The Chemistry of Knowledge

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The Chemistry of Knowledge

Hippeas thought he had all the answers. “I have never found any man who was my superior in anything,” he boasted. Then he meets Socrates. Though he had made thousands of public speeches about virtue, a dialogue with the wisest of Athenians leads Hippeas to confess that he “cannot even say what [virtue] is” (Hippeas 70). Lesser Hippeas discredits Hippeas but offers little more than a negative definition of knowledge. Meno, Phaedo, and the Republic provide a more comprehensive discussion of the definition, the good and the teaching of knowledge. The following pages will explore Plato’s theory of knowledge and will conclude with an examination of organic chemistry at Swarthmore College.

According to Plato, knowledge requires the reasoned understanding of essences. To know the qualities something possesses, one must grasp “what something is” (Meno 60). Knowledge entails an active understanding capable of weathering the rigors of a probing discussion. In Lesser Hippeas, Socrates uncovers the knowledge deficit underlying Hippeas’ opinions and skills. Plato makes a clear distinction between Hippeas’ mastery of facts and the possession of true knowledge: “I certainly do not think I am guessing that right opinion is a different thing from knowledge” (90). Facts and opinions require little more than memorization and regurgitation. Acquiring knowledge, on the other hand, can only be done “with an effort” (Republic 776).

Plato’s Cave analogy in the Republic likens the path to knowledge to the transition from a dark cave to a sunny hilltop. Plato allegorizes the “ascent of the soul” (776) from a world of shadows, reflections and half-truths into the “world of knowledge” (776). Plato maintains that cave dw...

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...nt of the reason why” (90). Only knowledge boasts longevity. For me, perhaps the most disconcerting thing about organic chemistry is the rapidity with which my memory of it has faded. Some three months removed from a final exam, I recall virtually nothing.

So why don’t we get knowledge, if it would serve us so much better than limited-warranty opinions? Thinking takes time. And there are only fifteen weeks to a semester. Professors need empirical measurements of student progress in finite periods of time, even when it is clear that cursory thought emasculates knowledge. After all,

“All late papers will be penalized" Professor Richard Schuldenfrei

Works Cited

Plato. Five Dialogues : Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Trans G. M. A. Grube.

Hackett Publishing Company, 2002.

Plato. The Dialogues of Plato. Trans. B. Jowett. New York: Random House.
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