16 October 2005

Forms of Knowledge

Some difficulties with the Rickless interpretation.

Rickless rests his interpretation on the observation that, in some places (e.g. Meno 87c-88d and Rep. 505b), when Socrates makes a claim of the form 'X is knowledge', what he means is that 'X is a form of knowledge'. The phrase 'form of' gets elided. (That is why Rickless in his paper refers to his own interpretation as the 'Elision Interpretation.' ) Rickless suggests that the phrase is similarly elided in the Protagoras, and that whenever Plato is maintaining, explicitly or implicitly, that some virtue is knowledge, what he means, more precisely, is that that virtue is a form of knowledge. The virtues are then united as different species of knowledge.

But some difficulties:

1. Admit that, in the Protagoras, what Socrates is maintaining is that each virtue is a 'form of' knowledge. But this leaves the problem of the dialogue largely untouched. Are the names of the various virtues names of the same form of knowledge, or does each name a different form? One cannot answer this question simply by insisting that there is an 'elision'. Something else besides this observation must be doing the work of the interpretation for Rickless.

2. Indeed Rickless maintains that, in the dialogue, Socrates treats 'courage', 'temperance', 'justice', and 'piety' as each naming a distinct species of knowledge, whereas he treats 'wisdom' or 'knowledge' as if it were the name of the genus (or these four species put together). 'Socrates himself never explicitly includes wisdom among the parts of the virtue' , Rickless says on p. 360, and he cites Protagoras 361d. But that passage seems irrelevant (a typo?), and Rickless is simply wrong about the dialogue: at 330b and 349b, wisdom is indeed included in lists of parts of virtue. Socrates does not give it special treatment, as if it were the genus. Rickless also cites Aristotle in support of his interpretation, quoting NE 1144b28-30, "Socrates, then, thought the virtues were forms of reason, for he thought they were, all of them, forms of knowledge", and EE 1216b4-6, "[Socrates] used to inquire what is justice, what bravery and each of the parts of virtue; and his conduct was reasonable, for he thought all the virtues to be kinds of knowledge". But, besides the fact that this is rather indirect evidence for the interpretation of the Protagoras, the translations here are misleading, since what Aristotle says is that Socrates thought of the virtues as 'knowledges' (epistemai). Presumably, 'wisdom' would similarly be 'a knowledge'.

3. Yet Socrates' procedure in the Protagoras is not consistent with his regarding the virtues as species of the virtue of knowledge. For instance, Socrates claims that piety is just and justice is pious. But species terms cannot be used in this way. (We cannot say "A horse is human," and "A human is equine," simply because horses and human beings are animals). (By the way, Socrates' willingness to identify justice and piety in the Protagoras is not consistent with his approach at the end of the Euthyphro, which shows the hazard of relying on the doctrine implicit in other dialogues to interpret the Protagoras.) Also, at the end of the dialogue, temperance and courage are implicitly presented as the same thing, not as different species: each is knowledge of pleasures and pains.


Anonymous said...

One of the things Plato does not trouble to do in the Protagoras is address the counter-intuitiveness of the claims like C=T. The soldier fighting bravely in the line does not seem at once to be behaving temperately ( or justly or piously). Does C=T requires to him to maintain that the soldier is at once behaving temperately, etc?
I don’t think Plato needs or wants to go this way. If the soldier is truly brave and virtuous, he cannot fail to act virtuously in other situations. On other occasions he will justly resists illicits gain or temperately avoids improper sensual pleasures. He will do so in all these situations by employing precisely the same skill/knowledge in calculating the ultimately most pleasant/ less painful course of action. When the salient item in his calculation is a fear of death & injury in battle, we call his knowledge of what to do bravery. When the salient item is a temptation to defraud, we call his calculation of the best thing to do justice. When the salient item is inappropriate sexual conduct, we call it temperance. The virtue are names for the exercise of the same knowledge or skill, but in different contexts where the salient pleasure or pain is different.
If this account is right, would Plato be very attracted to calling the virtues different forms or species of knowledge? Isn't the discovery he is trying to recommend just the opposite: that it is the same skill everywhere despite our habit of calling it by different names in different contexts?

Sam Rickless said...


Many thanks for your thoughtful comments on my paper. Here are some quick thoughts:

1. Your question is answered in 2. On my view, the names of the virtues do not name the same thing. They name numerically distinct things. But these things are similar in so far as they are kinds of knowledge of good and bad.

2. There is indeed a typo (mea culpa). The relevant list appears at 361b, not 361d. (Maybe I'm more dyslexic than I thought.) There Socrates, anthropomorphizing the discussion, imagines it turning on him and saying, "Socrates,...now you are arguing...that everything is knowledge -- justice, temperance, courage." As I see it, Socrates is saying that J, T, and C are species of K. (Piety is not mentioned in the list, but this isn't a problem, given that P is just part of J -- see Euthyphro 12d. And by the way -- re your previous post, it should be noted that at Euthyphro 12d Socrates uses *part* to means the same as *species*. )

You say that at Protagoras 330b and 349b wisdom is included in lists of parts of virtue. But notice the context in which these lists appear. In each case, Socrates is asking Protagoras whether it is HIS (i.e., Protagoras's) view that knowledge is a part of virtue. Which, of course, it is. But this doesn't show that SOCRATES endorses the view Protagoras accepts. After all, as we know, Socrates *disagrees* with Protagoras. So how can it be ruled out that Socrates disagrees with Protagoras on this score too, namely by making virtue a kind of knowledge (thereby denying Protagoras's claim that knowledge is a kind of virtue)?

You say that the evidence I cite from Aristotle is "indirect". That it is, in the sense that in the quoted passages Aristotle does not tell us that he is providing an interpretation of the Protagoras. But the evidence is still significant, I claim. Aristotle surely knew of the Protagoras, and it would be surprising if Plato intended the Socrates of the Protagoras to be denying what Aristotle says the historical Socrates accepted.

You say that the translations of the passages from Aristotle are misleading. Aristotle says, as you put it, that, for Socrates, the virtues are all knowledges. But isn't this just to say that the virtues are all kinds of knowledge? To say that justice is a knowledge is just to say that it is a kind of knowledge. Similarly, to say that carpentry is a knowledge is just to say that it is a kind of knowledge, namely the kind of knowledge that deals with making things out of wood. And to say that medicine is a knowledge is just to say that it is a kind of knowledge, namely the kind of knowledge that deals with the causes and cures of disease. Certainly, if Plato had wanted to say that X is a kind of knowledge, he could well have said: "X is a knowledge". So my interpretation is certainly consistent with what Aristotle says about Socrates.

3. You say that the view that justice and piety are kinds of knowledge is inconsistent with the view that justice is pious and piety is just. As an analogy, you claim that, although horses and humans are animals, it is not true that horses are human or humans are equine. This is not the analogy you want. You want to say that although Horse and Human are kinds of Animal, (the kind) Horse is not human, and (the kind) Human is not a horse. Now this may be true for some sets of kinds, but, I say, it is not true for all. Consider the two forms Being and Oneness. As we learn in the Parmenides (but surely this would have been acceptable to Socrates too), Being and Oneness are both species of Forms, but Being is one and Oneness is a being. So your general claim about species, as Plato sees it, is false. Why, then couldn't justice be pious and piety be just, even as both justice and piety are kinds of knowledge?

You say that Socrates "identifies" justice and piety in the Protagoras, and that this identification is not consistent with what Socrates says at the end of the Euthyphro. Not so, I say. The conclusion of the argument about justice and piety is NOT that J=P, but rather this: "Justice is the same as piety, OR VERY SIMILAR, and, most emphatically,...justice is the same kind of thing as piety, and piety as justice" (331b -- emphasis added). Socrates makes it quite clear that all that strictly follows (and really, all that can strictly follow) from the fact that J and P are both just and pious is that J and P are similar (in having two properties in common). As Socrates says, the fact that J and P are just and pious might suggest that J=P. But the argument certainly doesn't establish (and Plato couldn't possibly have thought it sufficient to establish) that J=P. So the argument about J and P IS consistent with the end of the Euthyphro.

I would like to know where at the end of the Protagoras you find Socrates (implicitly) committing to the claim that T and C are the same thing (namely, knowledge of pleasures and pains). As I see it, Socrates holds that T is knowledge of what is good and bad (pleasurable and painful) for oneself, and that C is knowledge of what is good and bad (pleasurable and painful) in the future. (In the Protagoras, Socrates says that C is knowledge of what is and is not to be feared, but this is identified with knowledge of future goods and bads at Laches 198c.) So, as I see it, Socrates would be happy to say that each of C and T is a knowledge of goods and bads (pleasures and pains), but would not be happy to say that C=T=knowledge of (all) goods and bads.

Michael Pakaluk said...

To me it seems that, yes, if virtue were simply the accurate weighing and balancing of available pleasures and pains,then the differences among the virtues would be entirely superficial. To say, as Sam Rickless does, that T is such knowledge as dealing with one's own pleasures and pains and C with future ones looks artificial. Well, in fact Socrates says that C deals with future pleasures and pains.

I think that, in trying to understand claims such as 'justice is pious', we must take seriously Socrates' claim in the Phaedo that his method is to investigate things as reflected in statements and words. Counter-intuitiveness is, for him, largely irrelevant. What matters is what the 'concept' (as we might say) of justice, as expressed in our words, would lead us to affirm or deny.

I think one sees in the Protagoras some tendencies of thought that an historian quickly recognizes as typical of 'Platonism': the virtues are united, and a single thing, in ideal reality, but they are found plural and divied in perceptible experience--which is to say that these separable, perceptible traits are not true virtues.

You've largely replied to my difficulties, and I'll give the matter more thought, except:
(i) My point about Aristotle's language is that we cannot conclude, from what he said, that he took Socrates to hold that 'knowledge' or 'wisdom' was a genus of the other virtues, as the phrase 'forms of knowledge' suggests;
(ii) By 'A horse is human' I did indeed mean 'The horse is human', i.e., the species is human. That Plato allows assertions such as this, which I grant, wouldn't explain why he'd allow the precise ones we find in the Protagoras, on your interpretation. It's hard to see why he'd want to say that that species of knowledge which is justice is pious; or that that species of knowledge which is piety is just. Isn't justice, as a distinct species, precisely not pious, considered as knowledge?
(iii) As I say in my reply to Anonymous, I can't see how C and T end up being different forms of knowledge: both consist of the accurate measurement and weighing of future pleasures and pains against present ones. This seem so clear to me from the dialogue that I'm worried that we continue to disagree over it. What am I failing to understand?


Michael Pakaluk said...

corrigendum For my comment above, in the first para., I meant to say "Well, in fact Socrates says that T deals with future pleasures and pains." (I can't see how to edit comments once posted.)