Socrates: ‘The Most Vicious Of Circles’

Having the good sense not to fancy you know what you do not know, for that and no more is all that my art can effect..’


So you ask a Professor of Epistemology for the definition of the word ‘Knowledge’.

He might give you list [a safe response] but odds are that on that list is the phrase ‘Justified True Belief’ or something very close. [The original translated phrase from the Classical Greek is ‘True Belief with an Account’].

What’s so special about ‘Justified True Belief? It is the closest thing we have to an original definition for the word ‘Knowledge’. And it first emerges in the Theaetetus, in Plato’s Dialogues. Hence it is the ‘Classic’ definition.

The Theaetetus is where it all began. It is the source, the Mother-Lode for this subject called Epistemology.

And the Theaetetus, the founding source for the classic definition of the word: ‘Knowledge’ is not about what ‘Knowledge’ is, but rather about what it is not. And why the word ‘Knowledge’ cannot be defined. [Read it]


 Socrates asks Theaetetus, the meaning of the word ‘Knowledge’. Theaetetus proceeds to list the known disciplines, Geometry and Cobblery, the Sciences, et al.

Socrates stops him short: ‘But the question Theaetetus, was not what are the objects of knowledge..or sorts of knowledge..but the thing itself, knowledge, is,..do you fancy it is a small matter to discover the nature of knowledge? Is it not..the hardest?

After a lengthy and labored discussion of various definitions, ‘Justified True Belief’ is proposed, the one felt least presumptive of those explored.

Socrates himself does not propose an answer, staying instead with the negation. He offers Theaetetus his celebrated analogy of the barren midwife who can only help another give birth. Socrates continues:

Doesn’t it strike you as shameless to explain what knowing is like, when we don’t know what knowledge is?

The truth is, Theaetetus, that for some time past there has been a vicious taint in our discussion. Times out of numbers we have said ‘we know’, ‘we do not know’, ‘we have knowledge’, ‘we have no knowledge’, as if we could understand each other while we still know nothing about knowledge…

All that we have brought to birth..today about knowledge..our midwives skill pronounces to be mere wind eggs and not worth the rearing..

To tell us to get hold of something we already have in order to know something we are already thinking of suggests a state of the most absolute darkness..the most vicious of circles will be nothing compared to this injunction..

Having the good sense not to fancy you know what you do not know, for that and no more is all that my art can effect..’

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