Plato’s Views on The Concept of Human Knowledge

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Words: 1101 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

Words: 1101|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Feb 8, 2022

The question of what humankind knows and is able to know has been pondered by many of the most influential minds in human history. One such thinker was Plato, who authored many influential dialogues during his time on earth. Plato was mentored by the philosopher Socrates, who was executed by the Athenian government in the year 399 B.C. for “corrupting the young” with his teachings. This injustice affected Plato so greatly that he began pursuing philosophy as a career, making it his mission to immortalize Socrates in written form. One of Socrates’ most (in)famous ideas was that no one really “knows” anything; he made it a point to constantly question “every assumption about virtue, wisdom and the good life” (Socrates 1). The argument that one’s knowledge is never complete can be reinforced by the Slave Boy/Geometric Experiment, and the Allegories of the Line and Cave, introduced by Plato in Meno and Republic, respectively.

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In Plato’s Meno, the main issue at hand is attempting to define virtue, which is an ultimately fruitless endeavor in the text. However, the dialogue between Meno and Socrates has deeper themes than just finding what virtue is; it gives insight as to what knowledge is - according to Plato - and how it is developed. Plato seems to subscribe to the idea of reincarnation, but this doctrine is not entirely literal. In Meno, Socrates performs what is referred to as the Slave Boy/Geometric Experiment in response to Meno’s paradox, which states that if one knows what they are looking for, there is no reason to seek after knowledge, but if one doesn’t know, then they cannot seek after knowledge. Socrates calls this a “debater’s argument” and begins the experiment to counter this dilemma (Meno 80e). As the Slave Boy/Geometric Experiment is difficult to describe without the aid of drawings, I will only give a give a brief description in this essay before I begin analyzing the significance. The basic outline of the experiment goes as follows. Socrates brings forth a slave boy, and draws a square with an area of 4 feet divided into 4 equal sections. He then poses the question: “what would the length of each side of a square be with double the area (8 feet) of this square?” The slave boy is stumped at first, but Socrates walks him through the process without explicitly giving him the answer until they arrive at the answer. Socrates concludes that since the slave boy did not have formal training in geometry, but understood the concepts and was able to reach the correct answer, that he must have known these concepts in a past life (Meno 82c-85e). However, this statement should not be interpreted literally, as Plato’s idea of reincarnation is better explained as The Theory of Recollection, which follows the Allegory of the Line.

The idea behind the Theory of Recollection is that “forms” constitute reality, and we all have an exposure to and understanding of these forms before we are born, but (in a sense) forget everything upon being born and have to “recall” our knowledge. Ergo, learning is recollection, and recollection should be sought after - according to Plato. The Allegory of the Line shows Socrates drawing another diagram, but in this case it is a line divided into 4 unequal parts. Each section of the line represents a different level of knowledge, with each subsequent section requiring the previous to exist. The sections are - in order of first to last - Imagination, Belief, Thought, Understanding (Republic 510a). Imagination is explained as a kind of shadow/illusion of the true forms of reality, and Belief is an opinion/trust formed by these phantasms. Thought is described as viewing the true forms of reality, and Understanding is what is reached by pondering these true forms. In a sense, the line is describing the pursuit of knowledge; moving from viewing the effects of reality to eventually understanding the causes. Plato stresses that Understanding is hard to come by, and no one will just stumble across it. One must spend one’s life searching and learning in order to reach this understanding.

The Allegory of the Cave is - in a sense - a narrative version of the Line. The story goes like so. There is a group of people who have spent their entire lives in a cave, bound and fixed in a position facing a wall, where all they see and hear is the shadows and voices of other people carrying objects across the room, illuminated by a fire behind the people bound and fixed. So, to the people bound, the shadows are reality. Eventually, someone comes and unties one person, and they come to realize that the people moving the objects across the room are the reality, not the shadows. Then, that person starts to wonder if there is more to life than these people, so they move outside. There, they view the real world, and begin to develop an understanding of life.

The Allegory of the Cave illustrates the main idea behind the Allegory of the Line, and helps develop the idea that one’s knowledge is never complete. One must experience things in order to learn/recollect, and one is always experiencing new things. In the cave, the shadows were all that the bound people were experiencing; the shadows were all that these people knew (this can be understood as Imagination from the Line). But once freed from the restraints, they were able to see what was controlling those shadows, which ignited their curiosity (this could be Belief). As they move out of the cave, they begin to see life in its true form and begin the process of learning the truth (Thought). Finally, they experience the Forms, triggering their recollection and knowledge (Understanding). The knowledge that one learns requires a catalyst, and that catalyst cannot always be controlled. In other words, no one will experience everything in their lifetime. Therefore, one’s understanding may never be complete, but as Plato says in Meno, it is always important to seek after knowledge and recollection.

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Much of Plato’s writings were focused on immortalizing his teacher, Socrates, by providing insight to his pursuit of knowledge. One of Socrates’ biggest ideas was that one could never know everything (or even anything, but that’s an entirely different topic), and this can be shown in Plato’s Meno and Republic with the Slave Boy/Geometric Experiment, and the Allegories of the Line and Cave. These portions of Plato’s dialogues show his views on knowledge as recollection, and also provide solid arguments for why one should always be in the pursuit of knowledge, even if one can never complete it

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Plato’s Views On The Concept Of Human Knowledge. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from
“Plato’s Views On The Concept Of Human Knowledge.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
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