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NOTES AND DISCUSSIONS Socrates' Disavowal of Knowledge Socrates steadfastly disavowed knowledge, or so say Plato, Aristotle, Aeschines , and Diogenes Laertius. In the eyes of the later sceptics, Socrates' refusal to claim knowledge represented a signal contribution to philosophy. Yet Socrates has often not been taken at his word; some (e.g., Norman Gulley) have viewed Socratic claims to ignorance as mere pretence, while others (e.g., W. K. C. Guthrie) have cautioned that there were limits to the ignorance Socrates claimed. More recently, Gregory Vlastos has called for a radical re-interpretation of Socrates' disavowals on the grounds that a straightforward reading would conflict with several texts in which Socrates either affirms or implies that he does know some things.' I begin by considering the merits of Vlastos' proposal and then attempt to separate what Socrates claimed he knew from what he denied he knew. In the process we may hope to illuminate some basic assumptions of his epistemology and theory of virtue. 1~ Vlastos begins by rejecting two recent interpretations of Socrates' disavowal of knowledge: (1) Socrates does not mean what he says (quoting Norman Gulley), "Socrates' profession of ignorance is merely an expedient to encourage his interlocutors to seek out the truth"~; and (2) Socrates means what he says (paraphrasing Terry Irwin), "Socrates has renounced knowledge and is content to claim no more than true belief. ''3 Against the first view Vlastos i am indebted to L. Jost, M. M. Mackenzie, Raymond Martin, and Gregory Vlastosfor their criticisms of an earlier draft. On this as on so many other aspects of Socratic philosophy, we are indebted to Gregory Vlastos for having brought into such sharp focus these fundamental questions about the meaning of Socrates' teaching. Gregory Vlastos, "Socrates' Disavowal of knowledge," The PhilosophicalQuarterly 35, No. 138 (January 1985): 1-31. A similar thesis had been presented, but not defended at length, in Vlastos' earlier study, "The Paradox of Socrates," in The Philosophyof Socrates(NewYork, 1971). " The Philosophyof Socrates (1968), 69. Terence Irwin, Plato's Moral Theory (1974), 39-4o. [275] ~76 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 25"2 APRIL 1987 argues that such pretence would be at odds with the "first rule in elenctic dialogue...'say what you believe' " (4), that professions of ignorance often come too late in the debate to serve as encouragement, and that the soliloquy of the Apology (with no interlocutor to encourage) repeats the same refrain, "... he having no knowledge, thinks he knows something, while I, having none, don't think I have any" (~ID). Against the second, Vlastos argues that a Socratic willingness to setde for true belief would make his persistent search for knowledge "a charade" and, in view of Socrates' linking of knowledge and virtue, undermine his claims to possess virtue and happiness (Gorg~as52aD, Apology 37B, Phaedo 117B, C). Moreover, Socrates doessometime claim to have knowledge: "But to do injustice and disobey my superior, god or man, this I know [oida]to be evil and base" (Apology a9B 6), and he occasionally attributes knowledge to others. How could Socrates have held that others knew without taking himself to have known the things he credits them with knowing? The disavowal of knowledge must be devoid of pretence, yet the claims to knowledge must be sincere. Having fully boxed Socrates into an inconsistency , Vlastos offers a path out: the sense of "know" in "I know nothing" is not the same sense as the sense of "know" in "I know that disobedience to a superior is evil and base" (or any of Socrates' other specific claims to knowledge ). Socrates, in other words, makes "a dual use of his words for knowing ": "When declaring that he knows absolutely nothing he is referring to that very strong sense in which philosophers had used them before and would go on using them long afterhwhere one says one knows only where one is claiming certainty. This would leave him free to admit that he does have moral knowledge in a radically weaker sense---the one required by his own maverick method of philosophical inquiry, the elenchus" (12). So, where knowledgec = infallible or certain knowledge, and knowledgeE = knowledge achieved as the result of elenchus, Socrates may...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 275-288
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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