When I was born, I did not know the difference bet
ween right and wrong. Now, I do. The word philosophy means the love of knowledge. One type of knowledge is propter quid, which ask the question why or how. In this paper, I
will demonstrate how Socrates, Hume and Aristotle, three well known philosophers, would explain how I acquired
this knowledge in relation to the principles of right and wrong.
Socrates is the first philosopher, I will discuss. Since Socrates did not write anything down, Socrates thinking is told
through his student, Plato, who wrote his teachers thoughts. Socrates is an idealist who believes that things are in
born. Therefor he believed that before we are born our soul knows everything, but when we are born our mind is a
tabular rasa (blank slate). As we grow day by day, we recollect the knowledge from our soul.
the soul, that is, the human mind, before it is united with the body, is aquatinted with the intelligible world or the
world of Forms. In this prior existence, the true knowledge. After its union with a human body, a persons mind
contains its knowledge deep in its memory. True knowledge in this world consists of remembering, in reminiscence
or recollection. What the mind or soul once knew is raised to present awareness by a process of recollection aided by
the technique of dialect or the Socratic method. (Stumpf 260)
This is known as the theory of recollection. The theory of recollection is told through Plato in the Phaedo and the
In the theory of recollection “Socrates answer to the paradox is that knowledge is recollection. This thesis allows a
man to have ideas of which he later becomes conscious by recollection; thereby overcoming the sharp division
between not-knowing and knowing, and justifying inquiry.” (Sternfeld, 35) Socrates states in the Meno ” A man
cannot inquire about what he knows, because he knows it, and in that case he is in no need of inquiry, nor again can
he inquire about what he does not know, since he does not know what he is to inquire.” (Plato 80E) This theory of
recollection may explain why we often say that we had certain knowledge before we leaned it or heard it for the first
time. It is often said that we are born with concepts and it is these concepts that structure our minds, beliefs, and
“In his dialogue entitled the Meno, Plato illustrates how Socrates is able to show that even a young uneducated slave
boy knows some truths of geometry not because somebody taught him that subject but because be naturally knows
the relationship of various ideas to each other.” (Stumpf 260) This quote illustrates how Socrates thought that the
uneducated boy knew geometry. He recollected it from his soul. In the Meno, Socrates states that the boy is
“recovering by oneself knowledge within oneself.” (Plato 85D) Knowledge in the Meno is perceived as having an
acquaintance with the object, but not knowing how it functions. Socrates states here that true knowledge is that is
learned. Once learned, we remember that knowledge and apply it when needed. This can be done through
recollection or memory. As an occasion arises that requires the use of this knowledge, we can use the abilities of our
mind and recollect the knowledge for the circumstance.
I interpret Socrates to mean that I was born with a knowledge of right and wrong, but I needed to experience
situations where I needed to recall this knowledge. He makes reference to the initial knowledge being in the soul.
Hume is the second philosopher I will discuss. Humes beliefs are different from Socrates. Hume believes that we
were born knowing nothing, and everything is learned. He feels that as we grow, we learn the difference between
right and wrong from our experiences. The present comes from the senses and the past is in our memory. Hume
shows how knowledge begins form the experiences we encounter through our five senses.
It is said of Hume “it is the use he makes of the principle or the association of ideas, which enters into most of his
philosophy. The principle of association helped the empiricists to explain our powers of thinking consistently with
their view that our ideas are derived from experience, and that they are not innate.” (Sorabji 42) Unlike Socrates,
Hume does not believe certain knowledge is within our soul.
Hume uses the concepts of impressions and ideas. “Impressions and ideas make up the total content of the mind. The
original stuff of thought is an impression, and an idea is merely a copy of an impression.” (Stumpf 288) According
to Hume, when you initially make a decision, right or wrong, this would be your impression. It would be an idea
when you needed to recall this decision.
Hume also speaks of knowledge being divided in two ways. He identifies the Relations of Ideas and Matters of Fact.
Relations of ideas are empirical facts and cannot be disputed. These include mathematical equations and scientific
Matters of fact, which are the second objects of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor in the
evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing. All reasoning concerning matter of fact
seem to be founded on the relation of Cause and Effect (Stumpf 294)
The principle of cause and effect would indicate that you would need to actually experience a situation before being
able to determine if it were right or wrong. This theory does not include reasoning as a basis for you decisions.
Therefore, Hume would feel we know right and wrong from our experiences. We would only know that the stove is
hot because we experienced it. This theory eliminates the possibility that some of our decisions in life are based on
knowledge that we obtain, but do not actually experience. I have learned that if run in front of a car, I will be
injured, even though, I have not experienced this event.
Aristotle is the third philosopher I will discuss. “Perhaps the most important Platonist was Aristotle, for practically
every significant Western Philosopher who did not find inspiration in Plato followed the guidance of Aristotle.”
(Cantor 12) Aristotle was one of Platos students for over twenty years until Platos death. He wrote about many
areas of philosophy, including ethics. “In later life Aristotles medical background proved significant, providing
early training in empirical investigation and biological science.” (Cantor 11) This type of background added a new
dimension to philosophers ideas during this era. “Aristotle wrote as a man who having studied and mastered the
knowledge of the world, was trying to provide the principle and organization necessary for studying it
systematically.” (Cantor 13)
“Metaphysics”, one of Aristotles works, is concerned with a type of knowledge, that he thought could be rightly
called wisdom. He begins this work with the statement, “all men by nature deserve to know. This innate desire, says
Aristotle is not only a desire to know in order to do or make something.” (Stumpf 405) He feels we need to
understand the why of our decisions. Many feel that metaphysics is the study of abstraction and is difficult to apply
to everyday principles.
“Wisdom is therefore more than the kind of knowledge obtained from sensing objects and their qualities.” (Stumpf
406) These first principles and causes are the true foundation of wisdom, for they give us knowledge not of any
particular object or activity, but rather knowledge of true reality. “Wisdom is similar to the knowledge possessed by
the scientist who begins by looking at something, then repeats these sense experiences, and finally goes beyond
sense experience by thinking about the causes of the objects of his experiences.” (Stumpf 407) In this way Aristotle
uses his training in biological sciences. Aristotle feels that once you have some knowledge, additional knowledge
will build upon the initial knowledge. Therefore, it would be Aristotles opinion that knowledge as in right and
wrong would be derived by experiencing situations and using the wisdom learned from these situations to make
Aristotle also uses memory as a philosophical principle. “Aristotles account of memory is fuller that that to be
found in best know British empirist” (Sorabji 1) He related to a wide variety of things that may be remembered, but
required memory. Examples of these are “facts, that one learnt, contemplated, heard, or saw something; that one did
something the day before yesterday; what one saw or experienced and the past.” (Sorabji 1)
He uses images to make his point. He felt that what is in our mind is mental images. “Aristotles theory of
remembering requires not any kind of image, but an image that is a likeliness or copy of the thing remembered.”
(Sorabji 3) His image is in the memory.
In summary, I feel Aristotles basis for knowing right from wrong would combine wisdom and memory. Once we
have obtained wisdom from an event, it would be our memory that would recall the event.
Aristotles theory would best support my understanding of right and wrong. In order to make good decisions in life
you have to understand the basis for your rationale. By having this understanding, you can accept your decision and
not second guess yourself. I feel you need both wisdom and memory to make sound decisions. Socrates theory of
knowledge coming from the soul is unrealistic for me. I believe you have to experience situations or have
knowledge of related situations before you can decide if they are right or wrong. Humes principles of cause and
effect substantiate immediate learning, but you have to actually experience the event and cannot use reasoning to
make your decisions.