knowing what we think we know

Definitions of knowledge have eluded philosophers since before Plato’s Theaetetus.


The official conclusion of the Theaetetus is that we still do not know how to define knowledge. Even on the most sceptical reading, this is not to say that we have not learned anything about what knowledge is like. As Theaetetus says (210b5), he has given birth to far more than he had in him.

And as many interpreters have seen, there may be much more to the ending than that. It may even be that, in the last two pages of the Theaetetus, we have seen hints of Plato’s own answer to the puzzle. Perhaps understanding has emerged from the last discussion, as wisdom did from 145d-e, as the key ingredient without which no true beliefs alone can even begin to look like they might count as knowledge. Perhaps it is only when we, the readers, understand this point—that epistemological success in the last resort depends on having epistemological virtue—that we begin not only to have true beliefs about what knowledge is, but to understand knowledge.

source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Plato on Knowledge in the Theaetetus.


Theaetetus’ third definition of knowledge is ‘true belief with an account (meta logou alêthê doxan)’. In this sense, knowledge is a qualified belief. You can believe something that is (in fact) false, but you can not know something that is false. We know what we think we know, and our thinking can turn out to be incorrect, in which case it turns out that we did not know it, we believed it. Believing something that is untrue is false belief. It is absurd to say that we know something that is (unknowingly to us) in fact untrue. There is false belief, but not false knowledge; false knowledge turns out to be false belief. We do not know which of our knowledge we will consider to be false belief in the future. Furthermore, we do not know which of our knowledge is in fact just a false belief that we will never identify as such.

Socrates ends the Thaeatetus with a rejection of all the definitions of knowledge that were offered, including the true belief with rationalization, since rationalization is a type of knowledge about the uniqueness or composition of something, making the definition circular (knowledge is true belief plus knowledge). The exercise was not in vain, however, since it is better to admit than to pretend to know something that is not known, like the definition of knowledge.

[Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from Jan 1, 2007]

difference between a theory and a law

There is a subtle but crucial difference between scientific theories and laws.

Laws are generalizations about what has happened, from which we can generalize about what we expect to happen. They pertain to observational data. The ability of the ancients to predict eclipses had nothing to do with whether they knew just how they happened; they had a law but not a theory.# Theories are explanations of observations (or of laws). The fact that we have a pretty good understanding of how stars explode doesn’t necessarily mean we could predict the next supernova; we have a theory but not a law.source: Dan Berger, MadSciNet

Thus, we have the law of gravity, and the theory of evolution. A theory does not become a law through a hierarchical promotion due to the collection of more and more supporting evidence.

McComas, William wrote, “
The problem created by the false hierarchical nature inherent in this myth [hypotheses become theories which become laws] is that theories and laws are very different kinds of knowledge. Of course there is a relationship between laws and theories, but one simply does not become the other–no matter how much empirical evidence is amassed. Laws are generalizations, principles or patterns in nature and theories are the explanations of those generalizations (Rhodes & Schaible, 1989; Homer & Rubba, 1979; Campbell, 1953).

source: “Ten myths of science: Reexamining what we think we know….,” Vol. 96, School Science & Mathematics, 01-01-1996, pp 10.

[Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from Feb 26, 2006]

epistemology and the scientific method

William M. Trochim (Cornell University) has put together a research methods knowledge base that contains a good introduction to positivism, post-positivism and critical realism, the difference between induction and deduction, and the concept of validity.


Where the positivist believed that the goal of science was to uncover the truth, the post-positivist critical realist believes that the goal of science is to hold steadfastly to the goal of getting it right about reality, even though we can never achieve that goal! 

[Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from Feb 7, 2006]

Arthur Shopenhauer

Even though I may not agree with many of his claims, I think that Arthur Schopenhauer was a good writer. He was one of the first Western philosophers to have access to translations of Vedic and Buddhist texts, and it is clear that he was profoundly influenced by them. The synthesis of Western and Eastern thought found in Schopenhauer, together with his poetic soul reaching out for enlightenment in aesthetics and the fine arts makes him one of the most enjoyable writers I have ever read.

Schopenhauer’s metaphysics is based on descriptions of the will and representation, distinctions between subject and object, and the body as an immediate object of the will.


Every dogmatic transcendental philosophy is an attempt to construe the thing in itself according to laws of appearance, which is like trying to make two absolute dissimilar bodies cover one another, an attempt which always fails because however you may turn them this or that corner always portrudes.

source: On the Antithesis of Thing in Itself and Appearance. A. Schopenhauer

I’ll end this post with a quote from On Philosophy and the Intellect:

It is quite natural that we should adopt a defensive and negative attitude towards every new opinion concernings something on which we have already an opinion of our own. For it forces its way as an enemy into the previously closed system of our own convictions, shatters the calm of mind we have attained through this sytem, demands renewed efforts of us and declares our former efforts to have been in vain. A truth which retrieves us from error is consequently to be compared with a physic, as much for its bitter and repellent taste as for the fact that it takes effect not at the moment it is imbibed but only some time afterwards.

Thus, if we see the individual obstinately clinging to his errors, with the mass of men it is even worse: once they have acquired an opinion, experience and instruction can labour for centuries against it and labour in vain. So that there exists certain universally popular and firmly accredited errors which countless numbers contentedly repeat every day: I have started a list of them which others might like to continue.

1. Suicide is a cowardly act.
2. He who mistrusts others is himself dishonest.
3. Worth and genius are unfeignedly modest.
4. The insane are exceedingly unhappy.
5. Philosophizing can be learned, but not philosophy. (The opposite is true.)
6. It is easier to write a good tragedy than a good comedy.
7. A little philosophy leads away from God, a lot of it leads back to him – repeated after Francis Bacon.
8. Knowledge is power. The devil it is! One man can have a great deal of knowledge without its giving him the least power, while another possesses supreme authority but next to no knowledge.

Most of these are repeated parrot fashion without much thought being given to them and merely because when people first heard them said they found them very wise-sounding.

Intellect is a magnitude of intensity, not a magnitude of extension: which is why in this respect one man can confidently take on ten thousand and a thousand fools do not make one wise man.

source: On Philosophy and the Intellect A. Schopenhauer


[Edited from Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from Feb 2, 2006]

thoughts and imagination

We seem to be in a constant search for replacement and substitution, never actually fully and completely giving anything up.  I think Krishnamurti talks about this as well. We are, as Goethe explains in The Sorrows of Young Werther, like children, rarely changing, and when we do change, it is not for the better – we move away from living in the moment and become fearful of showing our emotions. To live, ‘in the moment’ would mean giving full and complete attention to life, as it unfolds, not giving in to memory’s temptations, but what about imagination? Le mois de la photo in Montreal has the theme of ‘Image and Imagination’ this year.

Is imagination just thought, disguised by the intellect so as not to appear as memory or is it something which holds the secrets of creativity? Socrates believed that our intuitive knowledge and creativity is in fact the memory of another world.

[Photomedia Forum post by T.Neugebauer from June 22, 2005]