Plato’s epistemology relies on one fundamental distinction: the distinction between universal forms and particulars. Universal forms are eternally true, unchanging ideas, and particulars are individual instances in which we see examples of forms. To illustrate, one can imagine in his or her mind the color red. It is an idea of red, not an instantiated instance of red, such as a red apple or a red firetruck. It is redness in itself - an idea that does not change; it holds true no matter what. On the other hand, a red apple or red firetruck is only red in relation to the unchanging idea of redness that we call to mind. Since Plato maintains that the particular instances of a form are inferior to the form itself, it stands to reason that the particulars get their qualities from the universals and not vice versa. Therefore, when we see the quality of redness in an object, we are actually seeing an instantiation of the universal. We see the instantiation, but what we actually know is the idea of redness and that is how we identify it properly. Above all else, Plato posits one universal idea: that of the good. The good is “not only the author of knowledge to all things known, but of their being and essence, and yet the good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power.”1 The good is identified as originating in God or even as God itself. From this one universal, all other knowledge (and presumably all other forms) is derived. By using his concept of the good, Plato makes a telling distinction: if the good has sovereignty over all things intelligible (that is to say, all objects of true knowledge- forms), then the sun is its counterpart in the world of sense experience. Since the sun, for the purposes of this dialogue (at least), is that which illuminates everything that we may perceive, it does indeed play the part of the one thing from which all others are arrived at. Without the light of the sun, we would never know the world in which we live.
Plato divides knowledge into four levels using his famous image of the line. Images, sensible phenomena, mathematic/scientific objects and ideas are the four epistemological classifications; each of these has a corresponding capacity with which to understand them: imagination, belief (or opinion), intelligence, and reason (or understanding), respectively. In this metaphor, we can see an interesting parallel; physical objects (particulars) are equated with opinion, while true knowledge or understanding is equated with ideas (universals). Again, true knowledge can only be of forms; Plato is making this clear. There are, however, qualities that have nothing to do with color, smell, shape , taste, and so on, therefore, a question arises: how does this account for more esoteric qualities such as beauty and truth? These, too, are instantiated in earthly manifestations, and as such participate in corresponding forms. They, too, are inferior in comparison to universals. Here, Plato makes an interesting point to illustrate how physical phenomena can only correspond to belief. Beautiful things, he says, can and often will be considered ugly from one perspective or another:
Socrates: ... of all these beautiful things, is there one which will not be found ugly; or of the just, which will not be found unjust; or of the holy, which will not also be unholy?
Glaucon: No; the beautiful will in some point of view be found ugly, and
the same is true of the rest2
So what we commonly consider to be knowledge is only opinion, and not certainty; we must arrive at an understanding of ideas to actually know.
The Republic’s epistemology inverts what we are comfortable with thinking and says that what we think is abstract is really concrete and what we think is concrete is really abstract. In other words, universal forms are what is real, and what we observe and believe are mere abstractions of that reality. This is not dissimilar from the Hindu term Maya, which means that the world is illusion; the only difference is that Plato posits an underlying reality which corresponds with our one, whereas Hindu doctrine would probably say that reality is utterly different from what we think is real. But does it make sense to believe in what Plato is saying? Why should there be one entity for each characteristic present in our world? There can be objections made here. For instance, one could take up a nominalist point of view, which says that there are only names for qualities, and all similar qualities are grouped together under similar names. The fact of the matter, is, though that there are no universals in this perspective, only particulars; however, we can still run into problems. Imagine that we take three red objects, and they all resemble each other, so we can classify them as being red. What happens here is that objects one and three may be closer in shade to each other than one and two or two and three. We could even introduce a fourth object which is more akin to the second object than either of the other two. What we would have is four particular colors that all resembled each other in some way or another and with some degree of similarity to one another. Moreover, the particular shades of red we are seeing may be ones that we have not had previous contact with. Even given this, though, it is fairly certain that we could be able to identify them as being a red shade of some sort. This, Plato would say, is evidence that we had some a priori knowledge that helped us come to our conclusions concerning these red objects. As he says in the Meno, this is due to the fact that our souls are immortal and have existed both on earth and in the underworld many times. “The soul,” he writes, “then, as being immortal, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world, or in the world below, has knowledge of them all”.3 If the soul is immortal, and the world in which we live is illusory, while universals are more real, then it stands to reason the world in which universals reside (which is non corporeal) is more real. Therefore, the world in which the soul resides when free from the body (the non corporeal world) is the real world, and this is where we acquire knowledge of universal forms. The experiences we have in the physical world, then, are mere reminders of what our souls know from their sojourns in the other world. According to this line of thought, there is no other way for us to be able to know the color red and its variations.
Suppose, also, that we take up an empiricist point of view and assert that we all experience red hues differently; where does that leave the concept of a universal form? If we are not seeing red all in the same way, then we each have our own idea of what red, in reality, is. If one agrees with this argument, then there is no concept what we have is essentially a collective agreement that no one can see the outside of. Perhaps, though, these concepts in our heads participate in the universals as well! They are, after all, merely our beliefs, arrived at by our perceptions. Plato, then, would probably have a way out in saying that by positioning ourselves within the empiricist tradition and using their conclusions as descriptive of objective reality, we are limiting ourselves to doxa, or opinion. Plato would say that by accepting empiricist beliefs, we are still succumbing to the illusion that our world is “real”. If we are to draw Immanuel Kant into the debate, we would have the assertion that empiricism is a fallacy because we cannot know objects in themselves; rather, we can only perceive them through our more or less limited faculties. True knowledge requires that we go beyond every day thought processes in order to see what is real. In other words, what Plato defines as reason is in some ways extra rational; reason essentially points beyond itself.
In the twenty-first century, it is easy to want to dismiss the idea that anything may be absolutely true, but Plato offers a pretty engaging argument. Even simple contemplation leads us to the conclusion that our knowledge is limited, and that much of if is opinion. What I mean is that when we see something beautiful, our concept of it as it relates to “true” beauty ends at some point and its limits are where the Other’s concept of beauty begins. All of these concepts either participate in (or perhaps even make up, we can never be entirely sure) something somewhat transcendent and definitely abstract and separate from our sense perception. Of course, this is just my interpretation. The one question that remains (for me, at least) is that of the fate of universals were all the particulars to be destroyed. Would the forms be obliterated as well? Extinct animals are examples of particulars that have been wiped off the face of the earth, but their corresponding ideas remain, perhaps because there have been traces left behind (such as documentation and physical evidence). I think that it would require the obliteration of all thinkers for all eternity to destroy the forms, even if that could do it. If we were to all disappear, Plato would probably maintain that the forms would remain, it is just that: a) we would not be present to access them, and b) as a result, they would become in a sense empty, because there would be no instantiation (not to mention no subjects to desire knowledge). In effect, there would be nothing but traces, including those of our souls, and nothing would be knowable except to God itself.
Plato, The Ascent to Knowledge (from The Republic
), in The Theory of Knowledge, ed. Louis P. Pojman (New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999)11.
Plato, Innate Ideas (from the Meno
), in The Theory of Knowledge, ed. Louis P. Pojman (New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999) 17.