What is Plato's Epistemology

Plato's theory of ideas and Socrates as pioneers

This post is about platonic ideas. Platonic friendship or love, these terms are now often associated with chastity or Friendzonewhich suggests that this Plato must have been a nice guy, just not for a few hours. But Plato's love life has disappointingly little to do with his theory of ideas. First we clear up the historical misunderstanding. Then we examine both Plato's theory of ideas and certain points of criticism of the theory. | Reading time: 10 min.

Note: Plato's doctrine of ideas is not a specific scripture or a specific dialogue of the philosopher. Rather, the doctrine of ideas is a subsequent, scientific construct that came about from a thorough examination of Plato's oeuvre.

Platonic love

The misunderstanding

The concept of platonic love goes back to the Renaissance ("rebirth" in French). That was the cultural epoch in the 15th and 16th centuries in which the Middle Ages merged into the modern age. At that time, lost works of antiquity were rediscovered. About the writing Symposium by Plato, which was discussed in the article on the Socratic method. It was about, among other things, a conversation between Socrates and Diotima, who explained to him the concept of eros - erotic desire. Marsilio Ficino, a philosopher of the Renaissance, coined the term Platonic love in his reception of this concept. He it was who meant the highest possible love among friends - and to cut a long story short: We are already in the 21st century with his Friendzones and still don't know what is actually meant by platonic ideas.

The rectification

Plato's ideas (like those of love) have nothing to do with ideas in the sense of ideas that the little Viking has for a long time. If we come up with "a good idea", we cannot infer Plato's "idea of ​​the good" from it. Or his idea of ​​the beautiful. In order to reduce the likelihood of confusion, we could also use Plato's "ideas" to speak of "forms" - and Plato's theory of forms. In English it is called exactly like this: Plato's theory of forms. Just keep it in mind. If Socrates, who appears as a figure in Plato's dialogues, now wants to know what is beautiful, then he doesn't want to hear: a sunrise! A supermodel! A baby seal! Not because these things are not beautiful, but because they are just about Examples acts.

Platonic ideas

Socrates as a pioneer

Socrates and Plato were concerned with the properties of something, with a universally valid one definition. Let us take the big question: "What is bravery?" Three exemplary answers would be: bravery is when a mother takes her child out of the fire; or when a student is defending a bullied classmate; or if someone reports from a war zone. All may be true, but what is the underlying principle? What do all these brave people have in common? There's one behind it new way of thinking. Namely that of the formal answer to such a question, what is something.

Socrates recognized that what underlies things as common ground must be of a different kind than the sensually experienceable areas of the thing in which things are valid. Areas like the fire, the classroom or the war zone where bravery comes into its own. Scientific explanations cannot be of the same kind as the phenomena they explain. As is well known, Galileo's case laws do not "fall". The search for similarities or principles ultimately leads to the search for the causes of things.

Tip: Click here for a post about the First cause.

To worry about things

The cause of material processes (like a falling jam sandwich) is not itself material. You can neither touch nor see the cause, let alone eat it. A "cause" is not a phenomenon like a color or a sound. A cause is abstract, fundamentally different from phenomena. So if we wanted to explain causes, so Socrates thought, we would have to strain our head rather than our five senses - logical thinking. We'd have to to worry about things and base these thoughts on the facts to be clarified, so to speak.

That is the Method of hypothesis. As the name suggests, hypotheses get around. In this way Socrates prepared the way for the theory of ideas of his pupil Plato.

From the hypotheses to the ideas

For Plato, real knowledge has the following properties - it is ...

  • general
  • immutable
  • justifiable

Empirical knowledge, everything that we think we know about the sensual world around us is unsuitable for real Findings. It is not truthful. Sensory perception is often mistaken. Sensually perceptible things change. If you reach the end of the street, the mirage has disappeared there. And if you stop for a few decades, the road will look completely different, brittle and overgrown, if nobody cares.

Plato says that hypotheses - the thoughts we have about the causes of facts - must be free of contradictions (consistent) and can be derived from the ideas.

An idea in Plato's theory of ideas has the following properties - it is ...

  • Perfect
  • immutable
  • only visible to the mind's eye
  • deprived of any human manipulation

Such an idea is what the Essence a thing matters. Well-known example: The definition of a circle as a set of all points equidistant from a given point. In the sensory world, it is impossible to find such a perfect circle. If you only go close enough, even with a microscope, you will always find points that deviate from the "perfect" circular path. Even on the computer: All you have to do is zoom in and a circular line dissolves into pixels. The perfect circle can only be found in our minds. (Footnote: What about vector graphics, can't a vector-based circle "zoom in" infinitely? Vector graphics are based on mathematical calculations, which in turn our thoughts arise from. The fact remains: perfect circles only exist in our imagination.)

Summary: What many of the Platonic dialogues in which the Socratic method was used was aimed at a generally applicable logical-formal answer to what is something. How else do we know that we mean the same thing when we talk about love - or about beauty?

Plato's idea of ​​the beautiful

No matter, Beauty is a matter of taste, Is not it? This is exactly where an important feature of Plato's ideas (or forms) comes into play. Because for Socrates and Plato they are something that really exists, just beyond our perception. When we perceive something as "beautiful" it is the reappearance of the existing idea of ​​the beautiful. According to Plato's theory of ideas, ideas have two aspects: the concept, such as "beauty", and the underlying principles, here: the beautiful. Both are related and just as really exist as you and me or this cool action film with Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss.

Let's apply the above properties to the example of beauty: The Idea of ​​the beautiful is in the real sense being. It is perfect, unchangeable, accessible only to thought, archetype and cause and unlimited in time. If we perceive something as beautiful in the sensually perceptible world around us (a plant, a person, a painting), it is because we know the idea of ​​the beautiful and these things (plant, person, painting) participate in the idea. The beautiful thing is being in the weakened sense, is Appearing (i.e. a phenomenon) and, in contrast to the idea, imperfect, changeable, only accessible to the senses, image and effect and limited in time.

The idea is the ground of being sensually perceptible things. Accordingly, these things are only "being weakened". It only exists because the ideas exist. And only when you have recognized the ideas are you able to grasp individual things. With his teaching, Plato is keen to clarify the relationship between the thinkable and the tangible.


Working material on Plato's theory of ideas (PDF)

Here are a few Working materials for Plato's theory of ideas, available as PDF:

Books on Plato's theory of ideas (partner links)

Here are a few Books on Plato's theory of ideas, available in online shops:


Criticism of the theory of ideas

Against the background of what has been described so far, the search for empirical evidence (obtained from observation) for Platonic ideas is correspondingly nonsensical. There is no evidence. You just have to get to the ideas believe. The corresponding belief system, Platonism, has met with a lot of criticism throughout history. Nietzsche, for example, compared it with Christianity, which for him was "Platonism for the people". Indeed, Plato's "Idea of ​​the Good" is a tempting good idea. That’s why we are easy to attract as people who love good ideas and stories. That is why the allegory of the cave is out of the dialogue Politeíaso popular too. In it, Plato explains in the form of a story what is meant by his ideas.

The following are two Criticisms of Plato's theory of ideas illuminated in more detail. You can find further criticism of Plato's ideas from Gottfried Hegel and Hannah Arendt, among others.

Critique 1 · The Third Man / Aristotle

In his writings on metaphysics, Aristotle, Plato's most famous student, critically examined his teacher's ideas, which are a metaphysical concept. For example, Aristotle discussed the problemtrítos ánthropos (third person).

Tip: The next post is about metaphysics and virtue ethics in Aristotle.

To explain why different individuals are identical in "being human", Plato offers this Idea of ​​man. Now, as I said, Platonic ideas are themselves beings (in the real sense even; changeable, perceptible things like individual people, however, are only weakened). The idea of ​​man is accordingly "man" as unchangeable; the unity of the individual is based on it. If, however, there is the idea of ​​the human being alongside the individual, then there must be a new unity "human" above it, the third in a quasi-endless series. It comes to the so-called infinite regress (colloquial: vicious circle).

It depends on that Problem of self-application together. Plato's thesis that ideas are themselves what they designate appears unproblematic with the idea of ​​beauty, which is beautiful itself. On the other hand, the idea of ​​the number cannot itself be a number, otherwise it would have to be ranked somewhere between 1, 2, 3 and so on. Even the idea of ​​the human being cannot itself be human.

Critique 2 · Self-predication / Russell's type theory

Since the philosopher Bertrand Russell, the problem has been discussed in connection with the "set of all sets" which (does not) contain itself as an element. Sounds complicated - and it is, a little. Russell proved that Self-predication leads to contradictions. What that means is the infamous The Cretan's Paradox illustrate, who says: "All Cretans lie." This kind of self-application (the Cretan involves himself) obviously brings difficulties. When he lies, he is telling the truth. But if he tells the truth, not all Cretans lie. Such paradoxes make a self-application ban necessary. Because self-predication is the cause of the absurdity of the sentence in which the predicate (lying Cretans) is applied to the person who makes the assertion (the Cretan).

In the Type theory by Bertrand Russell proposition classes are now differentiated into "types". Such a type defines the range of meaning of a proposition function. No ensemble may contain members that are defined by terms belonging to it. The set of all sets cannot itself be an element of itself. The set of all sets cannot be all of the sets of which it is itself the set. The same goes for the Cretan. A distinction must be made between the superordinate and subordinate elements despite the same names. Otherwise there will be logical problems. As always, there are exceptions: like the "idea of ​​beings", for example, there is itself something that is.

Plato himself discussed the problems of his teaching. Although the philosopher did not find any final solutions, we should still credit Plato with his theory of ideas an awareness of the problem To have woken up, which still makes heads smoke today and fills books. Or blog posts.