Thursday, May 19, 2011

Plato and the Truth

Plato (429/3 BC–348/7 BC)

His name, Plato Πλάτων, means broad. That may well describe his robust figure fit for a wrestler or his unusually wide forehead but it is an understatement about his thinking. A.N. Whitehead gave this famous evaluation about the depth of Plato's philosophy:

"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them."
Alfred North Whitehead
Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology
ed. by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne, Free Press. 1979, p. 39.

Anonymous writers have given an excellent summary of Plato's metaphysics found in his Dialogues and other books, I try not to best them but rather quote selected parts of the English wikipedia article on him with references for your convenience.

The truth?
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"Platonism" is a term coined by scholars to refer to the intellectual consequences of denying, as Socrates often does, the reality of the material world. In several dialogues, most notably the Republic, Socrates inverts the common man's intuition about what is knowable and what is real. While most people take the objects of their senses to be real if anything is, Socrates is contemptuous of people who think that something has to be graspable in the hands to be real. In the Theaetetus, he says such people are "eu a-mousoi", an expression that means literally, "happily without the muses" (Theaetetus 156a). In other words, such people live without the divine inspiration that gives him, and people like him, access to higher insights about reality.

Socrates's idea that reality is unavailable to those who use their senses is what puts him at odds with the common man, and with common sense. Socrates says that he who sees with his eyes is blind, and this idea is most famously captured in his allegory of the cave, and more explicitly in his description of the divided line. The allegory of the cave (begins Republic 7.514a) is a paradoxical analogy wherein Socrates argues that the invisible world is the most intelligible ("noeton") and that the visible world ("(h)oraton") is the least knowable, and the most obscure.

According to Socrates, physical objects and physical events are "shadows" of their ideal or perfect forms, and exist only to the extent that they instantiate the perfect versions of themselves. Just as shadows are temporary, inconsequential epiphenomena produced by physical objects, physical objects are themselves fleeting phenomena caused by more substantial causes, the ideals of which they are mere instances. For example, Socrates thinks that perfect justice exists (although it is not clear where) and his own trial would be a cheap copy of it.
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There is much to be said about this. And indeed, much has been said through the ages!

The truth?
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The Theory of Forms (Greek: ιδέες) typically refers to the belief expressed by Socrates in some of Plato's dialogues, that the material world as it seems to us is not the real world, but only an image or copy of the real world. Socrates spoke of forms in formulating a solution to the problem of universals. The forms, according to Socrates, are roughly speaking archetypes or abstract representations of the many types of things, and properties we feel and see around us, that can only be perceived by reason (Greek: λογική); (that is, they are universals). In other words, Socrates sometimes seems to recognise two worlds: the apparent world, which constantly changes, and an unchanging and unseen world of forms, which may be a cause of what is apparent.
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Distinguished reader of these quotes, do not be tricked by the simplicity of the description of the Theory of Forms. The subject is vast.

Knowledge and Belief
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Many have interpreted Plato as stating that knowledge is justified true belief, an influential view that informed future developments in modern analytic epistemology. This interpretation is based on a reading of the Theaetetus wherein Plato argues that belief is to be distinguished from knowledge on account of justification. Many years later, Edmund Gettier famously demonstrated the problems of the justified true belief account of knowledge. This interpretation, however, imports modern analytic and empiricist categories onto Plato himself and is better read on its own terms than as Plato's view.
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This subject gets also Theologians going where Philosophers have gone long ago...

The Truth?
Much has been written. But Plato purposedly left something unwritten.
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His "unwritten doctrine" ἄγραφα δόγματα ... "stands for the most fundamental metaphysical teaching of Plato, which he disclosed only to his most trusted fellows and kept secret from the public ... The reason for not revealing it to everyone is partially discussed in Phaedrus (276 c) where Plato criticizes the written transmission of knowledge as faulty, favoring instead the spoken logos: "he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful ... will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words, which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually."
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So what can we know about the innermost thinking of this great Philosopher who arguabely was also a great writer? There were no taperecorders or dictation machines at that time, as we all know. And if he wrote nothing, so we are out of luck?

Well, not quite. Plato once gave a lecture on the Good (Περὶ τἀγαθοῦ) and many of his close friends remember something about the occasion. Here is the description of the impact of this lecture given in the Academy of Athens by Aristoxenus

"Each came expecting to learn something about the things that are generally considered good for men, such as wealth, good health, physical strength, and altogether a kind of wonderful happiness. But when the mathematical demonstrations came, including numbers, geometrical figures and astronomy, and finally the statement Good is One seemed to them, I imagine, utterly unexpected and strange; hence some belittled the matter, while others rejected it."
Aristoxenus quoted in English wikipedia

What could all this be, the secret core of Plato's metaphysics?

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In Metaphysics he writes: "Now since the Forms are the causes of everything else, he [i.e. Plato] supposed that their elements are the elements of all things. Accordingly the material principle is the Great and Small [i.e. the Dyad], and the essence is the One (τὸ ἕν), since the numbers are derived from the Great and Small by participation in the One" (987 b). "From this account it is clear that he only employed two causes: that of the essence, and the material cause; for the Forms are the cause of the essence in everything else, and the One is the cause of it in the Forms. He also tells us what the material substrate is of which the Forms are predicated in the case of sensible things, and the One in that of the Forms - that it is this the duality (the Dyad, ἡ δυάς), the Great and Small (τὸ μέγα καὶ τὸ μικρόν). Further, he assigned to these two elements respectively the causation of good and of evil" (988 a).
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Not that I much understand about this greatest of the great deep thinking. Just an ardent student.

Plato and the truth
From theological point of view

1. The realization that neo-Platonist Plotinus is a genuine Platonist and does not falsify his philosophy. Plotinus, of course, had very deep impact on Saint Augustine and thus on the Latin Church and thus on the entire Western civilization.

2. In 526 Justinian I Emperor of Byzantine closed Plato's Academy in Athens (established 387 BC) considering it an enemy of Christianity. Today, many Academys have closed their doors to Christianity considering it an enemy of pursuing truth. Both views are wrong.

3. The Return of Plato: Aristotle ruled the academys of Medieval Europe while Plato was doing well in Byzantium and in the Muslim world. The emigration of Greeks from Constantinopole after Ottoman conquest 1453 brought Plato back to western Europe. The following combination of the two Greeks has been of fundamental importance to the entire world.

Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas
Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1096a15

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