Plato and his philosophy

Plato and his Philosophy

Plato is best known for his Theory of Ideas or forms.

It is the metaphysics of Plato, according to which, the things that we experience and encounter with our sensory experiences are not real. Rather, the truly real is the forms or ideas, which can be known only through intellectual understanding and perfect knowledge.

According to Plato, there is a transcendental world of ideas/forms, which exist as the truly real. Here, ideas or forms are one non-spatial non-temporal existence and are the essence of the objects found in the sensory world.

Example, while cow is a perceptual object (i.e object that can be perceived through sensory experience), the essence of cow or cowness is the one which is real.

The “objects” of this world are faithful copies of the essence – the idea or the form of the object. Thus, the idea is a universal concept that is found in all the objects of the same class.

Plato says that it is, in fact, the transcendental world of ideas, which is a matter of fact, and not the world we experience. Just like the moonlight is derived from the light of the sun, the sensory world is derived from the transcendental world of ideas.

  • The sensory object is as real as it is a faithful copy of its transcendental idea.
  • Plato uses a lot of metaphors to explain his Theory of Ideas.
  • Ideas are the essence of objects.

Cave Analogy

The analogy starts with a story. The story imagines a group of people, living in an underground cave, with their hands and feet tied in such a way that their backs are facing the mouth of the cave since their birth. Behind these tied men and human-like creatures are standing on top of the wall. There is fire lit behind the tied people, which casts a flickering shadow on the back wall of the cave.

Because of this, cave dwellers can only see shadows playing. Thus, since their birth, they have only seen these shadows, thinking them to be real. The analogy further goes on to imagine one of the cave dwellers managing to free himself. He comes out and sees the sunlight and clear human figures. He manages to climb the wall and sees beyond what fire showed him. He sees flowers, animals, plants, etc, and realizes that what he had been seeing since birth is merely a reflection of real objects.

He goes back into his cave to tell the other cave dwellers that what they have seen since birth is merely a reflection of reality. But the cave dwellers don’t accept it.

  • Through this cave analogy, Plato explains how what we see around us in the sensory world, is merely a perfect reflection of what ideas or forms have transcendental existence.
  • Prisoned Cave dwellers are ordinary people, who take the cave to be real and are convinced with darkness, error, and ignorance.
  • The one who escaped realized that reality lies in light, truth, beauty, and true knowledge.

The crux of Plato’s Theory of Ideas

Through Plato’s theory of ideas, Plato explains how the sensory world has nothing which is absolute. With growth and decay, all sensory objects exhibit varying properties. For example – food nourishes, but if left uneaten, also decays. In the sensory world, thus, there is no definite existence and hence no definite knowledge. Hence, this world of senses cannot be the real world.

From this theory, he concludes that since this is not the real world, there must be some world that cannot be realized by sensuous experience. This world can only be understood by reasoning and is not sensory but transcendental.

Thus, Plato’s philosophy established dichotomy or the concept of two-realm.

  • While the sensory world is transient, temporal, and mortal, the world of ideas is transcendental, immortal, non-spatial, and non-temporal.
  • The world of ideas can only be known through rational insight.
  • It is knowledge of universals which is real knowledge, and not the sensory experience.

Plato justifies the transcendental world of ideas with certain arguments. He says that to explain certain things like beauty, justice, and sweet, we only point to objects that inhibit these properties. In order to explain the real meaning of these things, we cannot rely on something temporal and spatial. Another example he gives is, a circularity exists as a concept, to explain that, we only use objects having a circular shape. Thus, the idea of circular shape can be explained with a wheel (for example), but the concept of circularity has a non-spatial and non-temporal existence.

Arguments In Favor of the Theory of Ideas

In order to establish his Theory of Ideas, Plato has given major arguments. We have listed down five major arguments.

  • The Argument of Science
  • The Argument of one over many
  • The Argument for knowledge of extinct things
  • The Argument of relations
  • The Argument for the fallacy of Third Man

The Argument of Science

According to Plato – Knowledge and Science must be definite. In our sensory world though, nothing is absolute. Everything sensory object is in constant flux, and hence has varying properties. Hence, we cannot consider worldly objects as objects of knowledge.

Thus, knowledge can only be transcendental.

Real objects can only be something, which is absolute, and hence must be having transcendental existence. Plato thus believed that ideas and forms are things that are permanent and real.

  • The ideal definition of a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, with the points having position but no magnitude.
  • We cannot imagine anything with spatial and temporal existence, having position but no magnitude.
  • Thus, sensory objects are nothing but imperfect copies of something having perfect existence.
  • Thus, it is not the mathematical knowledge of sensory objects that is real knowledge, but rather the mathematical knowledge of the transcendental world that is real knowledge.
  • This real knowledge can be known only by rational insight or reason.

The Argument of one over many

There exist in the empirical world a lot of particulars that can be clubbed into a single class because of certain similarities. For example, we have men, plants, animals, fish, etc. Hence, we can also say that a man is a “man” because all the men in the class of “men” have a common “manliness” which categorizes them into the class of “men”. This “manliness” is actually a universal of the class, and it cannot exist in particular. If it existed in a particular, it would mean it exists in all particulars, meaning there would be many same types of concepts. But the concept can only be one. This one concept cannot exist in the spatiotemporal world.

  • There exist particulars in this empirical world.
  • Each particular has some common features, which categorizes them into a class.
  • This common feature is universal, for example, cowness in cows.
  • This universal has non-spatial and non-temporal existence.

The Argument from the knowledge of things that are no more

According to this argument, while the particulars may decay and die, the “concept” or the universal remains intact. The particulars, which are merely an illustration or imperfect copy of concepts, are not immortal. But still, the concept that defined the class they belonged to, remains. For example, while Dinosaur is extinct, we still know of their existence at one point in time, because the idea/concept of dinosaur still exists.

The Argument from Relations

While all things under a concept are not uniform. Despite having different characteristics in some ways, they are known by the same name. This is because they just follow the ideal form, while they are merely imperfect copies of the idea. The idea is the only thing that is wholly perfect.

The Argument implying the fallacy of the third man

A class includes particulars having a single name and common features. However, none of the particulars have perfect features. For example, while Ram and Shyam are both men having the same “manliness”, neither Ram nor Shyam is perfect.

The idea of a perfect rational creature is indispensable. All the particulars are merely copies of the concept. There are no copies without an original. Thus, there are ideas or concepts, which exist outside the particulars, and this idea has transcendental existence.

Characteristics of Plato’s ideas

For Plato, the idea was the thing that was the realm of reality, and percepts were the reality of becoming.

  • Plato considers ideas as substances that don’t require the existence of anything else for their existence. They are “in itself and for itself”. In philosophy, the substance is an immortal substratum and immune to changes. Plato’s “ideas” have these qualities. For Plato, his ideas were “substance”.
  • Ideas are universals. Example – Beauty. Particular things only copy and imitate an idea.
  • Ideas are eternal, in the sense that they are timeless.
  • Ideas are immutable, pure, and simple.
  • Ideas cannot be perceived. They can be apprehended only by reason.
  • The idea is one, unique and indivisible.
  • Each idea is in its own kind, an absolute.
  • Ideas are beyond space and time.
  • Ideas are real things, and sensible things are mere intimidation of ideas.
  • There are many Ideas. He believed that different ideas enjoyed different roles, and thus had a hierarchical order. While ideas that represent sensible material objects are at the lowest, and ideas that are more inclusive are the higher ideas.

In the hierarchy of ideas, the idea of good is the highest idea. In this way, Plato can be called a pluralist. Different ideas play different roles, but all the ideas are subordinate in their role to the Idea of Good.

Idea of Good given by Plato

The idea of good is the ultimate reality. It is the highest idea – the substratum of the universe.

Plato’s idea can be placed in the same position as the substance of Spinoza, or the Brahman of Shankaracharya.

  • The idea of good is the highest, with the highest knowledge and supreme existence. It is absolutely free, perfect, and doesn’t depend on anything else for its existence.
  • It is the summon bonum of human life. The ultimate aim of everything in this world – desires, activities, excellence, is Idea. Metaphysically, it is the cause of the universe.
  • While the physical world is only appearance, just like the light we experience is due to the sun, and not the sun itself, similarly, the empirical world is due to the idea of good, and no idea of good itself.
  • The idea of good cannot be comprehended by sensory experience. It is beyond finite, thoughts, and speeches. It can only be apprehended with reason. It can be best described just as Brahman is described in the Upanishads as neti neti.

To know is to be

According to Plato, to know the truth, one has to become the truth. In this way, Plato’s epistemology converges with metaphysics, i.e theory of being. The more you know, the more you are, and the better you would become.

The cave analogy shows how humans are in darkness about the real truth. It is only through knowledge of ideas or forms, that humans realize what is eventually true.

An individual has within his/her immortal soul, a perfect set of ideas or forms. These ideas or forms can only be remembered with knowledge. The knowledge must be tried. To remember the form is to know the absolute truth.

Plato believed in two radical spectrums. While he calls the empirical world reality of shadows and imperfect beings, there exists a transcendental world that is eternal, unchangeable, and perfect forms.

Plato proposes love as the way to ascend from the shadows to lightness. According to Plato, love is the way in which a person can go from imperfection and ignorance to perfection and true knowledge.

For Plato, love is the force that brings all of us together and makes it beautiful. Love is the way of attaining the ultimate knowledge and knowing the absolute truth.

Four Types of Knowledge given by Plato

1. Conjectural Knowledge

This is the lowest form of knowledge. It is a mere appearance of knowledge, and not knowledge exactly. Conjectural Knowledge includes hallucinations, illusions, dreams, etc. Conjectural knowledge is the lowest type of knowledge.

Examples of conjectural knowledge include knowledge of rope as a snake, a mirage in the desert, silver in nacre, a double moon in the sky, etc. Thus, hare’s horn, son of barren woman, and golden mountain are all conjecture knowledge. It is always wrong but can influence people.

Conjectural knowledge can be compared to Pratibhasika’s knowledge of Samkara Vedanta.

2. Practical or Sensuous knowledge

Practical or sensuous knowledge may be compared with Samkara’s Vyavaharika knowledge. Sensuous knowledge is the knowledge of the empirical world. According to Plato, this world was subject to constant flux and decay. Our knowledge of things in this world is practical knowledge.

Is Knowledge Perception?

Protagoras and Sophist philosophers and thinkers believed that knowledge of the empirical and practical world was true knowledge.

But according to Plato, such knowledge can be falsified by our day-to-day experiences. Plato’s epistemology is furthered by Hume, who says that sensory experiences can only lead to ideas that are possible but not necessary.

Further, with time, perceptual knowledge becomes self-contradictory. For example, diseases like cancer which couldn’t be treated and were thus considered true knowledge then are now considered wrong knowledge because scientific developments have negated it with time.

Sensory experiences do not give us universal and eternal knowledge. While they are useful for practical worldly purposes, they are temporary. If we accept Sophists, then there would be an impossibility of inventions, discourse, validity, and education itself.

If all perceptions are equally true, then there is no distinction between an untrained and a trained person. For example, there is no point in a teacher teaching a student. If perception was the only valid knowledge, there would be “left-wing” and “right-wing” politics, and it would all be true – howsoever self-contradictory it might be.

Democritus, thus, asks Protagoras – whose perception is more valid? Humans have their perceptions, and animals and birds have theirs too. Plato, however, doesn’t explain whose perception is more valid. Thus, his dictum that knowledge is perception is self-contradictory. If truth is how it appears to be, the question of the validity of truth itself becomes invalid.

If we accept Protagoras, something can be true and untrue at the same time. If he says that perceptions may vary from person to person, then we must have criteria to assess the objectivity of the truth.

Besides, some phenomena are not subject to perception. For example, universals are not subject to perception. We cannot perceive humanity, beauty, and philosophies like secularism, liberty, equality, and fraternity. All the values are subject to something which is not perception.

Kant points out that apriori knowledge is not subject to perception. Apperception knowledge is not possible without the subsumption of forms of intuition under categories of ideas, and their synthesis in unity. All knowledge involves a double cognition.

3. Hypothetical knowledge

Hypothetical knowledge is neither sensory nor intuitive. In a hypothesis, we assume certain things and work on logical deductions and inductive generalizations. The truth of these generalizations and deductions is hypothetical.

In Platonic epistemology, hypothetical knowledge is the mediator between practical sensuous Knowledge and rational insight.

4. Rational Insight of Plato

In Plato’s epistemology, rational insight is the ultimate form of knowledge. Plato is thus the forerunner of rationalism in Western Philosophy. Rational Insight gives us knowledge of forms, concepts, or ideas. It is achieved through a dialectical process, that cannot be deciphered using sensory experience. It is not subject to sensory knowledge.

Knowledge is not opinion

Knowledge is not instincts

Knowledge is always true

Theory of Divided Line

The theory of the Dividend Line is the essence of Plato’s epistemology. It represents a synthesis of Plato’s epistemology and metaphysics.

It is demonstrated through a line, which separates four metaphysical models of knowledge and the world. The models are like a ladder, which man uses as building blocks from ignorance to true knowledge.

The line divides the world into two main fields:

  • Opinion/Visible: The practical world which can be perceived through senses and is subject to change. This can further be divided into –
    • Conjectural/Illusion
    • Perceptual/Practical
  • Knowledge, or intelligible world: The intelligible world cannot be perceived, but only understood. This world is eternal, without the subject to change. Knowledge of the intelligible world can be divided into
    • hypothetical and
    • Rational insight
Plato's Figure of the Divided Plane
Plato’s Figure of the Divided Plane

Critical Comments to Plato’s Theory of Idea

  1. Aristotle says that the essence of something cannot be outside of the thing itself.
  2. According to Aristotle, ideas cannot explain particular things in the world. It is only when white cows, white flowers, follow the idea of whiteness, that we say that. But Aristotle says that there is no logical relationship between them.
  3. Plato says that ideas are substances with transcendental existence, but Aristotle refutes that saying that ideas must exist in the particulars only.
  4. According to Aristotle, Plato’s Theory of Ideas cannot establish any logical relationship between ideas and particular things. If the sensible is like the non-sensible idea (particular), then the sensible to becomes non-sensible. Thus, to explain this would lead to the fallacy of the third man.
  5. The idea of man is found in all individual men. But in order to establish that there is a thing common between all men and the idea of man, would require the third man to illustrate. This would again require another idea, to show the common element between man and the idea of man. Hence, it would also lead to the fallacy of infinite regression.
  6. Plato says that ideas are indivisible. But, if the idea is only one, do individual horses participate in one indivisible horseness, or in the whole idea of horseness? If so, the idea would be in many places as there are individual horses in many places. Thus, the idea of a horse gets divided.
  7. If individual things are merely copies of its idea, then man is the idea of individual men, and men are themselves copies of animals.

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