Can We Attain Knowledge?

This sounds like a dumb question, I know. But I have my reasons. Let’s look at the Meno, one of Plato’s dialogues. In this dialogue, Socrates and Meno attempt to define virtue with much difficulty. As Socrates states that he will continue to search for the definition, Meno questions his ability to do so. They address the problem that a man “cannot search for what he knows – since he knows it, there is no need to search – nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for” (80e). Just take a minute to soak that in. Isn’t it at least a little convincing? Does it freak you out just a tiny bit? Socrates then dismisses the idea of learning and justifies what seems to be learning by giving it the name ‘recollection’. He holds that the soul is immortal and has lived past lives, so any knowledge people ‘learn’ is actually just knowledge that they had in a previous life, and they are simply recalling that past knowledge. Therefore, any knowledge is already present within the man; we cannot come to new knowledge. It’s just not possible.

But Aristotle, Plato’s student, respectfully disagreed (I hope it was respectful, anyway; poor Plato is doing his best). Aristotle extensively studied argument and demonstration in order to better his understanding of human knowledge. In Prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics, Aristotle defines and explores the syllogism, the only form of argument that leads to a certain conclusion. (An example of a syllogism is “A is B, and B is C, therefore A is C.”) Since syllogisms give conclusions that are certain, we can be assured that the conclusions of syllogisms are real knowledge, or what he calls “unqualified scientific knowledge”.

But he explains that in order to have scientific knowledge, the premises on which the conclusion rest must meet certain criteria. The premises must be the causes of the conclusion. They also must have no potential to be other than they are; “Napoleon’s cat has four legs” cannot be a premise leading to scientific knowledge, because it is possible for Napoleon to not have a cat. Lastly, the premises must be causes exclusively of that one conclusion. My point is that unqualified scientific knowledge is possible to attain, but doesn’t just come out of any premises. To reach true knowledge, you have to work for it.

Aristotle even adds another complication: if any of the premises can be proven, you must also know the premises of those statements in order to have true knowledge of the conclusion. Every true statement has its origins in certain indemonstrable truths, basic truths that cannot be proven, ones that cannot be denied, such as “the whole is greater than the part”. These basic truths are the starting point of every other truth. In order to have full knowledge of a statement, it needs to follow from these undeniable truths, no matter how many steps are in between. Not only that, but you need to know all the intermediate steps – how you got from the first truths to the final conclusion. Again – Aristotle counters Plato by saying we can attain new knowledge, but is making it sound super difficult for us to actually reach.

This discussion points to an issue just as relevant now as in the ancient philosophers’ time; it is fairly easy to have a seeming ‘demonstration’ of something that is false. We tend to accept a conclusion if it seems to follow from seemingly correct premises. People can be convinced of ideas that are wrong, and can (intentionally or unintentionally) convince others of erroneous “truths”. I realize I may sound like a sceptic, not wanting to believe anything too quickly. But I see Aristotle’s work as guarding the truth – having the proper reverence for what is true, and understanding how much it matters to know the difference between the true, the probable, and the false.

Published by Cona Rose

Hi! I'm Cona Rose, a recent college graduate and a girl who loves philosophy, theology, and great books. My mind is a funny place - somehow both chaotic and systematic. I take a long time to process my thoughts, and I can't handle too many ideas at once. For all these reasons, I made this place for my mind to let out some energy and to try to better organize everything inside it. If anyone else finds entertainment in or learns from this content in any way, I'll consider that the icing on the cake!

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