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Socrates' Avowals of Knowledge

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The paper examines Socrates' avowals and disavowals of knowledge in the standardly accepted early Platonic dialogues. All of the pertinent passages are assembled and discussed. It is shown that, in particular, alleged avowals of knowledge have been variously misinterpreted. The evidence either does not concern ethical knowledge or its interpretation has been distorted by abstraction of the passage from context or through failure adequately to appreciate the rhetorical dimensions of the context or the author's dramaturgical interests. Still, six sincere Socratic avowals or assumptions of ethical knowledge occur among the early dialogues. Moreover, it is maintained that in a number of these texts Socrates is committed to the epistemological priority of definitional knowledge of excellence for pertinent non-definitional knowledge (for example, that knowledge of the definition of justice is necessary for knowledge of instances of justice). Thus, there are inconsistencies among Socrates' avowals and disavowals of ethical knowledge. It is argued that the most important recent attempts to resolve Socrates' avowals and disavowals of knowledge (for example, Vlastos's) fail. A novel interpretation is then offered that depends upon a fundamental adjustment in the interpretation of Socrates' utterances in the texts. The practice of assembling all of Socrates' topic-relevant utterances, divorced from context, and attempting to distill from these consistent philosophical principles is rejected as naïve. In contrast, it is argued that Plato uses Socrates in various ways in various texts in order to achieve certain pedagogical objectives. Accordingly, Socrates' utterances do not all have the same hermeneutic status. On this depends the correct interpretation of Socrates' occasional avowals of ethical knowledge as well as the general epistemological, specifically ethical epistemological commitments that Plato intended to advance in the early dialogues. The paper concludes with an explanation of the function of Socrates' occasional avowals of ethical knowledge as well as an account of the ethical epistemological commitments that Plato intended to advance among the early dialogues.

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