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Socrates: The Theory of Knowledge
2018, Socrates and the theory of knowledge
Published in "The Independent," Apr. 18, 2018
In this paper we attempt to understand what Socrates says about expertise and virtue in Plato’s dialogue "Laches" in the light of Socrates’ idea of ‘‘human wisdom’’ in the "Apology of Socrates" (20d8, 23a7). Conducting a good life requires both ‘‘knowledge about good and bad things’’ ("Laches"), that is, knowledge about human well-being, and ‘‘human wisdom’’ ("Apology"). Socrates aspires to epistemic autonomy: Trust in your own reason, and don’t let any expert tell you anything about your own happiness. This is -- among other things -- what we can learn from Socrates.
Dimitri El Murr
According to Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Eminent Philosophers, an unbroken chain of teachers and pupils links Socrates to the earliest Stoics (1.15). The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, is said to have studied with Crates (6.105 and 7.2), who is supposed to have absorbed Cynicism from Diogenes of Sinope (6.85 and 87), and Diogenes, in turn, reportedly earned the label “Cynic” under the inﬂuence of Antisthenes (6.21), who is called a follower of Socrates (6.2).
Free on-line representation of arguments in Plato's Laches, with alternate interpretations presented in notes to individual premises.
Noel B. Reynolds
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What is wisdom? Philosophers, psychologists, spiritual leaders, poets, novelists, life coaches, and a variety of other important thinkers have tried to understand the concept of wisdom. This entry will provide a brief and general overview, and analysis of, several philosophical views on the topic of wisdom. It is not intended to capture the many interesting and important approaches to wisdom found in other fields of inquiry. Moreover, this entry will focus on several major ideas in the Western philosophical tradition. In particular, it will focus on five general approaches to understanding what it takes to be wise: (1) wisdom as epistemic humility, (2) wisdom as epistemic accuracy, (3) wisdom as knowledge, (4) a hybrid theory of wisdom, and (5) wisdom as rationality.
1. Wisdom as Epistemic Humility
2. wisdom as epistemic accuracy, 3. wisdom as knowledge, 4. hybrid theory, 5. wisdom as rationality, other internet resources, related entries.
Socrates' view of wisdom, as expressed by Plato in The Apology (20e-23c), is sometimes interpreted as an example of a humility theory of wisdom (see, for example, Ryan 1996 and Whitcomb, 2010). In Plato's Apology , Socrates and his friend Chaerephon visit the oracle at Delphi. As the story goes, Chaerephon asks the oracle whether anyone is wiser than Socrates. The oracle's answer is that Socrates is the wisest person. Socrates reports that he is puzzled by this answer since so many other people in the community are well known for their extensive knowledge and wisdom, and yet Socrates claims that he lacks knowledge and wisdom. Socrates does an investigation to get to the bottom of this puzzle. He interrogates a series of politicians, poets, and craftsmen. As one would expect, Socrates' investigation reveals that those who claim to have knowledge either do not really know any of the things they claim to know, or else know far less than they proclaim to know. The most knowledgeable of the bunch, the craftsmen, know about their craft, but they claim to know things far beyond the scope of their expertise. Socrates, so we are told, neither suffers the vice of claiming to know things he does not know, nor the vice of claiming to have wisdom when he does not have wisdom. In this revelation, we have a potential resolution to the wisdom puzzle in The Apology .
Although the story may initially appear to deliver a clear theory of wisdom, it is actually quite difficult to capture a textually accurate and plausible theory here. One interpretation is that Socrates is wise because he, unlike the others, believes he is not wise, whereas the poets, politicians, and craftsmen arrogantly and falsely believe they are wise. This theory, which will be labeled Humility Theory 1 (H1), is simply (see, for example, Lehrer & Smith 1996, 3):
Humility Theory 1 (H1) : S is wise iff S believes s/he is not wise.
This is a tempting and popular interpretation because Socrates certainly thinks he has shown that the epistemically arrogant poets, politicians, and craftsmen lack wisdom. Moreover, Socrates claims that he is not wise, and yet, if we trust the oracle, Socrates is actually wise.
Upon careful inspection, (H1) is not a reasonable interpretation of Socrates' view. Although Socrates does not boast of his own wisdom, he does believe the oracle. If he was convinced that he was not wise, he would have rejected the oracle and gone about his business because he would not find any puzzle to unravel. Clearly, he believes, on some level, that he is wise. The mystery is: what is wisdom if he has it and the others lack it? Socrates nowhere suggests that he has become unwise after believing the oracle. Thus, (H1) is not an acceptable interpretation of Socrates' view.
Moreover, (H1) is false. Many people are clear counterexamples to (H1). Many people who believe they are not wise are correct in their self-assessment. Thus, the belief that one is not wise is not a sufficient condition for wisdom. Furthermore, it seems that the belief that one is not wise is not necessary for wisdom. It seems plausible to think that a wise person could be wise enough to realize that she is wise. Too much modesty might get in the way of making good decisions and sharing what one knows. If one thinks Socrates was a wise person, and if one accepts that Socrates did, in fact, accept that he was wise, then Socrates himself is a counterexample to (H1). The belief that one is wise could be a perfectly well justified belief for a wise person. Having the belief that one is wise does not, in itself, eliminate the possibility that the person is wise. Nor does it guarantee the vice of arrogance. We should hope that a wise person would have a healthy dose of epistemic self-confidence, appreciate that she is wise, and share her understanding of reality with the rest of us who could benefit from her wisdom. Thus, the belief that one is not wise is not required for wisdom.
(H1) focused on believing one is not wise. Another version of the humility theory is worth considering. When Socrates demonstrates that a person is not wise, he does so by showing that the person lacks some knowledge that he or she claims to possess. Thus, one might think that Socrates' view could be better captured by focusing on the idea that wise people believe they lack knowledge (rather than lacking wisdom). That is, one might consider the following view:
Humility Theory 2 (H2): S is wise iff S believes S does not know anything.
Unfortunately, this interpretation is not any better than (H1). It falls prey to problems similar to those that refuted (H1) both as an interpretation of Socrates, and as an acceptable account of wisdom. Moreover, remember that Socrates admits that the craftsmen do have some knowledge. Socrates might have considered them to be wise if they had restricted their confidence and claims to knowledge to what they actually did know about their craft. Their problem was that they professed to have knowledge beyond their area of expertise. The problem was not that they claimed to have knowledge.
Before turning to alternative approaches to wisdom, it is worth mentioning another interpretation of Socrates that fits with the general spirit of epistemic humility. One might think that what Socrates is establishing is that his wisdom is found in his realization that human wisdom is not a particularly valuable kind of wisdom. Only the gods possess the kind of wisdom that is truly valuable. This is clearly one of Socrates' insights, but it does not provide us with an understanding of the nature of wisdom. It tells us only of its comparative value. Merely understanding this evaluative insight would not, for reasons similar to those discussed with (HP1) and (HP2), make one wise.
Humility theories of wisdom are not promising, but they do, perhaps, provide us with some important character traits associated with wise people. Wise people, one might argue, possess epistemic self-confidence, yet lack epistemic arrogance. Wise people tend to acknowledge their fallibility, and wise people are reflective, introspective, and tolerant of uncertainty. Any acceptable theory of wisdom ought to be compatible with such traits. However, those traits are not, in and of themselves, definitive of wisdom.
Socrates can be interpreted as providing an epistemic accuracy, rather than an epistemic humility, theory of wisdom. The poets, politicians, and craftsmen all believe they have knowledge about topics on which they are considerably ignorant. Socrates, one might argue, believes he has knowledge when, and only when, he really does have knowledge. Perhaps wise people restrict their confidence to propositions for which they have knowledge or, at least, to propositions for which they have excellent justification. Perhaps Socrates is better interpreted as having held an Epistemic Accuracy Theory such as:
Epistemic Accuracy Theory 1 (EA1) : S is wise iff for all p , ( S believes S knows p iff S knows p .)
According to (EA1), a wise person is accurate about what she knows and what she does not know. If she really knows p , she believes she knows p . And, if she believes she knows p , then she really does know p . (EA1) is consistent with the idea that Socrates accepts that he is wise and with the idea that Socrates does have some knowledge. (EA1) is a plausible interpretation of the view Socrates endorses, but it is not a plausible answer in the search for an understanding of wisdom. Wise people can make mistakes about what they know. Socrates, Maimonides, King Solomon, Einstein, Goethe, Gandhi, and every other candidate for the honor of wisdom have held false beliefs about what they did and did not know. It is easy to imagine a wise person being justified in believing she possesses knowledge about some claim, and also easy to imagine that she could be shown to be mistaken, perhaps long after her death. If (EA1) is true, then just because a person believes she has knowledge when she does not, she is not wise. That seems wrong. It is hard to imagine that anyone at all is, or ever has been, wise if (EA1) is correct.
We could revise the Epistemic Accuracy Theory to get around this problem. We might only require that a wise person's belief is highly justified when she believes she has knowledge. That excuses people with bad epistemic luck.
Epistemic Accuracy 2 (EA2) : S is wise iff for all p , ( S believes S knows p iff S 's belief in p is highly justified.)
(EA2) gets around the problem with (EA1). The Socratic Method challenges one to produce reasons for one's view. When Socrates' interlocutor is left dumbfounded, or reduced to absurdity, Socrates rests his case. One might argue that through his questioning, Socrates reveals not that his opponents lack knowledge because their beliefs are false, but he demonstrates that his opponents are not justified in holding the views they profess to know. Since the craftsmen, poets, and politicians questioned by Socrates all fail his interrogation, they were shown, one might argue, to have claimed to have knowledge when their beliefs were not even justified.
Many philosophers would hesitate to endorse this interpretation of what is going on in The Apology . They would argue that a failure to defend one's beliefs from Socrates' relentless questioning does not show that a person is not justified in believing a proposition. Many philosophers would argue that having very good evidence, or forming a belief via a reliable process, would be sufficient for justification.
Proving, or demonstrating to an interrogator, that one is justified is another matter, and not necessary for simply being justified. Socrates, some might argue, shows only that the craftsmen, poets, and politicians cannot defend themselves from his questions. He does not show, one might argue, that the poets, politicians, and craftsmen have unjustified beliefs. Since we gain very little insight into the details of the conversation in this dialogue, it would be unfair to dismiss this interpretation on these grounds. Perhaps Socrates did show, through his intense questioning, that the craftsmen, poets, and politicians formed and held their beliefs without adequate evidence or formed and held them through unreliable belief forming processes. Socrates only reports that they did not know all that they professed to know. Since we do not get to witness the actual questioning as we do in Plato's other dialogues, we should not reject (EA2) as an interpretation of Socrates' view of wisdom in The Apology .
Regardless of whether (EA2) is Socrates' view, there are problems for (EA2) as an account of what it means to be wise. Even if (EA2) is exactly what Socrates meant, some philosophers would argue that one could be justified in believing a proposition, but not realize that she is justified. If that is a possible situation for a wise person to be in, then she might be justified, but fail to believe she has knowledge. Could a wise person be in such a situation, or is it necessary that a wise person would always recognize the epistemic value of what he or she believes? [ 1 ] If this situation is impossible, then this criticism could be avoided. There is no need to resolve this issue here because (EA1) and (EA2) fall prey to another, much less philosophically thorny and controversial problem.
(EA1) and (EA2) suffer from a similar, and very serious, problem. Imagine a person who has very little knowledge. Suppose further, that the few things she does know are of little or no importance. She could be the sort of person that nobody would ever go to for information or advice. Such a person could be very cautious and believe that she knows only what she actually knows. Although she would have accurate beliefs about what she does and does not know, she would not be wise. This shows that (EA1) is flawed. As for (EA2), imagine that she believes she knows only what she is actually justified in believing. She is still not wise. It should be noted, however, that although accuracy theories do not provide an adequate account of wisdom, they reveal an important insight. Perhaps a necessary condition for being wise is that wise people think they have knowledge only when their beliefs are highly justified. Or, even more simply, perhaps wise people have epistemically justified, or rational, beliefs.
An alternative approach to wisdom focuses on the more positive idea that wise people are very knowledgeable people. There are many views in the historical and contemporary philosophical literature on wisdom that have knowledge, as opposed to humility or accuracy, as at least a necessary condition of wisdom. Aristotle ( Nichomachean Ethics VI, ch. 7), Descartes ( Principles of Philosophy ), Richard Garrett (1996), John Kekes (1983), Keith Lehrer & Nicholas Smith (1996), Robert Nozick (1989), Plato ( The Republic ), Sharon Ryan (1996, 1999), Valerie Tiberius (2008), Dennis Whitcomb (2010) and Linda Zagzebski (1996) for example, have all defended theories of wisdom that require a wise person to have knowledge of some sort. All of these views very clearly distinguish knowledge from expertise on a particular subject. Moreover, all of these views maintain that wise people know “what is important.” The views differ, for the most part, over what it is important for a wise person to know, and on whether there is any behavior, action, or way of living, that is required for wisdom.
Aristotle distinguished between two different kinds of wisdom, theoretical wisdom and practical wisdom. Theoretical wisdom is, according to Aristotle, “scientific knowledge, combined with intuitive reason, of the things that are highest by nature” ( Nicomachean Ethics , VI, 1141b). For Aristotle, theoretical wisdom involves knowledge of necessary, scientific, first principles and propositions that can be logically deduced from them. Aristotle's idea that scientific knowledge is knowledge of necessary truths and their logical consequences is no longer a widely accepted view. Thus, for the purposes of this discussion, I will consider a theory that reflects the spirit of Aristotle's view on theoretical wisdom, but without the controversy about the necessary or contingent nature of scientific knowledge. Moreover, it will combine scientific knowledge with other kinds of factual knowledge, including knowledge about history, philosophy, music, literature, mathematics, etc. Consider the following, knowledge based, theory of wisdom:
Wisdom as Extensive Factual Knowledge (WFK) : S is wise iff S has extensive factual knowledge about science, history, philosophy, literature, music, etc.
According to (WFK), a wise person is a person who knows a lot about the universe and our place in it. She would have extensive knowledge about the standard academic subjects. There are many positive things to say about (WFK). (WFK) nicely distinguishes between narrow expertise and knowledge of the mundane, from the important, broad, and general kind of knowledge possessed by wise people. As Aristotle puts it, “…we think that some people are wise in general, not in some particular field or in any other limited respect…” ( Nicomachean Ethics , Book 6, 1141a).
The main problem for (WFK) is that some of the most knowledgeable people are not wise. Although they have an abundance of very important factual knowledge, they lack the kind of practical know-how that is a mark of a wise person. Wise people know how to get on in the world in all kinds of situations and with all kinds of people. Extensive factual knowledge is not enough to give us what a wise person knows. As Robert Nozick points out, “Wisdom is not just knowing fundamental truths, if these are unconnected with the guidance of life or with a perspective on its meaning” (1989, 269). There is more to wisdom than intelligence and knowledge of science and philosophy or any other subject matter. Aristotle is well aware of the limitations of what he calls theoretical wisdom. However, rather than making improvements to something like (WFK), Aristotle distinguishes it as one kind of wisdom. Other philosophers would be willing to abandon (WFK), that is, claim that it provides insufficient conditions for wisdom, and add on what is missing.
Aristotle has a concept of practical wisdom that makes up for what is missing in theoretical wisdom. In Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics , he claims, “This is why we say Anaxagoras, Thales, and men like them have philosophic but not practical wisdom, when we see them ignorant of what is to their own advantage, and why we say that they know things that are remarkable, admirable, difficult, and divine, but useless; viz. because it is not human goods they seek” (1141a). Knowledge of contingent facts that are useful to living well is required in Aristotle's practical wisdom. According to Aristotle, “Now it is thought to be the mark of a man of practical wisdom to be able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for himself, not in some particular respect, e.g. about what sorts of thing conduce to health or to strength, but about what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general” ( Nichomachean Ethics , VI, 1140a–1140b). Thus, for Aristotle, practical wisdom requires knowing, in general, how to live well. Many philosophers agree with Aristotle on this point. However, many would not be satisfied with the conclusion that theoretical wisdom is one kind of wisdom and practical wisdom another. Other philosophers, including Linda Zagzebski (1996), agree that there are these two types of wisdom that ought to be distinguished.
Let's proceed, without argument, on the assumption that it is possible to have a theory of one, general, kind of wisdom. Wisdom, in general, many philosophers would argue, requires practical knowledge about living. What Aristotle calls theoretical wisdom, many would contend, is not wisdom at all. Aristotle's theoretical wisdom is merely extensive knowledge or deep understanding. Nicholas Maxwell (1984), in his argument to revolutionize education, argues that we should be teaching for wisdom, which he sharply distinguishes from standard academic knowledge. Similar points are raised by Robert Sternberg (2001) and Andrew Norman (1996). Robert Nozick holds a view very similar to Aristotle's theory of practical wisdom, but Nozick is trying to capture the essence of wisdom, period. He is not trying to define one, alternative, kind of wisdom. Nozick claims, “Wisdom is what you need to understand in order to live well and cope with the central problems and avoid the dangers in the predicaments human beings find themselves in” (1989, 267). And, John Kekes maintains that, “What a wise man knows, therefore, is how to construct a pattern that, given the human situation, is likely to lead to a good life” (1983, 280). More recently, Valerie Tiberius (2008) has developed a practical view that connects wisdom with well being, requiring, among other things, that a wise person live the sort of life that he or she could sincerely endorse upon reflection. Such practical views of wisdom could be expressed, generally, as follows.
Wisdom as Knowing How To Live Well (KLW) : S is wise iff S knows how to live well.
This view captures Aristotle's basic idea of practical wisdom. It also captures an important aspect of views defended by Nozick, Plato, Garrett, Kekes, Maxwell, Ryan, and Tiberius. Although giving an account of what it means to know how to live well may prove as difficult a topic as providing an account of wisdom, Nozick provides a very illuminating start.
Wisdom is not just one type of knowledge, but diverse. What a wise person needs to know and understand constitutes a varied list: the most important goals and values of life – the ultimate goal, if there is one; what means will reach these goals without too great a cost; what kinds of dangers threaten the achieving of these goals; how to recognize and avoid or minimize these dangers; what different types of human beings are like in their actions and motives (as this presents dangers or opportunities); what is not possible or feasible to achieve (or avoid); how to tell what is appropriate when; knowing when certain goals are sufficiently achieved; what limitations are unavoidable and how to accept them; how to improve oneself and one's relationships with others or society; knowing what the true and unapparent value of various things is; when to take a long-term view; knowing the variety and obduracy of facts, institutions, and human nature; understanding what one's real motives are; how to cope and deal with the major tragedies and dilemmas of life, and with the major good things too. (1989, 269)
With Nozick's explanation of what one must know in order to live well, we have an interesting and quite attractive, albeit somewhat rough, theory of wisdom. As noted above, many philosophers, including Aristotle and Zagzebski would, however, reject (KLW) as the full story on wisdom. Aristotle and Zagzebski would obviously reject (KLW) as the full story because they believe theoretical wisdom is another kind of wisdom, and are unwilling to accept that there is a conception of one, general, kind of wisdom. Kekes claims, “The possession of wisdom shows itself in reliable, sound, reasonable, in a word, good judgment. In good judgment, a person brings his knowledge to bear on his actions. To understand wisdom, we have to understand its connection with knowledge, action, and judgment” (1983, 277). Kekes adds, “Wisdom ought also to show in the man who has it” (1983, 281). Many philosophers, therefore, think that wisdom is not restricted even to knowledge about how to live well. Tiberius thinks the wise person's actions reflect their basic values. These philosophers believe that being wise also includes action. A person could satisfy the conditions of any of the principles we have considered thus far and nevertheless behave in a wildly reckless manner. Wildly reckless people are, even if very knowledgeable about life, not wise.
Philosophers who are attracted to the idea that knowing how to live well is a necessary condition for wisdom might want to simply tack on a success condition to (KLW) to get around cases in which a person knows all about living well, yet fails to put this knowledge into practice. Something along the lines of the following theory would capture this idea.
Wisdom as Knowing How To, and Succeeding at, Living Well (KLS) : S is wise iff (i) S knows how to live well, and (ii) S is successful at living well.
The idea of the success condition is that one puts one's knowledge into practice. Or, rather than using the terminology of success, one might require that a wise person's beliefs and values cohere with one's actions (Tiberius, 2008). The main idea is that one's actions are reflective of one's understanding of what it means to live well. A view along the lines of (KLS) would be embraced by Aristotle and Zagzebski (for practical wisdom), and by Kekes, Nozick, and Tiberius. (KLS) would not be universally embraced, however (see Ryan 1999, for further criticisms). One criticism of (KLS) is that one might think that all the factual knowledge required by (WFK) is missing from this theory. One might argue that (WFK), the view that a wise person has extensive factual knowledge, was rejected only because it did not provide sufficient conditions for wisdom. Many philosophers would claim that (WFK) does provide a necessary condition for wisdom. A wise person, such a critic would argue, needs to know how to live well (as described by Nozick), but she also needs to have some deep and far-reaching theoretical, or factual, knowledge that may have very little impact on her daily life, practical decisions, or well being. In the preface of his Principles of Philosophy , Descartes insisted upon factual knowledge as an important component of wisdom. Descartes wrote, “It is really only God alone who has Perfect Wisdom, that is to say, who has a complete knowledge of the truth of all things; but it may be said that men have more wisdom or less according as they have more or less knowledge of the most important truths” ( Principles , 204). Of course, among those important truths, one might claim, are truths about living well, as well as knowledge in the basic academic subject areas.
Moreover, one might complain that the insight left standing from Epistemic Accuracy theories is also missing from (KLS). One might think that a wise person not only knows a lot, and succeeds at living well, she also confines her claims to knowledge (or belief that she has knowledge) to those propositions that she is justified in believing.
One way to try to accommodate the various insights from the theories considered thus far is in the form of a hybrid theory. One such idea is:
S is wise iff S has extensive factual and theoretical knowledge. S knows how to live well. S is successful at living well. S has very few unjustified beliefs.
Although this Hybrid Theory has a lot going for it, there are a number of important criticisms to consider. Dennis Whitcomb (2010) objects to all theories of wisdom that include a living well condition, or an appreciation of living well condition. He gives several interesting objections against such views. Whitcomb thinks that a person who is deeply depressed and totally devoid of any ambition for living well could nevertheless be wise. As long as such a person is deeply knowledgeable about academic subjects and knows how to live well, that person would have all they need for wisdom. With respect to a very knowledgeable and deeply depressed person with no ambition but to stay in his room, he claims, “If I ran across such a person, I would take his advice to heart, wish him a return to health, and leave the continuing search for sages to his less grateful advisees. And I would think he was wise despite his depression-induced failure to value or desire the good life. So I think that wisdom does not require valuing or desiring the good life.”
In response to Whitcomb's penetrating criticism, one could argue that a deeply depressed person who is wise, would still live as well as she can, and would still value living well, even if she falls far short of perfection. Such a person would attempt to get help to deal with her depression. If she really does not care at all, she may be very knowledgeable, but she is not wise. There is something irrational about knowing how to live well and refusing to try to do so. Such irrationality is not compatible with wisdom. A person with this internal conflict may be extremely clever and shrewd, one to listen to on many issues, one to trust on many issues, and may even win a Nobel Prize for her intellectual greatness, but she is not admirable enough, and rationally consistent enough, to be wise. Wisdom is a virtue and a way of living, and it requires more than smart ideas and knowledge.
Aristotle held that “it is evident that it is impossible to be practically wise without being good” ( Nicomachean Ethics , 1144a, 36–37). Most of the philosophers mentioned thus far would include moral virtue in their understanding of what it means to live well. However, Whitcomb challenges any theory of wisdom that requires moral virtue. Whitcomb contends that a deeply evil person could nevertheless be wise.
Again, it is important to contrast being wise from being clever and intelligent. If we think of wisdom as the highest, or among the highest, of human virtues, then it seems incompatible with a deeply evil personality.
There is, however, a very serious problem with the Hybrid Theory. Since so much of what was long ago considered knowledge has been abandoned, or has evolved, a theory that requires truth (through a knowledge condition) would exclude almost all people who are now long dead, including Hypatia, Socrates, Confucius, Aristotle, Homer, Lao Tzu, etc. from the list of the wise. Bad epistemic luck, and having lived in the past, should not count against being wise. But, since truth is a necessary condition for knowledge, bad epistemic luck is sufficient to undermine a claim to knowledge. What matters, as far as being wise goes, is not that a wise person has knowledge, but that she has highly justified and rational beliefs about a wide variety of subjects, including how to live well, science, philosophy, mathematics, history, geography, art, literature, psychology, and so on. And the wider the variety of interesting topics, the better. Another way of developing this same point is to imagine a person with highly justified beliefs about a wide variety of subjects, but who is unaware that she is trapped in the Matrix, or some other skeptical scenario. Such a person could be wise even if she is sorely lacking knowledge. A theory of wisdom that focuses on having rational or epistemically justified beliefs, rather than the higher standard of actually having knowledge, would be more promising. Moreover, such a theory would incorporate much of what is attractive about epistemic humility, and epistemic accuracy, theories.
The final theory to be considered here is an attempt to capture all that is good, while avoiding all the serious problems of the other theories discussed thus far. Perhaps wisdom is a deep and comprehensive kind of rationality (Ryan, 2012).
Deep Rationality Theory (DRT): S is wise iff S has a wide variety of epistemically justified beliefs on a wide variety of valuable academic subjects. S has a wide variety of justified beliefs on how to live rationally (epistemically, morally, and practically). S is committed to living rationally. S has very few unjustified beliefs and is sensitive to her limitations.
In condition (1), DRT takes account of what is attractive about some knowledge theories by requiring epistemically justified beliefs about a wide variety of standard academic subjects. Condition (2) takes account of what is attractive about theories that require knowledge about how to live well. For example, having justified beliefs about how to live in a practically rational way would include having a well-reasoned strategy for dealing with the practical aspects of life. Having a rational plan does not require perfect success. It requires having good reasons behind one's actions, responding appropriately to, and learning from, one's mistakes, and having a rational plan for all sorts of situations and problems. Having justified beliefs about how to live in a morally rational way would not involve being a moral saint, but would require that one has good reasons supporting her beliefs about what is morally right and wrong, and about what one morally ought and ought not do in a wide variety of circumstances. Having justified beliefs about living in an emotionally rational way would involve, not dispassion, but having justified beliefs about what is, and what is not, an emotionally rational response to a situation. For example, it is appropriate to feel deeply sad when dealing with the loss of a loved one. But, ordinarily, feeling deeply sad or extremely angry is not an appropriate emotion to spilled milk. A wise person would have rational beliefs about the emotional needs and behaviors of other people.
Condition (3) ensures that the wise person live a life that reflects what she or he is justified in believing is a rational way to live. In condition (4), DRT respects epistemic humility. Condition (4) requires that a wise person not believe things without epistemic justification. The Deep Rationality Theory rules out all of the unwise poets, politicians, and craftsmen that were ruled out by Socrates. Wise people do not think they know when they lack sufficient evidence. Moreover, wise people are not epistemically arrogant.
The Deep Rationality Theory does not require knowledge or perfection. But it does require rationality, and it accommodates degrees of wisdom. It is a promising theory of wisdom.
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- Whitcomb, D., 2010, “Wisdom,” in Routledge Companion to Epistemology , S. Bernecker and D. Pritchard (eds.), London: Routledge.
- Zagzebski, L., 1996, Virtues of the Mind , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
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By Ezra Klein
Imagine I told you in 1970 that I was going to invent a wondrous tool. This new tool would make it possible for anyone with access — and most of humanity would have access — to quickly communicate and collaborate with anyone else. It would store nearly the sum of human knowledge and thought up to that point, and all of it would be searchable, sortable and portable. Text could be instantly translated from one language to another, news would be immediately available from all over the world, and it would take no longer for a scientist to download a journal paper from 15 years ago than to flip to an entry in the latest issue.
What would you have predicted this leap in information and communication and collaboration would do for humanity? How much faster would our economies grow?
Now imagine I told you that I was going to invent a sinister tool. (Perhaps, while telling you this, I would cackle.) As people used it, their attention spans would degrade, as the tool would constantly shift their focus, weakening their powers of concentration and contemplation. This tool would show people whatever it is they found most difficult to look away from — which would often be what was most threatening about the world, from the worst ideas of their political opponents to the deep injustices of their society. It would fit in their pockets and glow on their night stands and never truly be quiet; there would never be a moment when people could be free of the sense that the pile of messages and warnings and tasks needed to be checked.
What would you have thought this engine of distraction, division and cognitive fracture would do to humanity?
Thinking of the internet in these terms helps solve an economic mystery. The embarrassing truth is that productivity growth — how much more we can make with the same number of people and factories and land — was far faster for much of the 20th century than it is now. We average about half the productivity growth rate today that we saw in the 1950s and ’60s. That means stagnating incomes, sluggish economies and a political culture that’s more about fighting over what we have than distributing the riches and wonders we’ve gained. So what went wrong?
You can think of two ways the internet could have sped up productivity growth. The first way was obvious: by allowing us to do what we were already doing and do it more easily and quickly. And that happened. You can see a bump in productivity growth from roughly 1995 to 2005 as companies digitized their operations. But it’s the second way that was always more important: By connecting humanity to itself and to nearly its entire storehouse of information, the internet could have made us smarter and more capable as a collective.
I don’t think that promise proved false, exactly. Even in working on this article, it was true for me: The speed with which I could find information, sort through research, contact experts — it’s marvelous. Even so, I doubt I wrote this faster than I would have in 1970. Much of my mind was preoccupied by the constant effort needed just to hold a train of thought in a digital environment designed to distract, agitate and entertain me. And I am not alone.
Gloria Mark, a professor of information science at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “ Attention Span ,” started researching the way people used computers in 2004. The average time people spent on a single screen was 2.5 minutes. “I was astounded,” she told me. “That was so much worse than I’d thought it would be.” But that was just the beginning. By 2012, Mark and her colleagues found the average time on a single task was 75 seconds. Now it’s down to about 47.
This is an acid bath for human cognition. Multitasking is mostly a myth. We can focus on one thing at a time. “It’s like we have an internal whiteboard in our minds,” Mark said. “If I’m working on one task, I have all the info I need on that mental whiteboard. Then I switch to email. I have to mentally erase that whiteboard and write all the information I need to do email. And just like on a real whiteboard, there can be a residue in our minds. We may still be thinking of something from three tasks ago.”
The cost is in more than just performance. Mark and others in her field have hooked people to blood pressure machines and heart rate monitors and measured chemicals in the blood. The constant switching makes us stressed and irritable. I didn’t exactly need experiments to prove that — I live that, and you probably do, too — but it was depressing to hear it confirmed.
Which brings me to artificial intelligence. Here I’m talking about the systems we are seeing now: large language models like OpenAI’s GPT-4 and Google’s Bard. What these systems do, for the most part, is summarize information they have been shown and create content that resembles it. I recognize that sentence can sound a bit dismissive, but it shouldn’t: That’s a huge amount of what human beings do, too.
Already, we are being told that A.I. is making coders and customer service representatives and writers more productive. At least one chief executive plans to add ChatGPT use in employee performance evaluations. But I’m skeptical of this early hype. It is measuring A.I.’s potential benefits without considering its likely costs — the same mistake we made with the internet.
I worry we’re headed in the wrong direction in at least three ways.
One is that these systems will do more to distract and entertain than to focus. Right now, the large language models tend to hallucinate information: Ask them to answer a complex question, and you will receive a convincing, erudite response in which key facts and citations are often made up. I suspect this will slow their widespread use in important industries much more than is being admitted, akin to the way driverless cars have been tough to roll out because they need to be perfectly reliable rather than just pretty good.
A question to ask about large language models, then, is where does trustworthiness not matter? Those are the areas where adoption will be fastest. An example from media is telling, I think. CNET, the technology website, quietly started using these models to write articles, with humans editing the pieces. But the process failed. Forty-one of the 77 A.I.-generated articles proved to have errors the editors missed, and CNET, embarrassed, paused the program . BuzzFeed, which recently shuttered its news division, is racing ahead with using A.I. to generate quizzes and travel guides. Many of the results have been shoddy , but it doesn’t really matter. A BuzzFeed quiz doesn’t have to be reliable.
A.I. will be great for creating content where reliability isn’t a concern. The personalized video games and children’s shows and music mash-ups and bespoke images will be dazzling. And new domains of delight and distraction are coming: I believe we’re much closer to A.I. friends, lovers and companions becoming a widespread part of our social lives than society is prepared for. But where reliability matters — say, a large language model devoted to answering medical questions or summarizing doctor-patient interactions — deployment will be more troubled, as oversight costs will be immense. The problem is that those are the areas that matter most for economic growth.
Marcela Martin, BuzzFeed’s president, encapsulated my next worry nicely when she told investors, “Instead of generating 10 ideas in a minute, A.I. can generate hundreds of ideas in a second.” She meant that as a good thing, but is it? Imagine that multiplied across the economy. Someone somewhere will have to process all that information. What will this do to productivity?
One lesson of the digital age is that more is not always better. More emails and more reports and more Slacks and more tweets and more videos and more news articles and more slide decks and more Zoom calls have not led, it seems, to more great ideas. “We can produce more information,” Mark said. “But that means there’s more information for us to process. Our processing capability is the bottleneck.”
Email and chat systems like Slack offer useful analogies here. Both are widely used across the economy. Both were initially sold as productivity boosters, allowing more communication to take place faster. And as anyone who uses them knows, the productivity gains — though real — are more than matched by the cost of being buried under vastly more communication, much of it junk and nonsense.
The magic of a large language model is that it can produce a document of almost any length in almost any style, with a minimum of user effort. Few have thought through the costs that will impose on those who are supposed to respond to all this new text. One of my favorite examples of this comes from The Economist , which imagined NIMBYs — but really, pick your interest group — using GPT-4 to rapidly produce a 1,000-page complaint opposing a new development. Someone, of course, will then have to respond to that complaint. Will that really speed up our ability to build housing?
You might counter that A.I. will solve this problem by quickly summarizing complaints for overwhelmed policymakers, much as the increase in spam is (sometimes, somewhat) countered by more advanced spam filters. Jonathan Frankle, the chief scientist at MosaicML and a computer scientist at Harvard, described this to me as the “boring apocalypse” scenario for A.I., in which “we use ChatGPT to generate long emails and documents, and then the person who received it uses ChatGPT to summarize it back down to a few bullet points, and there is tons of information changing hands, but all of it is just fluff. We’re just inflating and compressing content generated by A.I.”
When we spoke, Frankle noted the magic of feeding a 100-page Supreme Court document into a large language model and getting a summary of the key points. But was that, he worried, a good summary? Many of us have had the experience of asking ChatGPT to draft a piece of writing and seeing a fully formed composition appear, as if by magic, in seconds.
My third concern is related to that use of A.I.: Even if those summaries and drafts are pretty good, something is lost in the outsourcing. Part of my job is reading 100-page Supreme Court documents and composing crummy first drafts of columns. It would certainly be faster for me to have A.I. do that work. But the increased efficiency would come at the cost of new ideas and deeper insights.
Our societywide obsession with speed and efficiency has given us a flawed model of human cognition that I’ve come to think of as the “Matrix” theory of knowledge. Many of us wish we could use the little jack from “The Matrix” to download the knowledge of a book (or, to use the movie’s example, a kung fu master) into our heads, and then we’d have it, instantly. But that misses much of what’s really happening when we spend nine hours reading a biography. It’s the time inside that book spent drawing connections to what we know and having thoughts we would not otherwise have had that matters.
“Nobody likes to write reports or do emails, but we want to stay in touch with information,” Mark said. “We learn when we deeply process information. If we’re removed from that and we’re delegating everything to GPT — having it summarize and write reports for us — we’re not connecting to that information.”
We understand this intuitively when it’s applied to students. No one thinks that reading the SparkNotes summary of a great piece of literature is akin to actually reading the book. And no one thinks that if students have ChatGPT write their essays, they have cleverly boosted their productivity rather than lost the opportunity to learn. The analogy to office work is not perfect — there are many dull tasks worth automating so people can spend their time on more creative pursuits — but the dangers of overautomating cognitive and creative processes are real.
These are old concerns, of course. Socrates questioned the use of writing (recorded, ironically, by Plato), worrying that “if men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves but by means of external marks.” I think the trade-off here was worth it — I am, after all, a writer — but it was a trade-off. Human beings really did lose faculties of memory we once had.
To make good on its promise, artificial intelligence needs to deepen human intelligence. And that means human beings need to build A.I. and build the workflows and office environments around it, in ways that don’t overwhelm and distract and diminish us. We failed that test with the internet. Let’s not fail it with A.I.
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Ezra Klein joined Opinion in 2021. Previously, he was the founder, editor in chief and then editor-at-large of Vox; the host of the podcast “The Ezra Klein Show”; and the author of “Why We’re Polarized.” Before that, he was a columnist and editor at The Washington Post, where he founded and led the Wonkblog vertical. @ ezraklein
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The Epistemology of Reading and Interpretation
René van Woudenberg, The Epistemology of Reading and Interpretation . Cambridge University Press 2021, 244pp., $99.99 (hbk), ISBN 9781316516799.
Reviewed by Sarah Worth, Furman University
This was a book of surprises for me. Most importantly, I was wrong about the topic of the book, which I had assumed was about reading fiction and literature (the beautiful cover may have misled me). The question about epistemology and reading, for me, has always been about the ways in which literature can, or might, or doesn’t, provide knowledge given that it holds no truth value, per se , or that it does not refer in the ways propositional claims do. But that is not what this book is about. This book is about what happens when we do the actual work of reading and what goes on in our minds when we interpret the symbols of language and the sentences of language. Given that I come to epistemology primarily from the literary and aesthetic end of things and I usually only think about the question of (propositional) truth from the fictive lens, I was pleasantly surprised to find this book focused on the work of reading itself and not just on the question of how fictive claims may or may not have truth value. Addressing reading as a whole, however, is a huge task and maybe one that is too big for a single monograph. This book is an important start, though, and René van Woudenberg lays a foundation for a discussion of how different interpretations might produce different truths—politically, or aesthetically, or even individually. Van Woudenberg addresses both shallow reading and deep reading and argues effectively for the epistemic value of both. In a time (or political climate) where it seems that truth is becoming too malleable to tell the difference between different interpretations, it is nice to have a book that defends both different accounts of interpretation as well as solidly grounded truth. The book is well-written and accessible to philosophers, and it would be a welcome addition to courses on analytic epistemology that are looking for an expanded view of sources of truth. It would also work in an aesthetics course looking to expand the limited explanations of how truth is possible in reference to literary fictions.
Van Woudenberg starts with the claim that “reading can and does expand our knowledge” (1) not just because we are taking in propositional truth, but because the act of reading itself is a form of organization of information. Philosophers often make problems out of what most people take as obvious, but this is one that I think is actually very important—what is it that we can gain epistemologically from reading. Reading here is posed in contrast to someone telling me something, me remembering something happening, or me seeing something. Typically, van Woudenberg claims, epistemologists agree that perception, memory, reason, and testimony all provide various kinds of knowledge (4) but reading per se has not had the attention it is due as a form of knowledge itself. Van Woudenberg starts with the suggestion that the act of reading is distinct from both testimony and perception and after an analysis of seven distinct theories of interpretation, he acknowledges that although reading and interpretation are often indistinguishable, there is a way in which we can separate the two. He ultimately suggests that both reading and interpretation can offer us distinct access to truth. Truth is not a necessary outcome since understanding, belief, and of course falsity of claims about states of affairs might interfere in our accessing truth, but to argue that truth is even on the table as an epistemic outcome of the practice of reading in and of itself is both bold and an extremely important kind of argument to make.
Van Woudenberg claims that the act of reading can provide one with propositional theories of truth (this is a largely contested claim). He claims that reading-truth can be backed by both a justified true belief account as well as Fred Dretske’s information-theoretic account. He asserts that reading can produce knowledge according to either account. He also asserts that “acquaintance knowledge,” which is like Mark Johnson’s “knowledge of what something is like” without necessarily having direct perceptual experience with the thing, is knowledge that can exist without belief, although it may not be the same kind of knowledge as propositional knowledge (27). He explains that “reading often does give rise to the kind of knowledge by acquaintance under discussion: it is through reading that a reader comes to entertain certain propositions and not others” (31). Ultimately, Van Woudenberg does discuss reading fiction as a form of acquaintance knowledge because it has a kind of “what-is-it-like experience of something that no one has firsthand experience of” (31). Through reading fiction, no one can have first person experience of any particular state of affairs but they can have a what-is-it-like experience. He then argues that knowing-how is also something that can be transmitted through reading despite several accounts that deny this (he notes Adam Carter and Ted Poston in particular). Reading instructions about how to calculate sales tax, how to get from one place to another, or how to tend roses are examples he gives of ways in which we can gain know-how, despite maybe not being able to gain knowledge of how to play a particular piano sonata or how to accurately sink a basketball in the net every time. He suggests that accounts that deny that we can gain knowledge of knowing-how suffer from a “one-sided diet of examples” (34). He rightly notes that the possibility that one might be able to gain knowledge-how from reading depends on both the complexity of the know-how and the abilities of the reader to understand and to execute some set of instructions. Of course, it also depends on the reader’s receptiveness to the instruction and their capacity to understand the instruction. Ultimately, he asserts that reading can provide us with propositional knowledge, acquaintance knowledge, and know-how. I believe these to be controversial claims, especially with propositional knowledge when he does not distinguish between fictive and factive texts. But he does address this distinction eventually. Much of the work van Woudenberg does is differentiating reading from other forms of information gathering. Reading requires accurate vision, but it is not merely a visual source of testimony. Reading is also not a simple kind of seeing. Reading requires vision, comprehension, understanding, and only then can it help one to refer properly.
The crux of van Woudenberg’s argument, I think, lies in his analysis of various forms of the interpretation of reading. He starts with a “generic” interpretation of meaning that one derives from reading a text. He states that “a statement, or a set of statements, is an interpretation of a text T , or of a part thereof, provided it attempts to specify the meaning or meanings of T , or of parts thereof” (176). He unpacks this nicely to allow it to function as the groundwork of what will happen in the following chapter (8) when he addresses seven other different kinds of meanings and interpretations. He distinguishes the following kinds of textual interpretations: allegorical, externalist, Freudian, holistic textual act, Marxist, modernist, and reader response theories. Van Woudenberg is right to acknowledge that we cannot appeal to only one theory of interpretation. Allegorical interpretation looks for something deeper than an externalist account, for example, and Freudian interpretations are going to appeal to very different contextual explanations for interpretation. Historically, different needs and interests have been served by different kinds of interpretations, and it is, of course, essential that he differentiate these kinds. He notes also that along with identifying various kinds of interpretations, we also need not necessarily be engaged in any particular interpretation schema when we are reading to ascertain truth or knowledge. Van Woudenberg concludes his argument by claiming not that just that reading can be a source of knowledge, but that the act of interpretation itself should be considered a form of knowledge. He posits that all of the forms of interpretation he outlines can “trigger” a certain set of conditions appropriate for knowledge acquisition.
The book is interesting, and I think it opens the door to a number of different kinds of inquiries. One of the first things I thought of was that it is a kind of 21st century, very analytic defense against Socrates’ argument that things should not be written down. Socrates’ suggestion is that committing things to writing aids in forgetfulness, but I think what van Woudenberg might say in response is that there is a possibility for a much more extended story structure, argument, or explanation that can come from the written word than might be only remembered. Socrates was living in a much more oral story telling culture of course, but something as important as his own dialogues would not have been remembered or understood as completely or as accurately as they have been had Plato not committed them to the written word. Our own written culture values the written word in the form of literature, argumentation, explanation, and demonstration in an incredibly complex way that I do not think could be communicated in ways other than in writing. We may have always implicitly assumed that knowledge is a necessary outcome of reading, but van Woudenberg has made this assumption explicit and has argued forcefully for its tenability in this book.
What did Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle Think About Wisdom?
June 12, 2022
By Julian Dutra, The Collector
Socrates (469 – 399 B.C.E), Plato (427 – 347 B.C.E), Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.E), and many of their followers understood their own intellectual activity – the search for wisdom or philosophy – both as theoretical and practical in its aims. Their goals were very different from the goals of contemporary philosophy, to say the least. To better understand that, we need to know what they thought about wisdom and its place in a well-lived life.
By the time that Socrates was born, the pre-philosophical tradition of the ancient Greeks, composed by poets and playwrights, had already explored the theme of the well-lived life in some ways, taking inspiration from the Greek myths and other sources available then. The ancient Greek word for happiness, “ eudaimonia ”, originally signified “ being favored by the gods/good spirits ”. This fact suggests that originally, human prosperity in ancient Greek culture was thought to rely on the idea that the gods are in control of our happiness .
Greek Society Before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
It was through this perspective that Homer (circa 850 – 750 B.C.E) and Hesiod (c. 750 – 650 B.C.E) delineated models of conduct (or virtue) for their readers and listeners. However, it’s important to note that these models conflict with one another. There was a tension between the individualism of the heroic code in Homer’s work and the more collectivist and work-related values in Hesiod’s work. This tension echoed socio-political events that occurred in ancient Greek societies.
At the same moment that pre-Socratic philosophy seemingly reached a point of stagnation, Socrates began to put the question of the good life in the center of his philosophical inquiries. As suggested above, there was already some tension amongst the pre-philosophical ideals regarding what a good life is supposed to be. These types of tensions also resembled the conflict between mythologies in the Greek colonies that incited the first philosophers to inquire about nature. It is possible that this was known by Socrates, who was first attracted to the kind of naturalistic philosophy of his predecessors.
With Socrates, a new way of thinking about human happiness emerged, in a moment of apparent philosophical stagnation – a way of thinking that will be rationally argued for, not merely represented through art: the idea that human knowledge (or wisdom ) is essential to the well-lived human life.
From that moment, human action rightly conducted by reason would be considered as the key to happiness – at least amongst philosophers. This line of thought will be articulated in different ways by the main successors of Socrates: first by Plato and then by Plato’s best student, Aristotle. It was also because of this general idea that the schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism developed their theories: they were variations of the socratic idea (so much so that the Stoics recognized Socrates as their direct predecessor).
But if we want to better understand this story, we need to start from the beginning. We will see, in very broad lines, what Socrates thought about the good life and the place wisdom takes in it. After that, we will see what Plato and Aristotle thought about the concept of wisdom.
Socratic Wisdom: The Importance of Knowledge for a Good Life
Socrates is considered a paragon of wisdom to this day, even though he didn’t consider himself wise. When the Pythia at the Oracle of Delphi said that no one was wiser than Socrates, it only motivated him to engage even more in philosophical debate. This consciousness of his own ignorance propelled him to test the word of the Oracle.
In many of his conversations, reconstructed especially in the works of Plato and Xenophon (430 – 354 B.C.E.), we encounter Socrates repeatedly putting the question of the good life in the center of his discussions. That is, he asks his interlocutors and himself: how to live well? However, many other times he addresses other questions, only secondary to this matter. Every reader of the early platonic dialogues knows that Socrates spends a lot of time discussing the virtues of courage or piety, for example.
Already during Socrates’s lifetime, human virtue ( areté , in ancient Greek) was associated with success, even though in the pre-philosophical traditions of ancient Greece, virtue wasn’t considered something completely under human control, and it was common to think that the favor of the gods could not be dismissed. The lives of Achilles and Odysseus, respectively in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, are examples of that. This begins to change with Socrates.
If we believe in what Plato says in his early dialogues (which are the main references for the analysis of Socrates’s thought), the relation between virtue and a good life , or at least between virtue and a life of success in some specific activity like war, navigation, or carpentry, wasn’t only suggested to Socrates by elements of his culture, but by his own independent reflection. His analysis is both simple and original: he begins by pondering everyday objects.
This is why we see Socrates repeatedly speaking of tools and domestic utensils in the early platonic dialogues. Take knives as one example. For Socrates, the virtue of a knife is, obviously, to cut well. To do this, it needs to have some specific characteristics, like being sharp, having an adequate weight and providing a good grip, and so forth. It’s because of this specific set of characteristics that the knife can do what it is supposed to do well (or virtuously ). That is, it’s because of the presence of these characteristics that it can perform with excellence the proper function ( ergon ) that is the end ( telos ), or purpose, of it. Absent these characteristics, a knife cannot be any good.
We can apply the same rationale to living beings. A good horse or a good dog are those that have the specific set of characteristics that enables them to fulfill the fullest expression of their potential as horses and dogs. The specific set of characteristics varies, of course, according to the nature of each thing. The main thing to note here is that this general thought pattern could be applied to humans too.
That’s exactly what Socrates did. To summarize a long story, we can say that Socrates tried to answer the question of the good life starting from these considerations. For him, all human activities are conducted by reason or, as the ancient philosophers usually said, by the soul . More than that, Socrates thought that we are motivated to do what, at any time, appears to be good according to our minds (this thesis is known today as Socratic intellectualism ).
However, it’s evident that what seems to be good to us and what in fact is good for us are not always the same. For Socrates, that means that we can only act well, even in our own interest, when we have the knowledge of how to act well, that is, when we possess the knowledge of how things are, what is good, what to do to obtain and preserve these things, how to best utilize them, how to avoid what is bad, and so forth.
That means that it is only when we know what is good, without error, that we can confidently act to obtain that good. Hence, human excellence is an excellence of the mind. That is a state where the mind is in possession of knowledge. That state of the mind is also what Socrates calls wisdom ( sophia ).
The exact nature of wisdom and its relation with eudaimonia in Socrates’ ethics is a matter of academic dispute to this day. This subject is too vast to discuss in this article. What is important to notice is that, taking into consideration what has just been said about wisdom, many questions are left unanswered. In fact, that’s a constant feature of Socratic philosophy. It’s not clear, for example, if Socrates thought that any specific domain (or domains) of knowledge should have priority above others.
As I noted above, he spends a lot of time talking about virtue, and virtue is a kind of knowledge for him. Should we learn about the specific virtues before any other knowledge? Are they any good in isolation or only when we grasp all of the virtues that they become truly good? Some other passages suggest that Socrates thought about what we ordinarily think of as goods , like money and health (see Plato’s Euthydemus , 208e, and Menon , 88a-c), as good. Apparently, Socrates thought that even these things are the subjects of specific kinds of knowledge. But we can’t know if he thought that this knowledge is to be searched for before or after we acquire others.
One thing we can know for sure: Socrates was aware of our cognitive limitations as humans . He never thought that we can be wise – that is, completely wise , with our minds being in the possession of all possible knowledge. In his opinion, that is something that only the gods can achieve. Every knowledge we can acquire is only provisional and fallible. And not only that, but we also cannot know everything. All we can do is to keep searching, keep revising our concepts and conclusions. That is, all we can do is to search for wisdom or, in other words, to philosophize.
Platonic Wisdom: The Virtue of Philosophers in the Ideal City-state
Socrates’s pupil Plato , of course, was also interested in epistemology and stated the practical importance of knowledge for human beings. The allegory of the cave is not meant to encourage ignorance, after all. Here, however, I’ll only briefly explore what Plato has to say about wisdom in his most famous dialogue, the Republic .
Like Socrates, Plato also was interested in thinking about the relation between areté and eudaimonia as a way to answer the question of the good life. However, not only does he not consider wisdom as the main virtue, but he also conceptualizes it completely differently. Plato traces a distinction between wisdom and knowledge almost like Socrates. But, for Plato, wisdom is something different than the state where the mind has perfect knowledge of everything.
It’s important to consider his psychological theory first if we want to understand his concept of wisdom and its place in his ethics. Plato thought that the human mind is divided into three parts: the rational part ( logistikon ), the spirited part ( thumoides ), and the appetitive part ( epithumêtikon ). Each is responsible for a function of the human mind: thinking, feeling, and desiring, respectively. Even though every mind is formed by these three parts, in each one of us – so the theory goes – one of these parts is always more prominent.
As a consequence, Plato says that there are three types of character, which he presents in the myth of the three metals : there are those that have souls made of gold (dominated by the rational part), those who have souls of silver (dominated by the spirited part) and those who have souls of bronze (dominated by the appetitive part).
The platonic discussion of wisdom appears in the course of the exposition about the kallipolis , the ideal city-state. It’s here that we find Plato’s idea that wisdom is a form of euboulia , that is, the capacity to give good advice , or for sound judgment . Far from being a universal virtue, available to all, this capacity is a form of intellectual excellence that can be achieved solely by trained philosophers, that is, for those who have a soul made of gold. In his ideal polis , those people should lead the government as kings or queens.
It is for that reason, at least in the context of the Republic , that Plato considers that wisdom, as euboulia , can be achieved only by some people who can submit to an extensive educational program. But, once they became governors, this virtue could confer benefits to all the citizens of the polis. That’s one of the reasons why the kallipolis is the ideal city.
As for the individuals with souls of silver or bronze, even though we can assume that Plato would concede that they could develop some degree of euboulia in some limited affairs, they would never be able to be wise. In any case, we should notice that Plato’s ethics differ considerably from Socrates’. That contrast becomes even clearer in Plato’s later work; but that’s an entirely different topic.
Aristotelian Wisdom: Two Virtues Instead of One
In his Nicomachean Ethics , Book VI, Aristotle presents a more detailed account of wisdom than that of his predecessors. It’s interesting to consider some other basic aspects of his ethics before we enter into his discussion of wisdom.
For Aristotle, areté and eudaimonia are also correlated. Like Plato, Aristotle didn’t believe that all human beings have the same capacity for virtue. Unlike Plato, he thought that only those who received a good education, from childhood to early adulthood, could become virtuous one day. That’s a sine qua non for him: a necessary condition. However, this initial education could only raise decent people. True virtue requires a special kind of practical knowledge and education. And that, in fact, is what Aristotle aims to provide with his ethical theory.
Aristotle also thought that the human mind is divided into three parts: the rational, the sensitive, and the vegetative. It would be impossible to discuss all of the nuances that differentiate his psychological theory from Plato’s here; for our purposes, I’ll only highlight that Aristotle thought that human virtue was the same for all human beings (well, at least for all the aristocratic Greeks that formed his main body of students). That means, in other words, that Aristotle considered virtue to be more accessible than Plato thought it was.
According to Aristotelian ethics, human virtue could be divided into two general categories: intellectual virtues and moral virtues (or virtues of character ). And, in Aristotle’s opinion, wisdom is not one virtue, but two distinct intellectual virtues. That is, for Aristotle, there are two kinds of wisdom . I’ll explain them later. Let’s first get a better grasp of what moral virtues are.
Moral virtues are related to the irrational aspects of the human soul, like sentiments and desires – it’s here that we find virtues like courage and generosity. Aristotle thought that when guided by the rational part of the soul – that is, when our irrational dispositions are regulated by reason (orientated by the doctrine of the mean ) – these dispositions become virtuous. If our irrational dispositions are well-regulated by reason, we feel and desire in a way that is most adequate to our nature as human beings.
Training our dispositions is not easy. It requires a lot of effort and time. But, as Aristotle himself says, even if we acquire moral virtues, their possession is not sufficient to live a virtuous life. We need to correctly apply them in the different circumstances that life presents to us. That is, we need to be sensitive to the specific ethical dimensions of our circumstances; we need to know what we should prioritize at the moment of action; we have to know what we should do to achieve that end, and how, in detail (if possible), we can do it. And that’s an intellectual capacity, one that Aristotle calls “ phrónesis”: practical wisdom or prudence .
Practical wisdom, however, cannot be acquired in the same way as moral virtues. While it’s possible to be brave and imprudent, Aristotle thought that it’s not possible to be practically wise without full comprehension about the human good, including the possession of all the moral virtues. True practical wisdom is not a domain-specific ability. It requires full comprehension of what is good for a human being in general and in all aspects of one’s life, in all the different phases of one’s life. It’s the end goal of a person’s moral development.
Thus, practical wisdom is different from the other kind of wisdom that exists: theoretical wisdom ( sophia ). While practical wisdom is general knowledge about the good for human beings, as human beings, theoretical wisdom is a different type of knowledge. Sophia is knowledge about the most excellent beings of the cosmos , the most general categories of Being, the laws of nature – and so forth. To have it is to possess an excellent comprehension of the universe in which we live . And that’s a purely theoretical matter.
So, in the light of all that, what’s the happiest life a human being can live? How does Aristotle answer the philosophical question about the good life? Aristotle thought that the happiest life is the contemplative life of the philosopher who has both kinds of wisdom. That’s because theoretical knowledge provides him with a kind of good in itself, a good that cannot be used to achieve any of the other human goods. In second place, there is the life of the practically virtuous citizen , who doesn’t have sophia but is guided by phrónesis , and thus, they can achieve a happy human life.
Is Wisdom According to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle Making a Comeback?
We saw the contextual reasons that made Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle reflect on wisdom, along with their different concepts of it. Their aim was practical, since they were interested in finding an answer to the question: how can we live well? In this context, “ wisdom” generally is meant to refer to some kind of connection between knowledge and action, to some mental capacity that enables us to better orient ourselves in the world that we live in because of the knowledge that we have.
Contemporary philosophers typically don’t deal with the problem of the good in this way anymore . I will not comment on whether that’s a good or bad thing here, but I suspect that in our scientific age, where knowledge on many of the most important aspects of human life is abundant, the concept of wisdom will eventually return to prominence in philosophical discussion. In particular, Aristotle’s concept of wisdom is becoming more relevant: some philosophers and psychologists already think so too, apparently. In any case, any serious reflection about wisdom has to begin with an understanding of what Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle once thought about it.
About the author: Julian M. Dutra is a Brazilian philosophy teacher from the Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos (UNISINOS). His primary interest is in the fields of epistemology and ethics. His main academic interest is in the field of ethics of belief, where he can work at the intersection of his favored philosophical fields. He is also interested in topics from virtue ethics, logic, education, history and philosophy of science, metaphilosophy, and political philosophy.
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Dutra, J. (2022, June 12). What did Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle think about wisdom? The Collector . Retrieved from https://www.thecollector.com/socrates-plato-aristotle-wisdom/
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Socrates Theory of Knowledge Essay
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