Unlearned Knowledge: Aristotle on How We Come to Know Prin- ciples


At the beginning of the Posterior Analytics, Aristotle says that “all learning and all rational teaching arises from previously existing knowledge”. How, then, can we have any knowledge? If all our knowledge is acquired by learning that depends on previously existing knowledge, then we would have an infinite regress of still prior knowledge, with the result that we cannot learn anything without having learned something else first. If we reject this possibility, then the only one that remains is that we have some knowledge that we did not learn. This might happen in two ways: either we have some knowledge that we never acquired at all, or we have some knowledge that we acquired but without learning it. We would have knowledge that we never acquired if there was never a time at which we did not have it (which would entail, of course, that we were born with it). Plato held that we do have such knowledge, and indeed that all the genuine knowledge that we have is innate in this way. Aristotle, however, denies that we have innate knowledge (for instance at An. Post. II.19, 100a10). Since he nevertheless does think that we have knowledge, he must think that we have some knowledge which we did not acquire by learning. In fact, he does present such a view in Posterior Analytics II.19, where he claims that our knowledge of the principles ( ¢¡¤£¦¥¨§ ) of sciences comes to us through perception and induction and that the state of knowledge of them is “intelligence” or “thought” ( © ). Aristotle says explicitly that in this process the mind is passive; therefore, it is reasonable for us to regard it as not being a kind of learning (or at any rate as a kind of rational learning). Thus, Aristotle’s overall position is consistent.



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Robin Smith
Texas A&M University

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