Reading Notes

R010300: Plato's Idealistic Journey

Williams, Bernard Arthur Owen.  Plato.  The Invention of Philosophy.  The Great Philosophers Series, no. 23.  Phoenix, London; Rutledge, NY (London: 1997, New York: 1999).  ISBN 0-415-92395-6 pbk.  57pp.
     I am not so taken by this little book in the same way that I have been by the one on Bertrand Russell [Monk1999].  My hesitation is about being found cheating, relying on what might be called the Reader's Digest take on the invention of philosophy.   It is here I am confronted by myself as a snob as well as a dilettante.  
     The value of this little book is its use in sorting out the range of Plato's interests and discussions so that I can focus my readings and search on the elements that interest me: the development of idealism and the relationship of language, memory, and mathematics to our conception of the world.  There is far more of importance in Plato's work, and they are not entirely separate.  Williams' sketch provides a way to focus my own explorations and also remain aware of the greater reach of Plato's philosophical embrace.  dh: 2001-02-25.

Version 0.00 Last updated 2001-06-18-15:31 -0700 (pdt)


1. Chronology of Plato's Works

Time Period Associated Works Themes
Socratic Dialogs
Questioning the Nature of Virtues
Laches Association of the virtue of courage with knowledge
  Protagoras Whether virtue can be taught; what virtue is in itself.  Is knowledge teachable?
  Apology Socrates speech at his trial (perhaps)
Transition Dialogs Gorgias Conventional values of justice are a racket encouraged by the intelligent and powerful, who do not live by it themselves.
     Power and the exploitation of others as avenues to self-worth!
     Without some idea of values that apply to people generally, there will be no basis for any form of admiration.
Meno      How is it that worthy people in one generation are unable to pass their values to their children.
     How can virtue be taught if we do not already know what it is?
     Theory must, one way or another, change ones life.
     Searching and learning are merely recollection?
     Knowledge and true belief.
  Cratylus Language and theories of names
Middle Period
Traditional Platonic Philosophy
Phaedo Departing from human concerns altogether in ascending from the cave.  Using Forms to explain change.
Symposium The highest form of intellectual love, love in the presence of the Form of beauty.
Republic Design of an authoritarian social order using political power to express the authority of knowledge.
     Only a life of justice can offer the structure and order that are needed to make any life worth living.  Justice prized not only for its effects but for its own sake.
     The emptiness of art and images as illusions of reality.
     Metaphysical distance between Forms and particulars.
Counterpoint? Parmenides Serious criticisms of the ways of talking about Forms.
Timaeus Notion of a demiurge imposing form on matter
Late Dialogs Theaetetus Attribution to Protagoras: Man as the measure of all things

2. Platonic Idealism

Time Period / Work / Theme Development Description
Language's Relationship to the World    
Writing versus Dialectic and Discourse Phaedrus, 275c-277a In this dialog with Phaedrus, Socrates suggests that writings are more like playthings and amusements, with education accomplished through conversation.  This does not stop Plato from writing the dialog and more, yet it suggests an important limitation of language separated from participation in what I would call the eternal conversation. 
Nature of Mind    
Change Particulars in the world are changing. Means this in the sense that the particular seems a particular way only from a given perspective, as well as it changing over time.
Underlying Order of Things    
Immortality In the Republic, uses Forms in a particular way to establish the (immortal) soul. Plato conjoins the immortal form, Life (or aliveness) with the particular, Socrates, and achieves something as indestructible as the Form and as particular as Socrates.  It is Socrates himself freed from the irrelevance of his body.

3. Additional Topics

Time Period / Work / Theme Development Description




Plato lived from 427 to 347 BC.  He essentially invented philosophy.

His works are the first to come down to us essentially complete.  And he looked at all of the areas that have been questioned in philosophical inquery before and since.  Williams remarks that Plato did not have the modern sense of history and its impact (something we may be losing), yet he and the Greeks dwelled in questions that remain to this day and engage us in reconciling our place in the world and our relationship to each other.

It is important to avoid assuming that Plato is telling us what to believe.  He will often refute a position, or entertain a question, but one should not presume that Plato professes a resolution.  Plato may not have taken any of his ideas seriously, and we should be careful not to assume more than that ourselves.

I am interested primarily in what we refer to as Platonic idealism and the topics that impinge on it.  Those are the ones I am cataloging here, using what Williams offers as an initial structure.

1. Chronology of Plato's Work

2. Platonic Idealism

It is in the dialogs of the Middle Period that Plato considers

Greek word logos has roots in both speech and reason.  "One of Plato's ongoing undertakings was to construct models of what it is for an utterance to not jsut tell a story but to give a reason. [p.12]"

What must be given to answer a question about what a concept (i.e., virtue) is.  Not a list of examples, "because that will not show what the examples have in common. p.14]"

It can't merely be a characteristic that necessarily goes with something, because it doesn't explain what the characteristic is.  (e.g., shape).

An account must be explanatory, giving us an insight into what the described thing is.  [This raises an interesting question with regard to the explanation of algorithms, for example. dh:2001-03-10]  

The idea that when we recognize something that we didn't know before, we must be remembering, and this is because there is an immortal soul that has the knowledge of learning in earlier lives.  This is the supposition of a priori knowledge, not of facts, but of something amenable to reason. [p.17]

We get to the discussion of the apparent innateness of a priori knowledge.  (Independent of arguments about the soul and its immortality.)

The idea that the naked soul once came to see mathematical objects directly by the "eye of the intellect."  Creates an odd contradiction in Plato's view, to rely on an experience of the soul when he is distrustful of experience.

True belief does not enable you to teach another to get somewhere by themselves.  "But if we could find the right chain of reasoning to tie those beliefs down, so they do not run away, then they might become knowledge, and then they could be taught.  Philosophy will provide those chains of reasoning and this it how it will change our lives. [p.19]"

Plato sees that it is not true that the truths of mathematics are not literally true of any physical diagram or thing.  And that mathematics relies on unproven axioms.

Plato proposes a program of deriving all mathematical truths from "some higher or more general truths, arriving ultimately at an entirely rational and perspicuous structure which in some sense depends on the self-explanatory starting point of the Good. [p.31]"

Forms are the objects which are eternal, immaterial, unchanging, and the objects of rational, a priori, knowledge.  Plato thinks there are abstract objects of rational understanding, existing independently of the material world.  He does not see our understanding of them as contributing to the resolution of all questions, at least not at the end.

Plato would see courage as existing even if there were no courageous people.  Plato also wants to say that particulars cannot properly, perfectly, or without qualification, instantiate Forms.

Geometers use material, particularly diagrams, but they cannot be talking directly about those diagrams, or what they say would simply be untrue.  They must be talking about something else.  Triangles formed of absolutely straight lines with no breadth.   

A Form is a paradigm.  It is a model and it is never achieved in artifacts.  Yet it is, Plato considers, something that the artisan has in mind as the model to which the crafstman aspires.

These things - triangles, courage, and dampness - are all uncreated and unchanging.  The world changes, the Forms do not.

I struck the wrong key and failed to save all the changes made after this point.  They continue from the bottom of [p.33].  I am so distressed that I did that, I am not going to go back and attempt to repeat my notes.  I must return the book to the library today, and I am off to do that.  dh:2001-03-11



0.00 2001-03-09-18:39 Initiate "Plato's Idealistic Journey" (orcmid)
I am using the Williams sketch as a place to identify where in Plato's work idealism shows up, and where I can find the central exposition of Platonic idealism.  I want to be careful with Plato's notion of forms and also be respectful of it when dealing with the computer as a means that we employ for the manifesting of abstractions.

created 2001-03-10-18:39 -0800 (pst) by orcmid
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$$Date: 03-05-25 10:50 $
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