Socrates on the consistency of epistemological systems

Socrates on the consistency of epistemological systems

In the Platonic dialogues — specifically Euthyphro and Meno — we are presented with Socrates1. views on knowledge. Socrates seems to support a view that no theory — in this case of virtue — can establish itself as a virtuous theory. This is reminiscent of Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem in a sense, though Socrates’ “solution” is notably different.

First, to briefly cover the problem which Socrates presents. When speaking with his fellows, Socrates inquires about virtue, and asks both Euthyphro and Meno to give him a definition of the concepts as a whole. Both speakers start by giving specific examples, though both struggle when asked for a definition which covers all virtues. Socrates is looking here for the term which connects two otherwise separate statements, in the dialogues, this is sometimes referred to as the form of virtue.

While Euthyphro fails to ascent to the challenge, the dialogue with Meno makes a more thorough attempt. Socrates entertains two major ideas in this dialogue, though both being very much related. The first concerns the idea that nothing whatsoever is actually taught, but rather that all evident things work trough recollection. Socrates displays this with an example of geometry. If these statements were to be true, they must point to some way in which the knowledge was imbued in the first place, to be recollected later. This is where the second part comes in, that concerning divine inspiration. Socrates suggests that those with knowledge are “no different from prophets”. Relying on the divine is this matter though is merely a specific example or a wider range of possible approaches. The question we have concerns the acquisition of knowledge altogether, but for any source we may use, we wish to know whether it is accurate. The approach which Socrates’ turn to divinity may be classified under is the turning to foreign systems. A consistent theory of knowledge cannot prove its own consistency, so a different element is needed, in this case that element is faith. Rather than faith in the divine, we may also turn to faith in our instincts, our forebears, or in specific mental states. This approach is not limited to faith however, as the only limiting factor is that the acquisition of knowledge must not rely on knowledge alone.

Ultimately however, a sceptic may criticize this turn away from knowledge in order to get knowledge and therefore land in general philosophical scepticism. The sceptic may argue that we cannot know that our instincts are accurate, that our forebears were accurate, or that our mental states are accurate. In doing so, the sceptic would entirely miss the point of taking the step outside of knowledge, though it would remain a difficult point to argue on as we are now left without any knowledge to rely on.

  1. I have not yet studied this field to an extent where I would be comfortable discerning between Socrates’ views and Plato’s. When I write “Socrates” in this essay therefore, I am simply referring to the character in the Platonic dialogues.