Lecture notes for students of IR 6901: (Week 2): From Socrates/Plato to Aristotle: Idealism and Essentialism in Truth-claims

By Farish A. Noor ~ March 16th, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

From Socrates/Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Hobbes and Locke: Western Philosophy and the search for grounding in knowledge-claims and language-use.

Question: How do you know that you are reading this? Let me frame the question a little wider: How do you know that you are actually reading this right now, and not sleeping in bed and dreaming that you are reading this?

Or perhaps you could be an advanced form of artificial intelligence embedded in some microchip and being fed data that gives you the impression that you are actually a corporeal body with sensory abilities, thinking that you are an embodied human being who is currently reading this?

Or perhaps you are nothing more than a brain in a vat being fed images and sensations and you mistakenly think that you actually exist as a human being?

In short, how do you know that you are experiencing this, or any experience?

This, in short, is the fundamental question that has driven scores of philosophers from the time of Socrates/Plato until today, and the question can be summed up thus: How can we make truthful claims to knowledge, and what is knowledge? What is it to know anything? And if we are able to know anything, upon what are our knowledge-claims to be based on?

For the sake of this course, we need only concern ourselves with some key ideas and concepts that later served as the foundational ideas to what later came to be known as the philosophy of language. We begin with the ideas and theories of the pre-Hellenic ancient classical philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle; and will end with a cursory look at the theories of knowledge and language-use of Descartes, Hobbes and Locke. So let us start with Socrates.

I. Socrates and the Socratic method: Dialectics as a means at arriving at the truth; knowledge as recollection; true knowledge in ideas.

Much has been written about Socrates but nothing by him. This is because Socrates himself was wary of writing and argued that writing was dangerous to memory, for through writing (and reading) the individual ceases to pause, think, reflect and remember; writing doing the work for him. This was typical of Socrates as it reflected his other concerns to do with knowledge and the search for knowledge; and who regarded many of the arts of Athens and the Greeks as being superfluous, corrupting and even dangerous. He rejected poetry and painting on the grounds that they moved not the mind but rather the emotions (the ‘passions’) and argued against the Sophists whom he regarded as disreputable for their ability to twist the meaning of words to suit their ends and ambitions.

Our knowledge of Socrates is derived from the works of his students, and Plato’s dialogues are perhaps the best sources of information on Socrates – the man, his ideas, his manners and his method – though ironically Socrates himself would probably have regarded Plato’s writings as being equally dangerous and deceitful as they offer only a representation of him (and as such are counterfeit/false).

The only thing we need to take from Socrates at this stage is his method, which was and is referred to as the Socratic method of dialectics.

A. Socratic dialectics:

Socratic DIALECTICS, which was demonstrated in the narrative account of Socrates in the writings of Plato, involved a simple process of question-and-answer where Socrates would interrogate the premises of those he debated with to (1) prove/disprove their arguments, and (2) test the logic of their argumentation.

In the various dialogues recorded by Plato, Plato gives us a narrative account of how Socrates used this method of question-and-answer to get behind the claims of those he debated with, often in order to demonstrate the weakness of their argument or to show that their claims to knowledge were bogus or unsubstantiated.

Two important historical factors need to be borne in mind when reading Plato’s account of Socrates:

The first factor is that Socrates/Plato need to be put into context. Remember we are reading the works of philosophers of ancient Greece who lived in the 4th century BC and as such much of what informs and shapes the philosophical system of Socrates/Plato was derived from the popular beliefs – including both folk beliefs as well as the cosmology – of the Greeks. Socrates/Plato cannot be fully understood outside the context of this complex system of beliefs and ideas.

Secondly, it should be noted that while Socrates himself was seen as being subversive in his thinking and teaching (he was, after all, brought to trial and put to death on the grounds of subversive ideas and ‘corrupting the minds of the young’) Socrates himself insisted that he was, by Greek standards, a devoutly religious man who believed in the Gods, myths and cosmology of the Greeks. Socrates defended his method of dialectical enquiry on the grounds that he wanted to show that other forms of art/speculation such as poetry and sophistry were useless in the search for knowledge and could not be relied upon when making truth claims. So what then was the basis of the truth-claims of Socrates?

B. Socratic/Platonic idealism:

In order to understand the system of Socrates we need to understand a little more about the cosmology that shaped his ideas. In brief, the pre-Hellenic belief that Socrates refers to time and again is the mythical account of the fall of humankind from the state of perfection. Socrates argued that prior to assuming the corporeal form of human bodies that live in a material world made up of corporeal objects, the proto-humans were in a perfect state. In this non-material state our pre-physical selves were in contact with the Gods and we existed in a state of perfection. This is the perfect realm of ideas/idealism.

However as myths of fall and degeneration go, these proto-humans were cursed by the Gods and forced to assume the form of human bodies, thereby forcing them to exist according to the rules of time and space and becoming dependent on sensory organs to relate to themselves and the world around them.

It is this belief in some perfect state of ideas that accounts for Socrates/Plato’s IDEALISM: the view that all knowledge of the world is derived from a recollection of some perfect idea that we, in our previous incarnation, were familiar with.

In practice, what Socrates/Plato claims is this: In our experience of the world and our interaction with the material reality around us, we engage with general universals all the time. Take for example the universal idea of ‘cat’ or the colour ‘red’. Each of us may have a different notion of what a ‘cat’ is, but all these notions still refer to a general universal of ‘cat’. But since there is no such object as a general universal ‘cat’, then from where does this idea come from?

Socrates/Plato’s method of dialectics is an attempt to disprove all claims to knowledge that can or are made on the basis of sensory information or sensate data alone. He argues that we understand the meaning of ‘cat’ because we – in our former incarnation as perfect beings – were then familiar with the perfect idea of the perfect ‘cat’; an idea that exists in the perfect state of idealistic perfection that mortal, corporeal bodies cannot reach/experience.

Socrates/Plato’s idealism, based as it is on his cosmology, therefore rejects all truth-claims that are derived from sensory experience and the arts. A painting of a cat is a fake, and can never approximate the true, ideal model. Nor can mere words describe a cat, no matter how detailed we chose to be in our description.
Now the import of this claim is vast: For a start it means that empirical knowledge (for Socrates/Plato) is not knowledge at all. To see a tree is not to know it, because our senses (in this case sight) are useless tools in the search of the ideal.

This claim also directs the focus of philosophical enquiry towards doubt and the SCEPTICAL METHOD, (something that is retained up to the 17th century by thinkers like Descartes) and presents the philosopher as the ‘lover of wisdom’ who seeks the true and real on the level of pure ideas. Philosophy, for Socrates/Plato is therefore the process of deliberately rejecting all false claims to knowledge and all misleading routes to knowledge (such as poetry, sophistry, drama, etc) in order to free the individual so that he(*) can cease to depend on the faculties of the mortal corporeal body and seek true knowledge by returning to the real/ideal.

C. The metaphor of the Cave: Turning from the illusion of sensate empiricism to true ideas.

Socrates/Plato tries to explain the role of philosophy and the philosopher in the famous metaphor of the Cave that appears in the Republic of Plato (book VII). The metaphor is as follows:

Imagine a group of people who have been trapped in a cave all their lives and who cannot escape the cave as they have been bound by ropes and chains. Furthermore, to add to their woes their heads have been fixed in the direction of the wall of the cave, and behind them is a burning fire that throws light and shadows against the wall before them. These unfortunate captives have seen nothing all their lives apart from the shadows before them, and after many years (boredom doing its part as well) come to believe that the shadows they see before them are real. Then suddenly one day one of the captives manages to escape from his bonds and flees outside. Once outside he sees the sun for the first time and see things like trees, rocks, bears and butterflies for real. The captive is shocked by what he sees, and realises that the shadows he has seen all his life were not real after all. He then returns to the cave to try to free the other captives, telling them that there is a real world outside with real trees, rocks, bears and butterflies. But unfortunately the other captives do not believe him, for they are convinced that he is (1) mad, (2) that the shadows are real.

Now this metaphor is used by Socrates/Plato to explain the role of the philosopher. The philosopher is the one who knows that sensory perception is illusory and all empirical knowledge is unreal/untrue (like the shadows on the wall of the cave). He knows this because he has ‘seen the light’ so to speak, because through his method of sceptical doubt he has begun to sift between knowledge that is real and that which is false, and comes to realise that the only real things and the only truths are ideas. The philosopher’s task is therefore to ‘save’ others by telling them that the world of sensory perception is untrue/unreal, and that they should seek wisdom to know the truth instead. (Needless to say, by shaking the settled assumptions of the people around him, philosophers like Socrates were not popular and this also partly accounts for his arrest and execution later…)

D. Universals and Ideas

The important contributions of Socrates/Plato at this stage of the early development of Western philosophy are manifold:

  1. Firstly, the sceptical method and the dialectical method worked hand in hand to introduce a rigour and discipline to the thinking process that they argued was lax or missing in the work of artists and poets;
  2. By introducing sceptical doubt to empirical claims to knowledge, Socrates/Plato had moved the process of enquiry beyond the level of surface phenomena and were questioning both the being/existence of things as well as their causes. As a consequence of this method, the external material world was no longer taken for granted, and the sceptical and dialectical methods suggested that truth lay beyond/beneath the surface of things;
  3. Also, by rooting all his claims to knowledge/truth on ideas, Plato’s idealism was an early attempt to find a foundation for all claims to knowledge.

By today’s standards of course the idealism of Plato seems naïve and a rather clumsy way to close off an argument. Critiques of Plato (including Aristotle) questioned why sensate/empirical reality simply had to have one final grounding in the notion of a real world of perfect ideas? For once we begin to question the physical appearance of things and posit the claim that material reality may have a transcendental reality behind it, can this not lead to an INFINITE REGRESS? (i.e. If material objects and universals are based on perfect ideas, then why should these ideas not be based on an even more perfect level of ideas? – eg. If the universal ‘cat’ is based on the idea of ‘cat’, then cant the idea of ‘cat’ be based on an even more perfect idea of ‘cat/catness’, - which as we can see may lead to an infinite regress of successive attempts to lay the foundations to truth-claims.)

E. Aristotle’s Essentialism

Aristotle, the student of Plato, later developed the theories and method of Socrates/Plato a step further in his treatment of universals.
Aristotle notes that universals refer to things that partake of it: i.e. the universal idea of ‘man’ partakes of individual men as examples, while the universal ‘red’ partakes of objects that are red etc.

However there are different types of universals that may refer to things (such as ‘man’, ‘dog’, ‘cat’, ‘car’) as well as qualities like ‘red’, ‘hot’, ‘cold’ etc. In all these cases Aristotle contends that such universals need to rest/exist in something: i.e. ‘redness’ does not exist in itself, it has to exist/be in an object like a red car or a red pen. A tall house is only tall because it is the quality of the house, etc. But Aristotle advances from his teacher in the manner in which he distances himself from the cosmology of the ancient Greeks and in particular from Socrates’ notion of the true and real being founded in/on the realm of perfect ideas.

Instead Aristotle advances the notion of ‘ESSENCES’ as the basis of things, and argues that an ‘essence’ is what a thing cannot do without.

For instance, a tree is a tree because of the essence of treeness that defines it as a tree. The leaves of the tree may drop, the branches may be cut off, it may be painted pink, but it remains a tree because it is essentially so due to the essence of ‘treeness’ that defines it as such.

Aristotle introduces the notion of essences as part of his critical rejection of Socrates/Plato’s idealism, which (as we saw above) he insisted could lead to the problem of infinite regress. The essential thing about Aristotle’s notion of essences was that it was final: it served as the final element that bestowed identity to things, and was not founded on any other higher/transcendental source. However the main weakness of Aristotle’s notion of essences is that it is left undefined. (Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy (1946) goes further and even claims that Aristotle has committed a cop-out and didn’t know what an essence is himself.) Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain what Aristotle means by essences: is it a cause? A substance? Is it corporeal or ephemeral? None of these questions are really answered.

However like Socrates/Plato, Aristotle likewise shares the same reluctance to accept sensory empirical knowledge as knowledge per se, and throws doubt on all truth-claims that are made on en empirical basis. Aristotelian essentialism may seem crude by today’s standards, but during Aristotle’s time it continued in the Platonic/Socratic tradition of seeking the truth behind/beneath things as they presented themselves as surface phenomena.

In summing up the first half of this lecture, let us retain the following: The Socratic/Platonic and Aristotelian methods were an attempt to ground knowledge in a certainly which they insisted could not be found in/through sensate/sensory experience. The material world was therefore in a sense ‘untrue’ and ‘unreal’ (refer to the metaphor of the cave, above) and as such the aim of philosophy was to get to the truth of things behind/beneath the mere physical appearance of the material world.

Socrates/Plato and Aristotle’s accounts of the real/true however were contextualised by the times they lived in, and the popular beliefs and religious praxis of their age. They were accused of being trouble-makers and of sowing the seeds of doubt and discord, for which Socrates paid with his life. But all of them insisted that philosophy and the philosophical method was aimed at the truth and that it had a higher purpose to play: namely to free people from the delusion of sensate experience and empiricism.

As far as we are concerned at this stage of the course, the most important point to remember is that Socrates/Plato and Aristotle dealt with the problem of universals and they use of universals in language. At this stage of course the problem of universals was not yet seen as a problem of language-use, and as such its ‘solution’ came via recourse to cosmology (Socrates) and essentialism (Aristotle).

F. The legacy of Plato and Aristotle

In the centuries that followed the ideas of Plato and Aristotle would have an impact on the development of rational philosophy and the sceptical method of the Arab-Muslim rationalists who rescued the works of Plato and Aristotle from obscurity after having translated them to Arabic. Scholars like al-Ghazali and Ibn Arabi studied Plato and Aristotle closely, referring to both men as the ‘first and second teachers’ of the Arab rationalist tradition.

Aristotle’s essentialism however was discredited with the demystification of Western European thought and the rise of physical sciences that de-bunked much of ancient as well as Judeo-Christian scholastic accounts of creation, genesis and the universe. Today the term ‘essentialism’ is still used at times, but almost always in a negative, derogatory manner, and in dismissive terms. To label an argument or an intellectual position as ‘essentialist’ is to suggest that it is an argument with no firm/real basis and that it is spurious. [Eg: To write something like ‘The politics of Apartheid was justified on essentialist grounds’ is akin to suggesting that there are no real, meaningful and/or truthful reasons for it. A more relevant example might be the case of the ‘Asian values’ debate of the 1980s when several governments of Southeast Asia (ASEAN) argued that Southeast Asian societies need not adapt ‘Western’ standards of human rights and democracy on the grounds that Asian societies were ‘essentially’ different to Western society’; thereby implying that there is some sort of ‘essence’ to Asian identity. In that instance, the ‘Asian values’ school of thought was likewise criticised and rejected by many scholars as being unsound and unfounded.]

We should not underestimate the power of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle though I think Russell goes a little too far when he claims that Western Europe was stunted in its intellectual growth as a result of the dominance of these two thinkers for the next thousand years. It is true, however, that much of what passed during the middle ages were affected indirectly by the ideas of Plato and Aristotle as well. For instance during the ICONOCLASTIC period when the Western European Church was keen to destroy all craven images of God that were seen as heretical, a similar line of argument is to be found in Aristotle, who regarded painting as deceitful as all painted images were by definition counterfeit and therefore false/untrue. Why, even when the Taliban went around destroying painted and printed images on the grounds that they were haram and an affront to God, this line of argument likewise can be traced to the Arab appropriation of Aristotle dating back to the Arab renaissance. (Though I am not suggesting that Aristotle leads us to the Taliban, anymore than Rousseau and Voltaire lead us necessarily to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ok?)


Note: (*) Socrates and Plato, like many of their contemporaries, were rather misogynistic by today’s standards and regarded philosophy as the domain of men, on the rather spurious grounds that men were serious thinkers endowed with superior faculties. Related again to the cosmology of the Greeks then, who believed in re-incarnation and the transmigration of souls, Socrates states time and again that ‘weak’ and ‘emotional’ men will be reborn in their next life as women. It goes without saying that for Socrates and his students Philosophy was a masculine domain for men rather than women, and this accounts for the homosocial character of the Socratic dialogues.

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