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Rethinking Plato’s Conception of Knowledge

The Non-philosopher and the Forms
Lewis & Clark College
0615 S. W. Palatine Hill Rd.
Portland, OR 97219
In this paper, I argue against the claim that in Plato’s Republic the most important
distinguishing feature between the philosopher and non-philosopher is that the philosopher has knowledge while the non-philosopher has, at best, true opinion. This
claim is, in fact, inconsistent with statements Plato makes in later books of the Republic. I submit that the important distinction Plato makes concerns the type of
knowledge possessed by the philosopher-ruler. As a result, we need to amend widely
held scholarly interpretations of important passages in the Republic; most notably
the passages containing the Sun, Line, and Cave. I consider the views of a number
of important scholars and suggest a proposal that avoids this inconsistency with the
text. An important consequence of my argument is that Philosophers are indeed not
the only ones with knowledge in the Kallipolis.
Keywords: Republic, knowledge, techne, philosopher-rulers, Sun, Line, Cave

It is commonly claimed that in Plato’s Republic one has knowledge if, and
only if, one is a philosopher.1 I submit that this claim, call it A, is false. In
this paper, I argue that A is inconsistent with other statements Plato
makes in the Republic and with passages from other relevant dialogues. I
first look at the problematic passages in order to determine precisely what
generates the tension. Next, I examine different interpretations of the problematic texts and discuss why the standard scholarly analyses do not resolve the conflict. Finally, I present an interpretation of the allegories of
the Sun, Line, and Cave under which philosopher-rulers are distinguished
from non-philosophers not by having privileged access to knowledge of

Brickhouse 1981; Cross and Woozley 1966; Ferguson 1922; Hall 1974; Kraut 1973;
Malcolm 1962, 1981; Prichard 1966; Smith 1996; Stokes 1992; Vlastos 1981.

apeiron, vol. 44, pp. 326–334
© Walter de Gruyter 2011

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DOI 10.1515/apeiron.2011.019
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knowledge of the Good and those things that are knowable and are derived from the Good.. it seems that they are the only ones with knowledge and that is why they should rule. And since the philosopher-rulers are the only ones who ascend out of the cave and into the light. He states: The Form of the Good is the most important thing to learn about and that it’s by their relation to it that just things and the others become useful and beneficial . The Conflict Gail Fine states: “[T]he Republic … aims to persuade us that philosophers should rule. And you also knew that. Socrates states: This whole image. I mean. (505a)4 This passage. the individual must first have knowledge of the Good. and knowledge is necessary for good ruling.108. but rather by having privileged access to moral knowledge. Most scholars have thought that Plato is clear about the fact that in order to have knowledge. or knowledge of moral terms. Italics are mine. and it is reached only with difficulty..Rethinking Plato’s Conception of Knowledge 327 everything. any more than if we acquire any possession without the good of it.”3 According to this interpretation. The most obvious example of an object of knowledge would be knowledge of the Form of Justice. 86. At the conclusion of the allegory of the cave. and others like it in conjunction with the allegory of the cave. Alternatively. must be fitted together with what we said before . if we don’t know it. since that is what you wanted to hear about [why the philosopher should rule] … In the knowable realm. And if you interpret the upward journey and the study of the things above as the upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm.. you’ll grasp what I hope to convey.71 Download Date | 5/2/13 2:00 PM . Glaucon.161. we could say that philosopherrulers have knowledge of the Forms to which moral terms refer. the form of the Good is the last thing to be seen.2 I. even the fullest possible knowledge of other things is of no benefit to us. it is because of this knowledge that the philosopher-rulers have a unique role in the Kallipolis. have typically been interpreted to mean that only the philosopher has knowledge. All translations of the Republic are from Grube (revised by Reeve) 1992. Brought to you by | Fordham University Library Authenticated | 150. 2 3 4 By this.. since only they have knowledge. (517b) Plato seems to be indicating here and throughout the epistemic allegories that access to the Forms is how one develops knowledge. Fine 1990. The epistemic allegories appear to provide good reason to believe that Plato is indeed making an important distinction between philosopher-rulers and all other citizens of the Kallipolis.

we should not accept Plato’s “third wave of paradox” (473c–d). Martinez The above interpretation. that the above interpretation overlooks important statements Plato makes concerning the relationship between knowledge and craftsmanship in the Republic. if one is not a philosopher. and. (Or the philosopher can have knowledge of all knowable things). the poet is merely a “magician” or “imitator” who produces imitation three steps away from truth. If this were the case. Socrates sets out to establish that in no way does the poet have knowledge of that which he claims. that in the passages containing the epistemic allegories when Socrates speaks of knowledge. But. Since the craftsman is two steps away from knowledge and the poet imitates the product of the craftsman. relies on a further assumption. there is strong evidence that the philosopher. Brought to you by | Fordham University Library Authenticated | 150. this passage alone would not be enough to establish that claim. (Or. like the craftsman. namely. And what better reason could there be for choosing philosophers as rulers than the fact that they are the sole possessors of knowledge? I submit. however. In fact. however. his claim that only philosophers should rule. 2) There is nothing which can be known by the non-philosopher. is two steps away. 5 Socrates establishes this position of the poet by referring back to the position of the philosopher and the craftsman. who has knowledge and about what do they have knowledge? In order to banish all artists from the Kallipolis. say tables. As will be mentioned later. For this passage merely states that the maker looks towards the appropriate form.5 It follows from the fact that the poet (or painter) makes an image of the product of the craftsman that the product of the craftsman is itself an image of a Form. and understands some generalities about them and how they are made. Socrates states: “Wouldn’t you call someone whose product is third from the truth an imitator?” This passage also leaves open the question of how many steps away from knowledge the philosopher is.161. but this does not preclude the idea that the maker only considers generalities about the things she makes.108.328 Joel A. then two claims would follow: 1) There is no object of knowledge that the philosopher cannot know. without good reasons for doing so. At 597d–e.) Certainly. The beginning of Book X sheds light on the important question. which is itself an imitation. the poet is three steps away from knowledge. then one cannot have knowledge of anything. Even if Plato intended for the craftsman to have access to the Platonic Forms.71 Download Date | 5/2/13 2:00 PM . he is speaking of knowledge in general. how does the craftsman make his product? Socrates explains this in somewhat ambiguous terms. “And don’t we customarily say that their makers look to the appropriate form in making the bed or tables?” (596b) It is not clear whether Plato intends the craftsman to look to a Platonic Form or whether the craftsman simply has a wide range of experience with a class of physical objects.

6 Reeve states in a footnote to this passage that any attempt at interpreting the craftsman as having direct access to the Forms would go directly against the “entire thrust of the Republic.Rethinking Plato’s Conception of Knowledge 329 In fact. In order for the Kallipolis to function. Reeve attempts to reconcile Book X in the following way. but only because he is ‘compelled to listen’ to the user who ‘has knowledge about them’ (601e7–602a1). it is clear that Plato allows the horseman to have knowledge. the craftsman is the maker. D.161. and the user of crafts is simply the one who uses that which the craftsman makes. according to Reeve. but only someone who knows how to use them. 294–295. a horseman? (601e) Whether or not the other craftsmen (the cobbler and the metal-worker) have knowledge. in Book X there is evidence against the claim that the craftsman has knowledge. A flute-player. while the maker follows his instruction. 601d–e is consistent with the claim that the craftsman does not have knowledge. Brought to you by | Fordham University Library Authenticated | 150. and one that imitates it. one that uses it. not autonomously like someone who exercises scientific-thought. The standard approach to overcoming this problem. Or is it the case that even the cobbler and metal-worker who make them do not know this (how the reins and mouth bit have to be). one that makes it. therefore. the philosopher-king. However.108. is to maintain that A is Plato’s true view of the development of knowledge. note 37. Ibid. of course. the philosopher must be the user of the products of crafts! But nowhere does Plato state that philosophers are the only users of products of crafts. etc. The craftsman is a maker.” The artist (whether poet. for those scholars who notice the problem at all. C. At 601d. 86. or about any of the other kinds of things ‘to which we apply the same name’ – is. Socrates makes explicit the relationship between craftsman and knower: It is wholly necessary. in it Plato explicitly tells us that the users of craft do have knowledge. painter. At 601d-e. the argument in Book III (394e–395d) con6 7 Reeve 1988. Socrates establishes. someone who exercises folk-wisdom.) is the imitator. And the user who has knowledge about beds. that the user of each thing has most experience of it and that he tell a maker which of his products performs well or badly in actual use.”7 Reeve interprets the problematic passages above to be consistent with A even though it forces him to adopt a very unnatural view of the philosopher-ruler. For example. tells a flute-maker about the flutes that respond well in actual playing and prescribes what kind of flutes he is to make. namely. C.71 Download Date | 5/2/13 2:00 PM . In fact. He has ‘true belief’ about what kind of beds he should make. “That for each thing there are these three crafts. for example.

those who accept A agree that in the Republic 8 9 Only a few lines later (at 428d).” However. according to Plato. if we stand by A we must hold that the philosopher. of course is “no. at the very least. It follows. like Fine. This suggests that the cognitive power used by the craftsman as a craftsman is as reliable as that used by the philosopher as a philosopher. that we must accept that the user of products of crafts. A second problem arises from the fact that it is highly counter-intuitive to claim that the craftsman and the user of craft products are invariably two different individuals. it seems that non-philosophers. Martinez cerning the role that imitation should play in ruling is an explicit statement that the rulers will only be concerned with statecraft. this passage suggests that the carpenters in a city do possess some form of knowledge. that all knowledge is knowledge of Forms. expert. it is not only in Book X that Plato states that some knowledge is held by the non-philosopher. The fol- Brought to you by | Fordham University Library Authenticated | 150.161. are committed to A is so vast that I cannot hope to acknowledge all of the appropriate commitment to it here. (340e) The craftsman.108. or cognitive access to the Forms. No craftsman. like the philosopher. In Book I. and in regard to that error he is no craftsman. is the user and the maker of the cobbler’s tools. In Book IV. in some instances. be harmful for the guardians to be involved in other crafts. that the city is to be called wise and sound in judgment?” (428b) The answer. It seems. This conclusion is in direct opposition to A.9 First. Plato makes a distinction between a kind of knowledge that helps determine the maintenance of the city and knowledge possessed by some individuals that is not concerned with the ruling of the city. that the philosopher-ruler is not the only one to have knowledge. such as flute players. cannot err qua craftsman. therefore. So. Certainly the cobbler uses her own tools. even though everyone will say that a physician or a ruler makes errors.330 Joel A.71 Download Date | 5/2/13 2:00 PM . So. According to Plato. must have knowledge. Socrates states that: It’s when his knowledge fails him that he makes an error. though not the kind to produce a city “wise and sound in judgment”. Plato is very clear. I will look closer at this passage in section III.8 II. since she has knowledge. however. Furthermore. The Commentator’s Premises Three key elements are common to the views of commentators who are committed to A. It would. The number of commentators who. Plato also states: “Is it because of knowledge possessed by its carpenters. must have cognitive access to the Forms. the cobbler has knowledge of her tools. at the end of Book V. the flute-player must not be a philosopher. then. or ruler makes an error at the moment when he is ruling. But.

However.12 According to Reeve. it is not that simple.. 1981.108. Finally. that is.D. 85. if we abandon A. Smith 1996. hence. Brought to you by | Fordham University Library Authenticated | 150. Stokes 1992.Rethinking Plato’s Conception of Knowledge 331 Plato is referring to knowledge of all types in his explanation of how the philosopher develops knowledge. on this view. they suppose that only the philosopher can have knowledge – indeed it is in virtue of having knowledge at all that the philosopher holds a unique position in society. Likewise. The philosopher-ruler is the only individual who can have knowledge of any Form. Moral Knowledge and Knowledge in General In section I. Cross & Woozley 1966. Second. Kraut 1973. the only way one can gain knowledge of anything.. not only how to make the best kind of polis. But these passages seem to directly contradict the claim that. Prichard 1966. the philosopher has knowledge of all Forms and. for example. Finally.161. Hall 1974. Ferguson 1922. following the first feature above. 10 11 12 lowing provide examples of the relevant commitment: Brickhouse 1981. C. any kind of knowledge). Ibid. And no one can know the good itself unless he has mastered the mathematical sciences and dialectic and has fifteen years’ experience in practical politics.C. The users of craft and the craftsmen themselves both have knowledge of some things. III. Malcolm 1962. From the knowledge of the Good itself. Those who do not have the opportunity and the ability to engage in dialectic can never have knowledge. Reeve 1988.71 Download Date | 5/2/13 2:00 PM . is as a derivative of knowledge of the Good itself. everything. the three epistemic allegories are descriptions of the only way one goes about attaining knowledge of anything (that is. only the philosopher has knowledge. knowledge is only to be had from the type of education Plato describes in the Republic. Reeve. 108. The consequences of this approach would involve reinterpreting important passages in the Republic. Plato is not just explaining the knowledge of the form of the Good in the Republic. the education of the philosopher-ruler.10 He states: “No one can know a form unless he knows the good itself. explicitly accepts the premise that only the philosopher-rulers have knowledge. Ibid. Of course. Italics are mine. Vlastos 1981. then the tension no longer exists. in the Republic.”11 Reeve further states: It is an easy inference from the account of the relation of forms to the good itself that the philosopher-king alone knows. I pointed to several places outside Book X where Plato states that non-philosophers have knowledge. according to Reeve. but also how to make every good thing that can be made.

in doing. For example. justice. and these types of knowledge were attained in different ways. the epistemic allegories do not tell us how knowledge in general is developed. it is held that it is only the philosopher who leaves the cave. At this point we can see more precisely where the tension arises and. ruling) is developed. knowledge of justice. but instead primarily at the attainment of moral knowledge. moral knowledge is a kind of practical knowledge. according to Plato. but instead tell us how knowledge of morality (and. Martinez There are a number of problems which must be dealt with before exploring other proposals. hence. If we abandon this view. Because the higher education system is not aimed at the attainment of knowledge in general. The people who ascend out of the cave are still the philosophers. knowledge of flutes. and so have knowledge. i.108. If so.” rather it is between one with moral knowledge and one without moral knowledge. Brought to you by | Fordham University Library Authenticated | 150. hence.71 Download Date | 5/2/13 2:00 PM . for example.332 Joel A. i. but knowledge of. then it would seem that both philosophers and non-philosophers can ascend out of the cave. Likewise. The traditional understanding of the epistemic allegories assumes that they are concerned with knowledge in general. It is in virtue of this knowledge that they occupy the position they do in the Kallipolis.g. so see exactly where we must amend our interpretation of the Republic. flute playing).161. The philosophers have knowledge of moral Forms. but ascending out of the cave does not symbolize the general pursuit of knowledge. First. possibly. if non-philosophers can have knowledge then it seems they can also have access to the Forms. while the flute-player has practical knowledge. then why does Plato stress that non-philosophers are like prisoners chained in the cave? Traditionally. say moral knowledge and knowledge of a particular practical sphere (e. then what do the epistemic allegories tell us? If the epistemic allegories are to be interpreted as the only process for attaining knowledge of anything. the distinction is not straightforwardly between knower and “opiner. It is not just knowledge that distinguishes philosophers from non-philosophers. we avoid the contradiction. Only 13 This interpretation is consistent with the view that.13 However. Moral knowledge could simply be a more important and. if there were more than one type of knowledge. the philosopher could still occupy a unique position in the Kallipolis.e. It is the ability to travel out of the cave that allows the philosopher to gain access to the Forms and. wide-ranging type of practical knowledge. then we could hold there to be an important epistemic distinction between the philosopher and non-philosopher. The philosopher has moral knowledge. If we abandon assumption A and accept that non-philosophers have access to the Forms. knowledge.e. if philosophers are not the only ones with knowledge then why should they rule? Second.

and only if. according to Plato.108. Accordingly. as radical as it may sound. however.71 Download Date | 5/2/13 2:00 PM . Ferguson. T. I am not proposing that. as opposed to knowledge of the Good and those things that are knowable and derived from the Good. Companions to Ancient Thought 1: Epistemology. both internally and with other cities? There is indeed. Brought to you by | Fordham University Library Authenticated | 150. Different citizens know different things. My view requires a reinterpretation of important passages of the Republic. G. In the epistemic allegories. This statement is not. in the context of the Republic we should not assume that Plato is primarily concerned with knowledge in general.. and it is this moral knowledge that gives the philosopher her distinct place as the rightful ruler of the Kallipolis. 15–28. 1966.Rethinking Plato’s Conception of Knowledge 333 those who will gain moral knowledge are depicted in this allegory. Only the philosopher has moral knowledge. S. but the knowledge that is important for the functioning and ruling of the city is that knowledge held by the guardians. C. The text seems to support this reading of Plato. 1922. and it is only their education that is prescribed in Book VII. What is this knowledge. In section I. It is the possession of this knowledge that is most significant for determining who should rule in the Kallipolis. Plato is concerned with moral knowledge. non-philosophers are knowledgeable in the way that philosopher-rulers are. and preferable to A. The most obvious example of such knowledge is knowledge of Justice. C. 1981. In Ed. 1990. “The Paradox of the Philosophers’ Rule”. is there some knowledge possessed by some of the citizens in the city we just founded that doesn’t judge about any particular matter but the city as a whole and the maintenance of good relations. Part II: The Allegory of the Cave”. not knowledge in general. I mentioned this passage between Glaucon and Socrates: Then. 1–9. “Plato’s Simile of Light. Everson. one is a philosopher.161. R. Classical Quarterly 16. (428d) In this passage Plato appears to acknowledge that there is a distinction between types of knowledge – knowledge that judges particular matters but not the city as a whole. Cambridge. My proposal can best be summarized by reformulating a new epistemic principle developed in the Republic which I hold to be consistent with the rest of the Republic. and who has it? It is guardianship. Plato’s Republic: A Philosophical Commentary. Woozley A. “Knowledge and Belief in Republic V–VII”. S. A. A* states: one has moral knowledge if. London and New York. and it is possessed by those rulers we just now called complete guardians. Fine. Bibliography Brickhouse. Cross. Apeiron 15. D. call it A*.

Princeton. 58– 75. Sesonske. Kraut. 1973. Plato’s Republic: Interpretation and Criticism. R. 103–32.334 Joel A. C. 58–65. “Plato’s Political Analogy: Fallacy or Analogy?” Journal of the History of Philosophy 12. N.71 Download Date | 5/2/13 2:00 PM . Reeve. J. (tr). H. In Eds E. N. Edmonton. 419–35. “The Line and the Cave”. D. Smith.161. Malcolm. In Eds A.108. 1996. “Justice in the Republic”. A. 1981. Assen. D. “Plato’s Republic”. R. In Ed. M. In Platonic Studies. Revised by Reeve. “Plato and Sightlovers of the Republic”. 1992. Vlastos. CD C Indianapolis. G. G. M. The Language of the Cave. P. Netherlands. 38–45. 1–22. Prichard. “Degrees of Reality in Plato”.” Ancient Philosophy 16. M. A. Exegesis and Argument. Princeton. R. Mourelatos. Martinez Grube. “Plato’s Divided Line. J. 1966. C. Classical Quarterly 31. M. Alberta. 1981. Belmont. Barker. Malcolm. Rorty. 1992. D. Lee. 1988. Stokes. Hall. Brought to you by | Fordham University Library Authenticated | 150. “The Cave Revisited”. Warner. 60–68. Philosopher-Kings. Phronesis 7. A. A. 1962. 1974. “Reason and Justice in Plato’s Republic”.