Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Plato on knowledge and teaching

For a long time, based largely on the Meno, I've been under the impression that Plato interdefines knowledge and teaching. Here is the idea:

  1. Teaching is the imparting of knowledge.
  2. Knowledge is what can be taught to every one who is willing and has sufficient learning abilities.
If this is right, then Platonic knowledge is never essentially private. It cannot be essentially indexical, since you cannot believe the same thing I do when I believe that I am six feet tall, arguably. Nor can it be of something essentially temporal: I cannot teach you that I am presently writing this post, because by the time you learn it, it may no be longer true, and hence it may not be knowledge. Neither can knowledge be of culturally relative facts. That this piece of jewelry is beautiful is something I may simply be unable to teach a Spartan, and she may be unable to teach me that that amphora is elegant.

Platonic knowledge thus must be of a non-indexical, atemporal, non-relative reality. And all this follows from Plato's understanding of teaching.

Moreover, teaching is not indoctrination. It is not the mere transmission of opinion or even the turning of knowledge into opinion. It is the imparting of knowledge, so that she who is taught can herself in turn teach. The evidence that the teacher has must itself be evidence that can be imparted to the student. Thus, the evidence, too, must be non-indexical, atemporal and non-relative, accessible to people of all times, cultures and social classes (think of the slave boy) who have sufficient ability. This does not require the theory of recollection--a divinely implanted faculty or knowledge that we receive by illumination at conception will do the trick, too--but does seem to require something special and universal like it.

Furthermore, a part of what it is to teach is to show how the knowledge withstands Socratic questioning--this questioning, thus, is a part of the teaching process, and the knowledge must be something that can survive this.

Or so, on this reading, Plato thinks. Whether it is all true is another question.


Anonymous said...

off topic, but i would like to ask why you write in the feminine (e.g., "...so that she who is taught can herself in turn teach")? i see this a lot, and so i was just curious.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Because there might be some folks who will dismiss what I say if I use the masculine as the generic. I am not making a political statement if that's what you're asking. :-)

Lopeztj said...

Thanks, Alex. But I would also like to know if, for the sake of those same people by whom you don't want to be dismissed outright, you'd also be willing to use feminine pronouns in discussions of God, such as to begin referring to God as 'her' or 'she', or to the Trinity as, say, 'Mother, Son, and Holy Spirit'.

Also, I'm not necessarily disputing your choice of words here(I'm not agreeing either), though I do find there to be a problem with using feminine pronouns in (Roman Catholic) theological language, especially if done for the same reason you cite for using the feminine as the generic in philosophical discourse; for in changing certain terms in one’s theology, the theology itself can be changed, and substantially so.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Changing the genders on generic pronouns makes no difference to meaning, since these pronouns are just bound variables.

Changing the gender in the case of terms that refer to a particular individual certainly does seem to affect the meaning. That is, in fact, part of the point behind the request for change.

Changing the gender in examples also changes the meaning (it's not just a change of grammatical gender, but a change of the sex of the individual), but there I sometimes want that change--I want the examples to surprise one, to ask why an individual of this sex and not of another, etc. That's why I like the idea of using non-stereotypical genders in examples: female drug dealers, male nurses, etc. Besides, it's more fun that way.

Anonymous said...

Plato doesn't think that knowledge is what can be taught to everyone who is willing and has sufficient learning abilities. He seems to think that certain kinds of knowledge can't be taught at all, but only learned by an individual who goes through the right processes of dialectic. But Plato's model of teaching doesn't include helping you out on your way through the dialectical process. Even if it did, that wouldn't be sufficient, for Plato seems to imagine that if I can teach you, say, the craft of making shoes, then I can simply explain it to you, and as long as you aren't an idiot or a clutz, you can start making shoes. But the dialectical process that leads to knowledge seems to require the active working out of things by the student. Admittedly, the Meno alone seems to support your claims, but the Republic really doesn't.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, there is a process given in the Republic which seems to have the property that anybody of sufficient intellect and willingness who goes through it will attain the vision of the Forms. Setting up the process for others seems to be a form of teaching, or at least education (paideia).