Some Meno quotes bearing on the difference between opinion and knowledge

I am at work on a precis of my entire argument and hope to a have a rough draft of it in a few weeks. (This is why my posts have been few and far between of late.) Currently I am at work on the section dealing with the nature of doxa, i.e. opinion. To state my nutshell opinion on opinion: while it certainly differs from knowledge, as the quotes listed below make clear, it is not a matter of knowledge instead of opinion as much as knowledge through opinion. Opinion is the proper medium of knowledge and the trick that Plato would have us learn is to employ it as a means and not the end of thought. Opinion is not enough to satisfy a healthy intellectual eros — it is defective — and the thought that encompasses both opinion as satisfying belief and dissatisfying doubt is a lens toward the noetic light that illumines knowledge.

Anyway, here are some quotes from Plato’s Meno that bear partially on my thesis. (The translation I am citing is that by Anastaplo and Berns, published by Focus Philosophical Library, 2004.) Feel free to comment on any of these.

1. True opinion, therefore is no worse a guide to right action than prudence. (Meno 97b)
2. He who has knowledge would always hit the mark, whereas he who has right opinion would sometimes hit it sometimes not. (Meno 97c)
3. True opinions, for as long a time as they should stay put, are a fine thing and accomplish all kinds of good things. Yet much of the time they are not willing to stay put, but run away out of the human soul; so that they are not worth much until someone should bind them with causes by reasoning. And this, my comrade Meno, is recollection, as we agreed before. And whenever they have become bound, first they become knowledge and then steadfast. And this is why knowledge is worth more than right opinion, and by its binding, knowledge differs from and excels right opinion. (Meno 97e-98a)
4. I too speak, not as one who knows, but as one who makes images and conjectures. But I certainly do not think I am making images or guessing this, that right opinion and knowledge are different things. But if there is anything I could affirm that I know, and there are few that I could affirm — one of those at any rate which I set down that I know is this. (Meno 98a-b)
5. If…true opinions will exist within him [i.e. the slave boy], after which being aroused by questioning become matters of knowledge, then will not his soul for all time be in a condition of having learned? (Meno 86a)
6. And in what way will you seek, Socrates, for that which you know nothing at all about what is? What sort of things which you do not know are you proposing to seek for yourself? Or, even if, at best, you should happen upon it, how will you know it is that which you do not know? (Meno 80d)
7. I would not assert myself altogether confidently on behalf of my argument; but that in supposing one ought to seek what one does not know we would be better, more able to be brave and less lazy than if we supposed that which we do not know we are neither capable of discovering nor ought to seek — on behalf of that I would surely battle, so far as I am able, both in word and in deed. (Meno 86b-c)
8. Inasmuch as all nature is akin and the soul has learned all things, there is nothing to prevent someone who recollects (which people call learning) one thing only from discovering all other things, so long as he is brave and does not grow tired of seeking. For seeking and learning therefore consist wholly in recollection. So that one should not be persuaded by this contentious argument. For it would make us lazy and is pleasant only for fainthearted people to hear, but the other argument makes us both ready to work and to seek. Trusting in this one to be true, I am willing with you to seek for whatever virtue is. (Meno 81d-e)


More on Protagoras

I want to continue some thoughts about what may be gleaned about Protagoras’ reputation in preparation for reading the dialogue named after him. (Link to previous Protagoras post.) The dramatic date of the Protagoras is around 433 BCE. Since the character Protagoras was probably the most famous intellectual in the world at the time, an adequate reading of the dialogue demands that we review what has been said about Protagoras outside the text itself, even if the source material is somewhat dubious. What follows are a few quotations from Diogenes Laertius’ “Life of Protagoras” along with my comments on them. Of course, it must be remembered that Diogenes Laertius lived 600 years after Protagoras, so these passages should be taken for what they are — legendary vestiges of popular rumors:


1. He was the first person who asserted that in every question there were two sides to the argument exactly opposite to one another. And he used to employ them in his arguments, being the first person who did so.

COMMENT: The sophists were notorious for being willing and able to defend either side of an argument. Protagoras was accused of “making the weaker argument stronger,” a charge often leveled at Socrates as well. But all genuine thinking must (more…)

Stasis and homonoia in Plato

A virtue is a power of achieving and maintaining a state of excellence in the carrying out of a function. In the Republic, Plato makes large claims for the virtue of justice (dikaiosyne), calling it “a soul’s virtue” in carrying out its function of living well (See Rep. 353d-e). A soul (psyche) is that which animates disparate parts into a organic whole. Since this concern for properly functioning wholes is always in the backdrop of Plato’s notion of justice, it helps to know the end states that Plato has in mind for justice to accomplish and to overcome:

Stasis is a state of discord between parts that disrupt the healthy functioning of the whole. In Greek medicine it is almost a synonym for nosos, or disease. The contemporary medical term metastasis, which means the transfer of disease from one place in the body to another, has this original sense of stasis as its root. In its political meaning, stasis is a civil war, in which allegiance to party (and opposition to other parties) overcomes a common allegiance to a larger whole. Stasis is thus a broad term that implies internal divisions of all kinds of the parts within an encompassing whole.

Homonoia is the healthy condition from which stasis is the deprivation. Homonoia is defined by Liddell and Scott variously as “oneness of mind, unanimity, concord.” In the passage I will quote below, Grube and Reeve translate it as “a sense of common purpose.” It is derived from Greek prefix homo-, which means “alike” or “same” and nous which mean “mind” or “understanding” or “insight.” So homonoia is something like a common understanding or shared insight into the nature of a matter. Between the two poles of stasis and homonoia there exists an entire of spectrum of intermediate possibilities.

So the work of justice will be to purify its patient from notions of the good that are inherently factional and replace those with notions that are consistent with a larger homonoia. Consider the following conversation between Socrates and Thrasymachus from Book I of the Republic as an example:

Injustice, Thrasymachus, causes civil war [stasis], hatred and fighting among themselves, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose [homonoia]. Isn’t that so?
Let it be so, in order not to disagree with you.
You’re still doing well on that front. So tell me this: If the effect of injustice is to produce hatred wherever it occurs, then, whenever it arises, whether among free men or slaves, won’t it cause them to hate one another engage in civil war [stasis], and prevent them from achieving a sense of common purpose [homonoia]?
What if it arises between two people? Won’t they be at odds, hate each other, and be enemies to one another and to just people?
They will.
Does injustice lose its power to cause dissension when it arises within a single individual, or will it preserve it intact?
Let it preserve it intact.
Apparently, then, injustice has the power, first, to make whatever it arises in — whether in a city, a family, an army, or anything else — incapable of achieving anything as a unit, because of the civil wars [stasiazonta] and differences it creates, and, second, it makes that unit an enemy to itself and to what is in every way its opposite, namely, justice. Isn’t that so?
And even in a single individual, it has by its nature the very same effect. First, it makes him incapable of achieving anything, because he is in a state of civil war [stasis] and not of one mind [homonoia]; second, it makes him his own enemy, as well as the enemy of just people. Hasn’t it that effect?

— Republic 351d-352a (Grube/Reeve translation)

Platonic justice (1) induces a respect for differences of function among the members of a whole, and (2) must presume a common allegiance toward that whole among these diverse parts. This common allegiance rests on the condition known as homonoia. In fact if we examine the Book 4 definitions of the four virtues, we can see how each has its place within a larger aim of achieving wholeness of a kind:

1. Justice — “Minding one’s own business and not being a busybody.” (433a)  Comment — This is a call not to turn into factional antagonists against other functions within the city.

2. Courage — “Power and preservation, through everything, of the right and lawful opinion about what is terrible and what is not.” (430b) Comment — What is most terrible will turn out to be stasis: “Is there any greater evil we can mention for a city than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one?” (462a)

3. Moderation — “Unanimity (homonoia)…an accord of worse and better, according to nature, as to which must rule in the city and in each one.” (432a)

4. Wisdom — “A kind of knowledge belonging to some of the citizens that counsels not about the affairs connected with some particular thing in the city, but about how the city as a whole would best deal with itself and the other cities.” (428c-d)


So the concepts of stasis and homonoia are at the very heart of Plato’s Republic.


On deep agreement

Here is Rene Girard in an interview with David Cayley describing his first discovery of the phenomenon of mimetic desire:

I went to Indiana University with a student visa. And I was doing a PhD in history because I was more of a historian than I was a — I was not at all a literary man — and I was teaching the French language at Indiana University and very quickly they gave me some literature to teach — novels: Balzac…Stendhal…Proust, you know — and much of the time I was just a few pages ahead of my students [laughs]. You know, I hadn’t read the books and I didn’t know what to say. And I decided that I should look — very deliberately — that I should look for what made these books alike rather than for what makes them different from each other, which is what literary criticism, even in those days, was after. You know, a book was a masterpiece only if it was absolutely one-of-a-kind, if you could find nothing in it that would be in another book, which is complete nonsense of course! So I became interested in human relations in the novel, you know — how the vanity in Stendhal, how close it is to the snobbery in Proust…

— From the CBC IDEAS radio show. Here’s a link to the whole series produced by David Cayley called “The Scapegoat.”

What I find interesting is Girard’s decision to look for similarities in novels, rather than differences, as a way of getting at something that would be lost if one fixated on differences. There is a common tendency, one to which Girard alludes, to treat the essence of a thing as that which makes it different from other things. In the history of ideas, we think we understand a thought best when we set it against another — Plato vs. Aristotle or Catholic vs. Protestant — when in fact, the similarities probably greatly outweigh the differences in such pairings.

(Aside: I stumbled across a book at the book store a few weeks ago called The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman. It is pretty much as bad as it sounds. I maintain that while there are many differences between Plato and Aristotle, in both style and emphasis, they are in basic agreement concerning what most matters to each. To take Mr. Herman’s approach is to mostly miss what can be discovered in exploring their deep kinship and thus to fail to understand either.)

Let’s entertain the hypothesis for a moment that when it comes to the truth of an idea, deep agreement with other ideas is more vital than open disagreement. Perhaps kinship and commonality are where the real power lurk within ideas. If so, there are two important things to be said:

  1. Such agreement makes communication possible. Diverse minds can only understand one another when they have access to a common reality. As Heraclitus writes “To be thoughtful is common to all.  (Fragment 113: Xynon esti pasi phronein.)  To take a hard perspectival (Protagorean) view and deny that we share a common mental reality is to deny communication at all — a self-contradictory sharing. And since the vehicle of communication is the medium of thought, i.e. the logos, we are attempting to meaningfully deny meaning, another performative contraction. Again we turn to Heraclitus and his concept of to xynon (“the common”): “The logos is common, most live as though they have a private wisdom.”
  2. But where there is agreement, no communication is really necessary. Therefore, what is deeply common usually doesn’t get expressed at all. Common understanding is tacitly assumed and therefore never becomes an object of open reflection or communication. What do get voiced are points of disagreement, which assume the common noetic reality, without ever really expressing it. We notice the points at which we disagree and fail to notice the more fundamental places where we are in unshakable agreement, just our vision is alert to things that move but become inured to what never does. Alfred Whitehead once remarked that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” What is tacitly assumed, but not spoken of because too obvious, is perhaps more definitive of a society that whatever verbal formulations it may entertain concerning itself. The Platonic/Socratic challenge to adequately define virtue, in concert with all the failed attempts to do so, points toward tacit possession of what cannot be voiced.

All of this relates to my project of defective reading. If the common is usually not summoned in to speech, it underlies all our speaking such that we can recognize that something is wrong/missing in a verbal account without being able to give adequate voice to it.

The pragmatic aim of Socratic/Platonic philosophy


The end of Socratic/Platonic philosophy is practical and not theoretical. Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia said,

“I am growing in goodness and I am making better friends. And that I may say, is my constant thought.”

There is a feedback loop in Platonic philosophy between theory and practice — each is judged against the other. The dialogue form, with its interplay between dramatic form and (partially) theoretical matter, exemplifies what I take to be Plato’s intention. Certainly one finds plenty of speculative metaphysics in the dialogues, but its primary purpose is to orient practice. Any criticism of Plato’s metaphysics, to the extent that one can be accurately discerned, must be contextualized always within its experiential, practical and concrete setting. To interpret Plato rightly, it is important therefore to reconstruct the engendering experience of metaphysical concern.

Take for instance anamnesis — the idea that learning happens through recollection of forms:

“Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things. For as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing—an act which men call learning—discover everything else, if we have courage and faint not in the search; since, it would seem, research and learning are wholly recollection (anamnesis).”  — Meno, 81c-d, translated by W.R.M. Lamb, Perseus Project edition

Taken by itself, it is an incredible doctrine: that we can supposedly understand learning in the concrete by appealing to an prenatal visit by our immortal soul to all the realms of heavenly knowledge. It even contains a contradiction — for if we explain learning by recollection, how is that we “learned” in our pre-bodily state? Why take a simple, mundane question and answer it though the circuit of a two-worlds metaphysics? It seems that we transformed a simple question into a kaleidoscope of complicated ones. Why then does Socrates invoke it?

Pay attention to what Socrates says next:

“So we must not hearken to that captious (eristic) argument: it would make us idle, and is pleasing only to the indolent ear, whereas the other makes us energetic and inquiring. Putting my trust in its truth, I am ready to inquire with you into the nature of virtue.” — Ibid., 81d-e

Socrates here points to the pragmatic consequences of “trusting” the doctrine. His only real claim for it is that it makes searching possible, whereas the assumptions about learning undergirding “Meno’s paradox” (that one can’t search for what what one doesn’t already know, since one must know what one is searching for in order to search for it at all) makes it impossible. Unless one is predisposed to deny the everyday experience of coming-to-know, then one must accept that not-knowing already somehow anticipates what-is-to-be-known. How it anticipates is an interesting question, and an interesting question makes us courageous and vigorous in searching for what we don’t know. Since metaphysical answers are always transcendent to the the questions that give rise to them, to hold such an “answer” is really to hold on to a perpetual question, restless and dynamic.

Notice also Socrates assertion in the first of these quotes, almost an aside, that “all nature is akin” so that everything can be discovered if any one thing is known. This gets to the heart of the phenomenology of anamnesis and points to what I call “defective reading.” To know anything in part is to anticipate the whole of which it is a part. That everything that can be known is subsumed under a larger whole must be what Socrates means by claiming that “all nature is akin.” The Greek work for kinship is suggenes (which we know in Latin as “cognate”) means literally “born together”.  A part is “born” with other parts, sprung from its common parent, i.e. the whole. If I know anything about what it is to be cold, I also know tacitly at least what cold is. If I know hot and cold together, I know something about opposition and difference, being and becoming, appearance and reality…the list goes on. Human knowing, to the extent it is *partial,*  is always haunted, whether in anxiety or desire, by the whole that gives it meaning and thus by the other parts. (Test the “doctrine” — Take a moment to consider any burning question in your life. Has it not been generated by your prior answers to other burning questions?)

I claim that before one can make metaphysical sense of a metaphysical doctrine, one must make experiential sense of it. Whatever is generically true of the experience of inquiry is by that measure metaphysically true in the only meaningful sense. My guess is that whatever metaphysical doctrine does not purchase increasing goodness and better friendship is of no interest to either Socrates or Plato. Metaphysics’ proper fruit is an eros toward truth; it has no other end.

Let me conclude with a profound passage in the anonymous 14th Century contemplation manual, The Cloud of Knowing that speaks to a similar understanding of things:

“Rational creatures such as men and angels possess two principal faculties, a knowing power and a loving power. No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge; but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.”

Excerpted from The Cloud of Unknowing by Edited by William Johnston Copyright © 2005 by William Johnston


Democracy and the ‘Wisdom’ of Crowds

In an earlier post, “On political agnosticism”, I shared my struggle with participating in electoral politics in a way consistent with Platonic notions of justice. (Please understand that I am not advocating that anyone else adopt my practice of not-voting — perhaps it is my understanding of Platonic justice that is in error.) In this post, I want to think against myself a little bit.

Perhaps democratic elections are a phenomenon of the type described by James Surowiecki’s (excellent) book “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  There Surowiecki provides some vivid examples of crowds converging on truth through the aggregation of their untutored guessing. A few of the more impressive of his illustrations:

1. In 1906, the British scientist Francis Galton attended a livestock fair, which had as one of its diversions a contest to guess the weight of fat ox on display. The closest guess would win a prize. Each of the 800 contestants paid 6 pence each to enter the contest. The participants were a diverse lot. The crowd of guessers included some who might be presumed to have some particular expertise in reckoning weight such as butchers and cattle farmers, but a fair number of non-experts competed. The correct weight was 1197; the average guess of the crowd was 1198 — a nearly perfect guess!

2. In 1968, the U.S. submarine Scorpion disappeared in the North Atlantic and the Navy had only a vague idea of where it may have gone down. Although the search are was a seemingly manageable twenty miles in diameter, it may have well have been the entire ocean given the great depths involved (many thousands of feet). Something closer to pinpoint accuracy would be required to find a submarine on the bottom of the ocean. The Navy consulted a variety of experts with diverse forms of knowledge relevant to the task, not only submariners but oceanographers, meteorologists, mathematicians and salvage men. Again the results were aggregated (although this time not averaged but employing Bayesean updating of the original guess based on the various inputs.) When the submarine was originally found five months later, it was a mere 220 yards from the aggregated result.

Surely these two examples are impressive pieces of evidence for the value of the aggregation of guesses. Perhaps something similar happens in a democracy. You may be biased one way and I in another, so that, when we vote, our biases cancel and our best notions converge toward something like a good result. Perhaps good governance can be the emergent effect of a lot of good and bad surmises — the bad guesses tend to cancel and the good guesses tend to converge. (Since two opinions may or may not be in agreement; two knowers always are.) That is the hope that lies behind our faith in democracies, yes?

There is a problem though. The “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon is only effective if the guesses are uncorrelated with each other. For a democratic process to converge on wisdom, the voters must be diverse and independent of one another. But in a media saturated age, they rarely are. The voices of the loudest demagogues and media sources cause the aggregation of bias, and not distributed wisdom. The scandalized response of each side to the bias of the other side then tends to enforces each bias rather than cancelling it. So if we imagine independent opinion scattered in a bell-curve pattern around a virtuous mean position (which is a presupposition of the wisdom of crowds phenomenon) then the correlating of bias leads to the extremes to be favored over the virtuous mean. We get a choice between biases and not a choice that contributes to the dampening of bias. This is the absurd position toward which elections in the media-age lead us. Pick your poison.

You can see this problem of a contaminating correlations in committees. The wisdom of crowds only function if there is sufficient diversity of opinion in the group. Assuming that diversity exists (i.e. rarely), a vote should be taken right away, before anyone sways the opinion of anyone else. This is not what happens. Instead, the committee will discuss the issue; and the less confident will become swayed by the more confident, decreasing the diversity and increasing the correlation with the bias of the more confident. When the vote is taken, the dominant bias is confirmed, the very bias that we hope to eliminate by aggregating diverse opinions. Committees often produce results that are dumber than the sum of its parts. Perhaps you have noticed.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it…good and hard.” — H. L. Mencken

Where diversity of opinion is lost, the demos becomes an ochlos, an undifferentiated crowd. The “motives” of a crowd are by their very definition purposeless and random. A crowd usually moves toward whatever attracts its basest impulses. Since cultural/personal advance must often move against the gravity of the pull of mere sentiment and appetite, the target of those playing to the crowd must often be the civilizing forces that urge moderating checks on appetitive behavior, along with hatreds, resentments and fears. The result is usually not pretty.

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” — Soren Kierkegaard

Now, I am certainly a believer in the distributed wisdom of the many in a society. I agree with the proponents of democracy that everyone has something vital to contribute to defining the concrete ends of politics. I do not want to hand the reigns of society over to “experts” who disregard the people’s true interests. (FYI — I don’t think Plato did either.) I simply disagree that the mechanism of voting for electoral candidates is a productive means for teasing out the collective wisdom that is the aim of a virtuous politics. I think the virtuous political path can never be to turn my ignorance into power at the ballot box.

It opens the question as to what Socrates meant when he said in the Gorgias that he was the only practitioner of the “true political art:

“I am one of the few Athenians perhaps indeed the only one who studies the true political art, and that I alone of my contemporaries put it into practice, because what I say on any occasion is not designed to please, and because I aim not at what is most agreeable but at what is best.” (Gorgias, 512d)

Is the “true political art” really just the Socratic form of pedagogy? And can it serve as a model for virtuous practice for anyone else? Why isn’t Plato’s Gorgias at the forefront of political education?

On “facile rejection”

One of my pet peeves is the facile dismissal of a philosopher’s entire corpus based on a criticism that can be summarized in a few lines or less. Let me call this the problem of “facile rejection.” For example, I continuously come across the same slogan-like criticisms:

  • Plato takes abstractions for realities and dismisses the concrete world;
  • Descartes tries to deduce the world from “I think therefore I am” and can never escape his head;
  • Kantian ethics are empty and formal and not applicable to lived existence;
  • Hegel is a sinister totalitarian who wants to reduce the other to the same;
  • Heidegger is a sinister totalitarian Nazi who couldn’t make room for “the other” in his being.

Obviously, I could go on…

Now there is something half-right in all of these criticisms. My objection to facile rejection is not directed against the criticisms themselves; it is that objections become outright rejections without redeeming what is still true in the philosophy. Here are some additional pointers toward what is wrong with facile rejection:

1. No philosophy cannot be entirely summarized without distortion, even by the originating philosopher. Only doxic versions of noetic insights are communicable and doxa is always defective in relation to noesis. (** Doxa is the word usually translated “opinion” and I discuss Plato’s technical understanding of the term here. **)

2. Understanding builds upon experience and it is important to try to reconstruct the experience that gives rise to the questions that the articulated philosophy tries to answer. An interpretation/criticism that is not grounded in the living question of the philosopher and the experiential background that gives rise to it fails to even engage the philosophy.

3. Since every work of philosophy as written must be written in the form of doxa, it must represent a middle ground between knowledge and ignorance. Doxa is neither true nor false but true/false. So a criticism that uncovers some evidence of ignorance cannot justly reject the entire doxa without making sense of the residual knowledge still indicated by it. I have found in reading the dialogues that rejected definitions by Socratic interlocutors often contain kernels of truth that haunt the rest of the dialogue. These bits of neglected truth glimmer in the dramatic developments, even if lost in the thematic ones.

4. The facile rejection of an entire philosopher’s work based on a single line of criticism is an indication that the one doing the rejection is probably stuck in a doxic mindset and that an adequate philosophy can be contained in a written doxa. This is a fallacy.

5. Although I have given examples of criticisms that have some merit, even if half-truths, many facile rejections are nothing more than rhetorical dismissals based on the latest philosophical fashion. Continental philosophy, more so than Analytic, tends to exhibit the facile rejection based on what is trending in the academy. (I say this as one who is generally more sympathetic to the Continentals than the Analytics.)

Interestingly, I learned most of this by studying Plato, the one who is lost in airy abstractions (per his facile critics). Isn’t it odd that Plato (by the standard facile rejection) is considered the most distant from concrete concerns and yet his philosophy is the most concrete in presentation?