What is knowledge? This is probably the one question that rolls out on all the pages of Thaeatetus and Meno. In Thaeatetus, the young boy Thaeatetus attempts to define this by giving examples of domains of knowledge, and at the end, three proposals of what knowledge is are given, and all of them turned down, and the book ends without an acceptable definition of what knowledge is. (Stanford, 2009) These definitions are:
One definition links knowledge to perception. The fault with this is that perception is different from one person to another. Feelings that define perception are never registered in a similar manner in individuals. (Plato, 360 BC)
The second definition is that knowledge is a true opinion. (Plato, 360 BC) This true opinion is differentiated from the false one. The question though is whether there is a false opinion. This is built upon the premise of the known and the not known. If things are known or unknown then there cannot be an un-comprehended opinion. This argument by Socrates lays the definition to rest.
Then comes the last definition, which is the point of focus in this paper, that knowledge is true opinion combined with knowledge (Plato, 360 BC) or, put in another way, ‘a true opinion combined with definition or rational explanation’. The ensuing dialogue tries to define what a ‘rational explanation’ is. From this, three meanings emerge, the first being ‘manifesting one’s opinion (Plato, 360 BC) verbally, secondly a way of reaching the whole by using the elements thereof, and thirdly, by telling the ‘mark which distinguishes’ one thing from the rest. (Plato, 360 BC) Not all these hit the spot where Socrates wishes to build his thesis and definition of knowledge.
Why do the two not reach a plausible definition what knowledge is? Has Plato changed his mind about the nature of knowledge? I do not think so. Neither do I believe that Thaeatetus fails to offer the right understanding of ‘with a logos’ simply because his is a recollection of a definition given some time past; nor that he inadequately defends his definition.
Going back to Meno and the case of the slave in attempting to define knowledge, Socrates builds an argument that knowledge is a recollection of experiences met in the lives before. He asks the valet questions of which he has never undergone any instruction (Plato, 380 B.C.E). The slave is able to answer the questions in the best way he deems fit but of course some answers are way off the mark. What then lacks in the slave’s opinion to make this knowledge?
First, it is imperative to note that the geometry questions are not difficult but guiding questions that bring out the responses that one perceives to be the best in the given circumstances. However, the questions-some of them- are tricky and they are the ones that distinguish opinion from knowledge. This is seen when the slave is asked what numeric figure one gets when one doubles the length of a square. Going with the basis that once doubled everything increases twice as much; he erroneously says that the new area will be 8 feet square, whereas the answer is 16 (Plato, 380 B.C.E). Where does he go wrong, and is his opinions knowledge, and if not what should be added to suffice them as knowledge?
Consider the last definition of knowledge being a true opinion combined with a rational explanation in the light of Socrates and the slave boy. The opinion that twice as much length gives twice as much volume, is it true? If it is, what rational explanation can be offered to support it, and if not, what does it need to make it a true opinion that has a rational explanation hence knowledge?
As we mentioned before, twice the length gives four times the area. The opinion is not true. This could be rectified by first understanding the basic concept of area being the product of length and width, or the square of the lengths in the case of a square. The factor of enlargement is also part of this action of squaring and thus the area of the figure is the in the excess of the square of the original area before the enlargement. Nevertheless, how could the young, uneducated boy know all this? In addition, what could be added to his illiterate status to make his opinions knowledge?
One thing seen from the slave is that each one of the people on this earth is born with some innate knowledge (forget Socrates’ assertion that the soul is immortal). This information is basic and is seen at ground level. It is the one that enables the slave to see the relationship between the length and the ‘area’, though forgetting that that is the perimeter of the given figure. These innate bits of data are the true opinions that people have, and which Thaeatetus speaks about in his definitions. Much as they cannot be considered as knowledge per se, they are a part of the body of knowledge pertaining to a particular subject. In themselves, they are not sufficient but fall short of hitting the mark.
This is because knowledge is dynamic; it has twists and turns which make the lay, innate information we have to be an irrelevance. This is best exhibited by the slave of Meno. Knowledge goes farther than this true opinion and is more complex to the extent that it is not just a mere impression of the mind that people impulsively give. Knowledge is a combination of the true opinions subject to a rigorous process of thought to ascertain its validity in the face of doubt. This means that when put under investigation; this knowledge will give authentic, consistent and valid accounts of something, or bear results that exhibit these characteristics.
This all comes up to one thing. Taking the case of the Boy, he is evidently ignorant, as he lacks facts about geometry. However, he thinks he knows that which he indeed does not know. This, in Thaeatetus’ opinion, is a false belief, which can be contrasted from a true belief. Unfortunately, one will think of his opinion as true until forced to realize his folly.
Knowledge, then, is that which one gains after remedying his false opinion. As Socrates says, after the boy realizes his ignorance, he will ‘wish to remedy’ that opinion (Plato, 380 B.C.E). This will mean that the opinion he will express thence will be factual and informed and this comes as a result of subjecting all beliefs through doubt in order to discover the falsehood in them.
Now what does the boy need to add to this discovered opinions to make the resultant whole ‘knowledge’? By him adding on top of the new things, he has learnt the true version of what he previously held as the false belief. This is to say that, using Meno’s slave as an example, the boy thought that twice the length gives twice the area i.e. it gives eight feet. Nevertheless, he has learnt that the area is sixteen, which is proportionate to the enlargement of the square. He should go further to know the cases that are applicable to his first opinion. In this case, Socrates helps him know the idea of the diagonal hence the triangle. The combination of innovations, and the new discoveries of the folly and nature of the beliefs one held as true; and their rectified versions to the true beliefs they ought to be is knowledge.