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Thursday, 13 January 2011

(b) ‘Plato does not value experience enough.’ Discuss. (10 marks)

A time limit of 15 mins was given for this.

The key questions are whether Plato does undervalue experience and whether he is correct in assuming this.
In one sense Plato appears correct in his assessment that the physical world cannot give us answers to ‘what is it?’ questions. ‘What is it that makes something beautiful or just?’ doesn’t seem to be able to be answered by pointing at one thing in the physical world because that one thing doesn’t explain the whole concept, only part. Plato was influenced by Heraclitanism that states something is no more ‘X’ than it is ‘Y’. This taught Plato that anything in the physical realm or the realm of experience cannot provide true knowledge as every object is in a relational state with other objects in the universe. This means that it doesn’t make sense to say someone is ‘short’ or ‘tall’ because there can be millions of examples when that individual is ‘shorter’ than something or ‘taller’ than something else. This suggests that Plato is correct not to value experience enough.
However, empiricists such as Hume and Aristotle might argue that Plato doesn’t give enough credit to experience. Hume may argue that Plato’s ideas are counterintuitive as the physical realm and sense experience appear far more real than this spiritual World of Forms. When I cut my finger I feel the pain and experience the sensation of blood passing out of my body, I may even feel queasy at the sight of blood. These experiences are tangible, concrete and follow directly from my stream of consciousness. This makes it very difficult to believe that these experiences are simple illusions or that they are pale reflections of another realm. If Hume and Aristotle are successful here then they would agree that Plato does not value experience enough. Plato might argue in support of his point that these illusions feel very real but cannot be true reality as ‘matter’ is inherently evil and will deceive us. We must break free from the chains of ignorance and seek true knowledge in the Form of the Good. It could be argued that this goes some way to defend Plato’s point but it does not seem to successfully dismiss the empiricists’ point of view. This is mainly because Plato has no evidence to back up his ideas other than his own theory and analogy.
Aristotle might argue that Plato has missed the point. That true knowledge comes from understanding the individual object in the physical realm and not be searching for some other ‘Form’. He believes that the ‘Forms’ are of no use to us as they serve no practical purpose. Any idea such as ‘Goodness’ would need to be seen in a practical light not in its abstract if people were to truly understand it. It appears then that without a physical setting for the Forms they can have no meaning at all. Supporting Aristotle’s point, Kotarbinski has suggested that Plato is guilty of making a mistake about language – the mistake of reification. He believes that there are words that exist in our language that do not point to any ‘thing’ or ‘object’. He thinks Plato is taking the concept of ‘Good’, ‘Truth’, ‘Justice’ or ‘Beauty’ and simply thinking them into actual existence in the World of Forms. It seems that Plato needs to posit the existence of the World of Forms as he believes that ‘Truth’ must be unchanging or eternal. It may be that, as Popper suggests, truth can exist in a state of change. This would mean that we would need to take extra care to analyse the empirical data before us if we wanted to be sure of the true nature of reality.
It seems that Plato’s undervaluing of experience cannot be justified in light of the arguments discussed above.

(a) Explain Plato’s analogy of the cave (25 marks)

Again this has been written in a time limit. I allow 30 mins for part (a).

In Republic book VII Plato explains his analogy of the cave (an analogy is a simple story that has metaphorical meaning). Plato uses the analogy to help describe his philosophical position on the main difference between the physical world and the World of Forms (WoF). He believes that his analogy could clearly explain to others why the physical or world of sense experience was nothing but an illusion; that true reality must be found in the eternal unchanging World of Forms.

Plato’s analogy begins in a cave. The cave is meant to represent the physical world or the world of sense experience. A number of prisoners are bound by their necks and legs so that they cannot turn around. They have been this way since birth and know no other life than this. Behind the prisoners are a low wall, a walkway and a fire that burns. From time to time individuals carry objects like marionettes in front of the fire and shadows are cast against the wall in front of them. The prisoners observe the shadows that flicker before them and have developed a game over time. They try to predict the movements of the shadows. They associate the sounds made by the individuals with the shadows as this is all they know. They think of them as true reality.

The prisoners in this case represent the ignorant unenlightened individuals yet to discover philosophical truth. They are duped into believing that the shadows they see are the real objects in themselves or that the sounds the people make are being made by the shadows. Plato argues that the shadows and games played are equivalent to the five senses deceiving the individual. He believes that the objects we see in the physical world are pale reflections or imitations of the true ‘Form’ of that object in the World of Forms. Furthermore the individuals in the analogy that carry the marionettes represent the Athenian government that wished to maintain the status quo and discouraged free and independent thought.

Plato asks us to imagine that one of the prisoners were to be set free. He would stand with some pain and become dazed and confused by the bright fire light. He would struggle to adjust to his new view of the environment. He would quickly realise that the shadows he saw on the walls were not the real objects themselves. Plato suggests that if the prisoner were led to the entrance to the cave he would have to struggle up the steep and jagged rocks to climb out of the cave. This journey out of the cave by the prisoner is the journey of the new philosopher to enlightenment. Just like the released prisoner, the new philosopher struggles to take in his new world view. It is a painful process thinking in new ways. This is clearly represented in the ascent out of the cave up the steep and jagged rock path.

Once outside the prisoner would further struggle to understand the new world that was around him. At first he would simply focus on the shadows that objects cast in the sun. But given time he would be able to see objects as they really are, in full shape and colour. This section of the analogy is very important as the outside world represents the World of Forms. It is the sun that provides the true shape and colour in the analogy and so the sun represents the Form of the Good (FoG). Plato is stating that the FoG gives all of the other Forms their shapes. This is the goal of every philosopher; to gain intimate knowledge of the FoG and realise that the physical world (or the cave) is not true reality. It should also be noted that the fire in the cave is a superficial sun. The fire that burns only gets its energy from wood which comes via the sun.

Plato believes that true knowledge can only be found in the WoFs. This means that any knowledge that comes through the five senses cannot be true as the physical world is in a state of constant change and flux. Only through developing the skill of reason can the philosopher hope to understand the nature of reality. Plato believes that the soul has been caught in the body and that the only escape is to become like the philosopher and discover true reality. He believes that the soul exists in the WoFs and has always done so. This is why he places such an emphasis on reason. The mind is the key. Through the mind we can reason back to our souls to remember the nature of things.

Once the philosopher is enlightened Plato suggests that they will return to the cave to tell others of their enlightenment. He suggests that if the philosopher were to try to tell the others in the cave that there was a whole other world outside the cave they would laugh at them. If they persisted to try and convince them that this was the case then the prisoners would be prepared to kill them. Here Plato is making the point that the unenlightened are prepared to believe the established order (in Plato’s time the Athenian government) rather than think for themselves. This is a reference to the death of his teacher Socrates.

In conclusion Plato uses his analogy of the cave to demonstrate his belief in the World of Forms. Each element of the analogy highlights the specific differences between the empirical and rational; physical and spiritual.