Home » Plato vs. Materialists

Plato vs. Materialists

Plato was concerned with Epistemology. Epistemology deals with the possibilities and limits of human knowledge. It tries to arrive at a knowledge of knowledge itself. It tries to answer such questions as: Is the world as people perceive it the basic reality, or do people perceive only appearances that conceal basic reality? Knowledge may be regarded as having two parts. There is, first of all, what one perceives using the five senses. Next there is the way these perceptions are organized by the mind to form ideas or concepts.

The problem of epistemology is based on how philosophers have understood the relationship of the mind to the rest of reality. Plato used his Theory of Forms to link the mind and reality. For the average person, common sense says that there is a real world of perceivable objects. These objects can be analyzed and understood. Philosophers have not let the matter rest there. Plato taught that the real world consisted of universal ideas (forms). The world that people actually see is given form by these ideas and is thus less real because it is always changing, but the ideas (forms) are eternal and unchangeable.

Opponents of Plato, such as materialists, have claimed that the ideas were nothing more than names people have attached to the objects they perceive. Names of individual objects and of classes of objects are merely ways of organizing perceptions into knowledge. People see one animal they decide to call “dog. ” All similar animals are called “dogs,” and a whole category of animals is thereby named without any reference to eternal ideas or forms. Materialists insist that all activities of mind and emotion are based on physical properties.

One example of accounting for this is that thought is only the function of a material brain and caused by electrical connections within the brain tissue. Materialism states that all matter is made of atoms, which are limitless in number, and the different appearance of objects are a result of the difference in size and shape of atoms and by the different ways these atoms combine. When the conclusions of nuclear physicists are taken into account, especially their studies on atomic particles, the problem of the reality of the material world and how much can be known about it is confronted with new challenges.

The Republic discusses the nature of justice and the institutions of society. In some ways it is idealistic in that it describes Plato’s ideal society. But it also deals with human knowledge, the purpose and composition of education, and the nature of science. The principle of justice is the main theme of The Republic. Plato makes a connection between the principle of justice and his Theory of Forms in The Republic. When talking about the Ideal State, Plato is saying that one should never act without knowledge. So, if one wished to build a just city, they should only do so after they have understood the meaning of justice.

But they cannot achieve an understanding of true justice until they have grasped the Form of Justice itself. Plato refers to his Theory of Forms throughout the dialogue, as it plays a major role in understanding his views of an Ideal State. Socrates is the main character and Plato uses Socrates as to voice his own opinions about his Ideal State. Through a series of questions, Socrates attempts to help his companions discover their own ignorance, since the starting point of philosophy is the realization that you do not have knowledge.

Socrates is always at the center of the discussion and is often contemptuous and ironical, but he never strays from the importance of the subject being discussed. Plato first introduces his Theory of Forms in Book V. It is here that he compares knowledge and belief. Socrates points out that to know is to know some thing; thus, knowledge must have objects. Likewise, to believe is to believe something; therefore, belief also must have objects. But knowledge is different from belief in that knowledge is infallible. Knowledge also involves the fact that the thing known exists.

The objects of knowledge are also unchanging and eternal. Belief, on the other hand, may be true or false and the objects of beliefs may or may not exist. The distinction between actual objects and ideal objets are also discussed in Book V. Actual objects are the objects of opinion and sensation and the ideal objects are the objects of knowledge and intellect. This distinction is crucial to Plato’s Theory of Forms. There are forms of things and forms of thought, and it is the forms of thought that the philosopher is concerned with.

An example of a form of thought is beauty. The man who sees beauty itself has knowledge and the man who sees only beautiful things has mere belief. A person who sees a rose may believe that the rose is beautiful, but they do not really understand the nature of beauty itself, they are only basing their opinion on the image of the rose. However, philosophers realize that the ordinary things of life, such as the rose, are nothing but fleeting and changeable images of what is truly real (the forms). Therefore, only philosophers can be said to have knowledge.

Images, such as the rose, can be beautiful one day, but, over time, may become less beautiful or not beautiful at all, such as shriveled, dying roses. But the idea of beauty never decays and is eternal. Plato says that the reason that the Forms are truly real is because only something that never changes is real in the fullest sense. The ordinary objects around us a “real” only in a secondary sense and these are “images” or imperfect copies of the Forms. Plato continues his discussion of Forms into Book VI.

In this book Socrates is trying to convince his companions why a philosopher would make the best king. On reason is that being a philosopher, the king will have knowledge of the Forms, and therefore have true knowledge. It is very important to Plato for a ruler to have knowledge of Justice and Goodness, so that he may administer justice and act for the good of his people. The Form of Goodness is the highest and most important of all the Forms, it is not on a level with the other forms, for the other Forms derive their truth and reality from Goodness.

Socrates goes on to use an analogy of the sun to explain the highest for of knowledge, Goodness. Light is what makes things visible and the best source of light is the sun. The sun is not the same as visible things, but it is what makes vision itself possible. Similarly, the good is not the same as the objects of knowledge, but it is the source of knowledge. To see requires sun, to know requires reason. The analogy can be stated as, the idea of good is to reasoning as the sun is to seeing. Also in this book, Pluto expands on his distinction between knowledge and belief.

He divides them into 4 kinds of “objects”. There are two degrees of knowledge and two degrees of belief. The highest degree of knowledge is Goodness, followed by the other Forms. The first degree of belief are physical objects, as the second degree of belief are shadows and images of the physical objects. In the last book, Book X, Plato criticizes poetry and the fine arts. Plato feels that art is merely the imitation of the imitation of reality, and that poetry corrupts the soul. Socrates says that artists merely create things.

As an example, if a painter draws a couch on his canvas, he is creating a couch. But the couch he creates is not the real couch, it is nothing but a copy of an ordinary, physical couch which was created by a craftsman. But the ordinary, physical couch is nothing more than an imperfect copy, or image of the Form of Couch. So, the couch on the canvas is nothing but a copy of a copy of the real couch and is therefore three times removed from reality. Socrates then goes on to explain that an artist’s knowledge is also third-rate.

If an artist is painting a picture of a table, for example, he is copying a table that has been manufactured by a furniture-maker, and this furniture-maker has more knowledge of the table than the painter does. But there is someone who has ever more knowledge about the table, the person who wants to have the table made. He is the one who gives the furniture-maker instructions to follow when making the table, according to its purpose for the buyer. So, the buyer of the table knows more about the table than the furniture-maker, and the furniture-maker knows more about the table than the painter.

Socrates believes that only philosophers have the first-hand knowledge of things, since they believe in The Forms. Socrates also denounces Homer. Socrates feels that in his writing, Homer has pretended to be people he is not, such as a politician, general, businessman, teacher, and philosopher. Socrates feels this is wrong because Homer is claiming to be able to perform these functions that he has written about, but never really performed himself. He feels that Homer is abandoning “reality”. Plato feels that poetry has no place in his Ideal State, and should be banished until it can show itself to be a friend of philosophy.

In conclusion, The Republic was Plato’s ways of expressing his Theory of Forms. The Forms played an important part in Plato’s Ideal State. However, Materialism does not believe in Plato’s Theory of Forms. A Materialist would disagree with many of the things that Plato talked of in The Republic. The main idea behind Plato’ Theory of Forms is that the Forms are not physical objects, but instead are only known through the mind (reason). The Forms are not known through the senses. They exist in a realm beyond physical reality.

As in the example with beauty, it is ultimately an idea, not an object. One must understand what true beauty is before they can judge a particular object to be beautiful or not. The Forms are different from physical objects in that they are eternal and universal. Even the atoms that Materialists believe make up objects are not eternal. Also, if the ideal objects are the objects of knowledge and intellect, then what do Materialists believe knowledge is based on? Obviously it would be something based on the physical world.

According to philosophers, knowledge of The Forms is required to have true knowledge. Then philosophers must feel that Materialists do not have true knowledge. Materialists believe that reality only consists of matter, however, philosophers believe that these physical objects are only real in a secondary sense, and that these objects are only imperfect copies of The Forms. Materialists also do not believe in spirits, souls, and gods and therefore would not understand Plato’s belief that life was to involve a movement upward toward the Forms, as this was a movement of the Soul.

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Leave a Comment