talking about earlier on. It gives you a knowledge that's determined very much by its objects but nothing about the state of soul that knowledge, it looks as though he thinks knowledge is. So we go back to Meno's paradox. Meno's paradox requires that knowing involves knowing that you know. It looks as though that's a strong condition. Socrates' account of how he knows that he knows nothing is, again, a strong condition on self-knowledge. So what's the connection then between self-knowledge and virtue? What would it be to be virtuous? Why wouldn't that be just vicious? Why couldn't it be as it were the obverse?

I'm really good at getting what I want and what I want is bad, for example.

Exactly. So what he needs to be able to show is, first of all, that knowledge is itself a good state of soul and second of all, that that good state of soul counts as what we would think of as virtue.

It seems to me like what you just said implies that on the side of the soul, as it were, there's this connection between being good and all the things that you know. So the fact that you know what you know and that you know you know what you know is basically what it is to be virtuous for Plato. And so there's no way of sort of pulling apart the contents of knowledge and the goodness of knowledge. They really amount to the same thing. And in fact, in the theory of forms it looks like he has something like the same view. So you've got all these forms but then as we'll see in the Republic, he has the form of the good as it were explaining the goodness of all the forms. And so even if you were right earlier to say that, as it were, the epistemology floats free of the theory of form so that you could have this very strong atomic theory of knowledge without embracing the theory of forms, is it still going to be true that this relationship between the goodness of the whole system and the elements of the system is kind of paralleled both in the soul on the knowledge side and in the forms on the object side. Do you think that's fair?

Well, I think it's certainly one way of answering the hanging question about what makes it virtue that knowledge gives you or that knowledge constitutes rather than vice or just jolly prudence.

I'm just good at getting pleasure.

Really, really good at getting pleasure. I mean that kind of thing. And it looks as though, so I agree that there's one paradigm of that would be that what knowledge is of is held together by the good. So the knowledge itself must be held together by the good. That looks a bit gerrymandered, you might think. “Oh crap, I haven't fitted in enough stuff about goodness so I better sort of have a form of the good.” And so I think there's more to it than that and I think that maybe one of the ways of coming at this is to think about, think a little bit about virtue itself. And so if you think about contemporary virtue theory, this isn't as much of a bread-tearing as it sounds, one of the things that interests contemporary virtue theorists is the location of value and what Plato wants to insist on, I think, in connecting virtue and knowledge and in having knowledge look like this self-knowing holistic system is that the value resides in the knower, in the agent. It's not that you pick it up from bits of pleasure here, there, and everywhere. Something about value is held together by the person, by the agent, by the person who's doing the knowing. Now that sounds a bit kind of wild and woolly. It fits with the claim that wisdom is the only good itself by itself. It's a little bit more uneasy in its fit with the theory of forms. 


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