Knowledge is a subject with many interesting characteristics. For instance, it is handed down from one generation to the next and in this way can survive for thousands of years. This handing on can happen in many different ways, be it a father telling his son, folk songs narrating stories, written on scrolls or a certain sequence of zeros and ones on a computer drive.
But knowledge not only duplicates but it multiplies. Marie Freifrau von Ebner-Eschenbach, a German author who lived around the turn of the twentieth century, inspired an meaningful quote which goes as follows: “Knowledge is the only good that multiplies when you share it.”  And one of mankind’s greatest characteristics is its pursuit of sharing knowledge. One very recent account of this will of human beings to share and spread it with as many as possible is the emergence of Internet encyclopedia projects, one example of these being Wikipedia. Earlier this year, the website celebrated its 10 years anniversary. During this decade, the number of articles on the website has experienced a growth to currently over 18 millions articles in 279 languages. Articles can be found on a vast range of subjects, a much broader range than a written encyclopedia could provide. With prices of some written encyclopedias as high as several thousand pounds, Wikipedia entries are meant to be accessible for free to everyone with a computer and internet connection. In the same manner everyone is meant to be able to contribute to new articles and amend existing ones. Every day, thousands of people do exactly this: voluntarily contribute their knowledge on a topic to collaboratively word an article that makes the information available to as many as possible. (Stocker 2011)
So knowledge of things, ideas and workings has always been of importance and was sought after very much. This made it important to also think about the concept of knowledge itself. Over millennia people have tried to figure out the nature of knowledge and find an appropriate definition for it, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates being one of them. Before him and after his time many others thought about the topic as well, following on his ideas or coming up with completely different understandings of the concept of knowledge. But much as this was discussed in earlier times, it is of just as much importance today.
This essay will first shortly look at Socrates and how we know about his ideas and philosophy nowadays, seeing that we don’t have any texts about it written by himself. It will go on to consider why, to Socrates, knowledge is of such importance. The following part will then focus on what knowledge is to Socrates. Extracts of the texts “Meno” and “Charmides” will support the mentioned arguments. The final part includes a conclusion on the discussed questions.
Knowledge for Socrates
What we know about Socrates’ philosophy and ideas today is not based on texts written by the philosopher himself. Even though he was known to take part in many a verbal dispute he never really wrote the ideas of his philosophy down. What has survived of his thoughts until today is what can be found in texts other authors composed about him. But retelling someone else’s ideas is of course selective and often the author would use Socrates the philosopher as a character in his work to bring across his own philosophical views. The various accounts of Socrates’ philosophy written by Plato, Xenophon and others differ in many places. Isidor F.Stone suggests in his book The Trial of Socrates that no “undisputable answer” (Stone, 1989: 5) can be found to the question of what the actual historical Socrates was. Nonetheless, a comparison between the works of the aforementioned authors brings out common features in their works on Socrates and with a “substantial probability” (Stone, 1989: 5) these depict the ‘real’ Socrates.
It seems that Socrates was in constant search for definitions, his “inquiries were directed to the establishing of general definitions of virtues.” (Gulley, 1968, 2) Why he was so keen on developing such a knowledge will be discussed later in this essay. His way of finding a definition was often the same: He would try to get a person – who claims to be knowledgeable in the field Socrates is trying to find answers in – to discuss with him what an appropriate definition of the topic would be. And this he did by using a “dialectical method in the general sense of a conversational method, one which proceeds by question and answer and elicits admissions from an interlocutor.” (Gulley, 1968: 4) This back and forth between Socrates and his dialogue partner would frequently take place in the market square in Athens or in a private home. In many of Socrates’ discussions a number of other people would also take part and contribute different amounts of input to the debate.
Why does Socrates consider knowledge to be of such importance?
According to Socrates, we all do what we do in a pursuit of happiness. No one wants to be unhappy and doing what someone knows is wrong would lead the person to feel miserable and, in time, unhappy. This is because the person sees the detrimental consequences such an action would eventually have on his or her life. If a person did something bad, it must have been that, at the time, the person was under the assumption the bad thing he or she did was actually the right thing to do. In the following, some quotes of Socrates will try to bring out this above-mentioned train of thoughts.
Socrates is convinced that no one would want to be unhappy. An extract of Plato’s Meno, in which the philosopher discusses virtue and human nature with mainly one other character called Meno, will highlight this. At some point, Socrates asks his dialogue partner the following rather rhetoric question:
aˆzSocrates: Well, is there anyone who wants to be in a bad way and unhappy?
Meno: I don’t think so, Socrates.
Socrates: No one wants bad things”
Not only do human beings not want to be unhappy, “happiness is also the most important thing to value. [aˆ¦] Everything else we value, that is, everything else we count as a good, we value because and only because we believe that it in some way contributes to happiness.” (Brickhouse and Smith, 2004: 101 f.) Furthermore, Socrates didn’t believe a person would willingly do wrong. Someone would only do bad if he or she didn’t know better, if the person mistook it for the right, the good thing to do. Ignorance, to Socrates, is vice. Wrong-doing can always be ascribed to the wrongdoer’s ignorance about what the right thing would have been. This is illustrated in another extract from the text Meno: After having put the question to Meno whether he thinks some people desire bad things, Socrates himself states the following:
“Socrates: [W]hen people don’t recognize something bad as bad, it’s not that they’re desiring something bad; they desire what they take to be good, even though in actual fact it’s bad. And this means that people who fail to recognize something bad as bad, and take it to be good, are obviously desiring something good, aren’t they?”
(Meno, 77c f.)
To put it in very few words, for Socrates knowledge is virtue. People having the knowledge of what is good and bad would lead to people inevitably doing the right thing. As Norman Gulley describes in his book The Philosophy of Socrates, the philosopher Socrates makes such an effort to find general definitions because he is convinced that moral knowledge (see below) entails knowing about the definitions of goodness and other virtues such as courage and justice. Even more so, “possessing this moral knowledge is a necessary and sufficient condition of being good and hence of doing what is good.” (Gulley, 1968: 9)
What is knowledge to Socrates?
Socrates broadly distinguishes between two sorts of knowledge. One is moral knowledge which comprises of knowing what is good and bad, knowing about virtue and virtues. The other is what could be called expert knowledge, knowing about specialized skills, craftsmanship. The latter kind of knowledge is not knowledge about ‘the most important thing’, which, as mentioned above, is happiness. What is good about it “is good simply in virtue of its contribution to one’s happiness.” (Brickhouse and Smith, 1987: 3) Thus it is inferior to the former because moral knowledge enables a person to do exactly this: By applying it, one knows how to use his or her other resources and expert knowledge in the best possible way and so work efficiently towards the goal of happiness. In the following extract is demonstrated how Socrates explains the superiority of moral knowledge over all other forms of knowledge. It is taken from Plato’s Charmides, in which Socrates recounts a dialogue. His main interlocutor is a man named Critias with whom he had been discussing which form of knowledge makes a man happy when they come to the following conclusion:
“‘But the one which is most like it is the one I’m after,’ I [Socrates] said, ‘which is the branch of knowledge that enables him to know what?’ ‘The one which enables him to know what is good and what is bad,’ he said. ‘Damn you!’ I said. ‘You’ve been leading me astray all this time! You’ve been concealing the fact that it isn’t living in conformity with knowledge that causes us to thrive and be happy–or at least that it isn’t the possession of all the other branches of knowledge, but just this one branch, which is concerned with good and bad. After all, Critias, what difference does it make if you detach this particular branch of knowledge from all the rest? The art of healing will still make us healthy, won’t it? The art of shoemaking will still provide us with footwear and the art of weaving with clothes, won’t they? Helmsmanship and generalship will still stop us dying at sea or in war, won’t they?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But without this particular branch of knowledge, Critias, my friend, there’s no chance that any of these products will turn out well and will do us good.’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Apparently, then, this particular branch of knowledge isn’t self-control but the branch of knowledge whose function is to do us good. I mean, it isn’t the knowledge of cases of knowledge and of lack of knowledge, but of good and bad.’”
(Charmides, 174b – 174d)
In other words, only knowledge of virtue, moral knowledge, will enable a person to make best use of his other resources. The breadth of its “field of application” (Gulley, 1968: 84) spans over that of all these other forms of knowledge, the specialized skills and thus makes it more important than other forms of knowledge.
The term ‘Knowledge is virtue and ignorance is vice’ basically answers the questions of what knowledge is to Socrates and why he thinks it plays such an important role if explained a little further. By saying ‘knowledge is virtue’ he is talking about a certain kind of knowledge, namely moral knowledge. A person who is well grounded in this knows both what the ‘most important thing’ is – happiness – and how to make the best of what he or she is given in terms of physical and mental capabilities, material resources etc. in his or her pursuit of this ‘most important thing’. ‘Ignorance is vice’ expresses Socrates’ belief that bad can only stem from not knowing what the right thing would have been; the decision that led a person to choose the wrong over the right action must have been under the wrong assumption that the bad was actually the right thing to do. If a person knows the good, he or she cannot act otherwise than this because he or she knows that eventually, choosing the ‘bad’ will lead to unhappiness in his or her life which is, as can be seen above, desirable to no one.
The importance of knowledge thus lies in the inevitable consequence of moral knowledge that knowing the good, the right, people cannot act otherwise than follow this knowledge and do the right thing which then helps them find happiness.
The phrase “knowledge is power” was coined several centuries ago by Francis Bacon and until today hasn’t lost any of its validity. In the knowledge-based society we live in today, it has widely come to be accepted. To mention only two aspects of the many far-reaching implications this belief brings about: more and more people aspire to get a degree in higher education and companies pay vast amounts of money to employ (and keep in their employment) the most knowledgeable persons in the field.
Considering what crucial parts knowledge and information are of our lives, a thorough understanding of what ‘knowledge’ actually means and implies can’t be valued enough.