What is the essential difference between belief, knowledge or true understanding? How can it be defined, what are its origins, and how is it attained? These questions are addressed in the subject of epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Much of the framework for developments in epistemology comes from the classical Greek thinkers, primarily Plato. Plato is a combination of both rationalist and mystic. He is devoted to the belief that reality is ultimately rational. Of the world of the senses, Plato believes that knowledge of the strict sense is not possible, but merely opinions. The Forms, however, are perfectly definite realities, hanging together in perfectly rational ways. Similarly, geometrical forms make up a perfectly systematic whole. Mathematics, according to Plato, embodies the ideal of knowledge, and reasoning is the way to discover truth. While the Formalists held the belief that mathematical formulas and truths were invented by man to explain the universe, Plato believed that mathematics was not invented by man to explain the nature of universal experience, but instead a kind of metaphysical divine reality to be discovered by man as his Forms. For Plato, mathematical understanding was a prime example of the kind of reliable cognition which takes us beyond the world of everyday appearances towards an area of more permanent and secure truths. We discover these truths through our innate knowledge, that is, knowledge that is within us and that can be discovered. The question of how this knowledge can be discovered is answered through Plato’s process of recollection.
In Plato’s Meno (c.385 BC), Plato writes in the voice of Socrates, who performs in the role of a “midwife,” employing systematic questioning to draw out, from the minds of his pupils, Meno and the slave boy, the seeds of true and reliable knowledge. By carefully questioning the slave boy, Socrates is able to get him to recognize that the way to construct a square double in area to a given square is to use the diagonal of the given square as a base. Through their discussion, they discard various attempted solutions as false and the boy is able to “see for himself” that the square drawn on the diagonal does produce the right answer. The correct answer, or the truth in this case, was attained through the mind’s inner resources. Plato holds that the mind can reach a genuine understanding of the truth. This innate knowledge, through the process of recollection, is attained through the transmigration of the soul. Plato believed that the soul is immortal, and that it recollects truths it discovered in a previous existence. Plato believes that the soul must have always possessed knowledge, and this knowledge is awakened by posing questions for the individual. Since the truth of all things always existed in the soul, the soul is immortal.
The innate knowledge within individuals is attained through the transmigration of the soul, and in trying to understand this notion, one must ask: how many transmigrated souls do we have? Certainly, if one’s soul was transmigrated eight times, the individual would be extremely knowledgeable. By contrast, if one’s soul had only been transmigrated two they would not be as knowledgeable. Plato addresses this concern with his belief that the person’s actions, atmosphere, diligence, and so on will determine how informed they become of their innate knowledge. In conclusion, through the analysis of Plato’s theory of innate knowledge and recollection, coming to know what one does not know, we might say that there is a truism to innate knowledge. Unless we admit that we do not know anything, then we will never know anything. The moment we state that we do not really know anything is the starting point of real knowledge. That knowledge must be discovered under everything we must “chip off” the surface.