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Socrates and Plato on Epistemic Authority

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SPEA (Socrates and Plato on Epistemic Authority)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2018-08-31

The project investigated the systematic interrelations between the problems related to authority, disagreement, and expertise in relation to justification, belief, and knowledge in Plato’s early (Socratic) and middle dialogues. Socrates and Plato are usually seen as proponents of epistemic autonomy, as assuming that knowledge can never be acquired by means of relying on authority. The project showed that the Socratic position regarding our knowledge and belief acquisition from other people is much more nuanced than it is usually taken to be.

More specifically, the project showed the following:
(i) Socrates and Plato distinguish clearly between two different ways that a non-expert can approach an expert. On the one hand, a non-expert can try to learn from the expert, where learning means acquiring the expertise that the expert has. On the other hand, a non-expert can defer to an expert, whereby the non-expert surrenders her judgment to the expert’s authority.
(ii) Socrates and Plato take episteme (knowledge, understanding) to involve elements of (what we would call) know-how or understanding that is not transmissible by means of relying on authority, they assume that episteme cannot be achieved by deference alone.
(iii) When it comes to the he moral domain, Socrates heavily prioritizes becoming and expert (i.e. learning from experts) to deferring to the expert. One ought to be virtuous and being virtuous is identical (for Socrates) with possessing moral expertise. Thus, Socrates believes that one’s overriding goal ought to be acquiring virtue expertise.
(iv) Socratic elenctic question-answer method should be understood as a method of learning, i.e. of acquiring the expertise that the interlocutor professes to have.
(v) The requirement to defer to an expert and the requirement to acquire expertise put apparently conflicting normative constraints on an agent. In order to acquire expertise one has to, at least sometimes, think independently and question the authority of the teacher. On the other hand, the non-expert is under the obligation to defer (i.e. surrender her judgment) to the expert. The question becomes: is Plato’s epistemology is internally consistent? One of the major results of the project was to show that it is. The requirement to defer should be understood as a contrary-to-duty requirement. One ought to defer when one cannot fulfill the more basic obligation to acquire the expertise. This conception of the obligation to defer as a contrary-to-duty requirement remains surprisingly consistent in Plato’s career from the Republic to the Laws.
(vi) Plato’s notion of deference is novel in Greek context. For example, the Attic orators’ notion of deference is non-authoritarian, i.e. it is evidentialist. Thus, when Plato claims that one should trust the expert opinion over one’ own, he is making a substantial new claim.
The project has resulted in three article manuscripts. “Socrates the apprentice”, “Socrates on advice and learning”, and “Socrates on disagreement about virtue”. In addition, work two additional papers is underway, both in collaboration (with prof. Laura Viidebaum from NYU and Alexander Stewart Davies from University of Tartu, respectively). In addition, the work on publishing a collection of essays on epistemic authority (in collaboration with Prof. Viidebaum) is underway. The working title of the collection of the essays is “Expertise in Classical Athens”. During the project, the researcher has presented his work at multiple conferences and workshops, e.g. The third Canadian Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, at McMaster University (2015), Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy, 34th annual meeting at Fordham University (2016), NYU WiP Workshop (2015, 2017), and in the Departmental Colloquium at Tartu University (2016), NYCAP at NYU (2017), Plato’s Alcibiades Revisited at Cambridge (2018), and Socratica IV in Buenos Aires (2018).

In addition to attending numerous seminars, colloquia, and reading groups in both ancient and contemporary philosophy, the researcher has also organized three major conferences. In May 2017, the researcher co-organized (with Prof. Laura Viidebaum) a conference “Philosophy and Rhetoric” at NYU. This was a successful collaboration between NYU Classics and NYU Philosophy Department. In September 2017 the researcher co-organized (with Prof. Jessica Moss) at NYU a conference “Ancient and Contemporary Epistemology”, which brought together researchers in ancient philosophy with contemporary epistemologists. Finally, the researcher co-organized (with Prof. Riin Sirkel from Vermont) a conference “Tartu Workshop in Ancient Philosophy” (December 2018), with participants from Estonia, Latvia, USA, Lithuania, Germany, Sweden, and Canada.
The project has yielded the following results in relation to the sate if the art of the project: (i) Contrary to the widely held position in the secondary literature, Socrates and Plato do not think that non-experts in the moral domain are incapable of recognizing genuine expertise. By contrast, the project has shown that the reason why Socrates does not aim at deferring to moral experts relying on moral experts is that Socrates is committed to the view that (a) that being virtuous entails having expertise about virtue, and that (b) one has a duty of being virtuous, consequently he thinks that non-experts ought to prioritize the intellectual project of aiming to acquire virtue-expertise to the intellectual project of aiming to defer experts about virtue. (ii) It is widely assumed that when Socrates claims to learn from his interlocutors, he is being ironic. However, if one distinguishes between causal and epistemic transmission of knowledge (i.e. between learning from experts and deferring to experts), it becomes plausible to claim that Socrates both denies the possibility of the epistemic transmission of moral episteme by means of deference and endorses the causal transmission of episteme by means of learning. (iii) The project has shown that Socrates’ view about moral deference (i.e. that one ought to defer if one has failed the more basic duty of acquiring expertise) compare quite favorably with many of the views defended in the contemporary theories of moral deference (e.g. the views defended by Alison Hills).

Of the socio-economic impacts, one of the most important is the continuing collaboration between the Department of Philosophy at University of Tartu and the Departments of Philosophy and Classics at NYU. In addition, the project has resulted in a significantly improved co-operation between researchers in ancient philosophy in the Baltic Sea Area. For example, as a result of the project, the “Tartu Workshop in Ancient Philosophy” will become an annual recurring event, and the first Work in Progress seminar for researchers of ancient philosophy in the Baltic Sea region will take place in Summer 2019. In addition, the project has improved the quality of the seminars and lecture courses offered in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Tartu. Finally, by means of outreach activities (in the news media, in the radio), the project has resulted in a wider awareness of epistemological issues related to epistemic authority in Estonia.