Issue #26 October 2019

Some Notes on the Ethics of Knowledge in Plato’s Gorgias

Jan Davidsz. de Heem — “Vanitas Still life with Books, a Globe, a Skull, a Violin and a Fan” — (1650, stolen 1972, whereabouts unknown)

In Plato’s Gorgias a critical moment occurs towards the end of Socrates’ conversation with Gorgias (the first of three conversations that make up the dialogue). Having a number of admissions from Gorgias, Socrates just requires that one more premise be granted in order to spring his trap and catch Gorgias in a contradiction. The already granted premises are:

  1. Oratory/Rhetoric concerns right and wrong, the just and unjust, the good, in the same way that mathematics concerns the relations between numbers, and medicine concerns good and bad states of the human body. (454b)
  2. If a student of oratory knows nothing of right and wrong, their instructor would instruct them on this matter in addition to the more practical skills of oratory as part of their training in the art. (460a)
  3. It is possible for a talented orator to make a bad or unjust use of their art, that is, to engender false beliefs about what is right and wrong, but this is no fault of the art itself or its teachers, but of these crooked practitioners. (457a)

These premises are happily affirmed by Gorgias, the third of them he himself supplies unbidden. As far as Socrates is concerned, there is already a contradiction present. To bring that to the surface, he just needs one more premise:

  1. Knowledge of the good is sufficient to (and compelling towards) doing good. (460b)

The contradiction is, then, that if it is possible for an accomplished orator to do ill (3) (through engendering a false belief about the good), then, given (4), they do not possess knowledge of the good (otherwise they could do no ill). This lack of knowledge does not impede their coming to master the art of oratory and rhetoric (it is through this mastery that they have the ability to do the ill in the first place) contradicting (1), and thus either oratory and rhetoric do not concern right and wrong, or they are not arts at all (are not concerned with knowledge). Socrates, in the next conversation with Polus, will make this second claim.

Now, a lot has been written about this premise (4). It has the implication that ‘no one knowingly does wrong’, or ‘everyone is always doing what they think is the right thing to do’. It also presupposes that there is knowledge to be had about what is right, in the same way that there is knowledge to be had about the functioning of the human body, or the properties of fluids in a vacuum. Here, however, I am not so concerned with this premise itself, but with how it is arrived at. Plato (or Socrates) seems to be working with an assumption that there is a ‘hard’ connection (for want of a better adjective) between an object, knowledge of it (especially justification), and action, with knowledge providing the concreteness of this link. Oratory, lacking knowledge of its object intrinsically, only has a ‘soft’ connection between its object and action, and thus its experts are not compelled by the object of oratory, by what oratory nominally concerns: right and wrong, requiring a ‘loose’ crash course in them alongside the study of oratory (premise (2)).

Knowledge-Action connection

Socrates introduces premise (4) through a series of analogies. Someone who possesses knowledge of right and wrong is a righteous person, just as someone who possesses knowledge of medicine is a doctor. (460b-c)

We might ask here: Is that all what a doctor is, a person who possesses knowledge of medicine? Certainly, we’d be uncharitable to interpret ‘doctor’ here in the sense that it is a person who, in addition to the knowledge, has obtained the necessary licensing and registration and is currently practicing at a medical institution. What Plato here means is probably something more like the person who could accurately answer the call “Is anyone here a doctor?” when someone is choking in a restaurant, or some other situation. However, we might still want to say that there is a difference between merely possessing the knowledge of medicine, and acting in a ‘doctorly’ way (employing that knowledge for some purpose or other), with this latter addition being a crucial half in someone’s being a ‘doctor’, and not just someone who knows a lot about medicine. This action, in the case of medicine, does not need to be evaluated as having this or that value, or determined relation to health — a mad doctor intent on poisoning the population is still a doctor, hence the need for an additional Hippocratic oath. All the same, when we jump from the possession of knowledge, to the being a such-and-such, it feels like we need to add something, something concerning action, the employment of this knowledge. However, neither Socrates nor Gorgias seem to have this concern, thus allowing the analogy to move on to knowledge of right and righteousness. In not making this distinction, there is here an assumption that knowledge directly informs action, thus making the distinction unnecessary. This would hold true in the case of a person who possesses all of the knowledge of medicine but deliberately refrains from employing it — they are still a ‘doctor’, implying either that ‘doctorhood’ is completely silent on, or ambivalent to, the question of action, or that the knowledge of medicine impacts upon action despite one not practicing medicine in the narrower sense.

This perhaps becomes clearer as we step further along the speech-hands spectrum that is introduced earlier in the dialogue (450b-d). Some arts wholly concern the manipulation of objects, and can, in theory, be mastered in the complete absence of any language (or logos). Socrates offers sculpture as such an art. But others rely so heavily on language that they could be mastered without having a body at all, and in the absence of language their acquisition or practice becomes an impossibility. Gorgias introduces the distinction to say oratory is distinct insofar as it relies wholly on language, but Socrates offers the counter example of mathematics, which also is carried out wholly through language (including mathematical notation as a kind of writing, of course), as well as astronomy (450d).

So, when we take knowledge of mathematics as an example, and we say ‘here is a person who possesses an expansive knowledge of mathematics’, is there anything concerning action that we also feel we need to add in order for us to call them a ‘mathematician’? In this case it seems the intuition is ‘no’; the art of mathematics, and one’s being a mathematician, seems to be depend wholly on the possession of knowledge concerning mathematical objects (quantities, ratios, functions, equivalencies, and so on). So, when Plato has Socrates present his analogies to secure the connection between knowledge of the right and righteousness, he seems to have in mind that this hard connection between knowledge and being the practitioner proper to that knowledge extends beyond purely theoretical arts (like mathematics) and onto seemingly more practical arts (like medicine). Thus, it is a contingent and incidental fact that doctors must manipulate the body (their own and an other’s) in order to employ their knowledge, but they would be just as much doctors if they had never had the opportunity, or the inclination, to do so.

It could be objected here that Plato has completely missed the category of action, or has no need for it, thus there is no ‘connection’ per se between knowledge and action, merely knowledge. Thus, knowledge wholly determines what someone is, and we shouldn’t go looking for how action plays into that question by, say, wondering how a doctor who doesn’t practice at all is still a doctor. However, when we turn to the question of righteousness, the category of action is inextricably introduced — the argument that oratory is not a real art depends upon the contradiction introduced by the admission that some skillful orators can nonetheless do ill. Their actions are in contradiction to the possession of the knowledge that their art is nominally concerned with. This means this category of action is introduced retroactively into the examples of the doctor and the mathematician, and the silence in those cases gives acquiescence to the idea that there is a direct and hard connection between the possession of knowledge and being a ‘practitioner’ even if one never practices.

This connection is further argued in the second conversation (with Polus). Some things in the world are good, some things are bad, and some are neither intrinsically. Most of our activity is of this latter, third kind, such as walking, leaning on a wall, scribbling on a paper, looking out of a window, etc. Socrates argues that these actions, being of no intrinsic value, are done not for their own sake, but for the sake of something else (468b). I don’t walk for the sake of walking, I walk to get where I’m going, or to stretch my legs and get some air. These objects of my actions may themselves be ‘means to ends’, but, it’s seemingly assumed, the buck must stop somewhere, and that somewhere is one of the intrinsic goods (health, wealth, justice, etc). I want the ends, so I select the means, in line with my knowledge, to best obtain them. If I fail to achieve some good outcome via the means I have selected, then this failure is referred to a lack of knowledge — of the objects I am manipulating as means, or of the wider situation. Thus, the non-practicing doctor, having set upon an end (their own health and sustenance, wealth, satisfaction, or whatever) differs from those who know nothing of medicine insofar as if the means to their ends runs via the manipulation of the object of the human body, they will better, and more reliably, achieve them — even if some of the end game means, towards their ultimate ends, involves poisoning people. Thus, in a sense, what Plato is getting at with this knowledge-action connection is the impossibility of self sabotage.

Joseba Eskubi — “Untitled” — (2013)

Object-Knowledge Connection

There is an additional premise, introduced earlier in the dialogue, at play in this stage where Gorgias’ inconsistency is being demonstrated. It forms the background against which the four premises above weave their trap:

  1. The employment of oratory (or rhetoric) aims to create conviction in others by engendering beliefs about what is right and wrong, as opposed to engendering knowledge. (454e)

Socrates, in the following conversation with Polus, identifies a number of ‘arts’ that have this form (464b-466a), of creating beliefs about their nominal objects without engendering knowledge (we can think of ‘advertising’ as a modern version of this form of art). He, on the basis of this, refrains from calling them ‘arts’ at all, but instead names them ‘knacks’ that are based on experience alone (as opposed to knowledge which requires, for Plato, a rational justification). The other ‘knacks’ he identifies are sophism, cooking, and beauty augmentation (fashion, cosmetics) (465b). But has Plato missed an obvious distinction here? If these knacks work by producing a mere belief concerning an object, without engendering justified true beliefs (knowledge) that does not mean that they themselves are bereft of knowledge concerning their objects, and thus, owing to this knowledge, are fully fledged arts. Surely there is a knowledge proper to, say, cooking, thus making cooking an art just as much as mathematics?

Though let’s examine this cooking example. Socrates argues that both medicine and cooking have as their object the good and bad states of the inner workings of the human body (with training and beauty-augmentation playing this role in regards to the external portions of the body). But whereas medicine, possessing knowledge (thus justification), works through a rational procedure that answers to its actual object, cooking achieves its aim fully when it merely produces the belief that this or that food is putting the body into an internal good state, no further rational justification is necessary. In fact, one can’t really be provided because the effects of ‘delicious’, ‘hearty’, ‘satisfying’ doesn’t necessarily track true states of health (or things good for health), even if they may coincide at times. Sure. But cooking itself could give a rational account of the production of these effects. There is a knowledge proper to cooking, seemingly, even if we grant Plato’s premise that the aim of cooking is not to engender knowledge concerning the good of the inner workings of the human body, but mere beliefs to that effect.

And likewise with oratory. Plato may detest the way in which it works, swaying popular opinion based on the whims and preferences of the orator, not needing to track its object of actual right and actual wrong, but this doesn’t mean that oratory is not an ‘art’, i.e. possessing a rational, justified and true knowledge proper to it.

However, let’s assume Plato hasn’t missed this distinction. When we do this, we notice a strange doubling: those arts that satisfy themselves with creating mere belief about their objects, with this belief not necessarily tracking the object itself, seem to also be arts that in theory could be mastered in the absence of any rational account or knowledge. That is, even if Plato is wrong that, say, cooking and medicine share a common object, with the former instead aiming wholly and overtly at the production of beliefs and appearances (as opposed to being a masquerade of medicine), he still seems to have hit on a point that this production of mere belief and appearance can be mastered in the absence of knowledge, whereas arts that truly answer to an object (rather than an appearance) cannot.

The fortunes of a chef preparing a dish are determined by a large number of factors, many of them bio-chemical in nature. Degrees of heat, structures of molecules and proteins and minerals interacting in the pan to create the perfect ‘char’, the perfect balance of seasoning, etc. On the other end, success or failure in food preparation devolves upon a central nervous system, and human sensory functions and values. Possessing knowledge of these processes, whether in their formulation as given in chemistry, or even just in a culinary vernacular, could undoubtedly improve a chef. But there is no inherent impossibility in the notion of an expert chef, producing excellent food, who has no knowledge of any of these processes, even in their culinary rendering. Wanting to learn, one might pose questions to this chef, and the answers could be unsatisfyingly “You just feel it out”. “How much salt to add?” “As much as it takes to have enough”. Like this. Such an ‘expert’ chef might not exist in practice today, but that doesn’t mean there is a contradiction in the idea. That is, one’s mastery of cooking does not need to track the level of knowledge one possesses about food preparation, its elements, and chemistry. One could, potentially, develop a keen, but wordless, intuition insofar as the ultimate ‘ground’ of cooking (its good that it tracks) exists wholly in the human machinery of appearance.

But think now of medicine, and an expert doctor. It’s probably true that an expert doctor may rest on their intuition at times, but there seems to be an impossibility of someone’s being an expert doctor (having an extremely high success rate in treatment) and this person being ignorant as to the workings of the human body, and the causality involved in treatment and outcomes, instead just ‘feeling it out’. One would expect from a doctor the ability to, if questioned, explain the reasoning behind a recommended course of treatment, not merely a ‘people seem to get better when I chop this part of them out’. One could launch into the field of medicine trusting only their intuitions and experiences, but insofar as the object that medicine concerns (the good and bad states of the inner workings of the human body) is independent of the practitioner, there is an upper limit to how well one can reliably do with this pure intuition approach. At some stage, in order to improve, one will have the ask the questions ‘what produces these good and bad states of the human body?’, ‘why did this treatment have this outcome in this case, and not in that one?’ That is to say, the degree to which one achieves excellence in their being a doctor tracks the quantity of justified, true beliefs they have of the body and how it works, and insofar as these are justified, a rational account of treatment can be given to student and patient alike, in some form or another (taking into account multiple possible ‘medical ontologies’). Thus, an expert doctor who can give no rational account at all of why their treatments work seems an impossibility.

And, going again to the extreme case of the mathematician, we see this impossibility keenly. One’s ‘expertise’ as a mathematician seems to directly track the amount of knowledge one possesses, even if, going against the knowledge-action identity/connection discussed above, working within mathematics, employing that knowledge, is a whole other matter or skill in addition. However, one can’t have a ‘knack’ for math in the absence of knowledge concerning its object. There may be a great deal of mathematical intuition involved in being an expert mathematician, but it is an absurdity to think that a mathematician could not give a rational account of, say, a proof, because that proof is nothing but a rational account itself.

But in the spurious arts (or mere ‘knacks’) that Socrates identifies, there is a double shortcoming, or ‘missing’ of the object they aim at: these arts content themselves with producing mere belief concerning their object, their operation does not communicate with it, the fortunes of their practitioners do not hinge on the nature of the object and how it functions, and (or, perhaps, because of this) the internal working of these arts allow one to gain mastery without necessarily also gaining an rational account of any object. They operate in a space ambivalent to knowledge, if knowledge is to be taken as justified (rational account) true (tracking an object) belief. Though only touched on briefly in the Gorgias, it’s these considerations that no doubt develop into Plato’s banishing of art (visual, dramatic, poetic, etc) from the Republic.

Plato takes particular ire with the orators (like Gorgias) insofar as the object which oratory plays with belief concerning is right and wrong, the object of the true art of philosophy (or ‘justice’ as given in the dialogue (464b)). It also shouldn’t be forgotten that the show-down between oratory and philosophy occurs in earnest in the trial of Socrates, with philosophy’s failure. The Gorgias, then, can be read as the staging of a fantasy of Plato’s, of Socrates’ return and triumph over the orators. However, this is not a simple fantasy. In the final conversation with Callicles, Plato has Callicles ‘foresee’ exactly what is going to happen to Socrates if he were ever brought to trial and face the death penalty. Unlike in the earlier conversations with the two orators, whose inability to escape from Socrates’ traps is underscored, it’s not so clear whether there is any phantasmic revenge staged in the case of Callicles.

Joseba Eskubi — “Untitled” — (2012)

The Ethics of Knowledge

Let’s see how these considerations begin to fit together. For Plato, a true art answers to an object, and is synonymous with the accumulation of rational justification for beliefs about this object. Depending on the object, we distinguish the arts by this or that name, but art in the general is something that aims and tracks an object (‘true’) and develops rational accounts of it (‘justified’), on the basis of which beliefs form (‘belief’). Hence their total currency is knowledge, even if in their practice intuition and ‘knack’ may play a part here or there.

On the basis of this there is a strong normative judgement. The ‘arts’ that don’t deal in knowledge, but mere belief, are not arts at all, but masquerade as them. The implication seems to be that insofar as they deal in beliefs about this or that, they are drawn into a relation to the actual arts that develop knowledge concerning this or that. For someone with no knowledge of the objects involved, the arts and the pseudo-arts appear perhaps indistinguishable. But, insofar as the pseudo-arts focus on generating belief first and foremost (as opposed to rational justification) they have an advantage. In front of an audience of children, the chef will beat the doctor when it comes to demonstrating prowess in preparing ‘wholesome’ foods (464d-e).

Is this mistake really as treacherous as Plato makes it sound? It seems strange to think today that cooking and medicine are about the same thing. We are fully aware that there is a tension between the hedonistic satisfaction that the culinary arts aim at and the medicinal state of good health. And I would think it a bit hasty to deny the knowledge of this distinction to Plato’s contemporaries. But if Plato’s claim of danger merely boils down to ‘when we don’t think our decisions through, we tend to make bad (here, health) choices, so we should utilize strategies to become more rational and healthy consumers’ then in a way we have fully incorporated the text, and have no need anymore of Plato (or at least the Gorgias).

However, I think there is a much more troubling moral here for us today, that in a sense makes Plato’s arguments keener and more needful. Far from us moderns having a more ‘scientific’ (i.e. ‘artful’) approach to our action, isn’t it that the psuedo-arts have added to their repertoire the language of ‘knowledge’? Let’s take for a quick example the person who actively pursues an approach we can call here ‘better living through data’. They clip on a fit-bit to track the minutiae of movements, download a ‘pomodoro’ system app to record the when and the what of their work through the day, calorie counted food diaries, budget apps, online trackers that tell them how much time they are spending on twitter vs email, so on and so forth. You are probably not a person who does all of these things, but you are probably a person who has done a few of them (if you’re anything like me). The promise of these methods and technologies is that they seemingly extract objective data points with which we can make sense of the messiness of our lives as they appear to us. On the basis of all of these data, we can then begin optimizing or making more rational choices. So, yes, like the orators of old, advertising may pull and push us in directions by fostering beliefs about what is good for us with methods honed for the mere production of this belief, but not its justification. However, armed with this data we can surely push back, become more immovable, as we peer through the colored packaging, reading the nutritional information, standing in the supermarket aisle, feeling like a philosopher-king.

But let’s take a step back here. The flows of time, money, and calories appear to us a problem, and there is an endless proliferation of both seeming ‘knowledge’ concerning them, and tools for which to monitor them. But to what ends? There is always tied up with this anxiety about time and money trickling away while calories accumulate a reverse image, that of the ‘good life’, eudaimonia, which is defined and prefigured in the same breath as these tools and techne of optimization. A hazy image of a balcony, a work-life balance, there’s often a carafe of wine airing in there somewhere too. We accept this image, along with the tools to hopefully bring it about. To bring it about we need to be scientific, rational, collect the data, work smarter not harder etc etc. But haven’t we just here fallen into the orators’ trap? That is, within us there exists a conviction about the good, but nowhere do I find the justification of this good. That is, I have a strong feeling about what my personal flourishing looks like, especially in the mode of its negative realization in the here and now (‘it’s not this’), but I have no knowledge of it, in the sense of a detailed justification of its whatness, which would, on Plato’s account, make its realization ultimately compelling and thus, in a sense, trivial. It would seem all of this ‘better living through data’ is ultimately poorly set upon, and a charade to maintain the ‘tyranny of images’ (or perpetuate the ease and pleasure of being ‘convinced’ by the many pseudo-arts, rather than grappling with the real objects that constitute the concreteness of our lives).

In the final conversation with Callicles, in response to Socrates’ speech concerning his unconditional love for philosophy, Callicles admits that philosophy is a fine thing, ideally relegated to part of a balanced education of children and best left at that (485a-e). One can imagine here a similar conversation occurring in marketing firms: hard data and research is a good, ideally relegated to a catch phrase to end the 30 second spot (“9 out of 10 dentists recommend…”, “…full of anti-oxidants that have been shown to lower the risk of cancer”, “crime rates doubled since…”, “20,000 jobs created since…”)

Should it come as a surprise, then, when Plato comes closest to giving his own positive account of the good life (as opposed to these meta-ethical considerations of the links between knowledge of whatever and action found in the Gorgias) that this work, The Republic, should take such a political tone? When we really examine the objects that make up our life in their concreteness, as opposed to being satisfied with being led this way or that with a (these days necessary) rhetorical condiment of ‘knowledgeness’, we will very quickly, cutting through the layers of the onion, come upon the structures shoring up or delimiting the possibilities of our actions. But insofar as there exists for Plato this hard connection between knowledge and action, knowledge of the good is sufficient to moving in contradiction to any structure that would delimit access to it, or its realization. Plato could be wrong about every brick of his Republic, but that would still leave this point intact: the only actions worth taking are the ones coordinated with an object through a genuine epistemic engagement. This would hold even if objects were constructed or defined through the processes of knowing (à la Bachelard, Foucault) and an epistemic engagement was not limited to a rational accounting (à la phenomenology).

Thus, to ‘fridge-magnet-philosophy’ my own Platonic conclusions here: it is not enough for us to know what we want, but we also need to know what it is, and why we want it (what ‘good’ is this?), and, then, knowing these, what is stopping us from getting it. Though, this latter question, if Plato is right, should be immediately apparent when we know the answers to the others, as we should crash right into it through acting in line with our knowledge of the good. Then comes the epistemic engagement with those obstacles, in other words, politics.

John C. Brady is a student of philosophy and educator situated in Beijing. He gets most of his reading done in traffic jams. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, by way of full disclosure.


October 2019


Revisiting Adorno’s “Jargon of Authenticity” (1964)

by Timofei Gerber

How Silent Reading Gave Birth to the Modern Subject

by Tollef Graff Hugo

Some Notes on the Ethics of Knowledge in Plato’s Gorgias

by John C. Brady

Plato’s “Gorgias”