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Ancient Greek Philosophy Part 6 - Plato

PillarofCreationJul 12, 2018, 1:59:56 AM

Plato is arguably the most important writer among the Ancient Greeks, with the possible exception of his student Aristotle. Much of what we know of the ideas of Socrates and several other prominent philosophers comes from Plato's works. What's more, Plato's dialogues cover a much wider field of philosophy than any other Greek writer before him. He was influenced by most if not all of the philosophers before him in this series. In addition to metaphysics and ethics, Plato wrote extensive works about political philosophy, epistemology, and even simple psychology. I'm going to try to focus on Plato's epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), as he is more or less the first person to ever write about it extensively. Most of Plato's epistemological positions relate to his Theory of Forms, which is well developed in his dialogue Phaedo.

The major purpose of Plato's Socratic dialogue Phaedo is undoubtedly to prove the existence of the human soul before and after death. However, here we will be examining a theory that is only one part of this proof, although it may be equal in importance to the whole. Said part is the Theory of Forms. In the Phaedo, it can be seen that the purpose of Plato's theory of forms is to establish a consistent link between language, meaning, and reality; To explain how humans can effortlessly perceive and relate differences and similarities between the relationships and attributes of objects around them. In order to adequately explain the theory of Forms, three smaller questions must be answered: What are Forms? How do Forms relate to objects in the world? What is recollection?

Forms are eternal non-physical entities that correspond to any attribute or relationship that can be expressed as a noun. Although it is not explicitly stated within the Phaedo that Forms have no physical existence, it is understood that living humans have no direct physical access to them.

“...can the Equal itself, the Beautiful itself, each thing in itself, the real, ever be affected by any change whatsoever? Or does each of them that really is, being uniform by itself, remain the same and never in any way tolerate any change whatsoever? It must remain the same, and in the same state.”(Phaedo)

Forms are indivisible objects that forever retain their form. The specific Forms mentioned within Phaedo include The Just, The Beautiful, The Equal, The Unequal, The Greater, The Smaller, Oneness, and Twoness, among many possible others. Physical objects such as trees, rocks, or people do not have Forms associated with them in Phaedo. Only attributes, such as beauty and oneness, and relationships, such as equality and greatness(in size), have Forms attached to them. These Forms are not synonymous with the concepts that respectively take part in them.

“...the Equal itself. Shall we say that this exists or not? Indeed we shall... And do we know what this is? – Certainly. Whence have we acquired the knowledge of it? Is it not... from seeing sticks or stones or some other things that are equal we come to think of that other which is different from them? Or doesn't it seem to you to be different? Look at it this way: do not equal stones and sticks sometimes, while remaining the same, appear to one to be equal and to another to be unequal? – Certainly they do. But what of the equals themselves? Have they ever appeared unequal to you, or Equality to be Inequality? Never, Socrates. These equal things and the Equal itself are therefore not the same? I do not think they are the same at all, Socrates.”(Phaedo)

Forms are not direct parts of the concepts which they represent, but are abstracts that exists to be the factors that link objects that are similar to one another in relation to said concept. In Phaedo, Forms are not only the mechanisms that link alike objects, they are also responsible for instilling their respective properties into the objects that take part in them.

“...I think that, if there is anything beautiful besides the Beautiful itself, it is beautiful for no other reason than that it shares in that Beautiful, and I say so with everything.”(Phaedo)

Following this logic, it is only because of Smallness that any object is smaller than another, and it is only because of Lightness(in color) that pink is separate from red. Objects can take part in as many or as few forms as they have stake in depending on the circumstances. For instance, a man may have a stake in Smallness, Largeness, and Height if he has larger and smaller men to be compared to. Indeed, Forms appear to be responsible for holding the logic of our universe intact. But how does something non-physical manage to permeate every aspect of reality? This is the one question that Plato unfortunately leaves unanswered.

“...nothing else makes it beautiful other than the presence of, or the sharing in, or however you may describe its relationship to that Beautiful we mentioned, for I will not insist on the precise nature of the relationship, but that all things are beautiful by the beautiful.”(Phaedo pg.118) 

I have now covered what forms are and how they interact with objects in the world. Now we must address how these Forms relate to human beings specifically. This relationship is known as recollection according to Plato.

“Do we not also agree that when knowledge comes to mind in this way, it is recollection? What way do I mean? Like this: when a man sees or hears or in some other way perceives one thing and not only knows that thing but also thinks of another thing of which the knowledge is not the same but different, are we not right to say that he recollects the second thing that comes into his mind?”(Phaedo)

Obviously, recollection is not something that only relates to Forms. Any time sensory data triggers knowledge in the brain about a subject other than the one perceived, that is recollection.

“As long as the sight of one things makes you think of another, whether it be similar or dissimilar, this must of necessity be recollection? Quite so.”(Phaedo)

With this in mind, Plato makes the claim that any time you look at a specific object and recollect knowledge about its class or relationships to other objects, you are recalling knowledge of those forms. For instance, if I see a dog panting and think, “That dog must be hot,” I am recalling information about the Form of Hot. Humans are constantly recalling knowledge of Forms when they interact with their surroundings, but if this is true, where did this knowledge come from and why can we not summon it at will?

“Which alternative do you choose, Simmias? That we are born with this knowledge or that we recollect later the things of which we had knowledge previously?... What is your opinion about it? A man who has knowledge would be able to give an account of what he knows, or would he not? He must certainly be able to do so, Socrates, he said. And do you think everybody can give an account of the things we were mentioning just now? I wish they could, said Simmias, but I’m afraid it is much more likely that by this time tomorrow there will be no one left who can do so adequately. So you do not think that everybody has knowledge of those things? No Indeed. So they recollect what they once learned? They must. When did our souls acquire the knowledge of them? Certainly not since we were born as men. Indeed no. Before that then? Yes.”(Phaedo)

Plato thus concludes that knowledge of the Forms is bestowed sometime before birth and that direct access to said knowledge is lost upon being born. The true purpose in creating this theory was to demonstrate a definite link between language and reality; to prove that language is not just arbitrary groupings of noise that are understood by a certain population to have the same meaning. However, without a definitive explanation of the nature of the relationship between matter and Forms, the theory will remain a piece of intriguing conjecture. Plato likely realized this himself, as he began to question the nature of the theory of forms in his later dialogues. He may even have abandoned it outright, as his last written work on the subject of knowledge (Theaetetus) contains no mention of the Theory of Forms.

At least one epistemological position that Plato held was undoubtedly true, and has remained a tenet of epistemology ever since. Plato was very adamant that our senses are flawed, and that sensation alone is not enough to give us knowledge. This is correct. Sensation and perception can only give us data, we have to apply reason in order to reach any real conclusions. As Plato had Socrates say in Theaetetus, "how can anyone contend that knowledge is perception, or that to every man what appears is?"

Other essays on Epistemology:

Defining Knowledge and the Gettier Problem

Dogmatism About Perception and Roger White's Bootstrapping Arguement

Sosa and the Speckled Hen

More Ancient Greeks:

Part 1 - Thales of Miletus

Part 2 - Heraclitus of Ephesus

Part 3 - Pythagoras of Samos

Part 4 - Parmenides and Zeno of Elea

Part 5 - Socrates