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  • Plato on Knowledge as a Power1
  • Nicholas D. Smith

At 471C4 in Plato’s Republic, the argument takes a sudden turn when Glaucon becomes impatient with all of the specific prescriptions Socrates has been making, and asks to return to the issue Socrates had earlier set aside—whether or not the city he was describing could ever be brought into being. In response to Glaucon’s impatient question, Socrates articulates his “third wave of paradox” (472ag–7), namely, that the ills of the cities will never be ended until either philosophers become rulers or rulers become philosophers (473c11–d6). Glaucon immediately responds that such a view is likely to be greeted with violence and scorn (473e6–474a4), and so Socrates must hasten to explain his odd claim. His explanation, it turns out, is that true philosophers have an enormous cognitive advantage over non-philosophers—philosophers have and use knowledge (ἐπιστήμη), whereas non-philosophers have and use only opinion (δόξα).2 This distinction, between επιστήμη and δόξα, turns out: to be a distinction between two different cognitive powers (δυνάμεις—477d7–e3). And different powers, Plato clearly tells us, apply to or take as their objects (Plato says they are “ἐπί”) different things (477dl).

In this paper, I shall argue that the relationship between the cognitive powers and their various objects has been fundamentally misunderstood, which has led scholars into one or more misinterpretations of important and explicit features of the text. At the heart of these misunderstandings, I claim, is [End Page 145] their shared misconception of the relation between the cognitive power and its objects as interpretable in terms of the relationship between a cognitive stale and what the content of that state is of or about.3 One consequence of the view for which I shall argue is that what has come to be known as the “two-worlds theory”4 of Plato’s epistemology is seriously mistaken, but no less mistaken than the alternatives given by its recent critics. Another consequence that I shall draw from my argument is that Plato should be understood neither as a kind of foundationalist with regard to knowledge and warrant, as some have supposed him to be,5 nor as a coherentist, as others have supposed,6 but, rather, as a kind of causal reliabilist. [End Page 146]


Scholarly interpretations of Plato’s epistemology have routinely sought to understand the relationships between each cognitive power of Republic Book V and the objects of the ἐφ’ ᾦ (“what it is related to”) condition by which it is differentiated from other δυνάμεις as Plato’s way of telling us what each sort of cognition is of or aboul. 7 So, for example, we find Gail Fine using the expressions “belief [δόξα] is set over [Fine’s translation of Plato’s ἐπί] …” and “knowledge is set over …” interchangeably with “belief is of …” or “belief is about…” and “knowledge is of …” or “knowledge is about …”8 Against the “two-worlds theory,” Fine argues that, for Plato, there can be knowledge of sensibles and beliefs about Forms. Accordingly, since she assimilates the power-ἐπί-object set of relations to the cognilion-of/about-object relation, she concludes—in order to account for knowledge of sensibles and beliefs about Forms—that the objects of knowledge and opinion must be propositions. Plato’s claims that knowledge is ἐπί what is, whereas opinion is ἐπί what is and is not, Fine understands as, “One can only know true propositions; one can believe both true and false propositions.”9 We shall see later that this “veridical” understanding of what Plato means to identify as “what is,” and “what is and is not” fails to account for important and explicit elements of Plato’s exposition of the epistemological and metaphysical distinctions he is making. For now, it is enough to note that Fine understands the ἐφ’ᾦ) relation in terms of our cognition-of/about-object relation. One finds the same assimilation made by those who advance existential readings of Plato’s “is” and “is not,”10 as [End Page 147] well as those who have urged that we adopt predicative readings of “is” and “is not.”11

But I think there are very serious problems with this assimilation. Plato is very...


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