Platonic conception of intellectual virtues: its significance for contemporary epistemology and education
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date29/11/2020
My main aim in my thesis is to show that, contrary to the commonly held belief according to which Aristotle was the first to conceive and develop intellectual virtues, there are strong indications that Plato had already conceived and had begun developing the concept of intellectual virtues. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the importance of Aristotle’s work on intellectual virtues. Aristotle developed a much fuller (in detail and argument) account of both, the concept of ‘virtue’ and the concept of ‘intellect’, metaphysically, epistemologically and psychologically. Still, the first conception of intellectual virtues is to be found in the Platonic corpus. Such a realization is not only of historic interest, but most importantly, as I am going to show, the Platonic conception of intellectual virtues could prove promising in contemporary debates on virtue epistemology theories and in virtue-based approaches to education. Plato’s discussion of rational desires is the strongest indication of the presence of the concept of intellectual virtues in Platonic dialogues. Rational desires are constitutive of intellectual virtues: desires are dispositional; rational desires are dispositions to pursue rational goods. Intellectual virtues are such dispositions. Additionally, there is further evidence that Plato had conceived of intellectual virtues. His rigorous educational program in the Republic aims at the development of rational desires, while in the Symposium he discusses the intense rational desire to know the Good. Nevertheless, in order to be intellectually virtuous, one must not only have a desire for knowledge; one must also be systematically and reliably successful in achieving the end of their rational desires. I will show that the success component of Plato’s intellectual virtues can be found in his dialectic method. Plato’s dialectic is both a virtue developer and a reliable method used by philosophers in order to reach the objects of their rational desires. I will argue that episteme is one of Plato’s primary intellectual virtues. Towards this end, I will invoke Pritchard’s recent argument according to which understanding, which is distinct from knowledge, is a form of cognitive achievement and therefore what is finally valuable. I will argue, based on textual evidence from the middle Platonic dialogues and recent discussions in the exegetical literature, that Plato’s episteme, although commonly translated as knowledge, is closer to Pritchard’s conception of understanding. I will also show that Plato’s episteme, similarly to Pritchard’s conception of understanding, is a cognitive achievement that cannot be attained by luck or testimony. The Platonic conception of intellectual virtues has something unique to offer to contemporary virtue epistemology. Plato, unlike Aristotle, does not differentiate between theoretical and practical wisdom. A wise agent, according to Plato, is wise in both practical and theoretical matters. Moreover, Plato, unlike Aristotle does not make a sharp distinction between moral and intellectual virtues. Therefore, the Platonic conception of intellectual virtues, in comparison to the Aristotelian, offers a more suitable starting point for scholars who want to argue that intellectual virtues are but a subpart of moral. Furthermore, I will argue that the Platonic conception of intellectual virtues is also of significant merit for virtue-based approaches to education. Plato questioned whether we can attain knowledge but nevertheless went on to develop his Socratically inspired theory of education according to which we can teach learning without knowing. Socrates proclaimed his ignorance numerous times; nevertheless, he went on to educate the youth of Athens. This is what I will suggest that Plato’s notion of intellectual virtues can contribute to theories of education: we should teach children not by transferring knowledge to them directly but by building dispositions into them to seek and acquire the truth. I will argue that although somewhat ignored by contemporary scholars, Plato’s theory of education has much to teach us about epistemic character education today. The Platonic educational program does not advocate the direct transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student but rather focuses on building the learners’ epistemic dispositions. Building upon the Socratic method, Plato’s educational program does not “spoon-feed” knowledge to the learners but rather fosters the growth of intellectual virtues through problem-solving. The Platonic decades long educational regime aims at training Philosopher-Kings in three types of virtue: (i) Moral Virtue; (ii) the Cognitive Virtue of Abstraction; (iii) the Cognitive Virtue of Debate. I will explain ways in which fostering intellectual virtues through problem-solving could be applied in classrooms today and I will argue that Plato’s rigorous education program is of definite merit for contemporary theories of education, especially given the fact that scholars in the field are looking for alternatives to the traditional methods of teaching. I will also dedicate a section to showing that Socrates was not a moral philosopher but rather an epistemic character builder. Socrates trained his students/interlocutors in desiring the truth without offering them any knowledge-education. I will also briefly highlight some of the most significant differences between the Platonic educational program, as described in the Republic, and the Socratic educational method. I will also discuss, before concluding my thesis, two different accounts of educational failure as presented by Plato in the Republic. The first one is the individuals employing the eristic method (as a result of failure in dialectic education) and the second is the individuals who correspond to the four imperfect societies (brought about again by the lack of proper education). I will argue that these two accounts can inform our understanding of what should be avoided when educating for epistemic (and moral) virtue nowadays.