procrastination, heresy, and navel-gazing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Plato, they say, could stick it away...

  1. Plato: What is Plato’s theory of forms, and how does his ‘cave’ story help explain the theory?

One of the key problems Plato sought to solve was the relationship between forms and matter. In response to the Sophists, with particularly Gorgias’ radical scepticism, Plato sought to find a better answer than agnosticism, yet was dissatisfied with empiricism. Thus the sign in front of his Academy: ‘Let none but geometers enter here;’ his concern was with the formal sciences, with abstract ideas. For these abstract ideas, or forms, are part of the primary world, yet a metaphysical realm, yet one which is more real than this world which we inhabit. It follows then that this world is somehow corrupted – as the matter differs in its degree of correspondence to the ‘idea-’ or ‘form-world’. However, as Plato has Socrates ascertain in elucidating the Pythagorean theorem from an uneducated slave, within our souls we have this true knowledge of the forms.

The problem is however education. Education – from ‘educare’ (to lead out) – is quite literally Plato’s goal. We are all, he believed, in a darkness as if we were shackled to one another in a cave, looking at the flickering shadows on the cave wall. Since we have been in this state for such a long time, this is all we could believe to be reality. We are not cognizant of the source of the shadows, that they are only rough, imperfect representations of what is creating them. As we are led out of the cave, or educated, blinded as we may be at first by the light, we are then able to understand for the first time the forms that had been making the deceiving shadows.

The way for this education to happen is not by observing nature by experience (a posteriori knowledge), but by contemplative reasoning (a priori knowledge). Thus the best way to spend one’s time is in this honourable pursuit – contemplating the forms, the essences, rather than the materials, sciences, the receptacles of the forms.

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