POST TIME: 18 April, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Socrates and the theory of knowledge
The Socratic process of finding out the definition helps people to make difference between the particular concepts and the general or the universal concepts
Muhammad Kamruzzaman

Socrates and the theory of knowledge

Socrates had a belief that “a divine inner voice” guided him to be a man of virtue, as Jostein Gaarder claims, “conscience told him [Socrates] what was right.” ‘Conscience’ makes a person aware of right and wrong and the awareness comes only from learning. At the trial, Socrates says, “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.” Socrates put emphasis on knowledge all his life because he believed that “the ability to distinguish between right and wrong lies in people’s reason not in society.” Learning was the only thing, Socrates was concerned about because according to him, only learning can help a person to have a clear and universal idea of right and wrong.   

For Socrates, “disciplined conversation” is the only way to attain knowledge, which can be called ‘reliable’ in terms of its (knowledge’s) quality. What role does “disciplined conversation” play? Alternatively, how does it work? Socrates says it acts like “an intellectual midwife” helping people to gain knowledge on which they can rely upon. According to Socrates, knowledge is rigid and certain; every single concept has a fixed definition. How can everyone share the same level of knowledge about a particular subject or topic? In fact, everyone has their own fixed definition of the issues they knew. The problem is that people have a very subjective and rigid concept, which (at the same time) can be both: right and wrong. Socrates introduces a system––dialectic––to save people of his generation by helping them gaining ‘reliable-knowledge,’ which is also, in a sense, a part of a rigid world of knowledge; but has a universal appeal in it.

Dialectic is a “process of dialogue, in which all parties to the conversation are forced to clarify their ideas, the final outcome of the conversation is a clear statement of what is meant.” This method helps people to realise what is true and reliable knowledge and which one is wrong because in a dialectic, a person introduces his or her opinion about an idea or a concept, and following the same pattern, another person gives his or her opinion on the same subject. This whole process goes on through dialogues. The process ends when both the parties come to an end of their conversation and find out the truth about a particular subject matter. Through dialectic, Socrates brought out all the knowledge of a person about a particular subject and if the person was inaccurate about something he (Socrates) would make it correct by introducing the person with his or her “misdirected opinion” and at the same time with the real knowledge about a subject matter or an idea. There is another technique, used by Socrates, known as elenchus––“a form of seeking . . . knowledge by question and answer.” Socrates’ question about a particular topic or subject demands a definition in the form of an answer and he (Socrates) is only concerned about “universal and unchanging definitions.” As Samuel Enoch Stumpf and James Fieser state, for Socrates “a definition is a clear and fixed concept.”

As people are different, they do not share the same definition of a particular subject matter. In defining the reason behind the variation among people, Socrates claims, people “think of two different kinds of objects whenever . . . [they] think about anything.” According to Socrates, for the same matter, people’s minds distinguish between two different meanings: the particular and the universal or the general. The Socratic process of finding out the definition helps people to make difference between the particular concepts and the general or the universal concepts. In the book, Socrates to Sartre and Beyond: A History of Philosophy, Stumpf and Fieser bring forward an example of a flower to clear the distinction between the particular and the universal.

According to Socrates, a flower (the particular) is beautiful because it has a link with the universal concept of beauty. As Stumpf and Fieser comment, “no particular thing is perfectly beautiful; it is beautiful only because it partakes of the larger concept of Beauty.” For Socrates, a definition (occupied knowledge about a concept) standing upon the knowledge gathered from the particular meaning cannot provide “reliable knowledge” because (according to Socrates) a particular concept (for example, a flower) is not as universal as the general concept of beauty that “remains after the rose fades.” Stumpf and Fieser state, for Socrates “the process of definition . . . is a process for arriving at clear and fixed concepts.”          

“Virtue is knowledge” is one of Socrates’ beliefs. Stumpf and Fieser state, according to Socrates, “knowledge and virtue were the same things.” For him, ‘knowledge’ is nothing but a concept or a truth that has a universal appeal the way it (a particular concept) exists around the world, having a responsibility built in it, to do or to bring good for the existing concepts. In general, virtue is the concept of goodness or an objective sense of goodness that is the opposite form of aesthetic. The reason behind linking virtue with knowledge is that (for Socrates) virtue comes with knowledge, which means one cannot perform a wrongdoing having the knowledge of it––Socrates says that the state of not having the knowledge of a wrongdoing or treating an evil as good is an outcome of ignorance, as he comments, “vice is ignorance.” According to Socrates, a person does not do any evil work knowing that it is an evil work; but knowing it as a good action. Socrates states, “to know the good is to the good” and he links knowledge with virtue to show that people cannot perform in a wrong way knowing that it is wrong, but (according to Socrates) “they … do [(I mean) they perform] thinking that they [their actions] are good in some way.”

However, a person performs in a wrong way having no knowledge about the evil he or she is practising because the person believes that particular action of his or her will bring happiness and the person does this out of ignorance.

According to Socrates, the problem is that people “do not know what is good.” He (Socrates) wants everyone to be able to distinguish between two different types of happiness: the one that “appears to give happiness;” and the one that really provides happiness. He (Socrates) also states that the things that appear to be good cannot bring happiness because all those are always in contrast with the constant human nature. In addition, for Socrates, the true human nature “seeks its own well-being” and it is only possible when someone is enlightened, I mean the person is truly aware of universal goodness as well as about the virtue that is more or less a by-product of true and reliable knowledge.

Finally, most of the modern people share different kind of opinions about the Socratic belief that “to know the good is to do the good.” Through reading Socratic, It is understandable that he (Socrates) had faith in the dignity of humankind. What he believed is that an enlightened man could not be harmful to himself or herself as well as for the rest, because Socrates was a believer of “teleological conception of things––…that things [including human being] have a function or purpose and tend toward the good.”    

The writer is a freelancer