The other day I read a C. S. Lewis essay on reading old books. I’ll have to say more about that essay in another post. But for today I just need to point out that Lewis says anyone wanting to learn some philosophy can do no better than going straight to Plato. Anybody who thinks with all humility that he has to start with a modern “explanation” will find himself in a muddle, while Plato himself is often very easy to understand. And as I read that part of the essay, I couldn’t help thinking about the first year we home-schooled our kids, when I had my seventh-grade son read Plato’s Theaetetus. He understood it pretty well and enjoyed it.
Today I finished reading Theaetetus for the second-and-a-halfth time, and I also understood it pretty well and enjoyed it. The main subject of this dialog is knowledge, and it ends inconclusively since all of Socrates’ reasoning ends up in circles; he was, after all, trying to know what knowledge was. But it’s clear that people know things, so it seems there should be some explanation for it somewhere. And Socrates makes progress, if only in eliminating some wrong definitions.
Socrates and Theaetetus basically try out three successive definitions of knowledge, each better than the last. They spend the most time on the first: that knowledge is perception. Socrates examines and refutes the relativism involved in that definition, and we find out in this section a lot about some of Socrates’ predecessors in philosophy, notably Heracleitus and Protagoras. The final condemnation of this theory points out that we know some things that we don’t perceive with the senses, for instance, that the furry face we see and the meowing we hear come from the same object.
While the perception theory takes up the bulk of the dialog, I found the other two attempts to define knowledge to contain even more interesting material. The second proposed definition – that knowledge is right opinion – causes problems right away when Socrates points out the difficulty in explaining how a person can have a wrong opinion. One can’t have an opinion about something he doesn’t know, and if he knows it, how can he be wrong about it?
In seeking a way out of this thicket, he tries out two models of the mind. The first compares the mind to wax. Things we experience, he says, make impressions in the wax. When we come across them again, we compare the perception with the impression, and if it fits, we recognize the thing and say we know it. It seems like a good analogy at first: some people have more wax than others; some have wax that is too hard (they gain knowledge only with great difficulty) or too soft (impressions are quickly made, but these people easily forget), and so on. But it still doesn’t explain how mistakes can happen. So he tries a new, delightful theory. We must make a distinction, he says, between possessing knowledge and having it in hand. The mind is more like an aviary full of bird cages. Any pieces of knowledge we possess are like birds in these cages. But to use the knowledge, to have it in hand, we have to catch the right bird. Sometimes, though, we catch the wrong bird.
Now as I went through this passage this time it occurred to me that Socrates’ brilliant image of the birds could clear up one of Plato’s most persistent mistakes. (I just realized that I’m crediting everything good to Socrates and everything bad to Plato.) I’ve commented several times in these posts about the problem with Plato’s view of knowledge that comes up in virtually every dialog – every dialog, that is, except the one about knowledge! Plato has Socrates say over and over that people always act for good. Long ago I realized that Plato knows that people do evil things; what he means by saying they always act for good is that they always believe that their goal in an action is good for themselves. A murderer thinks he’s getting rid of a problem and doesn’t understand the deeper, evil consequences of his action.
No, that’s not what bothers me about the statement. Plato consistently talks as if people who do know the truly right thing to do will always do it just because they know it. And that is clearly false. We all sometimes do things we know are wrong: we lust, we lie, we eat too much, we drink too much, we stay up too late (maybe writing blog posts). But if Plato – or Socrates – or Plato’s Socrates – had listened to himself here, he could have corrected himself. Our knowledge of right and wrong is like birds in a cage: we possess the knowledge, but it flits about and isn’t always present to us and in our grasp. Having read Theaetetus, I know that Plato possessed the knowledge that people really do sometimes do what they know is wrong. But I guess every time he wrote about it, he reached in his cage and caught the wrong bird.