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Political Philosophy

Knowledge, Power and Control:
Some Issues in Epistemology

Patrick Quinn
All Hallows College

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ABSTRACT: This paper will examine some of the epistemological issues that emerge in the context of discussing the relationship between knowledge, control and power. These concerns raise questions about self-authenticating intuition and about who should control knowledge and how it should be disseminated. The importance of Plato as a key contributor to this debate will be discussed and it will be suggested that his writings provide a basic frame of reference for subsequent thinkers whose concerns also lie in this area. The political importance of philosophy, the centrality of education, the use of language and the function of censorship are issues in Platonic epistemology that merit some discussion. The medieval views of Averroes, Maimonides and Aquinas will be examined for their contributions to the literature on this subject in the context of the respective theological frameworks, and something will be said about the implications of their conclusions for a theocratic society. Finally, I suggest that there is a need for a contemporary reappraisal of how an adequate balance between the individual's right to know and the socio-political implications of knowledge might be achieved.

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In this paper, I propose to examine some of the issues that arise as a result of the relationship between knowledge and power, and specifically those that concern who should control knowledge and disseminate it in society. This subject is discussed in the writings of Plato and is also commented on by such medieval thinkers as Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Moses Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas from the Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions respectively and their views will be briefly outlined here. Despite the religious, historical and cultural differences which distinguish their approaches from one another, what is remarkable is the similarity in the conclusions that they reach about how noetic power and control is acquired and exercised. They all insist that knowledge should be made selectively available to certain individuals and groups according to noetic ability and social position in the context of the envisaged socio-political model of community that is in operation. Knowledge is perceived as a conserving influence on individual and political life, to be transmitted preferably in an essentially unaltered state in order to maintain sustain the desired socio-cultural value system and power structure. The emphasis is on respect for tradition and for the origins and status of the noetic content to be transmitted through the expertise of those delegated to act as transmitting agents. The content of knowledge is frequently portrayed as mysterious and mystifying, only capable of proper interpretation by appointed specialists. The role of teaching is consequently important since the teacher is the community's appointed expert for disseminating knowledge, as and when appropriate, according to the receptive abilities of those who learn.

This epistemological approach appears to be in sharp contrast to the contemporary view of someone like Paulo Freire who insists that knowledge must be democratically available to everyone in order to politically transform society transformation through social justice.(1) This aim is achieved when the noetic process becomes a critical reading of reality, a reflection in action which is applied so that traditional ways of thinking constitute a permanent subject for reinterpretation. Knowledge is perceived in Freirean epistemology as a medium of communication between human beings, a process in which there is no permanently unaltered noetic data but rather an ongoing dialectic strategically pursued through contradiction and constantly aimed at radically redefining how people can coexist in a state of social equality. According to this view, knowledge offers everyone the possibility to think more critically about the world so as to act on it in a more humanising way. It is ideally a liberating methodology aimed at reshaping the socio-political power structures so as to create a culture of freedom. The teacher is depicted in this account as a political pedagogue who encourages students to "read reality" in a critical way in order to radically transform it. Such issues as social accountability and ideology are central to Freirean epistemology. It is clear then that all the theories of knowledge mentioned above, whether Platonic, medieval or contemporary, concern themselves with the social dimension of knowledge and its impact on society, and with the most desirable means of fostering noetic development for the common good. What underlies this such concern is the subject of examination here, namely, the issue of noetic management in relation to power and control.

Plato's Concept of Knowledge as Power

Plato's writings are central texts in this debate since they mark out the key areas for discussion. He states, through the person of the Platonic Socrates, that knowledge best emerges in a relationship of dialogue where the truth is revealed by means of critical questioning. According to his theory, there is an innate source of truth in each of us that is made explicit by the dialectical process. Enlightenment occurs through appropriate guidance, even compulsion, features that are metaphorically depicted in Republic Book VII in the released prisoner's dramatic passage from the darkness and obscurity of an underground cave to the bright regions of reality beyond it. The movement from illusion and appearances towards the point where things are seen for what they really are represents Plato's metaphor for the noetic process. Ignorance is a state of imprisonment and bondage from which people should be encouraged to escape by someone in a position to help.(2) This movement towards freedom, light and reality metaphorically represents a process that is uniquely personified in the Socratic search for truth. The impression given here as elsewhere in the Platonic writings is that Socrates (despite his own disclaimers, for example, in Theaetetus 150cd) already knows where truth resides. This is confirmed by the discussion that follows the ending of the Cave narrative when the selection of the philosopher-ruler is the subject of debate. According to the Platonic Socrates:

It is the duty of us, the founders, to compel the best natures to attain the knowledge which we pronounced the greatest, and to win the vision of the good, to scale that ascent. (Rep.519cd)

Here the element of compulsion is linked to the assumption that the ideal state's founding fathers, and Socrates in particular, will know what kind of knowledge is best for the model ruler to acquire. At the very least, there is the suggestion that when such knowledge is attained by the philosopher ruler, it will meet all the criteria set out by the state's founders. Perhaps this claim relates in some way to a Platonic assumption that in some unique instances (for example, in the case of Socrates), people are capable of rapid anamnetic noetic clarity concerning certain objects of intuition.

The development of the necessary qualities for philosophic rule, which result from the kind of mental and physical efforts described in Plato's Republic, can be acquired by suitable training but this still leaves open the question about the primary resources that must be in place if philosopher rulers are to emerge at all. Plato's text implies, as we have seen, that there must be in existence some person or persons who, by virtue of intuitive wisdom or personal charisma, are in a position to facilitate the emergence of a philosopher ruler through an understanding of the kinds of structures that will create the model state. These "state's founders" (Rep.519c), especially Socrates, have the authoritative role of political sage, which confers a right to predetermine political principles, policy and practice. There is more than a suggestion here of noetic infallibility about the vision and knowledge of these founders and the philosopher ruler. This may prove to be problematic in the pursuit of political and individual excellence, for example, when some forms of political intuition can act as destructive forces for society.

A certain kind of disposition is also required to permit individuals to be receptive to the requisite knowledge so that they can avail of the means necessary to acquire it. The Republic (518cd) describes this metaphorically as having an inbuilt eye for the right kind of knowledge. This involves a turning away from what is changeable and a turning towards what is permanent and lasting. The Platonic Socrates claims that it is possible to train people to acquire such a permanent conversion mentality (Rep.518d et seq.) and this leads to a discussion in the text on the importance of education as a structure of learning directed towards the pursuit of excellence. The structured acquisition of the right kind of knowledge is therefore of central political importance for Plato since every member of society and each class within it ideally function in noetic harmony for the benefit of all, this being brought about "by persuasion and compulsion" (Rep.519e). In his ideal state, those with greater knowledge have the right to rule others. More knowledge means more power to control others and to constrain them towards what is regarded as the right course of action. There is the added assumption that people will do what is required of them once they recognise the ethical implications of higher learning.

Critical Reflection

Critical thinking is stimulated by the use of contradiction, according to the claim made by the Platonic Socrates (Rep.523bc). Such critical reflection is evoked by the Socratic technique in which contradiction poses an intellectual challenge frequently resulting in a new way of seeing things. How far such a technique is to be carried through is an important consideration since there is the implied assumption earlier mentioned that the Socratic-Platonic path of dialectical contradiction leads inevitably to truth. The ability to stimulate others to become critically reflective is depicted in Theaetetus 150b-151d in the metaphor of a noetic midwife. The Platonic Socrates states in this dialogue that his function is to enable others to give birth to the knowledge within them. He can, he claims, detect false knowledge just as the midwife can distinguish real from imaginary labour pains. The method intrinsic to this kind of noetic midwifery is itself characterised by critical reflection where the Socratic figure facilitates the learner by a process of probing questions to give birth to the knowledge within. In some ways, this approach is remarkably similar to the kind of work done in contemporary counselling where attempts are made to move those being counselled towards specific admissions and self-discoveries by techniques which often involve critical questioning. The underlying assumption is that such knowledge is innately available and that its emergence is for the good of the individual and for the well-being of society in general. The other assumption mentioned earlier is that the noetic facilitator, whether by philosophic or therapeutic skills, is in the expert position of recognising, either intuitively or from prior experience, the authenticity of the emergent knowledge. Despite frequent attempts to describe such an approach as non-directive, this may not be in fact the case since a very definite agenda is often pursued, irrespective of the description given. Despite disclaimers to the contrary, one could argue that the exchange between the philosophic or psychological therapist and the learning subject is already predetermined in quite significant ways by the facilitator in terms of one or more of the following: the nature of the process itself, its general direction, the specific issues worth discussing and the desirable outcome to be aimed at through the dynamics of the relevant discourse. Such predetermination does not, of course, preclude openness between the participants once the framework is recognised.(3) The question arises, however, as to what extent critical questioning can be pursued, if, for instance, it is thought to be irrelevant to or even subversive of the perceived nature of the enterprise, since the latter will be predominantly assessed by the facilitator, and not just the learner.


Leadership of a just society, according to Plato, is centrally grounded on the ability (either innate or fostered by training) to visualise what constitutes the common good and to act in accordance with this vision. The Platonic dialogues themselves frequently demonstrate this conclusion by revealing it in the context of a predetermined plan and objective in the mind of the Platonic Socrates, something that becomes clearer as the discourse progresses. This is related to the responsibility which he, as facilitator, has for the noetic process in terms of personal character, knowledge and degree of wisdom. The philosopher-therapist must have integrity and wisdom and, if as Plato's Republic suggests, Socrates uniquely personifies these qualities, then this model of state seems to be intuitively justified. Plato might argue in support of this contention that people become capable of intuitively recognising the validity of the proposed ideal, once they are intellectually and spiritually disposed to do so and, most of all, have "an inborn affinity" for it (Letter VII, 344a). However, one could also claim that relying on a form of knowledge that seems intuitively self-authenticating may be a recipe for political disaster as much as for political good, as history shows.(4) However, the thesis that there is a form of self-validating knowledge, which is intuitively recognisable as such, is a powerful one for Plato and he describes the psychological impact of the experience in Letter VII. Angry at misrepresentations of his views, he argues that language is inadequate to convey what philosophy is and writes:

I certainly have composed no work in regard to it nor shall I ever do so in future, for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies. Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and becomes self-sustaining. (Letter VII, 341cd)(5)

These sentiments, which read rather like the account of the prisoner's journey towards enlightenment in The Republic, once again confirm the importance of a self-authenticating form of intuition in Platonic thought and the need to exclude certain people from philosophy for fear of misrepresentation. This feature re-emerges in later epistemologies where concerns similar to those of Plato are put forward, as we shall see.(6)

Exclusiveness, Language and Noetic Access

The necessity for noetic exclusion by linguistic means is justified by criteria which determine the suitability of candidates for certain kinds of knowledge. Writing about philosophic truth, Plato states:

I do not, however, think the attempt to tell mankind of these matters a good thing except in the case of some few who are capable of discovering the truth for themselves with a little guidance. In the case of the rest to do so would excite in some in a thoroughly offensive fashion, in others certain lofty and vain hopes as if they had acquired some awesome lore. (Letter VII, 341d-342a)

It is noteworthy that Averroes employs almost exactly identical language centuries later in an Islamic context about those capable of philosophic thought while Aquinas expresses similar sentiments in Super de Trin.2.1 and ST.I.1.9 with regard to how Christian revelation should be communicated. Plato's warning about communicating philosophic truth through written language is particularly forceful in his dialogue, Phaedrus where comparison is made between the positive advantages of living discourse for the development of philosophic knowledge with the more rigid presentation of such knowledge in textual form. The Platonic Socrates criticises the unreliability and impermanence of written texts and attributes simple-mindedness to any author or reader who expects otherwise. Written words, he claims, are unsatisfactory for providing instruction since no answers may be forthcoming to the kinds of questions that spontaneously arise from reading a text. The latter goes on "telling you the same thing forever" (Phaedrus 275d) and, more importantly, is open to serious misinterpretation:

Once a thing is put into writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into hands, not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself. (Phaedrus 275e)

This discussion is preceded by a concern for how philosophic truth can please divinity.(7) Later the same dialogue concludes that:

No intelligent man will ever be so bold as to put into language those things which his reason has contemplated, especially not into a form that is unalterable – which must be the case with what is expressed in written symbols. (Phaedrus 343a)

The Platonic Socrates adds that no serious person would ever write about such realities for the general public for fear of perplexing them or making them envious.(8)

One wonders, of course, about these strictures in view of Plato's own extensive skills as a writer and his comprehensive range of written texts. Undoubtedly, he is being cautious at the very least about how written language should be used and this may arise from a pedagogical standpoint. Learning from texts is certainly seen by him as being inferior to the kind of knowledge that emerges from spoken discourse and is shaped by critical questioning in the exchange of views. Texts only have value, he seems to argue, when their meaning can be explicated. They cannot stand alone as self-sufficient learning models. Their "parent" or author must be present to teach their true meaning.(9) This emphasis on textual control is very evident in The Republic's discussion on censoring poets when the Platonic Socrates declares that any poetic works considered subversive of the good of society must be banned, irrespective of its author's historical and literary reputation and intentions. The authority to censor is personified in the state's founders and in those who rule.

Some Theocratic Echoes of Platonic Epistemology

Plato's concept of the relationship between knowledge, power and control as set out in his writings forms the basis for subsequent discussions on models of a noetic class-based society similar to that which is idealised in his Republic. His views are echoed by thinkers like Averroes, Maimonides and Aquinas, all of whom are generally concerned to situate knowledge and its availability within the same kind of theoretical structures. Like Plato, they are intensely interested in the acquisition, control and dissemination of knowledge and for Averroes and Aquinas in particular, there are implications for their concepts of a theocratic state. It is from such a perspective that Averroes warns that, since not everyone is capable of philosophic thought, those who try to apply a philosophical analysis to their theological beliefs may find their faith subverted. Philosophy is only possible for the select few, not for the vast majority of people:

For the majority cannot read philosophical books only those endowed with superior natures. People are on the whole destitute of learning and are aimless in their reading which they do without a teacher.(10)

People can be led astray by philosophic literature by:

Some natural defect, bad training of the mind, inordinate passion, or the want of a teacher who might explain...the true significance of things.(11)

The solution for Averroes is to confine philosophic truth to a select audience who can understand it and interpret it correctly from "learned books"(12). The vast majority must be content with the imaginative presentation of the truth from parables and stories and be actively prevented by the doctors of Islam from reading certain books lest their faith be subverted.(13) The similarities between Averroes' noetic class-based society and that of Plato's Republic are not altogether surprising in view of the Islamic philosopher's familiarity with Plato's text.(14) More importantly, they demonstrate agreement on how the political dimension contextualises the dissemination of knowledge.

For Maimonides too, only a few select people are capable of dealing with theological truth.(15) In his Guide, the Jewish thinker describes in great detail the kinds of difficulties that most people encounter when trying to come to know theological truth. He claims that very few are capable even after extensive and lengthy training of discovering and understanding such truth for themselves. The majority need to have the truth presented to them in the form of parables and metaphors and Maimonides insists that they should be discouraged from acquiring it by any other means. He believes in the need for a teaching authority which exercises noetic power by controlling the dissemination of knowledge and presenting the truth to the majority of people in symbolic mode which is appropriately interpreted. Maimonides argues that, with regard to theological knowledge, most people need to be treated as infants rather than as mature adults. The paternalistic metaphor employed again suggests the relevant model for the theocratic management of knowledge.

Aquinas follows a similar pattern when he argues in Super de Trin.2.4 that theological truth is best transmitted to the faithful in parabolic form. If it were to be made too easily available, it might, he thinks, confuse the uneducated who would misunderstand it and be ridiculed by unbelievers who detest it anyway. Teaching implies a form of communication appropriate to the learner which, in this case, means matching the flexibility of metaphor and imagery to the receptive abilities of those being taught. According to Aquinas, this will allow the wise to grasp the abstract nature of the truth presented in parabolic form while facilitating the uneducated to grasp it imaginatively. In ST.I.1.9, he argues that Sacred Scripture respects these human dispositions by permitting a quite sophisticated theological analysis to coexist with a more imaginative grasp of divine truth by metaphors and from stories.


This brief selection of views demonstrates some of the classic concerns about the management of knowledge. The political consequences lie in whatever model of society put forward by those charged with creating, maintaining and administering it. It has been suggested here that the vision of society which inspires the kind of approaches outlined above is grounded on a form of authoritative self-authenticating intuition whether based on the model of a Platonic-Socratic persona or on the kind of theological personification as exemplified by the great religious figures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The basic intuitions of these founders and their extraordinary charisma serve to provide political models for their followers, as well as a desirable way of life. Living according to the original vision constitutes the special character of the primary knowledge and confers an authoritative status on those to whom it is specially revealed. This justifies the political model that is seen as ideal. The paternalistic character of such enterprises then determines the nature of the noetic agenda with its power structures and communication system with its inevitable consequences for the dissemination of information and the nature of censorship. The social dynamics that operate almost invariably in the epistemology of power determine what particular form of knowledge is central to human life, both individual or communal. The need to maintain a balance between the individual and society has clearly posed some difficult historical epistemological problems for such approaches in the acquisition and control of knowledge and this still remains an important issue for discussion in the world of today. As an aspect of power, the dissemination of knowledge is clearly situated in the political arena. It remains to be seen whether it is all possible for contemporary epistemologists to devise a new set of theoretical possibilities for understanding how knowledge, both individually and socially, might be more harmoniously employed for the personal and communal benefit of all in society today.

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(1) Paulo Freire (1985), The Politics of Education, trans. by Donald Macedo, Macmillan, London.

(2) Republic 515e-516a, 520cd.

(3) Paulo Freire states that no pedagogical exchange can be wholly neutral and that it is incumbent on the facilitator to identify what specific agenda is being pursued.

(4) Aquinas writes interestingly about the self-authenticating knowledge of religious rapture which gives another perspective on this issue. See Patrick Quinn (1996), Aquinas, Platonism and the Knowledge of God, Avebury, Aldershot, pp.66-80.

(5) A similar point is made further on in the same text when Plato writes that understanding finally "blazes up" in a flash when "the mind , as it exerts all its powers to the limits of human capacity, is flooded with light." (Letter VII, 344b)

(6) This occurs in the major religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which rely on the personal testimony of such exceptional individuals as Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.

(7) It is also worth noting that Aquinas's own investigation into the use of obscure language in Super de Trin.2.4 is similarly preceded by a discussion in 2.3 on how philosophy should be employed in the context of theological thought.

(8) Phaedrus 344cd.

(9) Ricoeur takes a very different view of reading. See Paul Ricoeur (1981), Hermeneutics and The Human Sciences ed. & trans. by John B. Thompson, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp.145-164.

(10) Mohammed Jamil-Ur-Rahman (1921), trans. & ed., The Philosophy and Theology of Averroes, A.G. Widgery, Baroda, p.52.

(11) Ibid., p.23.

(12) Ibid., p.51.

(13) Ibid., pp.51-52.

(14) See Oliver Leaman (1988), Averroes, Clarendon Press, Oxford, pp.119 et seq.

(15) Moses Maimonides (1963), The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. by Shlomo Pines, The University of Chicago press, Chicago & London, Chs.31-35.

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