Friday, January 12, 2018



D. R. Khashaba

Epistemology is a misnomer. It is not a logos (science, theory) of Knowledge but of the paraphernalia of Knowledge. Knowledge herself is a goddess that does not admit humans to her holy of holies. Nothing can explain how we know anything, how we understand, how we are conscious, how we have a mind: all of that is one and the same mystery, which in turn is one with the ultimate mystery of Reality.

The academic discipline of Epistemology is, strictly speaking, a science since its subject matter is the actual or potential objective products of knowledge and the actual or potential instances of acquiring knowledge. It has numerous branches, each branch including several sub-disciplines. Scholarly work in this field will continue indefinitely since its subject matter can never be exhausted. All of that is a good, valuable addition to our treasury of mathemata, but it can never so much as approach the core of the mystery of knowledge because that is one with the mystery of the mind, which in turn is one with the ultimate mystery of Reality. (I will not apologize for saying it over and over again.)

Plato permitted himself several ventures into the theory of knowing. In the Meno and the Phaedrus he initiated three such ventures. (1) He defined knowledge as true opinion accompanied by a rational account (logos). In the Theaetetus this same definition was considered and found unsatisfactory. (2) He introduced the method of hypotheses which was further developed in the Phaedo. Its application in the ‘final argument’ for the immortality of the soul was confessed, along with the other arguments, to be non-conclusive. Moreover in the Republic (533c) we are told that the hypotheses underlying any philosophical statement must be demolished by dialectic. (3) In Phaedrus, 264-266 he outlined the method of collection and division. He experimented with this method in the late dialogues, Sophist, Statesman. Philebus, modifying the method as he went on, till in the Philebus it is no longer recognizable as the method described in the Phaedrus. Clearly all of this is far removed from the insight into the mystery of epistêmê shown in winged passages in the Phaedo (79d), the Symposium (210e-212a), and that oracular gem in Republic (490a-b). The Divided Line in the Republic (509d-511e) ranges the planes of cognition, ascending from sensuous perception to philosophical understanding. — When it comes to definite doctrines, determinate theories, we find Plato revising himself, contradicting himself, what he affirms in a given context he rejects in another context, to the delight of erudite scholars who revel in discovering such contradictions and inconsistencies.

All of the above-noted thought-sallies of Plato were adventures on the outskirts of knowledge, but Plato was not deluded into thinking that he had an answer to the question What is knowledge? In the same dialogue, the Meno, where he was proposing the definition of knowledge as true opinion accompanied by a logos and advancing the method of hypotheses, in that same dialogue he introduced the doctrine of anamnesis, acknowledging that knowledge is a mystery beyond our ken.

ANNEX – a fragment

The mystifying onar anti oneiratos (dream for a dream’) in Theaetatus 201d-292c, though Socrates presents it as an oddity, is amenable to a Platonic interpretation amounting to this: Every explanation is composed of unexplained elements; all reasoning rests on unreasoned grounds; when we come to explain those unexplained grounds we advance fresh ‘given’ stepping stones. The building blocks of all epistêmê have to be elements taken in good faith. The premises of the Aristotelian syllogism are, strictly speaking, dogmara. In the method of hypotheses introduced by Plato in the Meno and further developed in the Phaedo the ground hypothesis must not be questioned; when questioned it has to be supported by a more basic hypothesis taken in good faith. All of this is strictly in harmony with (1) the Socratic elenchus where the Form examined remains undefined, finally intelligible in its own self-evidence in the intelligence that gave it birth in the first place; (2) Plato’s insistence in the Republic that the grounds of any philosophical statement be destroyed by dialectic (Republic, 533c); (3) Socrates’ resorting – when asked to elucidate the Form of the Good – to thr simile of the sun. All of this is part and parcel of the Socratic principle of philosophical ignorance — the wisest among humans is he who, like Socrates, understands that he knows nothing. All knowledge, human knowledge in its entirety, is a cobweb woven of the substance of dreams. The only understanding that is not vain conceit is that indicated by the Delphic oracle: gnôthi seauton.

D. R. Khashaba

January 11, 2018

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