Which of these statements did Plato hold?

Jenny asked:

All of the following statements pertain to Platonic philosophy EXCEPT

1. the road to knowledge goes through the Socratic dialectic
2. one arrives at knowledge through sense experience
3. the Good is the highest Form
4. the world of opinion is not to be trusted

Answer by Peter Jones

Hello Jenny.

Okay. I will do your test for you.

All philosophical statements pertain to Platonic philosophy. It is the whole idea of philosophy that all statements should pertain to each other. I presume you (or whoever set your test paper) meant something other than ‘pertain’.

You may have some difficulty in establishing exactly what the phrase ‘Platonic philosophy’ means, and it may depend on who you ask. I doubt, however, that Plato or any other philosopher in their right mind would endorse all of these statements. The first is false, since a dialectic intellectual process produces good and bad theories, not knowledge. The second is false for well-known Cartesian reasons. The third sounds a rather like Plato, but I do not know exactly what it means and neither do you. The last one is a tautology. On the whole, therefore, I would say it hardly matters what Plato would have thought about these statements. What you think about them would be much more important.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your teacher expects you to say that the answer is 2. If that’s all you wanted to know then you don’t need to read any further.

He/ she wants you to say this because in the Republic (analogy of the Line) Plato says that sense experience cannot give episteme (translated as ‘knowledge’) but only doxa (translated as ‘opinion’).

How do we know that we mean the same thing by ‘knowledge’ that Plato meant? That’s one question you could ask your teacher.

Another question you could ask is why, if ‘the road to knowledge goes through the Socratic dialectic’, all of the Socratic dialogues end inconclusively, not with ‘knowledge’ but with the admission that we don’t know what virtue, or courage, or temperance or etc. are – but at least now we know that we don’t know. How does that help?

Is the Good the highest Form? Plato describes it as the ‘light’ by means of which our minds are able to perceive the Forms (story of the Cave). That would seem to make the Good something rather different from ‘just’ being the highest Form. The light by means of which I perceive one particular mountain to be the highest mountain isn’t a mountain. It isn’t the same kind of thing.

Some opinions are true. Even Plato acknowledged that. Someone who seriously made the attempt ‘not to trust’ any of his/ her opinions would be in a very sorry state (this is in effect Pyrrhonian scepticism). Plato recognized that as long as we have to get around the world (for example, find the road to Larissa, Meno) we have an interest in distinguishing trustworthy beliefs from untrustworthy guesses.


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