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On what is Knowledge

  •  Submitted: 4.04.06 

 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.

            There is now a schism between things in the world, those externally perceived and those internally perceived. Anything that we perceive externally we cannot know, at least not by means of external perception. In Theaetetus Socrates does say, however, “...someone who sees at least any one thing sees something that is” (188 E). It is therefore not a problem to know that things perceived externally are. It is only a problem to know what things perceived externally are. How then does one know that things perceived externally are? If knowledge is not external perception then neither can one know by means of external perception. When something is perceived externally, the thing perceiving is not only aware of the thing perceived but also of its external-ness. Simply because it is external there are at least two things in the universe, the thing perceiving and something external to it. Whether or not the thing external is one thing or many is not important because one can never know what it is that is perceived externally and similarly whether or not it is different from any other thing. It must be noted that the perception of external-ness of an object must be internal perception and indeed is, for it is not so much the perception of what is external as it is the perception of self and not-self.

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.

            It is not plausible to view knowledge as anything other than the result of an ongoing activity. It was impossible for Theaetetus to successfully argue that perception, external or internal, is knowledge without this concept. This idea is evident in the viewpoint of knowledge residing in us as impressions in a ball of wax. It is not correct to view knowledge as an impression that stays after one has done the pressing, since knowing is an activity. One must constantly be pressing (internally perceiving) the thing being known into the wax to know it. Once the pressing has stopped so does the impression and the knowing. Theaetetus had problems with this view of knowledge because he could not explain how one ever came to have a false opinion. Or, he could not take into account when one doesn’t know yet still internally perceives. This type of internal perception would be different from that which yields knowledge. One would know while internally perceiving one way, while one would have opinion when internally perceiving in a different. It remains to clear up what type of internal perception would lead to knowledge, though this will be taken up later.

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. 

            Once the first description of an articulation is disproved, Socrates moves on to describe it as being able to say all of the elements of the thing known. The example used is that one knows what a wagon is when one can say it is wheels, an axle, a box and so on. It is possible, though, for the elements that make up the articulation to belong to other composites. The idea of writing is brought up to explain this idea. One could know all of the elements, or letters, of the name “Theaetetus,” yet still not know the name because the letters also belong to another name. Writing the name “Theaetetus” in the correct order is merely having correct opinion of the name, being able to name the letters is the articulation, which is not knowledge of Theaetetus any more than it is knowledge of Tethetesua or any other anagram. This idea can be translated to knowledge of a wagon to say that one has knowledge of a wagon no more than one has knowledge of anything else with wheels, an axle, a box and so on. Simply being able to name the elements of something does not make one know it. Knowledge is not a true opinion with an articulation in this sense because one can have a true opinion and an articulation of the elements (being able to name the letters of a name) without having knowledge.

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.

            If one takes the view, as Theaetetus does, that knowledge is passively acquired in the soul, then knowledge must come from the actions of the things that are known. This is most evident in Theaetetus’ second answer where knowledge comes about by the existence of an articulation, not by the activity of articulating. If one views knowledge as an activity, then it is not the existence of an articulation that produces knowledge but the articulating itself. Also, if knowledge is true opinion with an articulation in a different sense than those that have been disproved, internal perception, if true, becomes a more likely candidate for knowledge because if one can perceive something internally as a whole and with that perception comes something akin to articulation, knowledge seems manifest.

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.   

            Logoς has failed Theaetetus, so why should an apodeiktikη work for Aristotle? The word used by Aristotle is the feminine singular form of apodeiktikoς, an adjective meaning subject to demonstration. There is then, a large difference between Theaetetus’ answer and Aristotle’s: Theaetetus says that knowledge is an articulation while Aristotle only says that it is of that which has the quality of being demonstrated, and is therefore itself demonstrable. Disregarding any minute differences in the definitions of the English words, we see that the main difference lies in the noun-adjective comparison. To say that knowledge is an articulation means that one must articulate to know. The act of knowing resides in the act of articulating. To say that knowledge is demonstrative means that knowledge is not in the demonstration, but in the having. While the having must include an ability to demonstrate, as long as “the sources of it are evident to one,” one is able to demonstrate and therefore one knows. It is a specific type of perceiving that lets one view the demonstration and the opinion at once. It has to be a perception of a whole, and therefore must be internal. Also, it follows that whenever one perceives in this way one knows.

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.

            To grasp the universal things themselves one must rely on something other than demonstration. Aristotle says that intellect is what one uses to grasp universal things. How does this relate to perception, for isn’t there an aspect of intellect that is internal perception? What does it mean then, to perceive internally a universal thing? This leads directly into the question of what a universal thing is. If it is simply a thing that happens in the universe, then it would include all things we perceive, internal things or external things. If it is a thing that is only internally perceived then it makes sense that universal things are grasped by the intellect. If the former is the case, it is a problem to say that universal things are grasped by the intellect, for it has already been said that one can have no knowledge of what something perceived externally is, only that it is, and therefore the intellect can no more grasp it than knowledge can. A universal thing must be something only perceived internally. Knowledge then, because it comes from universal things, must also be of things perceived internally. To perceive something universal and derive knowledge from it would require one to contemplate it, since one would have to perceive the whole to gain knowledge.

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.

            How then, does one know what anything is? Following the argument, it is not possible to know what the universal things are, only that they are, and the consequences of their being. Grasping the universal things themselves is left to the intellect, but is grasping really any different from knowing? Perhaps the only real difference is that one does not have to demonstrate what a universal thing is to grasp it. Perceiving a universal thing with the intellect, if internal perception is at all akin to external, would give one an idea of what a universal thing is. There are several types of internal perception though, as with external. The more completely one perceives something the more completely one perceives what it is. Therefore whatever internal perception that most perceives a thing as a whole, is that with which one knows most what a universal thing is. Contemplation, which is the internal perception of wholes, is what lets one grasp what a universal thing is.

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.

        The next question to ask is whether there is a difference between knowing that a universal thing is and knowing the consequences of its being, and knowing what a universal thing is. To perceive a universal thing in any manner is to know that it is. To know that a universal thing is, one does not have to perceive it as a whole (i.e., one is not contemplating it). To know through deductive reasoning one has to perceive the deductive reasoning as a whole, but not the thing itself. One simply has to know that a universal thing is, to be able to deduce from it. One contemplates the reasoning, but not the thing itself. Are there two forms of knowledge, one that comes from perceiving a thing as a whole, and one that comes from not perceiving it as a whole? What one knows is different in the two situations, but is there anything different about the knowledge itself? To have an understanding of what something is must be said to be different than knowledge if there is a difference.

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.

            There are two looks to knowledge, one which includes the contemplation and one which does not. Both though, require one to be knowing to have knowledge. In this way Aristotle’s definition does surpass the difficulties into which Theaetetus’ runs. However, the idea of contemplation is needed to fully understand what it means to know. Without this aspect, as well as the temporal aspect, knowledge could not properly be defined (Aristotle’s definition is not complete then, or is at least underdeveloped in Nicomachean Ethics). It follows that because knowledge is the product of an activity and it only exists while the activity is ongoing, one only knows when one is knowing. Memory, then, is the recollection of past knowings, in effect, it is re-knowing in the sense that one is undergoing the activity of knowing things that one has already known. To know that a universal thing is, one must contemplate its existence, which comes about simply from perceiving it. To know what follows from a universal thing, one must contemplate the deductive reasoning coming from it. To know what a universal thing is one must contemplate the thing itself. Therefore, we only know when we contemplate. Also, we only have knowledge of what we are contemplating and have no knowledge of anything that we aren’t. To know is to contemplate and wisdom is the combination of universal things with the act of contemplating.

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