Plato's Ideas


 How to Run an Effective Intellectual Scam

Christopher Schlegel
Issue XXIV - August 10, 2004
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The most important issues in philosophy are in the area of Metaphysics & Epistemology.  This is because they are the foundation of the philosophical hierarchy: 

Metaphysics-dealing with the fundamental nature of existence, irreducible primaries, axiomatic statements that everything that proceeds will be based upon. 

Epistemology-dealing with the nature of Knowledge, also referred to as the Theory of Knowledge.

 Ethics-dealing fundamentally with how should humans act in relation to reality, secondarily to each other.

 Politics-dealing with how should humans deal with each other and in what systematic way.

 Aesthetics-dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty (more generally how humans use their senses to appraise reality).

 (By the way…For any system or collection of ideas to be considered an actual “philosophy” all of these areas have to be covered explicitly or implicitly.)    

 The differences between the philosophical outlooks of Aristotle and Plato began a crucial central debate that is still with us to this day.  The debate centers on the areas of metaphysics and epistemology.  For the purposes of this discussion these areas can be reduced to two simple questions:  metaphysics-What do I know? & epistemology-How do I know it?  The central debate is about the nature of concepts:  i.e. what are they exactly, where do they come from, etc.

 Plato claimed that concepts (or “ideas”) were actual objects in another “dimension/world/reality”; specifically the World of Ideals (ideal shapes, forms, structures) and that this other world was (of course, as always) “higher/more important” than the one we actually perceive.  Humans only get a shadowy glimpse, a bad filtered representation of the “real” existence of “things as they are”.  Why can’t any of these wise guys ever claim that humans perceive the most important aspects of reality and the other dimensions that humans can’t perceive are less important?  The only answer I have for that is that they hate humanity.  Anyway…..So, for example, any given triangle that we perceive in our sad, little, lowly world is just a reflection of the great Ideal Triangle in the Sky. 

This amounts to the idea that concepts exist as literal objects outside of the actual things they represent.

Aristotle claimed that concepts are in the nature of the object that they represent.  A human mind perceives that an object contains certain specific characteristics and therefore categorizes these objects mentally accordingly.   Therefore a chair can be red or blue, made of wood or metal, have three legs or four, but it’s essential characteristic is “an object that humans use to sit on as furniture” regardless of it’s other characteristics that help make it a specific, individual chair.  All chairs then, regardless of other lesser traits and even though they retain these traits, contain the actuality of the concept “chair” (or that it has “chair-ness”).

Actually, Aristotle’s idea was expanded upon by novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand.  She pointed out that a concept doesn’t actually physically reside in an object.  A concept is a mental unit of two or more concretes that each possess an essential, retained characteristic (Rand called it the Conceptual Common Denominator).

So, Plato said concepts are objects in fairy-land.  Aristotle said concepts are in the nature of the object (i.e. in reality, in this world).   Then Rand clarified Aristotle by saying that concepts are cognitive units that humans use to mentally identify and classify concrete objects (and actions) in reality.  

This is the origin of the Raphael painting of Plato and Aristotle walking at the Greek “university”; Plato is pointing at the sky, “Look to the heavens if you want to know” while Aristotle is pointing at the ground, “Look around you if you want to know”.

The Cave is Plato’s analogy for the actual (but not directly perceived by humans) structure of reality.

The real problem with his analogy is an epistemological issue.  If humans do NOT actually perceive existence directly HOW WOULD A HUMAN KNOW THAT?  Or be able to figure it out?  Once Plato claimed (and in some cases convinced people) that human perception is an invalid method for dealing with reality he accomplished two goals.

The first is to undercut the concept of objectivity.  Metaphysically this translates into the question, “If you are going to start out by claiming that human senses (and therefore perception) are NOT valid, then, how would you ever be able to verify that information?  Furthermore, how would you ever be able to make anymore claims about anything?”  Of course this never stops Plato (or Kant or Hegel) from continuing to make claims.  I mean, really….stop and think about that chain of thoughts for a second:

  1. I am human.
  2. I have human senses and they are my means of perceiving reality.
  3. Human senses are invalid (or imperfect) for perceiving reality.
  4. Therefore I cannot possibly ever make any valid conclusions or observations about reality.
  5. But I will continue to write long, complicated philosophical prose anyway.

The second goal is to undercut the efficacy of the human mind.  Plato is not interested in convincing you that he is right.  He just wants you to feel confused enough to say, “Wow that’s confusing.  It must be really deep and important.  I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about, but he probably does so it must be right to doubt the validity of my senses and mind.”

That’s all he wants.  Plato was either stupid enough to actually believe his own ideas which would make him relatively harmless or else he was smart enough to know he was peddling nonsense (conveyed as “philosophy”) which would make him essentially evil.

Why else would someone set up a false, arbitrary/hypothetical explanation of human perception (“world of ideals vs. world of shadows”, “filtered perception”) and an equally invalid theory of concepts (“ideal shapes and forms”, Kant’s “categorical imperatives”)?  Basically, because if you can get people to accept that much then it’s (in the words of Cole Porter) “Anything goes!”.  The crazier and more esoteric the idea, the better!  Is it any wonder we have blockhead psychics on TV talking to dead pets?  Or people successfully claiming in courts of justice that society made them kill innocent people?

I think in many cases Aristotle is viewed as very boring because his is so very systematic, thorough and Monumentally Common Sense Orientated:  A is A.  A thing is itself.   A thing possesses certain characteristic qualities and cannot act outside of or in contradiction to its nature.  People that don’t want to use their minds to deal honestly and effectively with reality have a friend in Plato.  And to these kind of people Aristotle is a huge, strict and stern reminder that reality is not interested in whether or not you want to pretend that 2+2=5 or that the car coming down the street you are crossing is “really just a subjective pre-cognitive figment of your imaginative filtered consciousness.”  So it won’t hit you and possibly kill you because it’s not real?   And I grant that it is hard work to always be THINKING and consciously making an effort to honestly apprehend and understand reality.  But in the end it is the most rewarding.  And anyway, what other choice do you really have?  It’s not like you have an option on which sense you want to use to see an object.  It’s not like you have an option on which “reality” you want to perceive.

I think it is also important to note that Plato placed the people in his analogy in a dark cave and physically chained up.  This is psychologically representative of the way that Plato wants you to react to his setup.  You are supposed to feel that you are being held back or down or “enslaved” by your senses and “this world”.  Remember that when you find out that Aristotle was thrilled with the idea of using your senses to discover, understand and categorize the beautiful world around us (i.e. reality).

By the way, remember Plato was the guy that claimed, “Love is a disease.”  Whereas Aristotle a bit more benevolently observed that, “Love is an expression of values.”

Plato was the first in a long line of philosophers that setup a bizarre construct of ideas and analogies that make little or no sense in direct comparison to objective  reality (i.e. the universe humans actually live in and perceive).   Plato’s Cave is the original blueprint for cynical supernaturalism.  This is pure mysticism superficially disguised to resemble rationalism.  In this sense I mean mysticism as a set of ideas that cannot ever be proved or understood.  So why try to explain it with complicated scenarios?  Why try to “explain” it at all?  It is also probably worth noting that it is the starting point for every thinker thereafter that wanted to devalue human existence; and it is a very effective tour de force in accomplishing this objective.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.