A reflection on Plato’s Theaetetus

Throughout my musings I have based my ideas on the concept of knowledge as an improvable object, something that we can develop through conscious effort, while at the same time acknowledging the limits which are endemic to human nature (see on Education). However, to leave the underlying concept – what is knowledge – unexamined is antithetical to the ideas I have so far analysed in these reflections. As such I shall examine the conventional theories of knowledge and the relationship between knowledge and truth before turning to the definition in question.

Knowledge is often associated with the idea of the passage of beliefs from one generation to the next, perceived by progressives as a tide ever-increasing the understanding of humanity as the generations which come build on the structures of their ancestors. However, I would argue that unless we are sure that the information that we are being taught is correct, then it is not knowledge, and that in fact, it may just be a falsehood. The process of generational passage of information would be better described as acculturation, the acceptance or awareness of commonly held beliefs. If we cannot use our elders as the source of knowledge where do we turn to next?

The next route would be to look at knowledge as a form of perception, as the sensory information which enters our mind through the apparatus of our body. However, the senses themselves are prone to misfunction or deception, one only need to experience sleep deprivation to understand how faulty the senses can become under extreme stress. This point also works against the concept of knowledge as a form of memory, for not only is the sensory input faulty but the mind in which it is stored can twist, warp and forget information which it has been given.

Finally, we come to examine the idea that knowledge is the perception of the truth. This is a bold argument, in that it presupposes that we can ever ‘truly’ know anything, and that the faculties and senses we are bestowed with are capable of fighting through the fog of deception, incapacity and bias. I would reserve judgement on this issue for another reflection, but at this moment would instead posit a synthetic solution to the argument of truth as knowledge.

Perhaps knowledge is the intellectual perception of truth, our opinion. We have already accepted that our perceptions are faulty and tentatively accept that truth is unattainable, but if we accept that from our observations we can draw opinions as to the truth, and that these can drift from more or less correct, then knowledge could be described as the opinion which we hold towards the truth. Through intellectual effort and study, we take our knowledge and, like a block of fine marble, we whittle down into a statue. This statue, our opinion, is imitative of the truth in the abstract, limited by the paradigm by which we perceive the subject. However, if we open our minds to the arguments of others, perhaps we can catch a glimpse of the truth from another perspective, allowing us to conform our masterpiece more closely to the original form.

With this in mind, I suggest we never take our knowledge as absolute, but only as a work in progress, which we will continue to refine as we learn more about the subject, or discard if we find that we have been lead astray by the evil trinity of deception, misperception and bias.

Original text

Plato’s Theatetus

Painting

Peter Claesz, Still Life with Skull, 1630

7 Replies to “On Knowledge”

  1. I think that the nature of reality itself is not knowable, and that symbology, images, and descriptions of anything are not the thing itself. The word tree and any description or name or measurement may be true but is not the tree we are trying to know.
    However clearly some descriptions or measurements or names do not accurately describe the tree and so these would’ve called false.
    Symbology within a system however can be knowable and true or false. Both logic and mathematics are systems produced by philosophy. Within a system of logic or mathematics true knowledge can be revealed, but not of the physical world, but only of the system itself.
    Reality is beyond the description of human algorithms that an describe them successfully only within limits. Physical reality is beyond words, formulas, systems of thought, and complete comprehension. Ideas about reality are not the reality itself, but an entirely independent human construct.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robert,

      Thanks for the comment!

      I definitely feel that abstract truth is unattainable through the flawed perceptions of humanity – although the skeptic in me wants me to suspend judgement even on that.

      Something that gnaws at my heart is whether there is virtue to be had in the struggle to achieve true opinion, or whether we lapse into the relativistic platitudes of the sophists and accept that your opinion is as good as my belief. As Protagoras said “Man is the measure of all things.”

      Cheers,

      – Tim

      Like

      1. Reality is all process and pattern. Life itself isn’t a thing to be described but a process that results from a circumstance. Focusing on the present moment limits the perspective to a narrow cross section of time and space. When perspective dominates your mind, you lose the overall truth.

        Like

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