Whenever you tie your shoelaces, have you thought about what makes it happen? Was it out of your instinct, or was it a part of your knowledge? That is, is tying shoelaces a knowledge formulated through reasoning? Or, is it a method gained through practical experience?
Today, we are going on a time machine traveling back 2,000 years of time to Athens where Western civilization started, and joining Socrates in his search of the knowledge on tying shoelaces. Through his Socratic method, we are going to decide for ourselves whose stance we favor more, i.e. Intellectualism or Experientialism.
Intellectualism vs. Anti-intellectualism
In Plato’s Meno, Meno approaches Socrates and asks, “How is Virtue (areté in Greek) adopted? Is it something taught or gained through practice? Or denying both, something that is innate and to be born with?” (70a). Rather than simply answering his questions, Socrates marches on with his famous dialogue of cross-examination and leads the discussion to “What is Virtue?” (71a-d).
At first, Meno tries to define areté so as to prove to Socrates that a discussion of its origin is completely valid. Yet, after a series of arguments and debates, Meno starts to fret over the inconclusive matter and argues that the discussion is destined to fail as Socrates seems to already hold certain opinions toward the issue. The reason that Socrates pursued the question in the first place, according to Meno, is to see him fail in answering the question (80a-b). To counteract, therefore, Meno defends:
How will you search for it, Socrates, when you have no idea what it is? What kind of thing from among those you are ignorant of will you set before yourself to look for? And even if you happened exactly upon it, how would you recognize that this is what you didn't know? (80d).
That was the start of a perennial discourse in Epistemology and lasted for over twenty centuries. Philosophers throughout the history all debated on how one’s knowledge of this Reality comes about. Is it through pure reasoning of the mind or is it through perceived experiences of the world?
Do you agree with Meno’s proposition? That is, we can never discover the truths through verbal language guided by pure reasoning since we lack the experience of identifying it from those that are not true. If that’s your stance, then you are probably an anti-intellectualist who believed that the acknowledgement of reality cannot be fulfilled solely through pure reasoning and human intellect. Moving a step forward, if you also believed that in order to discern the whole picture of Truth, one must engage in real-life experience, then you are perfectly able to honor yourself as an experientialist.
Perhaps, you favored Socrates’ proposal more and considered all human perceptions and experiences as the shadows of reality and that pure reasoning and rationality are the key to understanding the Truth. This belief thus makes you an intellectualist.
We’ve finally learned what philosophers meant by “rational animals” and “perceptive beings”, implicating the two opposing views toward knowledge and reality. That said, however, what does it have to do with Know-How and Know-What? And, what are the differences between these two terms? How are they related to shoelace-tying?
Since I do not want to frighten you with too much philosophical questions at once, let us come back to this topic next week and continue our discussion then! In the meantime, why not spend some time rethinking what we have gone through today?
- Plato. Meno. Translated by Cathal Woods, Creative Commons, 2011.