Epistemological Beliefs and Organizational Leadership Epistemological Philosophies  Essay

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Epistemological Beliefs and Organizational Leadership

Epistemological Philosophies: Comparing Plato and Protagoras

To understand our quest for knowledge, we often have to go back to some of the classical theories in order to get a full view of how modern theories have developed. Understanding classical philosophy is not blindly reading one philosopher and then assuming you have the knowledge of thousands of years of Greco-Roman thought. There were major differences within the philosophers of that time, and these differences have remained to influence more modern philosophical thought. Understanding the similarities and differences of two very different minds like Plato and Protagoras can help clarify the differences in epistemological theories and how they relate to organizational leadership today.

Plato was a classical Greek philosopher whose work has continued to influence the field of philosophy and the study of epistemology even into the present day. Plato's works are often disguised within a relatively informal seeming dialogue between his mentor Socrates, who never wrote any of his own teachings down and other individuals that Socrates meets along his travels in and around Athens. Thus, we as the reader are exposed to Plato's sense of epistemology through a third party, making it a much different format than the one encountered in the works of Protagoras. In his work, The Republic, Plato recounts a number of conversations Socrates was supposedly engaged in, and through this medium, Plato revels his unique image of epistemology and the nature of how human beings know and learn.

According to what Plato believed in his sense of Platonic epistemology, knowledge is already within us all. The things we have to learn do not come from some outside experience, but rather are there within us from the very start. This is a view of knowledge that shows it is innately within our own beings, but we have to discover it ourselves through a process of reawakening the knowledge we already have (Feldman, 2003). Many philosophers throughout history have sensed that knowledge does come from within (Nonaka & Nishiguchi, 2001). Plato famously discuses his allegory of the man in the cave to show how the light of knowledge was always there, yet it was hidden behind us as we were not facing the mouth of the cave, and thus blinded by our own limitations of exploration. Once the man leaves the cave he can know real knowledge outside of the shadowy figures he though was knowledge beforehand (Cooper, 1999). The light was always there, but it must be our choice to seek it out, and that is where knowledge comes from. Rather than learning from an external stimulus or experience, we are guided through reawakening the knowledge already inside of us with the help of a mediator who brings us to the attention of what it is we want to find that is already inside of us. Thus, no information is ever new, but rather it is lying dormant within ourselves and is reawakened at a time and place where we begin to search for it within ourselves with the help of someone more knowledgeable than us who can help us reach the information we seek within ourselves. Plato developed this theory largely to help show how humans could have knowledge about things that go beyond our "sensory experience" (Moser & vander Nat, 2003, p 32). As such, Plato emphasizes the importance of a third party in reawakening the already innate knowledge that had been lying dormant within the individual. Here, Plato writes of Socrates saying, "even if a person's eyes are capable of sight, and he's trying to use it, and what he's trying to look at is colored, the sight will see nothing and the colors will remain unseen, surely, unless there is also present an extra third thing which is made specifically for this purpose" (Cooper, 1999, p 22). The mediator is the third thing in a person's quest to learn. The knowledge is already there, but they need that third thing, being a teacher or a leader, to help see it. Someone who has already experienced this awakening can then help others experience it as well through mediating their journey into themselves.

Quite on the opposite spectrum of the image of Platonic epistemology is what is known as epistemological relativism. One of the major figures of this style pf philosophy is Protagoras, another Greek philosopher of about the same time as Plato and Socrates, although with quite a different outlook on life and knowledge. His thoughts later went on to influence major philosophers like Descartes and his Cartesian doubt. This style of relativism was based enormously on skepticism (Feldman, 2003). It focuses on explaining how knowing what we know not through thorough and careful guidance of reawakening it within ourselves, but through only experience and what it has taught "in the accidental way in which the sophist knows" as Aristotle put it (Cooper, 1999, p 25).

Thus, "much of Socrates' and Plato's thinking was a direct response to skeptical, especially relativistic, assaults on knowledge by Protagoras and other sophists" (Cooper, 1999, p 6). This placed Protagoras in direct contrast to some of the more well-known philosophies of Plato and Aristotle today. In fact, Protagoras clearly drew the line and showed just how different his philosophy was with the concept that "Man is the measure of all things, of things which are, that they are, and things which are not, that they are not" (Russell, 2004, p 83). Essentially, Protagoras is claiming that things that relate to humanity and society, for example property, judgment, and feelings, do come from within the human mind. In this way, the philosophy can be related to Platonic epistemology and its ideas of knowledge originating in the human mind. However, this only goes for things that are directly connected with the human experience, leaving other sources of knowledge external to the individual, which is a major difference from the Platonic idea of knowledge. As such, this style of epistemology shows that knowledge of the world, for example astronomy or geology, is not innate within our human minds. Thus, we must discover this knowledge through experiencing the external world and the wealth of knowledge that is hidden in a variety of different aspects. As such, the main tenant of this philosophy is that knowledge is relative (Feldman, 2003). Thus, Protagorian epistemology does not see knowledge as an innate element, but that "knowledge is perception" (Zilioli, 2007, p 22).

Protagorian epistemology highlights a much different position for the leader and teacher who aims to push individuals into finding new knowledge about the world. Here, the research suggests that "by relating truth, knowledge, and reality, says something about the structure of the world" (Zilioli, 2007, p 10). His position within the Platonic dialogue shows him as focusing much more on the mechanics of learning. He examined poetry from the intent of the author, not from allowing the theme and tone of the poem to extend its potential metaphorical or figurative meanings. This leaves out less room for individual interpretation, as it is based on clear and concise evidence with the language used within the poem itself. This style of learning is actually quite beneficial for certain aspects and genres, even in a modern day context. Understanding the mechanics of politics and law, for instance, demands such a strict style of interpretation based on the foundations and structures of language and thought. As such, a good leader from this perspective would be much more of an instructor than a facilitator, which is proposed within Platonic epistemology.

Matrix for Comparison

Platonic Epistemology

Protagoras' Relativism

Source of Knowledge

Knowledge is innate, and thus within us all even from our very first breath.

Essentially, knowledge is relative. Knowledge of human structures is innate, while there is still external knowledge about the world that is relative to the external world.

How Man Discovers Knowledge

Man must reawaken the knowledge that already resides within him through the help of a teacher or guide.

How we discover knowledge is relative to what we study and desire to know. To understand human concepts, it is a search within the self; yet, to understand external worldly concepts, it is often through experiencing these externally.

Best Style of Leadership

The best leader is a calm and collective guide who helps the individual find their own answers within themselves, rather than forcing them to adopt an external philosophy or understanding. The leader facilitates the individual's own journey helping only to lead the individual to his or her own conclusions.

This style has a much more overt style of leadership and teaching, where the leader would instruct the individual much more than facilitating. Since knowledge is relative and found through perception, the leader must illustrate the external knowledge the individual must learn from an outside perspective.

Challenges as a Learner

As a learner, there would be serious challenges mainly if one was not to find an appropriate facilitator to help expand my own knowledge and how to search for it.…

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