At least since Plato’s Meno, the question of what counts for knowledge and, its correlative, how to distinguish true knowledge from what is merely probable or uncertain, has been part of the great conversation of Western civilization. In fact, here as elsewhere, the history of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. His works not only provide the parameters of the debate, but also a clear statement of the problem and the development of the relevant terms.
This is certainly the case with respect to the question of knowledge in the Meno, where the question hinges on the difference between having a correct opinion and possessing true knowledge. Ever the source of brilliant metaphors and examples, Socrates asks Meno to consider the case of a person who gives directions to a traveler, not because he actually knows the way, but because he is making a good guess. As it happens, the guess is correct; what, asks Socrates, are we to make of this guidance?
Socrates: Well, and a person who had a right opinion as to which was the way, but had never been there and did not really know, might give right guidance, might he not?
Socrates: And so long, I presume, as he has right opinion about that which the other man really knows, he will be just as good a guide — if he thinks the truth instead of knowing it — as the man who has the knowledge.
Meno: Just as good.
Socrates: Hence true opinion is as good a guide to rightness of action as knowledge; and this is a point we omitted just now in our consideration of the nature of virtue, when we stated that knowledge is the only guide of right action; whereas we find there is also true opinion.
Meno: So it seems.
Socrates: Then right opinion is just as useful as knowledge.
Meno: With this difference, Socrates, that he who has knowledge will always hit on the right way, whereas he who has right opinion will sometimes do so, but sometimes not.
Socrates: How do you mean? Will not he who always has right opinion be always right, so long as he opines rightly?
Meno: It appears to me that he must; and therefore I wonder, Socrates, this being the case, that knowledge should ever be more prized than right opinion, and why they should be two distinct and separate things.
Socrates: … True opinions, so long as they stay with us, are a fine possession, and effect all that is good; but they do not care to stay for long, and run away out of the human soul, and thus are of no great value until one makes them fast with causal reasoning.Meno, 97 b-98a, Trans. W. R. M. Lamb
The problem, which seemed simple at first (how to distinguish between correct opinion and true knowledge) took on a further dimension (why to value knowledge above correct opinion if each is equally useful in leading one to the right destination). Plato’s answer to this problem is straightforward: correct opinions are indeed just as useful as true knowledge, it is just that they rarely stay put. That is to say, opinions always change unless there is something — some reason — for them to stay put. For Plato, and for the tradition that follows after him, to have knowledge is to give an account for correct opinion. Put another way, we justify our knowledge by providing an account of why our opinion is correct.
Until quite contemporary times, it was axiomatic that access to this means of accounting varied greatly according to the kind of knowledge under consideration. Aristotle, for example, famously contrasts geometric and moral reasoning in this regard. Geometric knowledge, he explains, is justified by the appeal to perspicuous axioms (i.e., principles that are clear to all rational people). The task is basically to show, step by step, how a given proof follows necessarily from the axioms.
Moral reasoning, however, differs in that its principles are perceived through cultivation and habituation. To justify moral knowledge, one’s appeal not only must combine reflection on principles with examples and experience, but also the principles themselves must be acquired through experience from life. It is clear, therefore, that for Aristotle the justification of mathematical knowledge and moral knowledge would be quite different, though each is necessary.
In our own time, however, the sheer explanatory power of the methods developed by modern science has effectively eclipsed the claim of any other means of accounting for knowledge. If a given claim to knowledge is to carry any validity, it must be justified by appeal to a methodology that guarantees it.
Modern methodology, in fact, is modeled on the paradigm of the geometric reasoning Aristotle noted above; it was part of the so-called modern project, initiated by Descartes and formalized by Kant, to justify all knowledge by means of this kind of analytic method. This is something we moderns feel reflexively, even if we are largely unconscious of the history of this way of thinking and the conception of the world that it inheres within.
It is important to see that the problem here is not that moderns seek to justify knowledge on the basis of analytic method; geometric knowledge, as we noted above, is properly justified in this way. The problem, rather, is how by taking analytic method as the sole means of justifying knowledge, modernity has not only severely limited the scope of the kinds of things we can have knowledge about, ironically it has left us intellectually impoverished. Where classical thinkers had a diverse collection of tools for acquiring knowledge of themselves, God, and the cosmos, modern thinkers developed just one tool (analysis) to a staggering degree of effectiveness. Unfortunately, its scope of application is very limited indeed.
Now consider the claim we made in The Liberal Arts Tradition, namely, that the liberal arts are a broad and diverse means of justifying knowledge. In line with the tradition of Plato, this claim means that the liberal arts provide one with a means of accounting for correct opinion. The breadth of application of the liberal arts, however, extends far beyond the limited scope of modern science.
A student trained in the liberal arts will be able to give an account for his or her opinion regarding the interpretation of a given literary or historical text, as well as his or her opinion regarding the validity of geometric proof or the movement of the heavenly bodies. In this way, therefore, the liberal arts provide a more robust means of justifying knowledge than the reductive explanatory methods adopted by modern science.
Now, of course, more can be said about how the liberal arts justify knowledge than we’ve addressed in this post. For example, we have not explored at all how, following the lead of Aristotle instead of the progenitors of modernity, justifying knowledge is not really a matter of mastering a particular method at all. Rather, a student of the liberal arts appreciates how understanding is acquired through the kind of imitative practice directed toward creative production that is the essence of the liberal arts. One function of this philosophical understanding is to justify the knowledge the arts produce. But this is to anticipate a further conversation.
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