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    Educational Philosophy, Mother's Education

    The Liberal Arts and the Justification of Knowledge

    August 3, 2015 by Kevin Clark

    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.

    What do Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain mean when they say that the liberal arts "justify knowledge?" Here's the beginning of an answer, direct from the source.

    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?

    Meno: Certainly.

    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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  • Reply Seven Liberal Arts | Karen Glass May 28, 2018 at 6:33 am

    […] If you want some bonus content from one of the authors, Kevin Clark, about what you do with the liberal arts, check out his guest post at Afterthoughts. […]

  • Reply Elizabeth February 24, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    Now I know why my calculus teacher had us derive formulas rather than just teaching is how to use them!

  • Reply Jennifer August 4, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    Kevin Clark quotes Socrates as saying
    “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.”
    My translation says
    “For true opinions,as long as they remain, are a fine thing and all they do is good, but they are not willing to remain long, and they escape from man’s mind, so that they are not worth much until one ties them down by [giving] and account of the reason why.”
    Socrates goes on to say
    “And that, Meno, my friend, is recollection, as we previously agreed. After they are tied down in the first place they become knowledge, and then they remain in place. That is why knowledge is prized higher than correct opinion, and knowledge differs from correct opinion in being tied down.”

    For us, it may help to compare it to some phrases that Miss Mason uses.

    I think we can say that when Miss Mason talks about developing a relationship with what we are learning, she is talking about the same thing. I believe when Miss Mason says that “Education is the science of relations.” she is echoing this passage in the Meno. Plato may say that education is the process of recollecting or tying down right opinions, Clark & Jain talk about learning to justify all kinds of knowledge, Andrew Kern talks about learning to perceive(apprehend) the truth. I like to think about it in terms of harmony and relationship.

    If I have justified knowledge, I have developed a relationship with it and therefore, can speak with authority in regards to it. Whether that be through geometry, story, persuasion, syllogism, number bonds, etc…

    Kevin Clark said:
    “That is to say, opinions always change unless there is something — some reason — for them to stay put.”

    To tie this together with what we know about the liberal arts and the idea that education is the science of relations, I think we can say that the best way to build a relationship with the vast feast of knowledge that is available to us is through the study of the liberal arts.

  • Reply Amy August 3, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    I really appreciate this post, thank you! It’s another part of what I have been contemplating lately. A liberal arts education is so important and I have found myself having to justify it to those who don’t understand more and more in recent days.

    I’d really love to hear the answers to Brandy’s questions too!

    • Reply Jennifer Dow August 4, 2015 at 12:19 pm

      Yes I face the same thing. I’m starting to think that precise methods of justifying our commitment to the liberal arts may not be the best way. I think we may need to turn to stories to awaken the hearts of others.

  • Reply Brandy Vencel August 3, 2015 at 11:32 am

    My second question… 🙂

    Can you give a practical example of a liberal art justifying knowledge? I am thinking here especially of the Trivium, because I think a lot of us understand that, for example, mathematics can justify a mathematical piece of knowledge. But what about grammar? What sort of knowledge would grammar justify? I feel like one or two practical examples would help us hold onto these ideas better. 🙂

    • Reply Jennifer Dow August 4, 2015 at 12:17 pm

      I believe grammar justifies knowledge through language and especially knowledge that could be categorized as matters of conscience.

      For example, I may sense that stealing is wrong. I may not be able to figure out how to articulate that as a correct opinion. However, what if there was a story that showed how this was wrong? I would all of a sudden be able to prove to you through the story that stealing is wrong. That would be a completely legitimate way to justify that opinion as true and correct. I think that might’ve been what the author above was getting at when he was comparing how modern people limit the ways they can justify knowledge. To the modern we can only justify knowledge through these super precise analytical means. But to the ancient or the medieval person, justifying knowledge through less precise methods was completely legitimate. It all depended on the kind of knowledge you were trying to justify. Some kind of knowledge required that you justify it through precise means. But other things, like matters of conscience, should not be justified through precise means. There’s too much variability for that kind of justification.

      • Reply Brandy Vencel August 4, 2015 at 9:16 pm

        I cannot tell you how appealing I find that mentality that being less precise is justified. What have you read that we need to be reading on this subject, Jennifer? Your wisdom is oozing all over the place here, and I want to know where you got it. 🙂

        • Reply Jennifer August 4, 2015 at 10:14 pm

          LOL. That is funny. My husband is just grateful you guys get my oozing rather than he. 🙂
          Honestly, it is not one book. I started with Clark & Jain’s book. I paid attention to the footnotes on the pages and went and looked up those resources. I actually talk about a lot of this in my series on ‘The Liberal Arts Tradition’ I also have a variety of book references and links throughout the series. It might be easier to check that out than list them here. That way they are in context. Here is the link:

          • Brandy Vencel August 5, 2015 at 7:40 am

            THANK YOU! I had noticed that before, but had forgotten. I had been thinking about reading through the footnote sources — I’ve read a lot of Aquinas, but a lot of the other sources were ones I haven’t read. Good idea! ♥

            And your husband sounds remarkably like my husband. Hmmm…

  • Reply Mystie August 3, 2015 at 9:37 am

    So “justifying knowledge” is about defending what what we know, and also is how we move from opinion to actual possessed knowledge. Is that a correct summary?

    • Reply Jennifer Dow August 4, 2015 at 12:08 pm

      I think that is a good summary. But I would be careful about the word defend. I think it is defending in the sense that it shows what we know. Like narration for example. The student goes through an internal process when they are asked to narrate something. They are making connections building relationships thinking synthetically about what they have heard, Learned, and experienced. In order to prove to Mom that they synthesized the information the student must say or write the narration. In this sense they have defended what they know. But at the same time, the act of narrating is what allowed them to clarify their opinions and Tiedown-as Socrates says- their opinions.

      • Reply Brandy Vencel August 4, 2015 at 9:14 pm

        Ooh, Jennifer! Thank you for that. That makes a lot of sense, and I love the way you said it. ♥

  • Reply Brandy Vencel August 3, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Okay, Kevin, I have a number of questions for you. So this is my first one. 🙂 My question is whether you have any suggestions for moms who were not trained this way. How can we begin using the liberal arts to educate ourselves? Do you have, for example, a suggested reading list for beginners? Or maybe a better thing would be some principles we could implement?

    • Reply Di November 10, 2020 at 10:45 pm

      Brandy, did you ever find the answer to this question? Where does a mum start to train herself?!

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