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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Two Kinds Of Knowledge In Plato's Gorgias

Provoked by some Facebook posts by Jason Stanley (Yale) and an ensuing discussion with Jason and Michael Morris (Sussex), I've been arguing for a certain interpretation of Plato's distinction between medicine and cookery, or, more generally, between crafts and knacks.  By "crafts" we might take Plato to mean arts or skills, or perhaps even what today would be called "sciences."  The difficult question concerns what Plato means by "knacks," and whether or not they entail a particular kind of knowledge.

In Gorgias (463a), Socrates refers to knacks as parts of flattery, which he calls "the habit of a bold and ready wit, which knows how to manage mankind."  In another translation, flattery is defined as "a shrewd, gallant spirit which has a natural bent for clever dealing with mankind."  Both translations indicate that flattery entails knowledge: either it is knowledge how to manage mankind, or it is whatever knowledge is required for clever dealings with mankind.  (Cleverness is a variety of intelligence, and philosophers of my and Jason Stanley's ilk will argue that intelligence always entails knowledge.)  This is concrete and direct evidence that Plato thought flattery entailed knowledge.  While Jason Stanley does not think this passage is sufficient to prove that Plato thought knacks entailed knowledge, he has not attempted to give us an alternate reading of the passage.

Instead of countering my interpretation of 463a, Jason drew my attention to two other passages in Gorgias.  First, on page 464, Socrates says cookery (one part of flattery) "assumes the form of medicine, and pretends to know what foods are best for the body."  Clearly, then, cookery entails a certain ignorance.  Shortly before that, Socrates also says that flattery "divides herself" into parts (such as cookery) by mere speculation or guesswork, and not according to knowledge of her principles.  The implication is that flattery does not know the nature of her own principles.  Cookery, for example, does not proceed by a knowledge of reasons or principles, but by some other means.  Thus, I responded that while Plato is clearly drawing our attention to a lack of knowledge, it is not necessarily a lack of knowledge simpliciter.  It is rather a lack of knowledge of reasons/principles.  The implication is that knacks entail knowledge without knowledge of reasons/principles.

The same argument applies to the second passage Jason drew to my attention, on page 465.  Here Socrates says that flattery "aims at pleasure without any thought of the best. An art I do not call it, but only an experience, because it is unable to explain or to give a reason of the nature of its own applications. And I do not call any irrational thing an art."  In another translation, it reads: "it aims at the pleasant and ignores the best; and I say it is not an art, but a habitude, since it has no account to give of the real nature of the things it applies, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them. I refuse to give the name of art to anything that is irrational."  This is perfectly consistent with what I have already said:  flatteries, such as cookery, are ignorant of their reasons and principles, but attempt to please people through repetition of habits.  The learning and repetition of a habit surely entails knowledge.

However, Jason Stanley and Michael Morris are not convinced.  Their main point of contention has to do with how we should translate the Greek word "stochazetai," which is translated in the two versions above as "aims."  They prefer another translation (found in the Dodds version). Instead of flattery "aiming" at what is pleasant, they say flattery "guesses at" what is pleasant.  Perhaps that is a better translation, perhaps not.  I'm not convinced one way or the other.  (Michael's argument for "guesses at" is that it is consistent with the contrast Plato is drawing between knacks and knowledge; but this only begs the question, since I am questioning that any such contrast is being made.)  But it doesn't matter which translation we choose.  What matters is that both translations are consistent with my argument.

Flattery does not proceed according to knowledge of its ends.  It does not entail the application of reasons which could explain or justify its procedures.  And so, in a sense, cookery is ignorant of pleasure.  Cookery does not proceed by drawing conclusions about pleasure from reasons.  It does not pursue knowledge of pleasure at all.  It "guesses at" pleasure, but only in the sense that it hopes to produce pleasure without having reasons/principles which could explain or justify its procedure.  Thus, I wrote:

even if we do interpret it as "guesses at pleasure" or "guesses at what is pleasant," it still seems that knacks can entail a sort of knowledge. Namely, knowledge of how to carry out a habit which guesses at pleasure without knowing (from reasons) how to bring pleasure about. And Plato does repeatedly refer to knacks as habits, and as involving routine and recollection, and even "knowing how to manage mankind."
I see no evidence at all that Plato regards knacks (and flattery in general) as entailing a complete lack of knowledge.  The evidence rather suggests that knacks entail a lack of knowledge of a particular sort:  knowledge of reasons/principles which could explain/justify their procedures.

In my most recent comment to Jason, I strengthened my argument as follows:
a brief argument should make the case for my reading even more persuasive. Socrates notes that there is a difference between "having learned" and "having believed," and this is meant to illustrate the difference between knowledge and belief. Wouldn't Socrates allow that one can learn how to cook? If so, that implies that cooking entails knowledge. What makes it merely a knack, then, is in how the learning occurs: by repeating what has already been done. This is opposed to learning crafts: In crafts, learning occurs through instruction based on principles/reasons. So we have two kinds of knowledge: one involves mere habit, based on recollection; the other involves the application of reasons.