maanantai 26. heinäkuuta 2010

Ideas reconsidered

In the previous text we saw how Plato developed his mature views on ideas and on the ideal life of human beings. Yet, Plato's views were not fixed for eternity, because he found later on reasons for re-evaluating some central tenets of his work. These novel lines of thought required also a change in the form of presenting them, Plato seems to have thought. Thus, the central character and the hero of earlier dialogues, Socrates, hides often into a background in the later dialogues and sometimes even loses a battle of wits: a subtle hint of Plato's that he did not ascribe to all of the beliefs he used to have.

One obvious change in Plato's later thought is a growing concern for justifying that his methods truly resulted in knowledge. In many of the earlier dialogues Socrates tried to discover definition for some general concepts like courage or justice. A mere example of courage did not suffice for a proper definition, because such examples revealed not all possible instances of courage: only by knowing a definition of courage did one gain a capacity to truly recognise courage in all possible cases. Now, one particular concept Plato had not tackled was knowledge itself. Socrates in his dialogues had perhaps claimed to have particular instances of knowledge in his possession, but one could ask how Plato could justify that these were true cases of knowledge, if he did not even know what it required to know something

Knowing definition of knowledge was thus important for justifying the possibility to complete Plato's agenda. It is then no wonder that in dialogue Theatetus we find Socrates considering pros and cons of various definitions of knowledge. The first assumption Plato suggests is that we know something when we see, hear or in general perceive it: indeed, seeing, hearing etc. seem to be our main sources of information. Now, the problem in this definition is that people can have different perceptions of same things: wind that feels cold to one man might be warm according to another man. Thus, if we accepted perception as the criterion of knowledge, then everyone would have their own criterion of knowledge and indeed would be always correct in everything: this is the sort of relativism that some sophists endorsed. Then nothing would have any stable essence, but things would change from one context and observer to another: what is cold for me might as well be hot for you.

It is expected that Plato did not accept this definition. This definition would make opinions of every person equally valuable and would thus undermine the possibility of there being experts who knew more of some issue than others. Furthermore, the whole idea of everything changing according to the context would quickly destroy all stability from the world: we couldn't even say that different persons perceived same things in different manners, because the assumption of same things underlying different observations would be too substantial. Finally, this definition does not even correspond to the common manner of using the word ”knowledge”: otherwise I would lose knowledge of a thing at once when I stopped looking at it.

The next definition Plato proposes supposes that knowledge is something stored in our mind in form of images: experience of things leaves traces in our mind, like impressions in a piece of wax or like birds flying in aviary. This suggestion would make it possible to use knowledge of a thing even when we did not perceive it: we would just have to drag it from our memory. The trouble is how to account for occasions when we have false beliefs: we might have false thoughts flying in our head in addition to true thoughts. The problem is actually solved in a later dialogue Sophist, where Plato has noticed that our mind does not store just images, but also opinions in the form of statements. Statements always speak of something – this something is usually designated by a noun – and they say something of this issue - in verbs and adjectives. Such statements can then be obviously wrong: we could have said something of an issue, although the issue should not be characterised in that manner.

Although the problem of false opinions would have been solved thus, the idea of mere true opinions as knowledge would not be sufficient. Even a clever rhetorician could put thoughts and even correct thoughts in our head, but even after listening to her we wouldn't necessarily have true knowledge instead of mere opinions.

Knowledge is thus not completely characterised by being a true belief: something more must be added to the definition. Plato considers several emendations without finding a suitable answer. Clearly a mere ability to state one's thoughts verbally does not yet make them knowledge, because we can as well state mere opinions. A plausible suggestion according to Plato is that knowledge requires a capacity to tell what a thing consists of: e.g. we know a machine, when we can tell how it has been constructed. More generally we know something when we can define it, that is, when we can explain it through simpler terms: e.g. triangle is a figure consisting of three straight lines. The problem is that we couldn't then know anything of the final pieces of analysis, because they wouldn't consist of anything: knowledge would be based on unknowledge. Plato finally suggests that perhaps a mere capacity to recognise something would be sufficient to make our thoughts of something knowledge: indeed, we do say that we know a person, if we can recognise her among a crowd. Then again, even this suggestion seems insufficient, because we appear to need such capacity of recognition even for having thoughts: I cannot think Mark, if I can't separate him from other persons

Although Theatetus thus ends with a negative conclusion, the investigation was not in vain. It appears that at least the knowledge of complex or analysable entities involves essentially the capacity to define or analyse them. Hence, Plato suggests in his later dialogues a more systematic manner of defining things, while in earlier dialogues he had merely just tested any definitions that happened to be available. This new method works by making constant divisions: for instance, all living things are either plants or animals and humans belong to the latter kind etc. This method is still not a sure way to make correct definitions – these definitions need still to be tested – but at least it results in more correct definitions than a mere haphazard invention. Thus, in later dialogues Plato defines in this way sophist as a sort of imitator, who fakes knowledge, although he does not have actual knowledge; similarly, a statesman is defined as a sort of herdsman of humans who uses the talents of other professionals to care for the best of society. This method was clearly of great importance to Plato's pupils also. Indeed, Plato's successor, his relative Speusippus, equated knowledge of a thing with the capacity to place it in its proper place in a classification of all things: thus, knowledge of something presupposed for Speusippus a knowledge of everything.

In Theatetus Plato criticised his old enemies, the sophists, and especially Protagoras, who had insisted that anyone's opinion must be as good as any other's. In addition to sophists, Plato had now gained some new enemies, who paradoxically had been his allies against sophists. The Megaran school tried to unite Socrates' method of teaching with Parmenides' idea of the world: they tried to show through arguments that world was an unchanging unity. Unlike sophists, Megarans admitted that we could know something, and like Plato, they admitted that the true knowledge was to be found beyond what was revealed by senses. But unlike Plato, they supposed that the object of this knowledge was the unified world instead of a plurality of ideas: in eyes of Megarans these ideas would have been mere delusion as well as sensuous appearances.

Plato felt the pressure of the Megarans apparently quite overwhelming: in his dialogue Parmenides the idol of Megarans, Parmenides, is even able to dismiss the theory of ideas that young Socrates suggests to him: it might well be that the criticism of Parmenides in the dialogues originated in the Megaran school. Parmenides of the dialogue makes fun of Socrates by asking him whether such things as mud have also an ideal model. But his criticism does not limit to such cheap jokes. Parmenides questions the very relation ideas are supposed to have to the things we normally perceive. Idea of beautiful should be something that makes the beautiful things beautiful. How does it do this? Suppose the idea of beautiful is like a chemical component added to a thing to make it beautiful: then we actually don't have one idea of beautiful, but a quantity of it, divided among many things. Plato, on the other hand, upholds the idea to be a unity. Indeed, the idea of beautiful was assumed just because there were many beautiful things and some unified thing was needed to account for what makes these many things beautiful: idea of beautiful was like a model of beauty which other beautiful things resembled. Parmenides cleverly notes that one would then have to assume an unlimited number of ideas of beautiful: the first idea of beautiful together with other beautiful things form yet another plurality of beauty, which would then require yet another ideal model of beauty to account for what makes them all beautiful. Socrates of the dialogue makes the final suggestion that the ideal of beauty couldn't be compared with beautiful things, because it would be infinitely more beautiful than mere sensuous things can be. This suggestion solves the problem of infinity of ideas of beauty, but makes the assumption of the idea somewhat superfluous: the ideal beauty would then be something that god perhaps might know, but it would have nothing to do with earthly beauty, which it wouldn't even resemble.

The criticism of Parmenides makes Plato's theory of ideas suspect, but the dialogue does not stop here: Plato goes on to show that the very assumption of Parmenides and Megarans leads to equally great problems. If we suppose the existence of One – that is, of the original unified reality – we have two choices to make. The first option is to take the route of Parmenides and Megarans and avoid saying anything negative of it. Then we end up with saying nothing of it, because from every positive statement follows something negative: if we can say even that the One exists, then we can also say that it does not fail to exist. Furthermore, if we cannot say anything of the One, we cannot even say anything of its relation to the things we sense: thus, we cannot say anything of the sensuous things, because they wouldn't be even unified without some relation to the One.

The second option is to admit that we can say something of One, at least that it exists. Then we must assume that something has made it to exist or at least makes it possible for us to say that it exists. This source of existence could then be separated from One and together they would form a pair: we could then suppose another source that would make the source of being and the One into pair. Clearly we could go on finding ever new sources of triplets, quartets etc.; in fact, these sources would be Platonian ideas of numbers. The One would then be just one of the ideas, that is, it would be the source of making all unified: thus, it would make organised wholes from what we can sense and would hence allow us to speak of the world of senses.

Plato notes that these two options are actually not completely exclusive. We could also suppose that the One had been at first devoid of existence and thus beyond all discussion. Then the assumed source of being would have made the One come into being – created it, in religious terms. After this the One would have continued by making the sense world evermore unified. As this assumption supposes that One would be temporal, it would be equally tough to accept for Parmenides and Megarians.

The outcome of the Parmenides has thus far been that both Plato and Megarans have apparently been contradicted. It might thus seem that the common opponent of both – that is, sophists – would have beaten the game: there would be nothing beyond the perceptions. But at the end of the dialogue Plato points out once again that sophistic solution won't do: a sophist must also face his own dilemma. Suppose that sophist says that neither Platonic ideas nor Parmenidean One exist. Then he also has two choices. He might firstly mean that e.g. One does not exist in the perceived world, that is, that perceptions consist only of parts that do not form true wholes. Then the One would still exist beyond the perceived world: a result not satisfactory for the sophist. The other option would be that the One and the ideas would truly not exist and would even be beyond meaningful discussion. The problem is that then everything would be beyond meaningful discussion, because nothing would be unified and thus a possible subject of discussion.

Plato's battles with other philosophical schools have thus far ended with no clear resolution, but in Sophist Plato thinks that he can win both sophists and Megarans. There is not just instable motion and not just immobile stability in the world, but both: if neither would exist, there would be no possibility of thought. In other words, there is something that makes things move and something that makes things stable: these are then Platonic ideas, which are not mere components nor just ideal models, but something with the ability to make others resemble them. Furthermore, the ideas of motion and stability are not completely separate, but can mingle and affect one another. Neither of the two is a source of being and therefore a third idea is needed to make the other ideas exist. In addition to these three ideas Plato assumes then at least the ideas of similarity and dissimilarity: one is something that makes things share some characteristics, while the other separates all things. Through this new scheme Plato solves the old Parmenidian problem how one can speak of something that differs from being. Plato notes that the words being and non-being are ambiguous. There is firstly the source of being and beyond that other beings: all of them are beings or exist, but the source of being exists in a more essential manner, because without it nothing would exist. Other beings would then be non-beings in the sense that they differ from the source, although in another sense they of course exist.

The metaphysical question about the source of being was an issue that was much thought by Plato's successors. Plato was convinced that the source of being could be said to exist, and indeed, that it primarily deserved to be called existing: in any case, we could make meaningful statements of this source. Plato's successor Speusippos, on the other hand, noted that such a source would not really explain anything. That is, if a source or cause of something would just be a thing of similar sort, nothing would be explained: if you explained the existence of fishes by saying that they had came out of other fishes, you would not have explained anything, but only transferred the problem to further and further fishes. The true source of existence, according to Speusippos, should then be something beyond existence and being and therefore also beyond meaningful conversation, Thus, when Plato, for instance, says that the source of being is good or aims for some purpose, Speusippos denies this, because such descriptions as good can be used only of the existing things.

Another problematic that Plato's successors talked a lot was the relationship of this source of being to other things and especially Platonic ideas. Plato suggested a sort of hierarchy, where the source of being together with a source of multiplicity constructed first ideas or ideal models of everything, then numbers and finally other things. Now, Plato’s successor Speusippos noted that the realm of ideas would be a mere useless addition without any purpose. For instance, if we already know ordinary numbers that can be added together and separated from one another, there would be no reason to speak also of a realm of ideal and changeless numbers that could not be added etc. The successor of Speusippos, Xenocrates, tried to mediate between the two older philosophers by equating numbers with Platonic ideas: like in the ideas of so-called Pythagoreans, numbers played also the role of metaphysical forces.

If we now move on from the pure theory of ideas, we see that Plato is anxious to show how the physical world could be explained on the basis of his theory and how the findings of contemporary science could be reconciled with his own thoughts. Plato acknowledges that his account of knowledge could not admit any true science of physical world: the world is too variable to be a true object of knowledge. Yet, at least a probable account of the structure of the world could be given. Because the theory of world is of lower level than true philosophical knowledge, Plato presents this theory in a form of a mere myth or story of the birth of the world.

The physical world would by itself consist of a mere chaotic variety of ever fleeting shapes and an empty, unchanging ”place” or receptacle in which these shapes appear. The current order of the world should then come from another source that Plato calls demiurge. It is unclear whether this demiurge is a mere mythical name to some idea – to some source of order or stability – or whether it is a distinct, godlike entity shaping the chaos by using ideas as models. In any case, the true source of the stability of the world must be either immediately or mediately in the world of ideas.

The first task in the stabilisation of the world would be the shaping of chaotic mass into specific matters. Plato tells colourfully how demiurge shapes matter into triangles and then combines these triangles into four different shapes corresponding to the Empedoclean elements: earth, fire, air and water. He then continues by suggesting how other substances, like snow, oil or salt, have been produced from these four basic elements. When we abstract from the mythical aspect of the story, Plato is essentially recounting the chemistry of his own time and adding a geometrical description of its basic elements.

Plato was also interested to incorporate the astronomy of his times into his account of creation. Hence, the demiurge is told to shape the four elements into a form of a rotating ball. The newly-born cosmos is given to an entity that is formed from both the source of stability and the source of motion and so shares characteristics with both of them: this entity or psyche is what makes the cosmos into a living creature. The cosmos is then tinted with an outpouring from the source of difference – so that it does not repeat the same pattern too often – and with an outpouring from the source of sameness – so that it will finally end up in its development into its original starting position. The cosmos is then filled with bodies made of fire – the planets – that follow the rotation of the cosmos with strict mathematical rules. The planets are also endowed with psyches of their own, which correspond then to the gods of the Greek tradition.

After this stage in the creation myth, the demiurge has the chance to rest on its laurels, while the gods then get the task of creating an image of the cosmos within cosmos. Thus, they produce ball-shaped objects, to which the demiurge adds a psyche of their own – it is not clear whether these ”smaller psyches” are meant to be parts of the world psyche or independent entities. Because such balls would have difficulties in moving, the gods fashion a support for the ball or head: the body. The description of the body and its interactions with the environment follow the medicine of Plato's time. Furthermore, Plato gives a sort of mythical explanation of his theory of the three parts of human psyche. The highest or the reasoning part has already been created by the demiurge and placed in the head. Now, the gods imitate this creation of demiurge and place another psyche within human body: this psyche is then divided into two parts, one of which resides in the heart and unites lower with the higher psyche, while the other part lives in abdomen and is more concerned of the body and its wants. The two parts of the lower psyche are essentially connected with the body and die with it, while the reasoning psyche has a higher origin, according to Plato, and therefore can outlive its body. The psyches then move from one body to another, and while the first body created by the gods is supposedly male human, the womankind and animals are produced as living quarters for humans who have paid more respect to body and its wishes than to their own psyche.

Plato’s affair with natural philosophy was temporary, but his interest in human behaviour continued even in his older age. Just like he had to defend his theory of ideas against new opponents – Megarans – so did his idea of a proper human behaviour face new opponents. While earlier Plato was satisfied to show that mere pleasures without reason could not fill one’s life with meaning – after all, how could one even know how one is feeling good without reason – in his later dialogue Philebus he also goes against the idea that human beings could live a good life completely without pleasures, as Cynics had suggested. Plato agreed with Cynics, when they said that some pleasures were intrinsically related to pains – no satisfaction from food without hunger. Yet, human beings cannot be completely free of such pleasures and pains: we are no gods, we must eat to survive. Furthermore, Plato suggested that some pleasures are without pain, like the joy of seeing beautiful colours or hearing beautiful sounds. Although pleasures thus are an element of good life, Plato still thought that they were far from being the most important element: much more important is to measure pleasure in right amounts, without detriment to health of body and psyche, and this could be done only with the guidance of reason.

Plato’s theory of ideal state had to face other challenges. It had become evident to Plato in his futile attempts to educate a tyrant into a philosopher that his utopia was more difficult to actualise than he had thought. It may have occurred to him that his ideal state was completely impossible, a fantasy without any basis in reality. Plato did try to justify this ideal through another myth: he suggested that in times long gone his hometown Athens had been a Platonic state and that it had been capable of withstanding the might of a much larger empire of Atlantis. This sort of myth was not, of course, sufficient as a true proof, and so Plato was forced to consider whether there might be a more viable sort of society, which would still be better than any current state was.

An ideal Platonic state should be based on one class of people being capable of governing the whole state: a great number of guidelines is not needed by such state, because the governors should know perfectly well what the citizens truly need. A second best state, on the other hand, cannot rely on the wisdom of governors, therefore, it must at least have good laws to govern it. In other words, this state must not be a tyranny where all power has been given to one person, because such a state would be too reliant on the nature of that one person. People desire to be free, and even slaves are ruled best when they are handled fairly. On the other hand, state should not be a completely unruly democracy, where everything was decided by the irrational decisions of the crowd. Instead, the people of this state should freely subject themselves to some rules or laws guiding them. The officials who take care that people follow laws are only partly chosen by the desire of the populace and a more important element in their choice should be according to Plato a careful testing of their virtuousness: the officials should not work for gaining money and they should have no servants, but they should instead circulate in the country and live through their own means.

In a good and possible state, state officials should not then use laws for their own purposes, but should serve laws. Thus, Plato does not wish to speak of a democracy or aristocracy, but suggests that a good state is always a theocracy, because laws are supposed to be immortal like gods. Laws are still not tyrants that merely oppress people to follow them with punishments, that is, a good society is not totalitarian. Plato admits that laws cannot be decided completely beforehand and that some laws can be regulated only when people of city state have experienced what customs work best: laws might even change, although Plato thinks that this should happen rarely. Furthermore, Plato would like every law to argue for its own existence and explain why it is good to do as it suggests: for instance, a law upholding marriage and allotting fees for unmarried people would be justified by the need to continue the human race. Plato still recognises a limit beyond which law cannot anymore decree anything, even for the benefit of the people, because too much regulation in small details would be felt as too restricting and even ridiculous. Plato suggests that in these cases there could still be laws for giving merit to persons who do satisfy even those small details: such persons would then serve as examples of exceptionally praiseworthy conduct for others to emulate.

The laws are not meant to be mere external restrictions for herding the citizens, but they must also contain guides for training them to live a good life: this was also an important task of the governors in ideal state. In the ideal state it was of utmost importance to educate the wisdom of the governors-to-be, but in this second best state it is the other parts of good life that receive obviously more attention. Once again training is to be given to both sexes, because gifts of a person should not go to waste because of wrong sex. Plato notes that in many states people were educated merely for brave action in warfare through battle training, gymnastics, hunting etc. Plato also endorses such exercises that make people lose their fear of pain and train them to defend their city and suggests competitions in which people can show their skills in arts of warfare.

Yet, a mere education of courage is not enough for Plato, who wants to train citizens also to live a good life at times of peace and to be capable of battling against the lures of pleasures: he thus suggests e.g. a controlled drinking of wine as a good way to practise one’s independency from pleasures. Music is once again an important element for Plato’s idea of education of proper behaviour, and he even goes so far as to suggest that wine should be given to old men, who would thus be more eager to sing for others. All forms of music are not to be encouraged, Plato thinks, but only those that guide people best to a good life: poems, songs, dances and plays should extol the benefits of living modestly and avoiding excess pleasures. Like in skills of body, competitions are to be held in musical arts. Mathematics and astronomy is also to be taught to all citizens, although only the basics, because no awareness of the more refined aspects of them is required for everyday use.

Luxury is once again in Plato’s eyes a chief reason for ruin of states. Luxury and need for it, on the other hand, arise according to Plato from foreign trade. Hence, Plato ordains that a good state should be self-sufficient, with no need to import goods from other states, but also not too productive, so that it would not export goods in change of currency. Unlike in Plato’s ideal society, every citizen can have private property, as long as he does not become too rich or too poor. Plato also accepts the general use of money, but only such that can be used within the state: the possession of gold and silver required in foreign trade should be carefully regulated. He also sanctions trading and money lending and even suggests that these usually disrespected professions would be more respected if the traders and moneylenders would just be good men – although at the same time Plato states that no good man would ever want to take up such professions.

Plato thought that state should try to turn all necessary desires of human body into customs useful for the people and the community. Thus, the desire to eat and drink was to be made into a vehicle for making the community growing closer through the custom of shared dinners. Similarly the sex drive should be geared towards reproducing good and balanced children. Although Plato does now allow marriages, he would still want to regulate who is to marry whom: at least officials of community should try to convince persons with compatible characters to marry one another. Plato’s attitudes towards relationships between same sex appear to have become more intolerant in his later years, as he clearly says that society should condemn – if not through laws, then at least through customs – sex between people of same sex: only intercourse geared towards reproduction is commendable. Similar intolerance Plato shows towards madmen and beggars, the appearance of which if a sign of something being wrong in the society: Plato's solution is to fight the signs instead of the problems and lock madmen away from public life and banish beggars from the society.

One particular problematic occurring in the second best society, but not apparently in the best society is the need for correcting people’s behaviour: in the best society, Plato thinks, such correctives would not be needed, because everyone would act correctly and crime would not exist. Even in the second best society, Plato believes, there should be no punishments as such, because no one truly wants to do bad things. One may do bad things accidentally, like when a careless boxer strikes his opponent too hard: in such cases the damages should be repaired, but no punishment is needed. On the other hand, one may do bad thing because of ignorance or desire for pleasures: in such cases we should not punish the criminal, but to educate him, because the criminal is not in complete control of himself (to tell the truth, Plato envisioned such educative correctives to resemble what we usually call punishments). Between complete accidences and crimes of ignorance or desire lie bad deeds made because of sudden madness or loss of temper: because here the bad deed is between two extremes, the reaction to it should also be between the extremes of mere indemnity and corrective.

Plato advocates also for a state religion. Like all the commands of state, even this religion should be at first justified. Thus, the governors of the state must argue that there are entities that can regulate their own actions and that therefore are the ultimate causes for the order of the world. The governors should also explain to people that gods do care for the good of people and that their mind cannot be changed through sacrifices and other gifts. The goodness of gods is seen from the fact that they gave order to the world: Plato presents these entities or gods as battling against chaotic forces, but it is unclear whether these forces are meant as true satanic entities of whether Plato is merely using poetic language to describe unordered matter. As good and just, gods will reward good and punish wicked. Wicked people might fare apparently good and good people apparently bad, but then it is a question of mere apparent goodness and badness. Although the state religion can thus be justified, Plato also suggests that citizens who reject these dogmas must be punished for their actions: no freedom of belief is allowed, and those who cannot understand why gods are to be respected, are to be either forced to surrender or banished altogether.

Plato's new society appears even more regulated, and this regulation will not happen by itself. Thus, Plato suggests that the society should have a secret group taking care that the society stays in the right path. This secret group should consist of the best people of the society. Thus, the secret group works like philosophers in the ideal state, and indeed, one of the issues discussed in the nightly meetings of this group is the development of the philosophy and other sciences: although the guardians of the society are not philosophers, they should at least try to become wiser.

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