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Hello, I'm Sophie.

Hello, I'm Sophie. Despite the fact that Plato's epistemology considers that Knowledge is innate, are there any arguments that can support a social aspect of knowledge? I'm reading Theaetetus but I can't find strong enough arguments to include classical theories of Social Theory of Knowledge.

Hi Sophie!

In my opinion, Plato's views on knowledge shifted around in a number of important ways over his career, but you're right to say that he always treats knowledge as having at least some innate aspects. In Book V of the Republic, for example, he characterizes knowledge as a kind of power that is innately within us, but--as a power, rather than a state--this account also recognizes the possibility of developing that power, or allowing it to wither. Much of the discussion of Books VI and VII of the Republic concern how to develop this power--how to "empower it," as it were) through the right educational curricula and with the use of what Plato calls "summoners" (by which he means things that summon the exercise of this power, rather than the inferior cognitive powers of belief or sense perception. There is, accordingly, a social aspect (via education) even in Plato's account.

When philosophers these days talk about "social epistemology," it can mean various things. But a "social theory of knowledge" would seem to imply that knowledge is, by its very nature, a social phenomenon. The place to look for this sort of account (if I have understood you rightly) in the ancient world would be in the writings of the group known as the Sophists, some of whom seemed to think that knowledge was a (purely) social construction. I am not aware of too many contemporary philosophers who accept such a view, but I hope my answer has helped at least a little!

On 'Cogito Ergo Sum'

On 'Cogito Ergo Sum' If this statement means that the only thing I can know to be true is that I exist, then that means I don't know if the reasoning used to deduce this statement is logically sound. What evidence do we have that our reasoning is to be believed? The only reason that we trust our reasoning is because have reasoned that it is trustworthy. We trust our reasoning because we trust our reasoning. I know that I came to this conclusion with the same human logic as cogito ergo sum, so this conclusion must be equally invalid. Humans are imperfect-> humans 'invented' logic-> logic is not necessarily perfect. "I do not know if I know anything." Please fix any broken logic I have, or point me in the direction of relevant articles on how my thinking was outdone hundreds of years ago. Thanks

I don't mean to criticize Prof. Reid's excellent scholarly response on behalf of Descartes. But it's worth pointing out that the reasoning from the Second Replies that he attributes to Descartes is more complex and dubitable than the inference from 'I think' to 'I exist' is to begin with. In the quoted passage, Descartes seems to make a universal generalization about human psychology based on a single known case, his own. That generalization can't be more reliable than inferring 'I exist' from 'I think', or else we wouldn't need an empirical science of psychology. Likewise, the psychological claim that a two-step inference is always less reliable than a one-step thought is a claim that's got to be more dubitable than inferring 'I exist' from 'I think' or calculating the sum of 2 and 3. It would have been better had Descartes denied the very intelligibility of doubting the simplest inferences we make -- or at least had he challenged a skeptical opponent to make sense of such doubt.

If knowledge is defined as justified true belief, why is it necessary to include

If knowledge is defined as justified true belief, why is it necessary to include "justified" in that definition. If I have a belief that corresponds with an objective state of affairs, why doesn't that count as knowledge regardless of justification? In the Theaetetus, Socrates seems to consider it self-evident that if one forms a belief based on unreliable testimony, that belief is not knowledge even if it true. I don't see why this is the case. If a delusional person tells me it is going to rain tomorrow, and I form the belief (which happens to be true) that it is going to rain tomorrow, why would that not be considered knowledge? Especially if I can use that belief to successfully guide my activity in the world? One more clarification: I can understand why justification matters with respect to the psychological process of forming a belief. I am talking about the definition of knowledge, which is already presupposed to be true.

Different philosophers would answer this sort of question different ways, depending upon how they approach epistemology. On one sort of view, we might think that this is a question about the meaning of the ordinary English verb "to know". And in that case, there seems to be good evidence that English speakers are not always willing to describe someone as "knowing" something just because they believe it and it is true. For example, the Super Bowl is tomorrow. I know nothing about football, but suppose I firmly believe that the Seahawks are going to win. If they do win, would you want to say that I knew they would?

A more interesting question, though, to my mind, is simply whether we think there is an important distinction to be made here, whether or not it is one that is made in English. And that, obviously, has to be decided by seeing what work "knowledge", in that sense, can do. It's not at all clear, actually, that all one's true beliefs can "successfully guide...activity in the world" in the same way, whether or not one has justification for them. Timothy Williamson has some nice examples along these lines in his book on knowledge, though he would deny that knowledge can be reduced to anything simpler.

My question concerns epistemology and "post-modernism". Why do philosophical

My question concerns epistemology and "post-modernism". Why do philosophical books on epistemology fail to discuss the problem of how one knows what a text means? Postmodernism have raised various questions about the possibility of how one knows what a text means, but the only books on epistemology I've seen talk about things like foundationalism, coherence, Gettier counter-examples, etc, but miss talking about Derrida's deconstructionism, and the positions of people like Fish and Foucault. Furthermore, who are the philosophers working on epistemology "answers" to postmodern thinkers? Is there a must read rejection of postmodern scepticism? I am aware of important critiques amongst Christian thinkers (e.g. D.A. Carson's "The Gagging of God") but I suspect there must be more philosophical responses.

I discern the following meaning in your text: You're asking why epistemology books generally don't cover postmodernist arguments for skepticism about our knowledge of a text's meaning.

One reason might be this: Arguments for skepticism about our knowledge of a text's meaning are merely applications of more general skeptical arguments about, for example, our knowledge of other minds. If so, then it's probably best to focus on the more general skeptical arguments to see if they're good enough to warrant applying them to specific cases such as textual meaning.

A second reason might be this: Arguments for skepticism about our knowledge of a text's meaning arise mainly from philosophical issues outside epistemology per se -- for example, issues in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. If so, then you'd be more likely to find them discussed in books on those topics.

Some analytic philosophers have engaged with postmodernist thinkers in detail. Two examples come to mind: (1) John Searle's extended critique of deconstruction in the pages of the New York Review of Books in the 1980s; (2) Paul Boghossian's book Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism (Oxford University Press, 2006). No doubt there are others I'm now forgetting, but you might start with those.

I was wondering if Nagel's argument in "what it is like to be a bat" or the

I was wondering if Nagel's argument in "what it is like to be a bat" or the Qualia "Knowledge argument" can be used to prove that certain non physical knowledge can only be attained through experience? For example, could I say that I could read about being an enterpeneur, learn everything there is to know about running my own business but that there is certain knowledge I will only attain when I actually start my business? Thank you Mike

Good question. Of course we'd have to be very careful re: what we mean by 'non-physical' knowledge. For sometimes what people mean when they suggest 'you can't know everything about being an entrepreneur until you actually try it' is merely that there are various facts, bits of advice/wisdom, etc., that no one is likely to teach you in advance, that cannot be anticipated, etc., that you'll only come across and learn when you're acquiring experience in the activity -- but that on its own entails nothing about whether those facts are "non-physical." For a rough example, you might not be able to fully understand just how difficult the local tax code is for business until you try navigating it yourself for your own business, but that doesn't mean those facts about the tax code are non-physical in any way. In short: sometimes experience is necessary simply to acquire perfectly "physical," factual knowledge. But then again, there remains room for something else, the 'what's it like'-ness of it all. One of the early waves of response to Nagel's argument was precisely this, viz. just how far does that "what it's like" locution extend -- it's one thing to suggest there's something it's like to be a bat that we humans can never fully grasp or conceive, but is there something it's like to be one specific bat v. another? to be you, v. me? to be a golfer v. entrepreneur etc.? Perhaps -- or perhaps that locution just isn't/shouldn't be so fine-grained as to distinguish between individuals int his way, and is best applied across large types such as species. So this is a long-winded way of NOT answering your question -- only to suggest that perhaps there's nothing really "non-physical" to learn about pursuing various activities and that the "what it's like" idea isn't meant to be so fine-grained ...

hope that's useful!


Does an interested layperson have any business in evaluating or criticizing the

Does an interested layperson have any business in evaluating or criticizing the arguments of specialists in complex academic fields? Are the intellectual efforts of laypeople (limited, perhaps, for those of working-class status to only a few hours a week) destined to result in nothing more than the dubious ends of personal enrichment or cultural appreciation? Would it make more sense for someone of merely average cognitive ability and with only meager academic credentials to spend his free time watching mindless sitcoms or reading the latest potboilers rather than attempting to engage with cutting-edge scholarship across a variety of disciplines? Is our layperson in some sense obligated to accept the arguments and claims of experts if he cannot find reason to doubt them?

Excellent question(s). I suggest that in some areas of historical inquiry, trusting the "cutting-edge experts" in philosophy makes a great deal of sense (though not always). So, when it comes to dating and reconstructing which of Plato's dialogues were early or late, or what is the best available translations of texts, and the tracing of influence (how many ideas of Hume's were novel), it seems quite reasonable to "trust the experts." I suggest, however, that trusting expert philosophers on history is tricky when it comes to issues in which one's philosophical convictions might color one's judgment. So, a philosopher who is disposed to distrust utilitarianism, might be led to judge that the reason why Moism in China failed was because of the inherent limitations of such an abstract form of ethical teaching, when in fact that was not the reason why Moism did not have a longer life span. Moreover, when it comes to philosophers making claims that impact our daily lives, it may be that they are no less biased, prejudiced, stubborn, and riddled with vanity and competitiveness than any of us. Now, in such cases I am strongly inclined to think such "philosophers" are not truly philosophers (Greek for: the love of wisdom). Is vanity and not questioning your own beliefs ever wise? Rather, it seems a wise person would want to be open to wisdom that may be available from both "professionals" (those who make a living thinking, teaching, writing, debating) and non-professionals. In some domains of philosophy (philosophy of mind, ethics, moral theory, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, philosophy of art), philosophers (and the community of philosophers) may be caught up in trends that blind them (us) to various values. So, it is more than simply possible, for a philosopher who is deeply hostile to religion for personal reasons, to be less than impartial in assessing the arguments (or evidence) for this or that religion.

I suggest that a really important reason for "laypersons" or "non-experts" to take up the practice of philosophy with passion and with the most amount of time you can spare is that you may see and respond to some position with greater insight or critical acumen than the "experts." Going further, it may be that your (technically "non-philosophical" background) in, say, child rearing or caring for a handicapped sister, gives you greater clarity in assessing a philosophy of education and public health. Besides, I think that the more people practice philosophy from all walks of life, the richer will be our culture and community.

I'm sure that, for almost any position I take on a controversial political issue

I'm sure that, for almost any position I take on a controversial political issue, there is an expert out there who has investigated it more than I have and, as a result, rejected my position -- or who *would* reject my position *if* they investigated it more thoroughly. (Take, for example, the question of whether Obamacare is good public policy.) This humbles me and makes it difficult for me to be fully confident in my conclusions and work up the motivation to fight for what seems like the right thing. More generally, careful reflection on how I could be wrong often removes or severely diminishes the passion I might have originally felt about a political issue. My reflection breeds a sort of apathy. Is that inappropriate? How do philosophers who passionately fight for political causes deal with the uncertainty that they could be wrong, or with the fact that there is (or could be) someone out there who is more of an expert *and* has the opposite view?

The quick answer to your question is that most people have more self-confidence--even arrogance--than you seem to have about their opinions, especially if they are "experts." So, they might be wrong, but they don't worry about it like you do (as my husband the surgeon says about surgeons "sometimes wrong but never in doubt"). A more thoughtful answer to your question, which draws on epistemological ideas, is that so-called experts--just as non-experts--are susceptible to various kinds of bias, such as confirmation bias (evidence for one's position is weighed more heavily than evidence against) and salience bias (one's personal experiences are weighed more heavily than the experiences one has merely heard about). And so-called non-experts can in fact be more knowledgeable than so-called experts about their own experiences of e.g. what it feels like to be poor. So, you shouldn't defer to the experts, although you can sometimes learn from them.

There is now a philosophical literature on "peer disagreement" which covers the question of what you are supposed to do if your "epistemic peers" (other experts if you are an expert) disagree with you on a topic.

Do you think that there are things humans cannot understand because our brains

Do you think that there are things humans cannot understand because our brains are limited? Philosopher Thomas Nagel was recently quoted as saying that there are surely truths that people cannot understand (and will never be able to understand), as "nine-year olds cannot understand Maxwell's equations". I don't think this is a good example: after all nine-year olds are very smart, and it seems to me that they just don't have the time and information to "understand Maxwell's equations" while they are still nine years old. Is there any reason why nine-year olds wouldn't understand those equations if they had a nine-year old brain (physically speaking) forever (always adding new information)? And what if such equations were explained to them? Anyway, I would like you to answer not about the example, but about the general issue. Of course there are things we will never know and cannot know (for instancel, many things that happened before humans existed, or in distant parts of the universe, or things people...

I'm inclined to think that there are, and perhaps must be, things that humans can't understand because of the limitations of our brains. Now, the term 'understand' might mean (i) 'understand at all (i.e., at least partly)' or (ii) 'understand completely'. On interpretation (ii), it's pretty clear that there are things we can't understand, because our finite brains can't grasp all of the infinitely many facts there are about even as ordinary a thing as my car. What's my car's exact mass right now? (No rounding allowed!) Even on interpretation (i), there may be things that humans can't understand.

The only organ with which we can hope to understand something is our brain. Why wouldn't our brain's finite capacity for information storage, calculation, and so on, be accompanied by a finite capacity for understanding things? Indeed, Colin McGinn has conjectured that some of the central problems of philosophy have endured for so long because, although they have solutions, our species lacks the ability to understand those solutions. See his Problems in Philosophy and this later paper. Jonathan Bennett sounds a similar theme in his article 'Descartes's Theory of Modality', Philosophical Review 103 (1994): 639-667, at 656.

Has the Gettier Problem been given too much credit? Take the man looking out the

Has the Gettier Problem been given too much credit? Take the man looking out the window and sees a mechanical sheep 200 yards away and forms the proposition "There is a sheep out there"...and in reality there is a sheep under his window. Don't you think the man really said "There is a sheep 200 yards out there"? Take the same scenario but instead of the sheep being under the window the sheep is "out there" two counties away. Isn't this easy to see the misrepresentation of the "true proposition" the man really means to express? Please tell me where I am wrong with this critique, Thanks!

You take issue with the way the content of the man's belief is being described in this case: you suggest that the content of his belief is the more specific (1) 'There is a sheep 200 yards out there' rather than the less specific (2) 'There is a sheep out there'.

If we're worried about the actual content of the man's belief, then (1) strikes me as unrealistically specific: 200 yards rather than 201 yards? But never mind that. We can easily use (1) to generate a Gettier case: suppose that the man validly deduces that (2) from his belief that (1) and thereby comes to believe that (2). Valid deduction is one way in which we come to believe things. If he's justified in believing that (1) even though (1) is false, then presumably he's justified in believing that (2) by validly deducing (2) from (1). So he's justified in believing that (2), and (2) is true because of a sheep he can't see. So he has a justified, true belief that (2) yet doesn't know that (2).

What is the difference between "knowledge" and "wisdom" from both a current and

What is the difference between "knowledge" and "wisdom" from both a current and a historical context.

What? You want a quickie bloggy-type answer for a question that would merit (at least) a whole book?

OK, but be warned: what you are looking for is much, much more complicated and richer than the following answer (or, perhaps any bloggy-type answer) could indicate.

Knowledge is usually conceived as simply being in the best--or at any rate, a sufficiently good--kind of position in one's cognitive relation to the thing in question. Knowledge is generally regarded as requiring something like a truth condition (if what you think is false, you don't know), a belief condition (if you don't believe something, you can't know it), and some other condition (usually called "justification" or "warrant") that shows why the true belief in question actually fulfills whatever other standards apply to distinguish between knowledge and other forms of true belief--after all, one can have true beliefs about something and still not know it. For example, if I believe something that's true, but for the wrong reasons, or based on faulty evidence, or if there is something wrong with the way I came to have that belief or with what makes me continue to believe it now.

It follows that one can know things, even if the things themselves are quite trivial, useless, or uninteresting. (Thanks to Ernest Sosa here for the example) Consider being in a dentist's office and there is nothing else to read, so you pick up a phone book and memorize some of it. If the phone book is accurate (and maybe you will need to check this in various ways), it seems like you might come to know that such-and-such is the number for ABC Bakery...and so on. But so what?

Wisdom seems to require something different. To be wise, it seems that maybe someone might needs to know some things, but perhaps they need to know really important things, rather than totally trivial things. Or, maybe wisdom consists in not knowing things, but being aware of that fact and behaving appropriately for one who is in that condition.

Historically, different philosophers have had some different things to say about the difference(s) between knowledge and wisdom, but let me recommend a couple of philosophical classics to consult (among many, and some others may be named by others who choose to answer your question and make other suggestions--my two are just two of my personal favorites):

Plato, Apology. Pay special attention to where Socrates distinguishes between what he calls his "human wisdom" with his opinion that "the god is truly wise."

Immanuel Kant, "What Is Enlightenment?" Kan't official "target" is "enlightenment," but I think it is not unreasonable to think that he thinks of this as at least a kind of wisdom.

Hope this helps...