Descartes vs. Plato
In the field of philosophy there can be numerous answers to a general question, depending on a particular philosopher’s views on the subject. Often times an answer is left undetermined. In the broad sense of the word and also stated in the dictionary philosophy can be described as the pursuit of human knowledge and human values. There are many different people with many different theories of knowledge. Two of these people, also philosophers, in which this paper will go into depth about are Descartes and Plato. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy and Plato’s The Republic are the topics that are going to be discussed in this paper.
In Meditations, Descartes brings doubt to everything he believes because it is human nature to believe that which is false. He states that most of what he believes comes from the senses and that a lot of times those senses can be deceived. His conclusion of doubting everything is based on his example of a basket of apples. It goes as follows; you have a basket of apples but you fear that some apples have gone bad and you don’t want them to rot the others, so you throw all the apples out of the basket. Now that the basket is empty you examine each apple carefully and return the good apples to the basket. This is what he does with his beliefs, he follows and keeps only those beliefs of which he is sure of. Our beliefs as a whole must be discarded and then each individual belief must be looked at carefully before we can accept it. We must only accept those beliefs we feel are good.
Descartes does realize, though, that we can’t throw every belief out because they are a part of us, unlike the apples. If the beliefs were not a part of us we would have no basis for recovering any of the discarded beliefs because we are unable to justify anything. He states that no belief based on sense-perception is free from doubt, it is possible that this life is all a dream and we are being deceived into thinking it is reality.
Descartes also finds that anything that exists physically is false, even including his own body. The only things we should trust are those beliefs that can be held up to rational scrutiny. Thus Descartes doubts everything but himself, he feels himself is the only thing in this life which cannot be proven false. He states that if he had no knowledge of himself than nothing can be certain. If he himself can doubt than he must exist and in cannot be proven false. Another proof that he exists is that in order to be deceived one must be able to exist. Descartes states in his famous quote, I think, therefore I am.
What was just explained above is Descartes first step to gaining knowledge, that is to build on what you know is certain and use yourself as the foundations. Now his second step he tries to show how we know bodies through reason and now through our senses. He uses a piece of wax to demonstrate this theory.
A piece of wax place by a fire will in time change form and shape and thus lose all its specific properties, yet it is still known as wax. In order to understand what wax is you must be able to know it in all its forms and anticipate its changes. But Descartes argues that the shapes and forms that the wax could take are infinite. Thus, one can only know what an object is through understanding, rather than through sense-perception.
In his third meditation Descartes discusses the topic of God. Me makes the argument that God exists, he makes two points with this argument. The first being that we have an idea of God and the second being that the only way to have an idea of God is if God exists. To have an the idea of God than we have the understanding of the infinite. We cannot understand the infinite through the finite, only through the infinite, thus God must also be the cause of the idea of God. By following these three steps one can be on their way to gaining knowledge.
In The Republic Plato has his own theories which follow more along the lines of idealism. In his views the way to gain knowledge is not based upon understanding an object, but by understanding the idea of the object. Socrates is the main character in Plato’s work and Socrates gives two images of the way to gain orderly knowledge, the image of the divided line and of the cave.
Plato states that knowledge is what is certain and opinion is what is questionable. This is where we can see a connection between Plato and Descartes. They both agree that knowledge must be certain and all other ideas false. In Plato’s views knowledge can be derived from single set of principles. Knowledge rests upon Good as its foundation, unlike Descartes in which the foundation was based on one’s self.
Plato compared to power of Good to the sun. He explained that the sun illuminates things and makes them visible to the eye just as good illuminates things of the mind and makes them intelligible and understandable. The idea of Good can be thought of as the idea of absolute order. The Good is the cause of essences, structures, forms and knowledge. This is similar to Descartes because in his argument God is the cause of the idea of one’s self thus the cause of everything else as well.
There are four levels of knowledge in Plato’s argument. Number one is that there are two ruling powers. The good which is set over the intellectual world and the sun which is set over the visible world. We start with two lines one for knowledge and one for opinion. The first section is that of images such as shadows and reflections. The second deals with us seeing actual things, sense-perception. Unlike with Descartes theory we will not discard this but use it to build on our knowledge. Plato believes sense-perception can be used as a stepping stone towards knowledge. The third section is that where the soul has understanding through images and its assumptions about them. The fourth section is where the soul takes these images and reasons things out. Objects are now used to determine reason instead it is ideas.
Plato makes another example called Allegory of the Cave, which is a copy of the reality of the divided line. People can think and speak without being aware of forms, Plato treats these people as if they were prisoners in a cave who are unable to turn their heads. They can see the wall of the cave but not the fire behind them. The prisoners are unable to see the objects behind them, they can only see and hear the shadows and echoes of that which is behind them. Thus, these prisoners would mistake appearance for reality, they would think the shadows to be real but be unaware of their causes. The shadow would be the only thing they have to relate to the object producing the shadow, the shadow would be their reality of the object.
The example of the cave proves that we name things we can not see but things that we can grasp in our minds. Once the prisoners are set free they can see the true nature of the shadows and see their error. The only way for them to see the cause of the shadows is by grasping the forms with their minds. The prisoners, now free, ascend upward through the cave. The higher they get the closer they are to the intellectual world.
As they exit the cave the light hurts their eyes because they are not used to it, this may make them want to return back into the cave, away from the intellectual world. Once the prisoners adjust they are able to see the objects for what they really are. Descartes also believed that we must look for an object’s uniqueness without relying on sense-perception.
The views of Plato and Descartes are in many ways similar and also in many ways different. According to Plato we see shadows and not the real objects. To be a philosopher one must strive to see the object and what makes that object unique. Also one must be able to see the idea of the object. According to Descartes one must also find the uniqueness of the object through reason, but his approach differs. He casts doubt on what he feels isn’t certain and rebuilds his foundation of knowledge with himself as the base. Plato is not looking to cast doubts on one’s beliefs but instead trying to expand one’s knowledge of it. Both Descartes and Platos ends are the same, to try and reach the Good or God, but their means are different.