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Title: Epistêmê and Explanation in Plato’s Meno and Phaedo
Authors: McNeal III, Horace
Advisors: Cooper, John
Department: Philosophy
Class Year: 2014
Abstract: This essay analyzes the major epistemological developments found in Plato’s Meno and Phaedo, and the relation of those developments to certain issues in contemporary philosophy. My analysis centers on Socrates’ rather particular use of the Greek word epistêmê, a term which I feel has been commonly misconstrued by interpreters of Plato’s texts. Chapter 1 is an introduction. In Chapter 2, I argue against the common interpretation that epistêmê in Plato is to be taken as synonymous with conventional philosophical views of knowledge: through a close reading of the Meno, I show that Socrates’ conditions on epistêmê are far more rigorous and restrictive than standard conditions of knowledge. In Chapter 3, I trace Socrates’ connection between epistêmê and the corollary notion of “working out the explanation”, revealing that, for Socrates, having epistêmê of any fact requires the ability to explain that fact in terms of its grounding in the most fundamental principles of the domain to which it belongs. Noting Socrates’ rather rigorous view of explanation, together with his assertion in the Meno that epistêmê can be attained only through such an intensive epistemic process, I further the view that epistêmê is not accurately interpreted as knowledge. In Chapter 4, I introduce an alternate interpretation of epistêmê which I think fares far better in capturing the epistemic rigor Socrates attributes to the term. The depth and scope of apprehension that Socrates requires for epistêmê, I argue, are much more plausibly interpreted as conditions of understanding than conditions of knowledge. Taking note of the conditions of epistêmê laid down by Socrates in the Meno and the Phaedo, I show that contemporary philosophical notions of understanding very closely approximate the epistemic state Socrates has in mind when he invokes epistêmê. In Chapter 5, I further substantiate my proposed interpretation by showing that the class of objects of which epistêmê can be had is quite similar iii to the class of objects of which understanding can be had: both epistêmê and understanding, I reveal, apply only to intellectual objects belonging to domains structured in terms of first principles and provable theorems (for example, mathematics). Finally, in Chapter 6, I briefly review the developments of the foregoing chapters and draw final conclusions regarding the epistemological advances of the Meno and the Phaedo. I conclude the essay with a short discussion of Plato’s influence on more recent philosophy, showing that his views of epistêmê and explanation have in many ways shaped the course of modern epistemological inquiry.
Extent: 49
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en_US
Appears in Collections:Philosophy, 1924-2016

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