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On what is Knowledge
“He who is ignorant of knowledge does not understand shoe-making or any other art.”
-Socrates, Theaetetus 147b
To say that one has knowledge of something, one must be able to say what knowledge is. To know anything then, it is necessary to know what knowledge itself is. The Platonic dialogue Theaetetus investigates the question of what knowledge is, yet fails to come up with a correct answer. Two main answers are proposed. The first, that perception is knowledge, reveals itself as untrue. The second, true opinion with an articulation, is broken into three subcategories, all three of which are proven false. There is a crucial point in the dialogue where Socrates refers to knowing as a possessing of knowledge, possession being an activity. He uses the same word for possessing as Aristotle does when he states an answer to the question of what knowledge is in Nicomachean Ethics. Theaetetus, however, ignores the use of this word and pursues knowledge in the passive sense of possessing. Is this why Theaetetus’ argument fails? The second answer pursued is very similar to Aristotle’s definition: true opinion with an articulation as opposed to true opinion with a demonstration (logoς as opposed to apodeiktikη respectively). Does Aristotle’s definition transcend the difficulties that arose from Theaetetus’ second definition? If it does, how does it explain the act of knowing? There is no becoming to knowing, one either knows or doesn’t know. At what point in the demonstration does one know? If knowledge is something internal, then once one could demonstrate to oneself, one would know, not before, nor after. Therefore, the act of internal demonstration must also not have a becoming, but simply be or not be. Contemplation, which also has no becoming, for contemplation is an end in itself, is a likely candidate for knowing. Contemplation is a form of perception though, and perception was proved not to be knowledge. Is contemplation simply akin to knowledge or is it intricately tied into the understanding of what it means to know?
Perception is not knowledge because if seeing is knowing, then not seeing is not knowing. Also, remembering is recalling things known. One knows when one remembers. However, if someone is not seeing, but remembering, that person is not knowing and knowing at the same time. This argument works because to perceive, there has to be a thing perceiving and a thing perceived. While memory also needs a thing remembering and a thing remembered, that which is remembered is not external to the thing remembering. Not perceiving an external thing while remembering it internally is what leads to the contradiction of not knowing and knowing at the same time. Perception is not knowledge due to the difference between the location of a thing perceived and a thing remembered relative to oneself. Therefore, only perception of external things has been shown to not be knowledge. This still allows for memory to be knowledge since memory is internal perception.
If knowledge lies in perception at all, it must fall within internal perception. Internal perception, just like external, is an activity. In the case of internal perception it is an activity of the soul. Knowledge cannot be possessed passively. It cannot simply reside in the soul; the soul must maintain knowledge actively. Theaetetus was not able to come up with an answer to knowledge because he viewed it as simply residing in the soul. He did not realize the temporal aspect of knowing. One does not have knowledge of a thing unless one is currently and actively knowing it. This is because knowledge has no becoming. When one is knowing, the mind must be involved, at least in some manner. Internal perception must be involved in the act of knowing. Also, it is not possible to perceive something without perceiving it. Therefore, since in order to know one must perceive, and one has no perception if not perceiving, one has no knowledge if not knowing.
Theaetetus gives next the answer that knowledge is true opinion with an articulation. The idea of an articulation must be clearly understood in order to proceed, so it is first described as forming a stream of sounds to explain one’s opinion. Socrates shows that this can’t be what knowledge is because everyone has the ability to give an oral articulation of their correct opinion, which means that anyone with correct opinion would also have knowledge, and therefore correct opinion would show up nowhere on its own. This definition faces another problem. When does one really know? It cannot be at the beginning of the articulation because one has yet to explain fully and again it cannot be at the end because one no longer knows what came before since they are not actively knowing it, since the articulation is the activity of knowing. While speaking one only knows what is currently being said. Therefore, knowledge is not only not true opinion with an articulation of words, but knowledge actually cannot be put into speech. This is not meant to suggest that one cannot know what a word means, just that speaking the word itself conveys no knowledge, nor does speaking a description of the word. Knowing is the action of one putting together the parts (words used to describe) of the definition and perceiving the meaning internally as a whole, not as parts in a sequence, which is the only power of speech.
The third and final way in which Socrates describes an articulation is being able to grasp in what way something is different from everything else. With this description the idea of what a true opinion is becomes unclear. If one has a true opinion of something but not knowledge, and knowledge is grasping in what way the thing is different from all others, then the true opinion must include aspects of the thing that are shared by others. How then, does one have a true opinion of that thing and not of something else? Either the opinion is of many things and untrue or it is true opinion and true opinion ceases to exist on its own. Regardless, knowledge cannot be true opinion with an articulation in this sense.
Aristotle incorporates the idea that knowledge is something active in his definition. He says, in Nicomachean Ethics, that knowledge is “an active condition of the soul that governs demonstration” (1139b 32). He goes on to say, however, “whenever someone is convinced of something in a certain way, and the sources of it are evident to one, one knows it.” Being convinced of something in a certain way is taken as meaning the equivalent of true opinion and the sources being evident to one is understood to note the demonstrative ability of the thing. Aristotle’s definition in Greek is epistηmη estin έxiς apodeiktikη. Translated literally, it would read knowledge is a demonstrative having. In fact, the idea of governing, which is inserted by the translator, is not entirely clear, other than the fact that knowledge pertains to things that are demonstrable.
Aristotle shows how knowledge comes about by saying that knowledge is something teachable, what is teachable is already discerned and teaching comes from either demonstrations (examples of universal things) or deductive reasoning, which itself starts with a universal thing. Knowledge comes about from being able to understand the demonstration or deductive reasoning. To know, one must be able to demonstrate to oneself. To demonstrate to oneself one must be able to perceive the deductive reasoning or the universal thing as a whole. In the case of knowing deductive reasoning, one knows the consequences of a universal thing’s being, while in the case of knowing an example, one knows that a universal thing is. To know is different from discernment of universal things.
Anything perceived externally could still be known to be, as its external-ness is perceived internally. In fact, one perceives the universal thing, self, and the universal thing, not-self, because when one perceives external-ness, one actually perceives oneself. Therefore, the intellect is able to grasp not only what oneself is, but also what not-oneself is. If one were able to demonstrate a true opinion of deductive reason coming from the universal thing not-self then one would know the consequences of there being a not-self. Even though it is not possible to know what external things (not-self) are, it is possible to know what it means that there are external things.
Contemplation is alone among the types of perception in that it perceives wholes. Contemplation is the end of perception because only contemplation perceives wholes. It is not possible to see a whole, hear a whole or touch a whole. Even the other types of internal perception do not perceive wholes. For instance, it is not possible to inquire after a whole. To search for something necessitates steps. Contemplation has no steps, it has no becoming. To contemplate something is to perceive all of it at once. Contemplation is very similar to knowing, how then does grasping differ from knowing? To ask this question is to ask how contemplation is different from knowing. Or rather, does contemplation include demonstration? There is no deductive reasoning of universal things, there is only perceiving their being. In what way could one demonstrate what a universal thing is? What if a universal thing itself demonstrates what it is? The act of contemplating a universal thing as a whole would include perceiving the universal thing as well as perceiving the universal thing’s demonstration of what it is, since the demonstration is a part of the universal thing. It has already been said that if one perceives both the correct opinion and the demonstration then one knows. If one contemplates (internally perceives) a universal thing and by doing so also perceives the universal thing’s demonstration of what it is then one knows what it is.
When one contemplates only deductive reasoning that comes from a universal thing, one knows. When one contemplates a universal thing itself, one understands it. Aristotle makes this distinction and refers to understanding as wisdom. Wisdom is described by him as the most precise type of knowledge, which he goes on to explain saying, “A wise person needs not only to know the things that follow from the sources but to discern truly what concerns the sources” (1141a 19). Wisdom, then, is the combination of all three types of knowledge. One must know that a thing is, the consequences of its being, and what a thing is. The difference in knowledge is not of kind, but of precision. To know precisely one must know wholly. Therefore, one must contemplate universal things to gain wisdom.